Writing at the Limit

Or What I Learned about Writing from Ayrton Senna

by Matthew Lowes


Image by Gabriele, CC-By-2.0

In the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix qualifiers, Ayrton Senna drove what is widely regarded as the greatest lap in the history of Formula 1 racing. Watching Senna drive his McLaren-Honda MP4/4 through the winding streets of Monaco with 1200 horsepower of turbocharged fury screaming behind his back, one has the sense of seeing something extraordinary happen. And this thing, whatever it is — maybe it’s art — could only happen because of one man’s obsession not just with winning, but with driving at the very limit of what’s possible, with pushing himself into realms unknown.

Anyone who has sat in a chair and stared at a blank page knows writing isn’t nearly as visceral as race car driving. Nevertheless, there are real challenges, and there are physical, emotional, temporal, and technical limits. One must also consider genre and linguistic conventions, internal logic, story structure, characterization, conception, design, and deadlines, all of which present various types of limits within the creative effort. And these limits are not just there to make your life difficult. They are there to present you with incredible opportunities.

We often think of limitations as impediment to our goals, but limits are really the prelude to genius. Without them there is nothing to push against, nothing to strive for in our creative work. In fact, when you consider it, the imagination itself may be a tool evolved to overcome limitations. The ability for creative invention is stimulated by challenges and obstacles. And perhaps only at the limit can we discover the truest and deepest potential of our endeavors.

On race day at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna extended his lead over teammate Alain Prost so far that team managers were telling him on the radio to slow down. But he didn’t slow down. He kept driving as fast as possible, faster than anybody thought possible. Ultimately, he made a mistake, ran into a wall, and lost the race. Some people look at that and say he threw the race away, and sure he was devastated, but when you listen to Senna talk about his experiences you hear a different story. It’s clear that weekend, driving at the absolute limit, he discovered something far greater than winning a race could ever be.

Without any limitations, we might gaze eternally in beatific wonder at the splendor of an undivided universe. Unaware of any limitations we might sit on the sofa and do nothing at all. Neither one will get your novel written, or short story, or whatever it is you’re working on. After all, “the end” is a limit just waiting to be reached. So find some limits — create them if you must — and push against them! Push against them hard enough for long enough, and something extraordinary might happen. Because while writing may not be as visceral as driving the Monaco circuit in an MP4/4, anybody who has felt the wonder of seeing a story come together at their hands, knows it can be just as thrilling.


Hear Senna talk about his experience at the Monaco Grand Prix:



Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey

I post this today because this week, over 100 years after scientists first described the carbon emissions greenhouse effect, the President of the United States changed the national narrative on climate change (Svante Arrhenius, 1896).

Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.

Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.

Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey

A person can be, at least for a little while, logical and rational. Most of us believe we are rational and logical.

Most of us are also wrong.

In fact, even among the well-educated, very few people receive the kind of training that improves actual logical, rational thought. People are trained to apply analytic skills to specific problems, but that’s not quite the same thing. Consider the flame wars that take place when two trained professionals have invested themselves in two separate solutions to the same set of problems. Each solution may solve the problems. Each may have been arrived at via skill and application of sound methodology. However, the battle of egos and emotion that takes place has nothing to do with rational, logical thought.

Human beings are physiologically built so that emotional responses have greater sway over decisions than conscious, executive function.

Certainly, cognitive training increases an individual’s ability to override that tendency. However, a system made up of many people, no matter how well organized, is always irrational. A crowd, a tribe, a company, a state, or a nation is always irrational. In order for a system of people to act effectively on a decision, the decision must fit with the dominant, emotionally satisfying narrative adopted by the individuals who make up that system.

In other words, we internalize stories and act on them as if they are true. Facts are quite irrelevant.

Why do you suppose salesmen and marketers are trained to evoke an emotional response rather than to present facts? Why do you suppose they round up and shoot the independent journalists during a military coup?

Only when facts embed themselves in the system’s foundational irrationality does a culture change for the better—be it a family, a tribe, a community, a county, a state, or a nation.

Cultural inertia is not the tendency of a culture to remain as it is unless acted upon by an outside force. Cultural inertia is the tendency of a culture to act according to an unquestioned narrative until the narrative changes from the inside.

Consider this popular narrative: “The only deterrent to violence is more prisons. If people know they will go to jail, they won’t do the crime.”

Ignoring the logical fallacy of over generalization, consider that it is possible that a potential criminal is so hungry, so afraid, so sick, so threatened by poverty and the absence of less destructive opportunity that the crime has great survival value because the potential gain translates into food and shelter. Even getting caught will at least provide food, shelter, and guaranteed medical support.

