Years ago I started working on a book called “The Creative Brain on Drugs.” It’s a book not just about the various mind-stimulating or sensation-altering substances that the majority of writers and artists have depended on for creative insight, but also their political views on the inherent right to self-modify, without government oversight.
But after years of trying to write professionally and struggling to produce a satisfactory number of words over long periods of time, I’m starting to realize that mindset, ritual and habits are just as, or more important than nootropics, stimulants or smart drugs. So I’ve decided to change the title to “Writing under the influence” so that it can include confidence boosting beliefs, or productivity enhancing psychological tricks to fool ourselves into doing the work.
I want to be the Balzac of my time and publish hundreds of novels. I’d be happy averaging 6 a year. 3 a year would be laid back, leisurely, but I’d rather work hard while I still can and build up my backlist. When I’m older I can fiddle with covers, sales copy or platform building to keep them selling. The problem is, I’ve been averaging 3 books a year for the past few years, even though I only spend 1% of my time actually writing.
A “successful” writing day for me right now – when I’m consistent – is 1500 words a day, with two big problems.:
#1. It takes me about 5 sprints to hit 1500 words, but I spread them out throughout the day. So even though technically they only take me about 2 hours, they actually take up my whole day (and I’m too mentally exhausted to do anything else).
#2. I don’t stay consistent. Weeks or months go by without actively working on my books. But when I open, when I start, I can do 1500 words.
This is my bench lifting ability right now. But if I ONLY do this much, I won’t be building my muscles or increasing in stamina. I’ll be coasting, not improving. I WANT to be writing 5,000 words a day, though I’d be happy with 3000 words. That would give me a longish novel a month, plus editing – and I could finish shorter works of 50K in a month (or less!)
So this summer I’ll be experimenting with RAPID IMPROVEMENT by challenging myself, experimenting with lifestyle design and brain hacking, etc.
Right now I can do about 1200 words/day consistently. Sometimes 1600. The main problem is it takes me ALL DAY to do this; even though I space out the sprints, I procrastinate and avoid. Then I get behind on other work or projects, and get anxious.
This is a big problem: I can only hit my wordcount goals if I literally do NOTHING else.
And this is due to resistance. But why am I resisting the writing? Because I say stuff like “I’m slow, I’m no good at drafting, writing the first draft is HARD for me.” I don’t believe writing HAS to be a struggle, but it obviously is for me… so I’m avoiding it. How can I write and still have time and energy for everything else on my list?
Think of the difference between sprinting and jogging.
Jogging is exercise. You have to force yourself to get up, go outside and do it. It sucks, but you do it anyway. Plus it’s slow, boring.
Compare that with sprinting. Sprinting is exciting, playful. Like running a race, or just because you have too much energy and don’t know what else to do. Running fast is exhilarating, you feel energized. I want to do that.
I don’t want to be a writer who forces themselves to sit down and squeeze out the words.
I want to be writer who can set down and open the valve to release a steady, constant barrage of words that overflows the page. I want to get in a state of flow and lay down sentences like railroad tracks. I want my pages to cover coast-to-coast.
The difference is probably to be found in cultivating and enjoyable writing experience, and building confidence in my abilities to write quickly. But that doesn’t mean I’m not looking for shortcuts.
My GOAL for the summer is to increase my word count to 3000 words a day (without ruining my day for other productive work) and maintain it for the rest of the year. This would allow me to put out six new books this year, effectively doubling my writing income.
This article will be a list of the short cuts I’ve taken.
PS. I can write 57 words a minute (according to this writing speed test). So with an uninterrupted sprint, I should be able get around 500 words in 10 minutes, or 1000 words in a 25 minute sprint.
The Antidote to Creative Fear (Mindset)
I made this video at a writing conference, and I argue that the antidote to creative fear is not more CONFIDENCE, but more information. It’s less risky if you build your audience and write books they’ll love, on purpose. Most authors don’t do that, so they’re always afraid it won’t be successful or nobody will like it or they’re always just wasting their time.
