Posted On December 15, 2014 by Print This Post

Outsmarting Your Brain with Donna Cummings

I bless the day I ran across Donna Cummings on Twitter. We have the same sense of humor, both love writing and brownies, and she makes a great guest on RU!

Author Donna CummingsI have a monkey mind. That’s the yoga or meditation term where your brain is running around all over the place, unable to sit still because it has to investigate every shiny object imaginable.

I remember a conference I attended where we started each session by closing our eyes and meditating for a minute. Or maybe it was an hour. It actually felt like a decade.

It was meant to focus our thoughts, but–well, let me just share what it was like inside my head:

“I wonder if everyone else really closed their eyes. Maybe I’ll sneak a little peak. Although talk about awkward if somebody else opened their eyes at the same time and then we’re staring at each other. I’ll just keep my eyes shut. It feels like my eyelids are all flickery now. What if I relax so much I fall asleep and everyone else is watching my head do that bobbing dog routine? Sometimes I wish I had a dog. But it would be SO much work. Oh, work! I’ve got a lot to finish up when I get back. I’ll focus on making a list, so I don’t forget anything. . .”

And that was just the first ten seconds.

I think most writers have brains like this–unable to follow a straight and narrow path, fascinated with minutiae, excited to explore every single offshoot that has nothing to do with the task at hand.

Because we know it’s the “paths not taken” that ultimately hold the most interesting details, the best surprises. Our stories spring from these little nuggets of seeming randomness.

LW_medStill, it can be frustrating when all the zigzagging from one thing to the next doesn’t produce anything other than “oh crap, where did the day go?”

So here are a few suggestions for outsmarting your brain so you can continue to move forward with your projects.

  1. Let your brain loose

One of the best ways to wear out a toddler so it’ll sleep at night, giving YOU a moment’s rest, is to let that child run around until it falls down with exhaustion. It has no idea of your evil plans. It feels like it’s been given the ultimate freedom, and is exhilarated to do whatever it wants.

Your brain is the same way. Let it zip from this crazy notion to that even crazier one. Allow it to bounce around on the idea trampoline. Make sure your monkey mind gets to roll around, with utter abandon, in the wacky thoughts playground.

When my brain hits a mental block on the WIP, I’ll switch to another work-in-progress. Sometimes I’ll just read through the new one, taking notes instead of trying to add word count. Or maybe I’ll research cover pics, or topics that need expanding–anything to give my brain that giddy, gleeful, darting-to-and-fro experience it craves.

After a while your brain will find the array of possibilities a little too much, like trying to decide which dessert to eat at an all-you-can-devour buffet. It’s finally gotten all the distractions out of its system and now it’s ready to settle down. In fact, it’s really looking forward to having just one thing to focus on.

It never needs to know that was your strategy all along.

  1. Figure out when your brain wanders

Sometimes you have to do boring things, and that’s when your brain skulks away. It’ll take a little step, hoping you won’t notice, and then another and another. . .

Next thing you know, you’ve been staring out the window for a half hour, pondering if that squirrel leaping through the tree boughs is the top in his class at rodent gymnastic school. Unfortunately, you started out trying to get your heroine from Point A to Point B in Regency London.

Maybe your brain isn’t being capricious or lazy or distracted. Maybe that scene you’re forcing it to finish is the equivalent of a vat of overcooked Brussels sprouts. Your brain is gagging and desperate to escape for a very good reason.

FIL_medOur brains have the capacity for an endless supply of unusual/oddball/what-the-heck? stuff. They love to be intrigued, and enchanted, and delighted. Is your WIP providing that? If it isn’t, look at what your brain decided to focus on instead of the task at hand. What makes this new thing more appealing?

If nothing else, let the brain cells wander through this shiny new place for a bit. That idea of a squirrel becoming a professional acrobat probably isn’t one you’ll ever pursue. But maybe it will help you discover a little treasure you wouldn’t have found otherwise, helping you get your heroine from Point A to HEA a lot faster.

  1. Acknowledge there’s a higher power (and it’s your brain)

One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) aspects of writing is how mystical and magical it can be. Essentially we’re creating something out of nothing–from a stray thought bubble that popped in our brain one day–and then we do our best to follow that vague clue through our subconscious minds until we emerge with a cohesive, entertaining, well-structured story.

It’s no wonder our brains get lost along the way. Writers are mental packrats, collecting every stray bit of potential plot twists and character personalities, stuffing them in a random file cabinet, hoping these treasures are findable when it’s time to use them.

I used to frantically write everything down, worried that I’d lose a brilliant idea if it wasn’t memorialized on a scrap of paper. Then I discovered if it truly was a brilliant idea, I usually ended up writing it down twice. (The good part is I get to have two moments of feeling like an absolute genius. Until I feel like a fool for celebrating my brilliance two times for the same exact thing.)