A system that acts on the deterrent narrative easily steps forward to embrace this addition: “The cost of prisons is too high for the taxpayer. Privatization can alleviate that cost.” If we believe the former statement, the latter statement is a fairly reasonable step toward the apparent betterment of the social system.

…Unless the private companies receive tax incentives and the judicial system is required to fulfill incarceration quotas in order to maintain profitability.

Here’s a statement that actions demonstrate people accept even if they don’t believe they accept it. “Water in a clear plastic bottle is more pure than tap water because utilities can’t be trusted and magic places exist in the world where water is perfect and we put that perfect, magic water in a bottle so you can buy it. And Convenience. And recycling. Good. Good. Good. Buy more.”

Of course, the more bottled water we buy, the less the local utility is financially viable and the more we complain about our water quality. In other words, we pay thousands of times more for water that came from a tap through a filter outside our town or city, and we thereby undermine the low-cost system that provides our water. And, for spending a lot more, we get the added bonus of loss of public infrastructure and additional layers of environmental damage in production, distribution, and post-consumption.

The facts are known. The facts are even known to most people on the street. The decision to buy that bottle of water is either unconsidered or justified in the moment.

We have serious science that speaks to crime rates, to gun deaths, to global warming, to water losses, to contamination factors, to floating oceanic continents of plastic waste, to the destructive economic effects of corporate feudalism, and to the endless repetition of domestic violence and crime as a result of failed social support and underfunded education.

The facts are available.

However, fact does not have enough social mass to create systemic change.

Factual knowledge has to become part of the tribal folklore that is repeated in ignorance as truth.

Huge campaigns to create the viral narratives that said that seatbelts are good, littering is bad, and cigarettes kill had to be undertaken in order to make the tribal truth a part of the unconsidered oral tradition of the many anthropological tribal systems that, combined, make up our nation. Only when the new narratives took root as fact in hearts and minds did the new narratives replace the old, profit-driven narratives.

Then, cultural change took place.

Interestingly, each of the above changes to national, internalized narrative came about because of the costs to the nation as a whole. Seatbelts translated into lost profits for insurance companies and to lost working person years in the national economy. The same for cigarettes. Littering? Well, that one may have grown out of the zeitgeist of a time when environmental consciousness was first gaining its legs and the power of a public service announcement hadn’t been fully understood by corporate interests. Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that today the public service ads might be about caution while driving near the crews that our privatized prisons provide in order to keep our national byways scenic.

What is clear is that when a corporate, profit-driven narrative no longer generates profit, the failed story is abandoned. The corporation seeks new products, new markets, and new narratives.

Once a fact-based narrative takes emotional hold, it is much harder to supplant because action based on that narrative creates demonstrable long-term benefit.

People like benefits.

Case-in-point, ACA (Obamacare). Most people have already forgotten that Obama’s original plan was a single-payer solution that has been demonstrated to work in many developed countries. The Republican/Democrat compromise position was the ACA, which is actually based on programs that have failed in other countries.

The compromise came to be because for one side it got us closer to a working plan for the common people. The compromise worked for the other side because history had shown that the ACA would fail very publicly and result in a moment in which existing insurance companies would step up, “compete” across state boundaries, and save the day. The rhetoric was that the new competitive marketplace would result in fewer court cases, lower premiums, etc. None of these benefits of competition are supported by objective study and fact. In fact, the opposite is true (The exception is the court cases because people who buy insurance from a company in another state would have to go to that state to sue. Consequently, it would be harder to sue, so there would be fewer cases).

So, the planned failure was labelled Obamacare in spite of the fact that Obama’s plan was very different. Fortunately for millions of Americans, myself included, the anxiety over medical costs and affordable care was so great that a compromise position intended to fail ended up succeeding in spite of precedent.

The rhetorical association of the ACA with the current administration began immediately. “Obamacare” succeeded as a national narrative. Both advocates and opponents used the term freely. One side used it with pride. The other side used it as a pejorative.

The legal attacks on Obamacare became very serious when numbers started to show that the program might actually work because American healthcare is so screwed up that a system that failed in other countries actually improved the U.S. healthcare system.

By the time the more serious attacks began, it was too late. A new, non-factual narrative was nearly impossible to present to a nation that was clearly seeing immediate benefits.

ACA isn’t perfect. Neither is the single-payer system. The point here is that the ACA narrative’s success is based in the consumer’s emotional need and actual, subsequent benefit.

Facts can support cultural change for the better, but culture only changes when the facts become an emotionally compelling story that can be repeated by people who have no direct knowledge of the science that verified those facts. The change is sustainable when benefits reinforce the tribe’s emotional attachment to the narrative.

Corporate marketing people know the power of story. Ask one.

