Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Chemistry of Writing

Nope, nothing to do with a leading couple's attraction. Nothing to do with plot formulae. I'm talking about basic bodily chemistry here, and how it affects writing, or how it affects me as a writer, at least. Bear in mind, this ain't proper science…

Proper science.
I think any dedicated fiction writer will agree, this job is unpredictable. One day you write five thousand words, all of them as brilliant as first drafts come. Euphoria! The next day, you tweeze out six hundred, each feeling like a tooth being extracted. In between are the adequate days, maybe one or two thousand usable words, steady forward momentum. But one thing is certain—you can't guess which type of day you're in for until you sit down and start listening to the voices in your head. Or in the case of a bad day, straining to hear them, desperate for the tiniest scrap of inspiration.

That's all very annoying, because some days, due to deadlines both external and self-imposed, we feel we need to hammer out three thousand genius words, but it just isn't going to happen. However, there are certain chemical aids and hindrances you can either avoid or harness to help stack the writing deck in your favor.

Caffeine. If you're a coffee (or Coke or tea) drinker, this is major. I think we underestimate how strong a stimulant caffeine is. A highly reliable scientific reference (Wikipedia) tells us "caffeine is an ergogenic, increasing a person's capability for mental or physical labor." It is my opinion that writing is both a mental and physical labor, so one might think this would bode well. I disagree.

Too much coffee and I swear my brain dries up from a lake to a gully. I may be alert, but the thoughts I'm having feel very surface-level, very uninspired. The movies that play in my head when I write become faint and fuzzy. It's my experience that too much caffeine makes the brain shallow. That reads like the label off a Victorian quack medicine bottle, but I stand by it. Caffeine can push your body into jacked-up faux-survival mode, heart beating faster, all impulses feeling urgent and immediate…kiss your creativity and emotional awareness goodbye. Stick to the same dosage each day. I have a mug of coffee first thing with breakfast, and that's it if I want to stay relaxed enough to write. For me, much of the appeal of coffee is the comfort factor; having a mug of something warm by my side makes work feel less worky, as if I'm getting away with something. My twenty year old self would scoff, but I can't say enough good things about decaf.

Sugar. Similar to caffeine, but different. The illusion of instant energy, but in my opinion, the crash is far worse. I try to not eat anything too sugary until after dinner, because it just wrecks me for the day. Also, during the brief window when one does enjoy a little energy hit, I find myself very distractable. I may be going a million miles a minute, but generally only around and around in circles, from Twitter to Google to the kitchen, to the work-in-progress, which I stare blankly at before deciding to see if anything's changed on Twitter in the ninety seconds since I last visited. Then, cue the robot slumping as it powers down. The only thing worse than a sugar buzz for getting words written is a sugar crash. Just stay away from that white powder…at least until you've hit your word count.

Adrenaline. This is a tricky one…again, I can only speak for myself. If you work great under pressure, more power to you. But my body does not process adrenaline the way I wish it would. I would love to be one of those people who, when confronted or in the midst of a competition, get a surge of superhuman strength and ride that wave to victory. Not me. My adrenaline highs make me shaky and short of breath, turn my mouth to a desert and my knees to jelly. Ask anyone who's watched me right before I had to spar in Taekwondo or at the start line of a 5K. I would love to be that person who feeds on the surge, but something about my engine just does not process that chemical to the best effect. Flight, not fight, for me.

As such, I know I can't function as a procrastinator and succeed at this job. I don't work well under pressure at all, so instead I go the teacher's pet route and do every assignment as soon as it's given, so I won't find myself in the midst of an anxiety attack the night before it's due.

