The Mysterious Creative Brain

This year at RWA, I attended several workshops about the brain which blew my mind (ha. get it?), including the PAN Retreat with Roseanne Bane who spoke extensively about how stress can literally change your brain chemistry and inhibit creative thinking.  (You can check out her additional resources for her keynote here:  RWA2018)

She had a lot of great tips (including these three habits), but the one that stuck out most in my mind was when she talked about rewards.  We’re all doing this for the love of it, right?  So it should be its own reward, right?  Wrong.  There may be times when writing feels like its own reward, but most of us want or need to be productive during the OTHER times too (like when we’re working toward a deadline).  This is where we need to train our brain with rewards.  

I’ve actually been doing this for years because I knew it helped me, but I love learning there is real science behind it.  At first, my BFF and I would lay out our writing goals for the week and if we both met them we got to use the massage chairs at the gym.  It was about accountability as much as reward, but it developed into a pattern that I think has helped my productivity immensely.  If I finish X (for me it’s usually a set number of words for the day or week) then I get to Y…e.g. go to the gym/watch a favorite show/go to the movies/go to a favorite lunch spot/read a chapter of a book/whatever works for you.  I developed a habit of rewarding myself. 

The trick is remembering to actually reward yourself when you promise yourself something fun.  Think about it – you’re training your brain to get into a productive space on command.  If it does what you wanted it to do and then you say, “Oh, I don’t have time, I’ll reward myself tomorrow,” you are training your brain that you won’t actually reward it with a break or a treat.

It’s all about a pattern of expectations.  For example, my bestie’s baby girl is becoming a world-class crawler.  She would crawl across a football field to get to her mama.  If my BFF wants her to go to a certain spot, she will go to the farthest spot the baby can still see her and encourage her to come to her – but then when the baby gets close, she moves the goalposts, she goes to the next spot and encourages the baby girl to go there – the baby is instantly frustrated and will keep crawling, but now she’s hiccuping like she might want to start crying because she wanted the reward of getting to her mama – which she gets ultimately, and maybe it’s good that she doesn’t get the reward every time because she is learning to persevere even when she doesn’t instantly get what she wants, but when we’re trying to train our brain, we need to remember to encourage it with rewards and not move the goalposts on ourselves.

And just because you didn’t achieve your goal yesterday doesn’t mean you should expect to do twice as much today before you can reward yourself.  Building a positive work pattern often involves being able to let go of what we think we ought to have accomplished by now and focus on what we can accomplish today.  I love baseball and one common saying about the sport is that working in baseball requires a short memory.  You can’t be focused on yesterday’s strikeout if you want to hit a home run today.  You can make it to the hall of fame by succeeding a third of the time – so focus on your successes, enjoy them, and try to keep a short memory with your failures.  

That’s how you get to The End.  We need to work with our brains to get into a productive creative pattern – and not beat ourselves up if stress is messing with our brain chemistry and making creativity a struggle.

What creative-brain hacks work for you?  Do you reward yourself?  What most helps your creative productivity?

10 responses to “The Mysterious Creative Brain”

  1. Elizabeth Langston says:

    Whenever I run out of creativity, I read something in an entirely different genre from romance. Usually mysteries. It gets the creativity flowing again. Anything I write later is (probably) edgier than normal–but it seems to unstick me.

    • That’s a great solution, Beth! Lately I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction and it’s certainly gotten me out of my rut. So many new ideas! I think sometimes we just have to give our brain something different as a treat. 🙂

  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Maybe listening to Rosanne’s PAN presentation (which I bought/downloaded, along with her latest book) is the reward I need to give myself for making even minor progress on the final chapters of my WIP – something, ANYTHING, to goose me out of my current uncomfortable inertia!

    Or maybe I should listen to the presentation and read the book FIRST. 🙂

  3. Addison Fox says:

    I love this post, Vivi! I think we often forget just how motivating small things really can be. Reminding ourselves – and to your point, REWARDING ourselves when we meet a goal – can be incredibly satisfying!!!


  4. Thanks, Vivi. I’d forgotten about rewarding myself. I just have to stay away from food rewards. I’ll have to check out that presentation.

  5. Great reminder to treat ourselves with respect! Love it.

  6. Liz Talley says:

    I love this post, and it makes sense to train your brain. I like the precedent it sets for productivity and a regular inclination to actually work. What will be my reward today? Hmmm. 😀


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