Politicians know it. They won’t tell you, but even an untrained observer can examine their rhetoric and point to carefully crafted narrative. A trained observer can tell you how and why the rhetoric was designed the way it was.

I know this firsthand because I have been hired to create narratives to present politically volatile concepts as positive change. I also know it because I am a story teller.

Story tellers have always known the power of an emotionally compelling narrative.

The Shaman was the story maker and teller—the conscience and consciousness of the tribe.

Consider that stories told by Sumerian shamanic leaders many thousands of years ago still influence beliefs and behaviors. ISIS justifies beheadings, destruction of property, and slavery based on the modified, interpreted, handed-down narratives from Sumerian stories. Evangelical Christians justify narrative modification of historical fact and science by citing handed-down, interpreted, modifications of the very same Sumerian tales. Both Israelis and Palestinians justify violent action against one another based on differing narrative modifications and interpretations of the same handed-down Sumerian tales.

Are you a little uncomfortable—maybe even angry?

If you are, you are proving the point of this little essay.

Stay with me. Take a breath. Check the facts later. The point of this essay doesn’t change because you are uncomfortable. It doesn’t change if the things I have said are true or untrue. Notice that the only thing actually cited in this essay is the first presentation of greenhouse effects by a scientist. That is a fact.

Right now, consider your emotional response in contrast to a rational response to available historical data. Factual data has no emotional content. Facts just are. If my little narrative above is wrong, it’s just wrong. If it’s right, it’s just right.

Where does the emotional reaction come from?

Regardless, the emotional response to a narrative that doesn’t agree with your own is real. No matter what the facts are, the emotion drives the desire to take action. Why do we live in a world of “trigger warnings?” When do we form those deeply held narratives that affect our emotional responses to everything in life?

We form them in early childhood.

Before we were five years old, we internalized most of the emotional connections to the narratives that cause our reactions in life. How old were you when you went to your first Sunday school class, heard your parents’ first atheist attack on organized religion, attended Hebrew school, went to temple, mosque, church, or synagogue? At what point in the development of your brain did the narrative that caused your reactions form?

The currently available linguistic and cognitive science suggests that a strong emotional response to material like the above is actually a survival response left over from the child who first learned the narrative. In the environment in which the child learned the narrative, acceptance, and by extension food and shelter, were connected to demonstrated belief in the adult-presented narrative.

We are not thinking creatures. We only think we are.

We are feeling creatures.

The facts are only good if they appear in narrative that supports emotional responses.

Little-by-little, linguists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and storytellers are making the knowledge of this phenomenon part of cultural awareness. I’m doing it right now.

Consider the development of the science behind our cultural understanding of climate change. The first presentation of the concept of greenhouse carbon emissions impact on the future environment was presented late in the 19th century—over 100 years ago. Not quite that long ago, I wrote bad poetry about climate change when I was in high school. Back then, the Carter administration worked hard to address the known issues of fossil fuel dependence and emissions outputs. Do you remember when coal-fired power plants were first required to install re-burners and scrubbers? Do you remember when catalytic converters were first required on automobiles? Thank you Jimmy Carter for all you have done for the individuals that make up our nation and for the planet as a whole. May you beat your cancer and live long. We need your personal interpretation of the handed-down stories of the Sumerians. I think you got it right.

Do you remember that before Reagan was governor of California, California residents could go to state universities for free? After Reaganomics installed the narrative that higher education is a personal privilege rather than a national investment in the future, no such luck.

Nationally, Reaganomics put an end to the liberal nonsense of the Carter administration.

The very successful electric car experiment disappeared without trace. New, horribly incorrect narratives about emission controls pushed deadlines out into the future. Education funding was cut. Private colleges were encouraged. Banking restrictions were cut. Some of us remember the first time we saw a credit card that offered a deferred 20% or more interest rate. Before Reaganomics, interest rates like that were illegal and, quite literally, only offered by loan sharks. Mining in federal lands became easier. Regulatory agencies became run by people from the industries they were intended to regulate. Okay, that last one was a lie. That wasn’t really new. It just got worse. Prison and schooling for profit gained support.

Am I making a partisan attack?

No. I’m registered an Independent. I’m pushing buttons to get people to test their personal narratives. Most of the above is verifiable public record. The sad part is that the bits people agree with, they won’t check. The bits they disagree with, they won’t check. In other words, as long as we are comfortable in our beliefs, we don’t bother with facts.

People who actually want to test their personal narratives, and this narrative, can simply go to the federal government sites (.gov–not .com, .bus, .edu, .org, or any other dot) that track and present law making, modification, and federal spending numbers. Go to several. Each agency is presenting its own narrative.

Hurry, though.

Legislation is in the works to make it illegal for citizens to access raw data.

