The writer’s brain unraveled: On writing and thinking

I’ve been reading a lot of writing by writers lately. Most recently, I enjoyed a post by a prolific blogger and Twitter-er, Chris Brogan, called “Cultivating a Writing Habit” and I chased that shot with an equally inspiring elixir — a post by my friend Beth about Creative Writing Under Pressure
Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s all writers in general, but there’s something about the process of writing that I find fascinating. Thinking about writing leads to thinking about thinking. And when others talk about writing — about their own personal writing habits and rituals — I learn a little something about how they work and how their brains work.
Chris Brogan’s brain does not work like mine. He can apparently sit down at any moment, rip open an ink-filled vein, and let words spill all over the pages without feeling a lot of pain.
Beth’s brain works a lot like mine. It’s kind of like a cat. If I want to have a good experience writing, I have to convince my brain that it is writing because it wants to write. You can’t force a brain like mine into doing any writing that it doesn’t want to do and expect anything less than a painful outcome. And who wants to write when the fur is flying and the claws are out?
Beth’s blog explores some of the ways that she prods, cajoles, tricks, and negotiates with her cat-writer brain. She does other things and waits for the ideas to come to her. Make no mistake, that girl can write on a deadline, all right — I saw her do it plenty of times in college. But that kind of writing just isn’t the same as the kind of writing that comes from a brain that tells you it wants to write.
I am the same way. I wait for the ideas to fall from the heavens and spend afternoons chasing after them with a butterfly net. I usually catch enough to start most any assignment. But when I’m forced to write and I have little inspiration, I turn to reading to jump-start my brain.
Chris Brogan and I are alike in that way. He loves to read. And he is absolutely right that great writers are even better readers. I especially love to read writing by writers for writers.
Good writing is a relief to read. Great writing is fun to read. But brilliant writing — poetry and prose for true logophiles – that sings to a different part of my soul. I’m talking about writing like you’ll find in Catch-22, a book so loaded with irony that it spills right over into the sentence structure.
One of my favorite writers is William H. Gass. His essays are not for the faint of heart. They are intellectual beefsteaks – chewy, delicious, time consuming and worth the effort.  I stumbled across his writing in Harper’s, where I read his essay “In Defense of the Book: On the Enduring Pleasures of Paper, Type, Page, and Ink” and nearly wept with joy at the exercise (indeed, folks like Stephen Schenkenberg have rightfully credited Gass with turning reading into an aerobic activity).
After reading that essay, I marched right out and bought his book “Tests of Time,” a collection of essays that, for me, are roller coaster-ride thrilling to read — better, actually, because the ride lasts a lot longer, and there’s no line to wait in if you want to read the ride again. When I’m in the middle of one of his essays, I can’t help but marvel at his skill. I also can’t help but think, “My God, how does this man’s brain work?”
I’ve often wondered about his career as a writer. Did William H. Gass perform well under pressure? Did he relish the fast pace of a deadline-driven world, or did he prefer the more organic approach like my friend Beth and I do? Or, did it matter either way?
In my other life as a professionally trained, practicing journalist (in the early 90s) I performed well under pressure. I could negotiate deadlines with ease (I was late in every other area of my life, but I got my copy in on time, most of the time). I eventually discovered my limitations. I discovered the point at which the pressure and stress of a job could be too great – and it would affect the end-product of my writing.
I was a speechwriter for Laura Bush and I worked for the White House on 9-11. An already stressful job became enormously difficult in the aftermath. I was shell-shocked and probably suffered from PTSD for some time after that (remember D.C. had the anthrax scare and the snipers around that same time).
In the midst of all that chaos and terror, I had a difficult time crunching data, processing complex ideas, remembering details, and producing thoughtful, clear, original speeches. Working under such pressure had a profound impact on my writing ability and productivity. Writing a speech was like giving birth – agonizing, painful and ultimately exhausting.
I remember one particularly bad day I was researching a speech, and I was looking at a page of printed type when I realized that I had lost the ability to read. I knew that there were words on the page, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant. I was literally dumbfounded. I got up and left my office. 
I rarely left my desk when I was working on a speech, but that wasn’t by choice. There were too many demands that kept me in my chair, on the phone, or at the computer, and I could rarely get away and find a peaceful place to think and write. Usually a short break would give me just enough energy to finish a job. But that day I just shut down. I had to go home and rest for a few hours before I could read and write again.
It took several years to mentally unwind after I left the White House. Whenever I was presented with an important or complex writing job, I had to slog through it — coaxing, cajoling, tricking, and finally flat-out forcing my brain to think, think, think. I wasn’t pleased with any of my work. It was adequate but not inspired.
Writing – the one thing that I loved most in life; the thing that had been therapeutic and inspiring since childhood – drained me. My brain was empty and silent. I wasn’t sure if I would recover that joy again, but I did, thank God. The internal dialogue came back, one word at a time. I found inspiration in reading. In writing poetry. In writing for myself instead of someone else. In not forcing it, but allowing it to rain down on me. The old cliche is true. Time does heal most wounds.
The brain is a fascinating thing that we are only now beginning to peel apart and understand. From what I’ve gathered over years of reading about early childhood cognitive development, psychology, and current research about the brain, in some patients with PTSD or depression, the amygdala (the “fight or flight” center of the brain) often usurps the