Now, instead of scrambling to find a receipt or sticky note I haven’t already scribbled on, I just let my brain chew on the ideas it presents. I’ve learned that it will erupt with the info I need–not when I need it. No, that would take all the sport out of it, and my brain loves being a trickster.

Instead, while I’m re-reading something for the forty-eleventh time, I’ll see a clue that I’ve been searching for, something so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t stumbled over it before now. My brain has been leaving bread crumbs in the WIP, and is no doubt cackling at my inability to pick up on its blatant hints and nudges. It is probably relieved when I finally have that “aha!” moment.

As you can see, the writer’s path to enlightenment is not an easy one. But, it can be accomplished.

Just let your brain wander, figure out why it wants to, and then trust it enough to follow the trail it’s blazing for you.

Β ***

Do you have monkey brain? What techniques do you use to outsmart your own brain?

Join us tomorrow for Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: How to Begin a Romance, by Helena Fairfax


Bio: I have worked as an attorney, winery tasting room manager, and retail business owner, but nothing beats the thrill of writing humorously-ever-after romances.

I reside in New England, although I fantasize about spending the rest of my days in a tropical locale, wearing flip flops year-round, or in Regency London, scandalizing the ton.

I can usually be found on Twitter, talking about writing and coffee, and on Facebook, talking about coffee and writing.

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14 Responses to “Outsmarting Your Brain with Donna Cummings”

  1. Hi Donna,

    I hate to invoke Frozen, but letting it (my brain) go is the only way I can write.

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | December 15, 2014, 8:57 am
    • LOL — Mary Jo, that song does have an earworm quality to it. BUT, it’s great advice, which is probably why it strikes such a chord with everyone. I think the brain needs to be let loose like that, so it can investigate the fun stuff. I’m glad that technique works for you too. πŸ™‚

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 15, 2014, 9:11 am
  2. Carrie, thanks for the great intro! I wish the brownies we share weren’t just virtual ones — and I love cackling over the same funny stuff with you. Oh yeah — and you make rockin’ covers for me. πŸ™‚

    Posted by Donna Cummings | December 15, 2014, 9:13 am
  3. Morning Donna!

    I laughed out loud at the monkey brain part….it is SO me! Yesterday I had a ton of projects to get done, but the first hour was spent wandering through emails, reading facebook, starting laundry. Once I got a bunch of random stuff out of the way, then I could concentrate on what I needed to do.

    As a matter of fact, I wandered off twice in the middle of this comment…lol.

    Thanks for another great post Donna! #welovebrownies

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 15, 2014, 10:11 am
    • LOL — I’m starting to think I have a herd of monkeys in my brain, because that’s exactly how my mind is. Well, except for the laundry part. Hey! What if we could get the monkeys to do that for us. . .

      Okay, I’m back. LOL

      Thanks again for having me here. *raises brownie in salute* #browniesrule

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 15, 2014, 10:45 am
  4. received this via email….

    Loved this blog! It so defined how I do things–what I call my magpie approach to life and, of course, writing. Donna’s ideas for corralling and taming these seemingly random thoughts are definitely worth trying.

    Thanks a lot.

    Pam DeVoe

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 15, 2014, 6:59 pm
  5. Great post, Donna! My husband practices TM but I know my monkey brain would never settle down long enough for me to do that. Reading is my meditation!

    Sorry for the late comment – the day kind of got away from me!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 15, 2014, 11:42 pm
    • Becke — I know exactly what you mean about the day getting away from you. I feel like all of 2014 has been that way. LOL

      I really love the IDEA of meditation — but it’s next to impossible to have my brain settle down. I hadn’t thought about reading being meditation — I think you’re right about that tho! I need to spend more time reading now. πŸ™‚

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 16, 2014, 12:30 am
  6. Hi, Bonna ~

    Late to the party, but LOVED this post. It’s so true of how I work too.

    I recently hit a mental wall with my current WIP and had to let my brain bounce around on the “idea trampoline” (such a great term for it). This morning, after days of mental play, it finally settled down and delivered a way out of my problem.

    And during all that give and take, there was a lot of skulking and sulking going on…from both of us, LOL!

    Such a fun, enlightening post!

    Posted by Mae Clair | December 17, 2014, 8:07 am
    • Mae, no worries about the name change — I kinda like it! And I definitely like the “skulking and sulking” phrase. LOL That SO describes my brain and me, both of us giving each other the evil eye, blaming the other for things not working the way they should. Fortunately it all works out, but it sure doesn’t feel like it will for a long time. LOL

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2014, 4:38 pm
  7. Drat! Sorry for the spelling goof on your name, Donna. I think my brain was hyper-excited that it had such a fun post to focus on.

    Warp drive! πŸ™‚

    Posted by Mae Clair | December 17, 2014, 8:08 am
  8. Donna, this is such a wonderful post and is so true for my poor brain. Thanks!

    Posted by Virginia Kelly | December 18, 2014, 9:44 am

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