Yes, really.

The government changes that move toward controlling the narrative are already visible. Actual raw data spreadsheets showing military and education spending were available in three clicks as recently as five years ago. Now, the raw data is buried. At the surface level, it is interpreted for us in graphs and charts. We have to dig for the raw data. In some cases, we have to submit a formal request via the Freedom of Information Act channels and hope to get a useful result someday.

118 years after a scientist presented the greenhouse gas problem, only very expensive disasters, clearly rising sea levels, public outcry, and some creative rhetoric has made the popular oral narrative of climate change shift from “Don’t be silly” to “Oh, shit. We better pay attention to this.”

Think about Al Gore on his world tour and receiving the Nobel Prize. Piggy-backed on his rhetoric of “Oh, shit” is a message about how we got to this moment by letting profit-based corporate story via political rhetoric override objective science.

It is no coincidence that at the same time this message is finally taking hold in our tribal consciousness, background attacks on funding to university research, attacks on NASA funding, and attempts to mandate “pragmatic usefulness” of federally funded research are underway.

So it goes.

The fight for the human ability to survive and thrive on this planet is about money and who tells which story to the tribes.

We fiction writers are storytellers. Whether we work with scripts, shorts, poetry, or novels, we reach deeply into the consciousness of the people who make up the tribes. We are often the first to reach into the consciousness of the tribes because we touch the youngest minds and hearts before they develop into consumers of political and corporate narrative. Because we are the shamans, the people who create the magic that forms conscience and the illusion of rational consciousness, we have a responsibility to look deeply and carefully at possible narratives that will become part of the emotional decision making that creates a future in which the planet is a place where human beings can survive and thrive.

The Sumerian shamanic leaders created the best narratives they could for their people. Their world was small and constantly threatened by famine, disease, flood, storm, and violent foreigners.

We need to do better. We can no longer afford simple, authoritarian, insular, prescriptive narratives. We can no longer afford us/them narratives. We most certainly can’t afford the profit as success narrative. It is quite literally killing us.

Our narrative about four simple variables will determine the fate of the human race. 1) We live on Earth, a closed system. 2) We currently rely on finite resources. 3) We have created competing, growth-based economies. 4) We allow unchecked population growth.

Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one of more of these four variables is tacit support for self-inflicted human genocide.

Humanity, created by god, gods, or random interactions in a chaotic system, is only an experiment in this vast universe. In modified, handed-down Sumerian terms, our god or gods loved us so much that he, she, it, or they gave us opportunity and free will. How we treat our world and, directly or indirectly, each other is entirely on us.

Tell a good story—a story that creates hope, tolerance, and survival.


Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack, by Eric Witchey

Punk guy looking at himself in a shattered mirror in the city streets

Photo by Stefano Tinti. Licensed through iStockPhoto

Uniquely Normal is not Broken: My Best Brain Hack

Eric Witchey

We live in a one-size fits all self-help culture. If we buy into the belief that we are broken that underlies almost all self-help books and movements, then the fundamental message tends to be the same. To fix yourself, you have to really want to change! Then, there’s the list of things you should change and how you should change them. Currently, the old religious ideal of faith, which often meant trust us to tell you what to think and don’t ask questions we can’t answer, has been replaced with manifest abundance by believing completely. If we fail, we must not have believed completely enough. If we can’t make the self-help system work, shame on us. We need more discipline. We need more energy. We need more education. We need more empathy. We need more… We are broken.

Yeah. Okay. Let’s just start with the understanding that I am broken. If I’m broken, then I’m like everyone else. That means I’m not broken. I’m uniquely normal. I’m good with that.

This week, broken me lost track of time because I was busy teaching a corporate class, writing fiction, doing book production, and being very disciplined about writing fiction and distance skating every day. On top of that, one of my editors sent back her recommendations for a table of contents for a collection of my stories. That caused a minor upswing in mood that created a break in my productivity due to wine and good food. Then, an amazing artist and writer, Alan M. Clark, sent me the first peek at the cover art for my novel, Bull’s Labyrinth, which will finally come out soonish.

While I was distracted by wallowing in my bliss, Monday suddenly jumped out of the temporal bushes, and my automated calendar sent me a reminder that I had a Wednesday deadline for a blog I hadn’t even thought about.

I needed a topic now!


Human experiments on my friends!

I asked my friends on FaceBook what they wanted to read about this week.

My friends were great. They participated fully in my experiment. They responded with a good, solid list of topics interesting to writers. Several topics were even things I was interested in doing. In fact, I will get to all of the items on the list in later blogs. However, I chose brain hacks for writers for this week’s offering.