So the BIGGEST productivity hack is knowing your audience, which takes research and intention. Everybody who writes about creativity agrees to make successful art you must build your platform and peers, and you must package your work into an agreeable format, but most authors skip all of that and just write what they want.
The other huge hack for me is plotting. If I plot my story, I don’t need to get lost in the middle and figure out what happens (OK, I still get stuck, but it’s a lot faster and easier to course correct and fix, if I know where the target is I’m trying to hit). Not every writer needs to plot. Some of the best writers are pantsers. But for the people who are stuck and never seem to finish, or can’t seem to write books readers love, I think outlining is the simplest and quickest fix.
Other things that help me:
- Keeping a calendar or something showing daily word count, over time.
- Writing first thing in the morning, before everything else.
- IF/then statements (Instead of saying “I’ll write 500 words today,” You say “I’ll write 500 words after I take a shower” or “before I run errands” or “while I’m on the bus.”) That way you can’t put it off.
- The 5-second rule: just set down and open your document. If you can’t make yourself write 500 words a day, just write 10 words a day. Get in the habit of sitting down and starting. You need to get used to/feel comfortable with your setup/process before you can truly unleash your powers.
- Nobody has “more time.” If you want to write, you need to give up some other things and find the time. You may need to learn to say no.
Hardware (keyboards and software)
The summer is over and I’ve boosted my daily word count to 3000 words, which I can do in a couple hours… this improvement is JUST due to finding a distraction-free and easy to use writing setup/process. I tried everything and reviewed them:
But the final result was this: a pretty wireless Penna Keyboard and an iPad with the iAwriter app installed.
It’s impractical to use in public, but it’s my at home writing setup, with the idea that
A) I should have a separate place for book writing, instead of my main computer where I do everything else and
B) A luxury keyboard will make the writing experience more enjoyable
For on the go, I prefer Belkin’s fold up keyboard and my iPhone, it’s much slimmer and lighter.
I also use a huge pair of Sony noise cancelling headphones (These are so good my wife and I had to learn how to communicate through sign language).
Mentorship and Community
I read a book on persuasion this year, and the writer talks about how he could use HIS confidence to make other people believe they were good at something:
“Rather than outwardly state my skepticism, I projected a fake air of confidence to assure my friend that it would work. My friend witnessed my confidence and assurance in the hypnosis, and he then became more confident and assured in my ability to hypnotize him. As a result of his heightened expectations, I was able to guide him into a deep state of hypnosis, and after 10 minutes of giving him a few helpful suggestions, I guided him out of hypnosis, and he has been smokefree to this day. If I’m hypnotizing someone I’ve just met, after 5 or 10 minutes of speaking with them, I smile and say, “It’s funny. You seem like someone who could easily go into a deep state of hypnosis. That’s a great quality to have.” That statement removes any mental defenses that the person may possess, and it reinforces their expectations that they will be hypnotized. In turn, that makes it easier for me to guide them into a deep state of hypnosis.”
So: if you have lack of confidence in yourself or your ability, an experienced coach or mentor may be able to transfer their confidence to you. It’s easier to have confidence in THEM and their ability to help you take action and see results; your confidence in them will actually help you take action and get results. You have to believe it’s possible before you take action.
Jonathan Fields thinks there are 5 kinds of people you need to do creative work:
Being around other writers writing is crucial for emotional well-being, and also prompts you to keep doing the work, while believing in success. You can (and should) build your own communities, but if you just need a supportive group, you can join my Free Guerrilla Publishing group. Or if you need more accountability and personal feedback, you can join the GP program and get help.
Habits (and other things)
In the book on Persuasion I mentioned earlier, the author cites a study that showed just having a motivational picture and message nearby actually boosts productivity – so buy some and put them in your writing space! You can also have a motivational coffee cup you just use for writing, or a favorite pair of slippers.
I’ve been wanting to limit all sugar consumption and ONLY eat junk food while I’m writing… to trick my dopamine receptors and get addicted to writing, so my body is physically craving it and going through withdrawals).