hippocampus — the amygdala’s next-door neighbor that controls learning and recall (memory). It essentially dampens the sort of creativity we need to develop unique ideas and write beautiful sentences.

Yet the amygdala is also responsible for what’s called “fear” learning
(coping skills, reactions and/or responses to danger). So, on the one hand, stress and fear inhibit cognition but might promote a specific kind of creativity: e.g. problem-solving skills necessary to save a life or preserve a species. Does that mean writing on a deadline triggers fear-based cognition, and pleasure writing is an entirely different cognitive process?
For that answer I turned to someone I recently discovered on Twitter, Dr. Ellen F. Weber. Dr. Weber is CEO and President of MITA International Brain Based Center for Renewal in Secondary and Higher Education, and an author, lecturer and columnist. She said, essentially, that “Stress shuts down learning, lowers (immunity), blocks growth, limits creativity and adds the toxic chemical cortisol (to the brain equation). Relaxed writing generates serotonin, fosters curiosity, draws from multiple intelligences, and grows brain cells for solutions.”
I’m fascinated about studies that explore how the stress, fear and rage responses impact creativity, learning and memory in people with depression, anxiety disorder, or PTSD (patients who are assumed to have hyper-sensitive fear or rage responses as a result of some past or recent trauma).
For example, a recent study in Michigan is exploring the effects of cannabinoids on the brain (as in cannabis – marijuana – THC). I learned that the part of the brain with the greatest number of cannabinoid receptors is the amygdala (fight or flight center).  I also learned that our bodies actually make a version of this substance – called, appropriately, endocannabinoids. Who knew that the human body was capable of producing its own brand of THC.
Funny, yes, but think of the implications and contradictions. On the one hand, people with depression or PTSD have trouble remembering things and/or processing complex data. In those patients, brain scans reveal overactive amygdalas that are often deteriorating — possibly due to the toxins produced from stress (like cortisol). On the other hand, potheads have trouble remembering things or processing complex data too. But what happens if you give stressed, anxious or depressed patients cannabinoids? Early research seems to suggest that they might just relax and think things through.
Wait a second.
Most research seems to show that THC has a detrimental impact on memory function. But if those same substances have been shown to dampen the emotional responses that interfere with learning and memory, then is it hypothesized that cannibinoids have potential benefits in patients with PTSD/anxiety disorder — and might somehow actually help promote learning and memory? Is this the scientific equivalent of writing on Beth’s deadlines versus Charlie’s vacuum-the-house-generated prose?
I’d like to see brain scans of writers writing under the following conditions: on deadline, with someone screaming at them, after cleaning house or driving a car or other idea-generating activities, after jogging and after being given THC.
Could we see the actual changes in cognition? What parts of the brain would light up or turn off? What could we learn from this sort of study? And how would that impact the blogosphere and newsrooms across America?  
Wouldn’t you just love to peer inside the brains of your favorite writers and see not only what makes them tick, but also how they tick?
Any volunteers?


  1. The reason why Chris Brogan is a bad analogy to your writing is he would never (at least to my understanding) write in a brainstorming ink-to-paper sort of way as you.

    I dream like that.

  2. Here’s the story about extracting images from the brain:

    Great point about stimulants calming down people with ADD.

  3. To answer your closing question, I'd much rather know WHY certain writers apply their writing ability in the ways they do. Not referring, necessarily, to those you mentioned.

    Such magnificent positive changes could be made throughout the world, in awesome ways, if they'd apply their abilities to living those changes & creating a desire for those changes in others.

  4. Fascinating stuff. The use of cannabinoids to make stressed-out people think clearly reminds me of Ritalin, a stimulant that makes folks with ADHD calm down.

    A big part of “writing under stress” is the delicious adrenalin surge. Plenty of us look for ways to create that energized feeling – from a runner’s high or eating hot peppers to procrastinating, always arriving late or depriving ourselves of food until our body’s survival responses kick in. Or we consume external stimulants to get the same effect, especially caffeine and nicotine, as Stiennon notes of Mark Twain.