Well, that should be easy, I told myself. Just write a listicle of how-to production techniques. You know the kind of thing: “Five Things Every Writer Should Do before Breakfast.”

Unfortunately, the first attempt turned into an overly long description of the chemical relationship between L-dopa and dopamine and how dopamine levels influence the thought-to-action brain-body connection. Having no dopamine doesn’t stop you from being conscious, but it does result in being trapped in a motionless meat puppet. Watch Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams in their 1990 film, Awakenings. Great film, but I’ll warn you that it is not at all funny.

So, blog attempt #1 sucked. Nobody wants to hear about brain chemistry, organism adaptation to task, and how to build up that connection. Also, being conscious and trapped inside your body is a better topic for a story than a blog.

What people were really asking me for is a solution to their problems. At least, that’s what I told myself.

So, attempt #2 waxed philosophical about free will and how to reduce complex problems to smaller, more manageable problems then prioritize them into action steps.

Oh, just bullshit. Seriously, who doesn’t know that? Does it work? Sometimes. If it always worked, the self-help industry would just die. Think about it. If everyone who knows that trick actually succeeded in connecting their desires to their actions, who would buy a second self-help book or attend a second self-help seminar? Oprah, Dr. Oz, and Dr. Phil would be right out of business. Well, maybe not Oprah. She has a little more emotional depth and breadth of vision.

If you want procedural, emotional and self-discipline type self-help thinking, I recommend a combination of Julia Cameron and Stephen R. Covey. I do, heartily, recommend both rather than one or the other. Both have wonderful, valuable insights. Some might be useful to you. Some have been useful to me, but I don’t need to repeat what they have done.

Now, here I am in attempt #3. Brain hacks for writers. Yeah. Okay. Except, there’s a problem. You see, I don’t buy into the one-size-fits all self-help world. I’m more of a my-size-fits-me sort of guy.

You see, after 30 years of studying how writers write and how readers interpret the little black squiggles on the white background, I have come to the experimentally verified conclusion that my brain and yours are different.

I know. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Worse than that, my life and yours are different.

Can you believe it? I mean, it actually turns out that based on their personal experience both Republican and Democrat pundits actually believe the stuff they say when they say it.

Similarly, if you face the blank page and your gut goes to jelly, you want to puke, and you end up cleaning the kitchen, you and I have something in common. However, the thing we have in common is neither cognitive physiology nor nurture trauma. In other words, my body is reacting to the fact that my brother liked to belittle me by creating sometimes elaborate scenarios in which he publicly humiliated me. You, on the other hand, may have attended a parochial school where writing was a punishment. While your body and mine are reacting the same way to the potential rejection and humiliation of failure on the page, we won’t respond to the same brain hack solutions.

In fact, some people’s experiences have caused them to need to write in order to prove they are better than other people. Some have adapted to the need to write in order to clarify their thoughts. Some need to write in order to get attention. Some need to write… and it goes on and on. It is unlikely that you and I write for exactly the same reasons or to fulfill the same needs in our lives.

Why do you need to write?

I have not one single clue.

However, I can say that my writing life turned a corner for the better after I was diagnosed with dysthymia with components of OCD. I won’t go into the physiology of my “disorder.” I’ll just say that the DSM diagnosis is a description of a set of symptoms rather than the actual physical underpinnings of that set of symptoms.

The important thing for brain hacking is that once I was diagnosed, I was able to begin exploring what was different about my brain from other brains. For example, I learned I also had dyslexia, for which I had found elaborate compensatory skills. Who knew I couldn’t do math in grade school because the numbers jumped around? Nobody ever tested me. I also learned that the ADHD I had been treated for as a child was considered a precursor to the problems I had as an adult. I learned that my addictions became a compulsion because of a need to medicate away pain. They became an obsession as a result of low dopamine. I learned the hard way that no amount of NA philosophy or community would change my physiology to allow me to be able to physically follow through on the choice to actually attend NA meetings on a regular basis (You just need to discipline yourself to attend. Call your sponsor. Give it over to your higher power.). You see, that advice could only work if I were physiologically capable of transferring my desire into the action of picking up the phone or going to the meeting. At the time, I couldn’t do that. Giving me that advice was, physiologically speaking, exactly the same as telling a quadriplegic they needed to choose to get up from their wheelchair and run. They can believe. They can want it with all their heart. They can try, but they are not going to run.

No, I’m not kidding or joking.

So, my recovery route was, initially, dependent on doctors and medication. Eventually, and with much hard work under the influence of good doctors and medication, the drugs were replaced by ten years of self-observation and supporting therapy that was specific to my brain.

It worked. I’ve been recreational drug-free for 25 years, and most days I manage my brain. A few weeks ago, I sold my 100th story. Not bad for a problem child, recovering addict.

