Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.
In part seven of this series based on Sean D. Young’s bestselling book Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life—for Good, we’re taking a look at the final E in SCIENCE, Young’s acronym for those strategies that lead to lasting change: Engrained.
In Chapter 8 of his book, Young shares the incredible journey of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was the subject of an assassination attempt in 2011. The representative was rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound that had gone straight through her brain, and her prognosis upon waking was dire: it was unlikely that she would ever speak again, much less serve out her term in Congress.
But under the care of a rehabilitation team at a Houston hospital, Giffords went through a comprehensive program of repetitive physical, psychological, and speech rehabilitation—and seven months later, she received a standing ovation from Congress for making an appearance on the House floor to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling.
On the three-year anniversary of the shooting, reader, she went sky-diving.
Repetition was the key to Giffords learning how to think, speak, and walk using different parts of her brain—parts that hadn’t been affected by her injury. This is something neuroscientists call plasticity: the ability of the brain to grow new synapses via repetition, and, ultimately, to make new behaviors second nature.
As Young points out, it’s also one of the keys to establishing a new habit.
If you struggle to establish a regular writing practice, this principle may not seem obviously useful at first. After all, isn’t the idea that the way to establish the habit of writing is just, well, to establish the habit of writing?
Yes and no. Because the science behind engrained suggests that there are ways you can make a new practice like writing reach the “second nature” part of your brain sooner, and therefore become a habit that’s actually hard to break.
Here are some ideas about how to apply the brain science behind the principle of engrained to establishing or strengthening a writing practice:
Set a Schedule
If you’re trying to get your writing done around the margins of your regular life, when and if you have the time, you’re setting yourself up to fail. One of the best ways to establish a regular writing practice is to make it part of your regular weekly routine, something that always happens at the same time on the same days (or, if you can manage it, every day).
Stick to It
If you carve out a time in your regular weekly schedule to write and then arrive there and find that you don’t feel like it, remember: The writing doesn’t have to go well. You don’t have to feel inspired. You just have to show up at your desk at this time, every time.
My mother and I are both writers, and early on, we came up with a metaphor for the practice of writing: It’s like going on foot to visit the Muse; sometimes you’ll find her at home, and sometimes you won’t, but if you keep making the journey to her house, you’ll never forget the way there.
If you’re serious about writing, you need to protect the time you’ve set aside to do it. It’s a simple enough thing to state, but difficult to do, especially for those of us with small children and/or demanding day jobs.
But it’s also the truth, not just because writing a book requires a lot of time (and it does!) but also because to make a habit truly engrained—that is, to make it second nature—requires repetition. If you allow outside forces to disrupt your time to write too easily, it will start to feel more like something you do when you can, rather than something you do, period.
Gabrielle Giffords’s story is one of great courage, great will, and great fortitude, on a level that’s surely exceptional for human beings. But it’s also a story about the power of repetition, and the power of human beings to truly grow and change, at any age, and, in the end, accomplish the “impossible.”
Writing a book isn’t an endeavor on par with recovering from brain trauma. But it’s not easy, either—a fact evidenced by the sheer number of people who would like to do so who never do.
If you feel called to be writer, to manifest your voice and vision in the world, and yet have struggled to establish a regular writing practice, it’s my hope that this series, based on the work of Sean D. Young, helps to demystify the process, based on the science of human behavior.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She offers a free masterclass, Fiction As a Force for Change, here.