Coping with self-doubt during saggy middles

By Tom:

Urgh. I can’t write for shit. And I’m bored of this character. Maybe I should just abandon this lost cause and start on the new idea that’s been keeping me up for the last few nights. That book could really be something; if only I were talented enough to write it.

Self-doubt is normal. In fact, it’s not just normal, it’s healthy. If you get to the point of not worrying whether your prose is good enough, then you’ve probably passed the point at which you care about improving it. However… self-doubt has its shadow side, and that is self-destruction.

Goodbye dreams.

I don’t mean self-destruction in the physical sense (though the literary world has more than its share of substance abusers and suicides), but in the sense of self-sabotage and the undermining of the progress that you’ve made in creating a book. By convincing yourself that it’s worthless – and by extension so are you – you no longer have to confront the dawning fear that finishing it is going to take an awful lot of effort.

There are degrees of this sort of self-sabotage, of course. Some people fall into properly destructive self-loathing, but for others it can be fairly innocuous on the surface of it – simply allowing a draft to peter out unfinished, or deciding to take a break and write something else for a while, or convincing yourself that everyday life needs all your attention just now and you’ll come back to the book when you are feeling more inspired. But whatever the degree, the result is the same: another unfinished book.

A particularly vulnerable time for this sort of stalling is once the original burst of energy that got you started burns out, and you are confronted with writing your way through the difficult middle section of the story just as motivation starts to flag. This is the point where fatigue robs you of energy, boredom robs you of inspiration, and The End is too far distant to stir you into a dash to the finish.

To me, how I respond to this moment is the determining factor in whether I will actually write “The End”, and as a neuroscientist, I’m fascinated by what is going on in my brain when the crux point arrives.

What is fatigue?

Tiredness, proper tiredness due to a lot of activity or inadequate sleep, is a result of cumulative “sleep pressure” driven by a neuromodulator called adenosine, which builds over the course of the day and helps to regulate our normal sleep/wake cycle. Fatigue is actually something slightly different. It’s more to do with struggling to retain attention and the ability to focus. It can be thought of in part as “cognitive strain” – trying to do something that is demanding for too long, and that does, literally, come with a physical cost (increased energy and oxygen consumption, pupil constriction, muscle contraction). Continuing to focus on a task that requires creative thinking, problem solving, detail curation (what colour was John’s hair again?), and sustained psychomotor activity is cognitively demanding. Once inspiration flags, the cognitive strain increases, and fatigue is inevitable.

What is boredom?

Obviously, there is quite a lot of overlap between fatigue and boredom, but I’m going to separate them on the basis that one is linked with exertion, and the other with disinterest. Boredom makes it hard to stick with a task, and there is new evidence that it is an (ironically) active process that stimulates us to switch to a new task. It’s a bit speculative, but the premise of this argument is that continuing to do the same thing for a long period comes with an opportunity cost. If you are still doing one thing, you do not have the opportunity to do another. Looked at in evolutionary terms, continuing to hunt or graze or farm the same territory without exploration comes with the risk of exhausting your local environment and missing out on the fantastically fruitful territory that’s just over the next hill. Boredom will mean a shift from your current mood of satisfaction to one of restlessness and the desire for exploration.

The road goes ever on and on.

What does this have to do with self-doubt, and why do we give up without more of a fight?

Given the features of fatigue and boredom, it is not so surprising that it is hard to stick with a long and demanding task, like writing a book. Basically, our brains are set up to avoid cognitive strain (because it’s hard and energy intensive) and seek novelty (even after a period of fulfilment). And they are good at it. Given a situation in which you are fatigued and bored, your mind will start to rehearse thoughts about why it would be a good idea to stop. These are likely to be more effective if linked to strong emotional triggers, like: you know deep down that you’re not very talented; no-one else would care about these characters; that plot’s boring and maladroit; what’s the point of carrying on with this mess? You never finish anything.

So, your own brain is sabotaging you to avoid mental strain, and encourage you to find something new and pleasurable to do. Like watching Game of Thrones. The very worst part of all this is that your brain has learned that this is a tried and tested strategy to stop you doing something difficult that it is tired of, and every time you do it again, you reinforce the learning. Given that we now live in an environment saturated with addictively-pleasurable stimuli, it is a challenge to resist the urge to give in and give up.

Awareness of these ideas is the first step to breaking the cycle. Realising that the self-doubt is being driven (at least in part) by your fatigued and lazy brain trying to get you to stop doing the demanding stuff and give it a hit of pleasure, helps to keep proper perspective on how worthwhile your writing really is. You believed in the project at the start for good reasons, and they haven’t changed just because you hit the saggy middle. The judgment of a fatigued, distractible brain is not to be trusted.

Like a child, your bored brain needs the right balance of love and discipline to teach it how to behave. Recognizing when you need to rest, when you need a change, and when you need to exert yourself through self-discipline, is crucial to making steady progress. Awareness of the physiological basis of these drives helps enormously in anticipating when and why you will start to flag. Acknowledging that boredom and fatigue are inevitable companions on your journey to The End, is the first step in mastering them. The next step is to plan some strategies for how to cope with their irritating company when they do decide to join you.

More on how to swat those pests in a future post…

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Posted in Inspiration, Motivation.

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