Why do I put these things in my blog on brain hacks for writers? I put them here to show how uniquely normal I am and because the best brain hack I know I learned while in therapy. It has given me all my other brain hacks. It’s called meditation.

Read Jon Kabat-Zinn. His mindfulness movement does not begin with the idea that his readers are broken. He begins with the idea that only the reader can decide what the reader needs, and that comes from learning to sit still and pay attention to ourselves.

I’m not talking about our writer’s endless narrative of self-criticism.

My internal narrative goes like this on bad days, “Oh, for the f of J, Eric, pull your head out of your ass and get to work. Well, shit, here you are cleaning the damn oven. It could have been dirty for another day or even another six months. Just stop it. You should be working on that effing novella. Come on! What kind of wimp are you that you can’t even put down a sponge, turn, around and walk upstairs to put just one damn line on the page?”

This kind of thing can go on for hours and hours, sapping the joy out of everything I do because I’m not doing the thing I should be doing.

What a terrible word—should.

And, my friends, this is what drives the “you are broken” self-help industry. Call it guilt. Call it shame. Call it original sin. Call it whatever you want, but should is the filler of guru pockets and the killer of creativity.

So, if my brain/body experience is unique to me, how do I overcome the unique obstacles created by my brain?

Inventory. That’s pretty much my only real writer’s brain hack.

I pay attention to what I am doing instead of what I should be doing. I know what I want to do. I know what I want my quota to be. I know what my annual, monthly, weekly, and daily goals are. All of that is well and good, but if my stress goes up, my dopamine goes down. The more down it goes, the less likely I am to do anything that corresponds to my own thoughts and desires. The more I get into the should cycle, the more stress I create and the worse my control becomes—less directed action leads to more shoulding leads to less directed action. Beating myself up will only make it worse. When it gets really bad, I can end up playing obsessive hours, and occasionally days, of some computer game in order to escape from my own looping, self-destructive thoughts.

Eventually, I return my focus to my breath. I meditate.

That’s the simplest, most powerful brain hack I know. If I can, and I can’t always, and that’s fine, I stop and pay attention to my breathing—to the feel of my diaphragm shifting and stretching and contracting to move air in and out of my chest. I focus my mind on that simple, life-giving thing, and I let whatever thoughts come to mind come to mind. I acknowledge them and the emotions that drive them, and I let them go and return my focus to my breath.

Out of this one simple exercise has come many moments of understanding about how the metal-edged ruler of my childhood grade school classes influenced my love of and resistance to writing, about how my brother’s behavior influenced my need to hide from potential humiliating experiences by not writing, about how my mother’s attempt to run off to marry a priest influenced my behavior, about how and why some topics come quickly and others don’t, about my relationship to story, about my relationship to my sense of self and my place in culture and human history, about….

Yes, this is a simple exercise. It is, at its heart, Zen meditation. It is not in any way about emptying the mind. It is about focusing on the breathing. We have to breathe anyway, so we always have the tools we need with us. We simply will not, at least under any circumstances we survive, stop breathing. So, just pay attention to the breath. Focus on the diaphragm’s movement and the flow of air. Just let the thoughts that come to mind come. Note that the thoughts are there then return the focus to the breath.

That’s the whole thing. That’s the hack. Nothing else. It’s not about forcing the focus. It’s not about emptying the mind of thought. It’s not about making something happen. It’s just about paying attention to the breath, acknowledging the inevitable thoughts that shift our focus away from the breath, and returning our focus to the breath.

Sometimes, I can just take a few breaths and instantly overcome whatever limitation faces me. Sometimes, the reasons for my own limitations come in bits and pieces over years. That kind of self-discovery and understanding can’t be forced. All we can do is pay attention and repeat the practice over and over and over. We can do it walking, riding a bike, eating, playing an instrument, or while doing pretty much anything we do. It really is that simple. If it gets complicated, we’ve made it complicated, and that’s something to acknowledge before returning to the breath. We can forget to pay attention for days, weeks, or years. Then, when we remember again, the breath is there. We can just pick up again where we left off.

So, my diagnosis set me on the path of self-observation. After my initial experiences with more intrusive medications, my self-management practice stabilized into meditation and methylphenidate (Ritalin). I take the drug as little as possible, but I have found my breath while fishing, while running, while biking, while skating, while driving, while sitting in an easy chair, and while laying on my back in a room full of meditating people. My breath is always with me. I have made a habit of never leaving home without it.

From this one, simple practice, I have discovered that, for me and only for me, I can celebrate success if I practice fiction for five minutes a day. If I do five minutes of conscious practice each day, I win! I am always allowed to do more, but my daily success comes from sitting down and practicing some technique for five minutes.