- A motivating coffee mug
- A motivational picture of someone winning
The most interesting case study though, was an experiment involving energy drinks: one group got an energy drink with a big 50% off sticker, the others got the SAME drink without the sticker. The ones who got the discounted energy drink were less productive.
Even though it’s not rational, the discounted price made them think their energy drinks were less effective. This also shows how far a little confidence will go: those who believed in the energy drink were actually more productive, even though they were drinking the same thing!
YouTube Red – I didn’t know where to put this, but anything that improves your life might be worth buying. I watch a lot of youtube videos, and also use youtube for meditations and music. But those ads! I was frequently angry and anxious, all the time. I solved it by upgrading to the ad-free YouTube.
You can turn notifications off on your phone, but anything that is taking up significant mental bandwidth and is also making you unhappy, needs to go. A of lot of people don’t outsource because because they just think “I can do it myself.” But, even though they’re capable, they don’t, then feel guilty and frustrated. It’s not about how easy or hard it is, it’s about how it makes you feel.
Best Supplements & Nootropic stack
Nootropics are brain boosting compounds that have a long-term, positive effect (as opposed to “drugs” which probably have a harmful, short-term effect.) Nootroprics are a hot new commodity and there are some heavy advertising campaigns for them. I love this ad, even though I don’t endorse the product.
I’ve tried a lot of stacks and companies, and I generally don’t like them, because of ingredients like…
L-theanine – often used with green tea, it’s supposed to give you a Zen-like calm (it just makes me drowsy and slow-headed)
Choline – makes me very drowsy
Huperzine – makes me manic
I’m neuroatypical, so your results may very, but those are 3 things I try to avoid. I take huperzine A if I want to have lots of energy with less sleep; it’s also kind of good for social events, except it really will make me manic if I keep taking it every day (delusions of grandeur, excessive energy, racing thoughts, urgency, and risky behavior). A few times a year, being manic is GREAT because you can get a lot done and have your BIG IDEAS, but if you’re really making yourself manic, you have less control and aren’t really yourself.
Here are some of the things I use semi-frequently.
- Tea (green, mate, pu’erh)
- Coffee (Bulletproof, espresso, drip)
- Caffeine (pure or diet coke)
- Lion’s Mane
Pictured: marijuana, mate, puerrh tea, coffee, port.
Not pictured: yogurt-covered-pretzels and animal cookies.
Refined sugar is the perfect brain food. According to Scottish historian Niall Ferguson,
“Unlike alcohol, which was the only commonly available psychoactive substance in the old world until they arrived, sugar, nicotine and caffeine had at least some stimulating properties, and so offered a very different experience, one that was more conducive to the labour of everyday life. These were the “18th-century equivalent of uppers”. The empire, it might be said, was built on a huge sugar, caffeine and nicotine rush – a rush nearly everyone could experience.”
Sugar does induce the same responses in the region of the brain known as the “reward centre” as nicotine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. Addiction researchers have come to believe that behaviours required for the survival of a species – specifically, eating and sex – are experienced as pleasurable in this part of the brain, and so we do them again and again. Sugar stimulates the release of the same neurotransmitters – dopamine in particular – through which the potent effects of these other drugs are mediated.
As I mentioned above, I’d like to limit my sugar consumption to my writing time. And it would still be better to eat sucrose or fruit or honey, rather than junk food. So I’m not recommending sugar for others, though it IS a drug and a stimulant, and I do eat a lot of it.
Tea is probably the best, but you need to drink a lot of it to get the benefits. I enjoy coffee in the mornings and tea later on. I sometimes make “bulletproof” coffee, which includes butter or coconut oil. I prefer my mate in a gourd, as I learned in Argentina. I get my pu-erh from Taiwan, it tastes like dirty (very earthy). I also drink coke zero or diet coke, though I’m trying to quit (for the record, Diet Coke is the MOST addictive thing on this list, it’s the only thing I have cravings for).
Lion’s Mane is a mushroom. I would say it boosts your “chi” – gets the energy flowing, makes the body warm, and you’re alert… but it’s a little more like mania, which means sometimes it’s not great for sitting down and doing the work. You can order Lion’s Mane coffee on Amazon and try it out.
