Brain Training for Expatriate Writers


You’ve taken a risk. You’re brave enough to get out into the world and away from your family and friends. You’re going to live and work abroad as an expatriate writer. I know it and you know it. The fact is that you are embarking on an extremely meaningful life. Except that when you finally get a chance to sit down and work, you have no idea what to say.

Why does this happen?

Apparently too much momentousness literally clogs your brain. Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago says we “choke” at significant moments because the pressure stymies the prefrontal cortex, which is home to both your working memory and your skill set for writing. Beilock calls this “stereotype threat” which happens when talented people can’t do their thing because they get bogged down by their own image. Like when a when a writer can’t write because she’s too consumed with becoming a great writer.

What do you do about it?

Practice. One of six reasons this blog is brought to you by the letter P. The others being: Pen, Paper, Persistence, Progress and Pleasure. Plus it fits into my whole brain theme because alliteration has been proven to enhance memory. Just ask Science Daily.

This is my personal method to keep writing under pressure. Because, let’s face it, as expatriates we want all the excitement life has to offer and if you develop a regular writing practice can actually make you braver and reach further. So here are my 3 Ps:

1. Persistence

Have you read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit? You should because pretty much everybody else has. In his New York Times Best Seller, Duhigg explains the “habit loop.” In a habit loop the brain receives a “cue” which causes a “routine behavior” that results in a “reward.” The point of this habit loop is that with practice it moves all your decision making and wishy washing brain activity to the basil ganglia, where you just go for it. Brushing your teeth is a habit loop. You walk into the bathroom, reach for the toothpaste and the rest is automated. Very little mental energy is expended. This technique is perfect for writers because it quiets down all the hoop-la Beilock was talking about which causes talented people to “choke.”

Of course insight and inspiration can’t be automated, but the concentration you feel when you get into the zone of writing can be automated. Perhaps there is a certain coffee shop or library where you do your best work. Maybe there’s a specific morning routine that always sets you up for a productive day. These are cues, and if you start to take conscious advantage of them, they work even better. In fact its interesting to think that all the superstitions writers have, like certain pens or certain places to work, actually have a neurological basis.

One kind of weird habit loop I developed was watching movies for plot development. I’ll pop in a DVD I’ve already seen a million times, usually one with a writer as the protagonist and ten minutes into the film, I’ll be ignoring whatever is happening in their plot, and zoned into my own. In the beginning it helps to be conscientious about habit making. Depending on the intensity and dailiness of your practice, the routine part might not kick in for about a month. But before you know it you will be moving on to the second P of this brain training…

2. Progress

Progress can get tricky because both expatriates and writers have a non-linear path of development. There are set backs, side tracks, twists, U-turns, and multiple multiple multiple drafts. It’s all part of the excitement that makes life worthwhile. I like to think of it as growing outward rather than growing forward, because life progresses in a more all-encompassing way.

However, for the purpose of brain training, there is no “outward growth.” We want to trigger the reward system (that final step in the habit loop), which isn’t all that reactive to the concept of “outward growth.” Reward systems react to achieving goals, not wandering paths. The problem is that creativity gets stifled under linear goal setting and reward systems. Dan Pink did a whole Ted Talk about this. What we want to do is separate our concept of progress from the creativity itself, so creativity flourishes, without getting hounded by linear expectations.

Here’s what I do: I buy pens with visible ink cartridges and I number the pages I’ve written by hand. Watching the ink go down and the notebook fill up gives my brain positive feedback, i.e. dopamine. I love it because it allows my creativity to wander without the strain of linear goals. And it saves me from Writer’s Blah. This is the not-so-famous older brother of Writer’s Block, and happens when you write and write and then feel insecure about whether you’ve actually accomplished anything. Fiction writers are particularly susceptible.

The point is that rewards are triggered by measurable success. The big secret that everybody forgets is that, according to your brain, you set all the measures. You don’t have to win anybody else’s approval in order to get your daily dose of dopamine. Which brings me to…

3. Pleasure

I’m just going to say it. Nucleus Accumbens. There, I said it. It’s the part of the brain that scientists watch light up in rats when they (the rats) press levers giving them either sexual stimulation or food. It’s the pleasure center of the brain.

Once you have a persistent writing practice and our progress brings a regular release of dopamine to the brain, the nucleus accumbens gets activated. This is when writing gets sexy because rather than fearing the blank page, you start to fetishize your new notebook, and the very idea of scribbling a pen through it is exciting!

Once you’re here, you’re golden. Whatever your writing goal is, you’re going to accomplish it because you have literally trained your brain to love the craft. And interestingly enough (thank you Wikipedia) I just found out that the pleasure center of the brain is linked to the prefrontal cortex. That’s where all this mushiness that Beilock says causes us to choke started out. So pleasure actually stimulates us back into action.

So those are my 3 Ps for a writing practice under pressure. All you need is pen and paper. Just remember for this system to work you have to put the Ps in the right order because positive feedback (dopamine) won’t be released without the persistent habit loop, and the pleasure center of the brain doesn’t get activated without a build up of dopamine. Of course there are other ways to get an easier release of dopamine, but they won’t get your book written. Ha ha.

So have fun and good luck!

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