You see, my obstacles have always manifested themselves on the way to putting my butt in the chair and beginning to type. Once I start typing, I’m fine.

I built my brain hack to match my issues. I discovered that I have very specific performance anxiety triggers. I found them. I built my hack so that I’m not performing. I’m only practicing. Sitting happens. Typing happens. Breathing happens. I’m also still discovering layers of triggers. The discovery doesn’t stop even if we design a hack that works.

What do I practice? Any technique I can describe and execute. I have dozens of how-to books to pick skills from. I keep my own running list of techniques I need to practice. I keep a list of random prompts. I pick one technique and three random prompts. I write for five minutes, trying to get the prompts into a story that demonstrates the technique. I don’t plan to succeed. In fact, I plan to have fun failing. However, my practice of returning to technique basics and having fun has resulted in stories that account for at least 50 of my sales. Of course, as soon as I start thinking of the practice as a story, it stops being a practice. Then, I need a new set of personal hacks. Those hacks are a topic for another post.

So it goes. Oh, the silly ways our brains sabotage us. . .

Other brain hacks include writing with other writers around me. Sometimes, changing locations is the trick. If I observe that the kitchen is getting wear marks on the counter because I’m cleaning it too often (I wish), then it’s time to go and write someplace where there is no kitchen to clean. My local city library has quiet rooms. Several of my local coffee shops have first-come-first-served conference rooms.

If I observe myself surfing the web for hours and hours, I go to a wifi free zone and shift to pen and paper for a while.

If I find I am bored with my own writing, I find another writer (or creative non-writer) to talk to about creative effort.

My absolute favorite people are the ones that can riff silly on any topic. Stories are often born from silly. My chosen brother Mitch Luckett, my biological brother, Nick, and another chosen brother, artist and writer Alan M. Clark, are great for that. Another chosen brother, Barry Buchannan, who is an infrastructure systems analyst, is also refreshingly good at it. Something new and fun always comes from conversations with these people. I go to my sister, Leonore, for wonderful, fun, imaginative explorations of body, mind, and spirit. I guess the short version of this hack is to go out, smile, be silly, and talk to people who have agile minds and a good sense of humor. Let the child within out to play.

As one friend of mine, Devon Monk, once told me, “It’s very important to get out and ride an elephant now and then.” New experiences feed the fire of heart and mind. Personally, I find that travel opens up my channels of creative energy. While travelling, abroad or just to the grocery store, I keep running lists of things I see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and consider. I especially keep lists of things that trigger emotional responses.

In fact, I have running lists of “Things that make me cry from joy,” “Things that make me laugh out loud,” “Things that make me tear up from sadness,” and “Things that make me wish for…”

You get the idea.

In the end, all these brain hacks, from getting up early and going straight to the keys before my dreaming mind has submerged to setting dead minimum time quotas that aren’t about quality or page and word counts, have come one-by-one from returning to my breath—my breath.

I cannot, and will never be able to, gain the correct and complete insight into your personal genetics, family history, physiological reactivity, and complex self-protections that will allow me to diagnose cause and prescribe management skills. Only you can do that for yourself. Even a really good therapist will only facilitate your discovery of your own needs and skills, so I do have to say that I really appreciate the good therapists I have known.

So, pay attention and engage in constant, restless, ceaseless human experimentation on you. I will be there beside you, at least in spirit, celebrating your realizations and the hacks you create for yourself, but I will have no expectation that your hacks and mine will match up. Even if they do match in form and execution, it is very likely that they work for us each in very different ways for very different reasons.

We are not broken. We are a complex manifestation of a biological, and perhaps spiritual, experiment that began billions of years ago. We are exactly what we should be. We are exactly where we should be. We are story tellers. Tell a story. That’s all we need to do. That, and breathe.

Now, I let these thoughts go and return my focus to my breath.


The Epiphany or “Eureka!  I have it!”

By Cynthia Ray


January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men to the child Jesus.  While it can mean the literal recognition of the Christ within, this story may also be understood in a symbolic way to help us to understand where inspiration comes from and how to tap into it.

These Magi, or magicians, represent the conscious mind coming to the realization of the light or truth which the subconscious mind has given birth to after a long period of gestation-a personal epiphany.  The Magi were visionaries, they believed and followed a star that had meaning only for them.  Others may have seen the star, but only they knew where it would lead.

If we accept this, then how can we undertake such a journey?  Why would we want to go on such a perilous undertaking?  What star would we follow?