Gabapentin is actually a seizure medication, but it’s great for anxiety. It removed inhibitions and makes you more gregarious or talkative. I don’t take it often, but it makes me happy, confident, and much more friendly than usual. I *think* this should also help boost word count during sprints. Vicodin has similar effects, but I wouldn’t recommend taking an opiod frequently). I took St. John’s Wort (the herb) for several years, and it has similar benefits. Just removing your inhibition and getting into the flow state can be very powerful.
Nicotine is one of the cleanest stimulants available. It also increase bloodflow, and gives you energy, but I think it’s more the unfocused, restless energy. Maybe good for being social or working out, but writing is a VERY mental activity – I need my thoughts and words to be clean and clear.
Kratom is an Asian herb that is used for pain relief. Kratom can make you feel relaxed, or it can make you feel energized. But it usually also makes you feel GOOD. I took this quote from an article on Kratom:
“Men are eager to talk about productivity drugs like modafinil that are strictly for getting things done, but the moment you stay “I want to get more done, and feel awesome doing it” you sound like some sort of degenerate stoner. Work is supposed to be, well, work. You’re telling me I can get a bunch done, because I feel so good that I don’t even notice time passing? Isn’t that cheating? Pleasure is a productivity hack in itself. If you feel good doing what you’re doing, you’re more likely to do more of it.”
I love that quote, because I agree that pleasure can be a hack: training yourself to like the thing you want to do, so you won’t resist it. However, I’m not a huge fan of Kratom. It’s alright, and gives you a bit of a “body-high” – and it alleviates physical discomfort, so you’re able to write much longer without feeling the aches and pains. Alternatives to Kratom are Kava Kava or Ashwagandha – though I find them too relaxing.
However, I think marijuana is much more effective.
In Oregon and Washington, I can go into a store and buy a selection or products. Indicas make you relaxed but unlock your creative, lateral thinking abilities. Sativas are best for doing the work; they’re so energizing some people avoid them because they get anxiety. And it’s true, you can be anxious, for example going shopping, because you’re hyper aware of yourself, your skin, the space around you, and other people. But if you’re just in front of your screen wrestling with the story, I’ve found no other supplement as powerful as marijuana. It’s also great for visualization, so when you’re thinking about characters or scenes you’ll be able to see everything in your mind much more clearly.
Sativas boost alertness and creativity. Indicas give you a relaxed body high (but often also stimulate visual creativity). Both increase your spatial awareness and make it easier to think in pictures, instead of words. Here’s a list of the best weed strains for creativity. It might be hard to multitask because you’ll forget what you were doing. But if you focus on ONE thing and get lost in your writing, the lateral-thinking effects of marijuana will generate interesting, new combinations of words that sound glorious put together. It’ll also help you visualize and share specific scenes because you can really see it clearly in your mind’s eye (great for fiction). Marijuana is metaphor-inducing, in that it lets you blend ideas and link unrelated concepts. It’s a connectivity machine.
I generally prefer to eat weed as gummies or cookies. Smoking will hit in about 20 minutes and last for an hour or two. Eating hits in an hour or two and can last for 5 hours or so. I also use a vaporizer which heats the flower, unleashing the healthy oils without combustion – much better for you, and it’s a clearer, cleaner high. My personal favorites are Sensei Star (indica) and Maui Wowie (sativa – stupid name but great effect). Sativas are best for productivity: they can make you anxious, but mostly in shared spaces, because you’re so AWARE of everything, like the air over your skin and the air in your lungs and the space between other people. If you sit down with tunnel vision and work you’ll be fine. Several good sativas are TOO focused, like Green Crack or Jack Herer. It’s almost just like a caffeine buzz, good for laser focus like editing/revising, but I like something a little more sensory that makes me feel enhanced, while still being clear headed enough to write.
The other interesting drug I like is modafinil – it’s an awakeness drug developed by the military. While ADHD drugs like Ritalin or Adderall (which was Andy Warhol’s drug of choice) can make you feel “speedy” – because they’re basically speed – modifinil gives you a focused responsibility. I feel like DOING the things I’ve been avoiding, and I can just sit down and finish things. I don’t take it often, and it used to give me really bad rebound headaches, but I got a new batch of Modalert brand and it seems I can take it with fewer side effects (or the marijuana takes the edge off).