The only times I do enjoy adrenaline rushes are when I'm competing against myself, with low stakes. If I'm running and I decide to push myself to go a bit faster, a bit farther, suddenly I'm there—an actual, enjoyable adrenaline high, and nothing to lose if I fail. Same with the writing—if I set my daily goal at a thousand words, I nearly always double it or better. It sounds lame and counterintuitive to our reach for the stars culture, but the more reasonable the goal, the more likely you'll surpass it. Set too high a goal and you're inviting pressure. If my goal is a thousand words, I might hit it, get a surge of accomplishment, and write another thousand. Set it at four thousand and the uphill climb wears me out and I begin to doubt myself by word 1,500. I hate to say it, but if you're like me and don't process adrenaline the way Gator-Aid and Under Armour like to suggest we all should, set your hurdles low. You might go soaring over that hurdle way up in the air, but if you set it too high you're likely to just whack your head on the bar.

Endorphins. Ah, what makes running an admissible form of torture for me. I wanted to be sure to offer up a couple of positive chemical aids after villainizing caffeine and sugar and adrenaline. Endorphins are the body's own self-made opiates, triggered by such things as exercise, love, spicy foods, and orgasm. I'll focus on that first one.

This post was actually inspired by my trip to the Y yesterday. I'd started my day less than chipper, filled with low-level angst and mild annoyance, an overall sensation of meh. But I knew from experience that this meant I needed to get a nice sweat on. Thirty to sixty minutes of good old fashioned exercise and I can suddenly find myself staring wide-eyed into a totally new day. During my walk to the gym, the snow looked gray, the people seemed like slow-moving obstacles blocking my way, the cars like death machines hell-bent on running me down. On the walk home, the sun was shining (it had been before, but I hadn't bothered noticing), the people were friendly, and the cars all seemed eager to stop and let me cross the street. Oh, endorphins. Best drug ever, and totally free! Another huge upshot to exercise is of course better health, plus a feeling of accomplishment, competence, a temporary sense superiority to others (if you're a jerk like me), and I firmly believe, increased creativity. Plus you can eat more.

Serotonin. I won't pretend I have any authoritative understanding of this one, but I did want to touch on it. Please don't trust my science. But here's what I believe to be accurate: serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can create in us a sense of well-being and contentment. Highly conducive to writing. The tryptophan in turkey we've all heard about is an amino acid that our bodies convert to serotonin, hence that happy, sleepy feeling many of us Yanks experience after Thanksgiving dinner.

Serotonin production and release is highly influenced by diet, and things like complex carbohydrates help us create it, while things like protein do not. Junk foods, particularly those high in simple carbs, trigger the serotonin effect, but because they don't actually provide us with the nutrients to replace the serotonin they unleash from our bodies' stores, they give us a temporary high that can later result in a depressed sensation. The obvious lesson here—eat junk food in moderation. The little high it gives us is short-lived, often chased by the low that spurred us to head to the cupboard in the first place.

Hmmm… I hadn't intended this post to become an "Eat right and exercise!" PSA, but here we are. I would have liked to cover alcohol as well, but that hotbed of emotion- and impulse-modification is a post or two in itself. Plus, I need to go write…just as soon as I steep myself a cup of decaf.


  1. -- "For me, much of the appeal of coffee is the comfort factor; having a mug of something warm by my side makes work feel less worky, as if I'm getting away with something."

    -- "Thirty to sixty minutes of good old fashioned exercise and I can suddenly find myself staring wide-eyed into a totally new day."

    Truest lines ever! I couldn't have said it better myself. A warm mug to drink and the high of exercise endorphins are the perfect solution to improving your mood. As for the sugar rush, I LOL'd at your spot-on description of the useless back and forth between checking Twitter and staring at a blank WIP page.

    Great post!

  2. Sadly, that description of the Twitter to Google to kitchen to WIP back to Twitter loop has summed up my writerly morning exactly! Thanks for swinging by!

  3. Pre-walk: not feeling so great about the WIP.

    Post-walk: I'm superman, baby! I can do anything! Write anything! Kick literary ass and rule the world!

    I like endorphins.

  4. I totally agree with everything! Thanks for posting it! Sometimes I take a 15 minute nap after I have been writing. I call it twilight processing. The stuff that comes up just as you are waking up can be great. Or sometimes you just want more coffee...hee hee (no bad!!!)