Recently I heard Ursula LeGuin’s famous award acceptance speech.  In it, she gives an admonition to writers and artists to become visionaries.  LeGuin says, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality. …”

Hear Ursula LeGuins speech here

Wow!  That hit me right in the gut.  As writers and artists shouldn’t that be our highest quest?  To be realists of a larger reality.  To show truth, to inspire, to lead.  If so, once our intellect, or conscious mind decides on the quest/question and sets the conditions, then the subconscious mind does its work, hidden in the deeps of the universal mind, where all truth awaits.  Follow the star.

In the Star Tarot card,  the two pots of water represent the two aspects of mind, the conscious and subconscious. The functions of the Star card are Meditation and Revelation; exactly what an Epiphany consists of.

The Star

Epiphanies are experienced as a sudden realization or illumination of thought.  They are often described as a “flash of genius”.  Archimedes illustrated this exactly when he jumped from his bath and ran naked from his house, exclaiming  “Eureka!  I have it!” after he discovered his groundbreaking method to determine the density of an object. Newtons theory of gravity is another example of an epiphany, triggered by his observation of a falling apple.  You have probably felt that way a time or two when something fell into place.


In both cases, these scientists had spent a lot of time contemplating, thinking and focusing on specific problems with their conscious mind.  Meanwhile the subconscious, a beautiful fertile receptacle that allows and nurtures all seeds planted there, brought forth  seemingly miraculous answers to the questions posed.  These experiences are memorable to us and even seem supernatural, but they are the natural result of the creative process we put in place with our focus.

So in order for an epiphany to occur, there needs to be:

  •  A clear question
  • A desire to know and understand something
  • A time of contemplation and focused thinking, where one wrestles with the issue, studies and labors to understand

We could not do better than to consider Ursula’s admonition in this, looking for hope, a leading out of the dark and how we could express that in our art. What if we all asked, “What can I, as a writer/artist, do to show new ways of being to a world in need of awakening, of hope?”


While the conscious mind is occupied with these things, below the surface, in the deep waters of our subconscious womb, things will percolate, grow and gestate, until they rise to our consciousness, born seemingly out of nowhere and “it all becomes clear.”

Embrace the knowing that our subconscious will eventually and inevitably give birth to what we are seeking and focusing on, whether it is the resolution to our characters dilemma in our story, or startling perceptions about mankind’s current state.  This is the star we must follow.


Whether it is a shared wisdom we tap into and from which our Epiphany springs, or from our own personal depths, the fact is that there is a deeper wisdom which will answer all of our questions if we put them out there and meditate, contemplate and stew in them long enough.  What a powerful tool we have at our disposal!

Wishing you many Epiphanies in this new year, in a world that is a better place to be-because of you and your work.


Where Things Fall Apart

by Pamela Jean Herber

Come along with me. Not to the safe place you’ve found. Not to the Laws of Physics. Not to the benevolent God who ensures every event in your life supports his divine plan. Not to the spiritual program that promises to work if you work it. Not to the place that is your own personal theory of everything.

Step away with me to the shadowy places the safe houses block from the light. Places where the x-axis and y-axis are independent from each other at the same time everything is connected. Or the place where neither is true. Allow me to introduce you to a world of contradictions. A place where the truths we depended on yesterday have fallen by the wayside, replaced by new truths, or simply chaos.

Join me in the realm of story.

There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m only taking you places that are imaginary. Places that do not exist. Places you can enter into and exit from at your personal discretion.

First, imagine you are a storyteller. What if one day you discover all the stories you’ve ever told and all the stories you will tell in the future are manifested in the physical world? How will that knowledge change how you feel about yourself as a person? Who have you harmed? Who have you helped? Would you search those people out? Would your storytelling come to an abrupt halt? Would you be afraid to utter another word because of the potential damage you might incur? Or would you go the other way? Would you attempt to undo the damage you’d inflicted? Would you refrain from the ripping of limbs in fight scenes? Would you never write another murder? Or even a peaceful death?

Here’s another scenario: What if a young boy is one of the few humans of the next evolution of man? What if he has evolved beyond the understanding of his family and the entrenched culture of his community? What if he is seen as an aberration as opposed to a hope for the human species? Will he and those like him be aggressively reprogrammed to fit in? Will humans vanish from the universe as a result? Will his innate drive to survive overcome his conditioning? Will he be forced to rebel against the people he loves in order to save them?

On second thought, you should be afraid. These places I’m asking you to go challenge the very solidity of those safe structures we hold onto so dearly. In the first example above, I challenge the idea that what has worked in the past will work in the future. In the second, I challenge that generational departures from accepted behavior are aberrations.

Be very afraid. You may become less trusting of the foundations you are standing on. On the other hand, your faith in them may be reinforced. You may become more confident in when to rely on them and when to search out more information. My hope is that by exploring the places where things fall apart with you we both will expand our safe places and shrink the shadows and remember that context is everything.