I’ll only use this when I want a super productive day, or if I’m struggling with getting the plot or story right – if I need help with “big picture stuff” because my brain just can’t handle and organize everything… modafinil helps.
I’m working on a book about all this stuff.
One of the most fascinating things I ever read was from a book called “Divine Fury” – and it was talking about how genius was a physiological response with measurable symptoms. The interesting thing is, these symptoms were the same effects as most stimulants: racing heartbeat, flushed cheeks, wide pupils, increased confidence and energy, talkativeness and the reduction of inhibitions, fear and anxiety. I will argue that creative people have been supplementing their imagination since before time; that this supplementation was implemental to, not accidental from, their best creative work – because to truly create the new you need to step forward into the abyss of the untried and tested; it’s not creative unless it implies a break, which is always a risk.
Migraines and Creativity
I wrote a post ages ago about Emily Dickinson and migraines.
The thesis I want to develop for a book on Creative Confidence, is that the best work doesn’t happen when you’re “stable” – the best work happens by quickly changing your moods; plunging them into the depths of sorrow and then accelerating to heightened hilarity (as Wordsworth and the Romantics used to do with laughing gas – something I tried recently in Vietnam).
Creativity is an activity that originates from friction: the puzzle of creating the thing; the challenge of making it real. The resistance isn’t necessarily something to avoid, rather than trying to hold on, you need to let go.
HOWEVER: I also don’t believe you need to be depressed or unhappy to be creativity successful.
I get migraines. That also makes me prone to anxiety and depression. I take preventative measures to lessen symptoms (amitryptiline + propanolol). They help, but marijuana is the only thing that keeps migraines away most of the time. You need to actually do the work, and for that you need a long term writing schedule. But to do the GOOD work, you need to represent an accurate array of real human emotions, and develop a keener understanding of people, and of life.
So it’s a balance.
Keep yourself healthy and happy. But also find a way to get rid of brain fog, confusion, depression and anxiety, at least most of the time. Plunged yourself into the depths of human experience a few times a year (weirdly, I can use huperzine A to make myself manic, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch to make myself depressed (and I mean “life has no meaning” / “what’s the point of even getting out of bed” depressed). Luckily I figured this out myself after succumbing to two very unusual bouts of serious depression this year.
I’m lazy and I like food, so I’d rather find pills or supplements, but if nothing is working for you, fix your diet. Start with a clean “meats and veggies only” or a 1 week juice fast if you really want to reset things.
I sometimes also medicate for social reasons (as do most people: go to any conference and everybody wants to hit the bar so they can “be more themselves” and without inhibitions.) Unfortunately drinking makes me sick and stupid (though it does help with confidence and inhibition, as Hemingway famously wrote, “write drunk, edit sober.”) My marijuana self is relaxed and happy. But I might utter nonsensical punchlines and smile at my own amusing jokes. My modafinil self is magnetic, confident, and possibly intimidating. I’m somehow able to speak freely and sound smart while doing it – remembering all sorts of stuff I didn’t know I knew with great ease. Eloquence is just 100mg away. But it also removes my filter so much I can sound like an asshole or be too pushy. A smart asshole, that will leave an impression, but it’s not the real me.
Gabapentin is similar, and makes you more social, but without the “wow I’m smart and charming” effect. Lion’s Mane or nicotine are kind of similar too – for the basic energizing warmth; but I find they leave my thoughts a little cloudy. Psilocybin in low doses, for the record, makes you love everyone and want to stroke their skin with your fingers… so it’s super for certain social interactions but probably not right for conferences. It makes you APPRECIATE people, and you’re much more likely to compliment them or admire their features and be warm and genuine and transparent (all things I’m not good at: my normal self sits in a corner and talks to nobody, even though I want everyone to be my friend).
What did I miss? What helps YOU get more writing done?
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.