    Charlie, where did you find this thing about scientists projecting images from people’s brains? A few years ago they were having a hell of a time projecting images TO the brain through artificial eyes.

  5. Thanks for this post Charlie Fern. Personally, I hate reading. For two reasons 1) I fear that I’ll inadvertently pick up on a style of writer I admire, and B) I have no patience for it. The latter I attribute to self-diagnosed ADD or whatever fancy word they call for short-attention span these days. The former, to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plus, it’s so humbling to read great work. To do concept writing for a living, you’ve got to have a bit of a swagger. I do tend to go back to the classics for certain things though. Such as how rhythm plays a part in the way people ‘read’ or ‘self-dialogue’ things (for memorability) as well as how to communicate ideas clearly and in as few as words as possible. Regarding how I deal with deadlines and stress, I combine nicotine with thc and caffeine and it works out fine.

    Again, thanks for this post.

  6. It is a bit daunting commenting on such a well written post and chiming in with more praise. Thank you so much for an enlightening and invigorating piece!

    Speaking of the brain and writing have you ever read the statement of Samuel Clemens on the effects of cigar smoking on his writing? From a letter he wrote in 1882:

    “But by and by I sat down with a contract behind me to write a book of five or six hundred pages—the book called “Roughing it”— and then I found myself most seriously obstructed. I was three weeks writing six chapters. Then I gave up the fight, resumed my three hundred cigars, burned the six chapters, and wrote the book in three months, without any bother or difficulty.”

    I am fascinated by this story and have found the effects of nicotine on my own writing ability to be equally positive. And what picture of a prolific writer of old does not include a cigarette, pipe, or cigar? Think Churchill.

    Thanks for the links, I am off to explore them!

  7. Dr. Weber is right on many levels. As far as training to write for audiences, when I was in elementary school, I created my own club and newsletter. I was writing like a journalist by 4th grade.

    I also spent a lot of time writing to very targeted audiences. I wrote notes to friends during class (akin to the “friend in a coffee shop” analogy). I was a prolific note-writer in high school and college. I constantly thought of what I wrote in terms of my audience – the friend whose name was at the top of the page. Most often the goal was to get that friend to laugh out loud in class, and I got pretty good at it. I used to say that some of my best comedic material was in someone else’s mailbox (or shoebox).

    Without realizing it, I trained myself to use that tactic – pretending I was talking to a friend – to get through writer’s block or to find my voice for the columns I wrote as a lifestyles editor for the Galveston Daily News, and later as news editor and managing editor of the Vista Press in San Diego, California.

    Through that practice, I developed a conversational writing voice that served me well the first time I was asked to write a speech. These days I can turn that voice on and off with less effort. These days a lot of my work is a stenographer’s – a recording of the voice inside my head (the self-talk most folks experience while driving, exercising or cleaning house). I talk to myself all day long – often out loud!

    Speechwriters read their writing out loud to test words and sentences, because speechwriting is writing for the ear versus writing for the eyes. Reading my writing out loud for 13 years led to the habit of muttering to myself that gets better (or worse) with each passing year.

    The writing process is a fascinating subject – and what a great group of people weighing in on it! Thank you all for your comments.

  8. Ah, Charlie… you’ve managed to turn one simple concept into a beautiful, fact-filled essay, worthy of publication in any national magazine that has never sported a celebrity baby bump on the cover. Bravo. Sincerely.

    It’s interesting you bring up mental ailments as they relate to creativity and writing. Lately I’ve found much comfort in the fact that many of the most creative and intelligent souls in the universe (Hemingway, Dickinsen, Mozart) were loony but gifted, and people like researcher Kay Redfield Jamison postulate that mental illness and creativity are related (see ).

    “Men have called me mad,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe, “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence–whether much that is glorious–whether all that is profound–does not spring from disease of thought–from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”

    I’ve given up on what others define as sane, and I’m happier and more successful than I’ve ever been. More productive? Probably not. I’m still chasing the good ideas with butterfly nets. But since I’ve been at this writing thing so long, crazy or not, I have confidence the ideas will come and the words will flow.

  9. Hi Charlie, you certainly had adventures with writing when you enjoyed it most. How might you make your writing into and adventure no matter what your topic?

    Ellen Weber actually helped me get underway as a writer. At that point my writing was rather parochial and dull. Two amazing things truly helped me lift it up a notch. She said, “Pretend you are talking to a friend in a coffee shop and write that way on your topic.” The second intriguing point – is that Ellen says she “writes to know.” As she writes she gains new understandings. Does that happen for you as well?

    You have a very amazing career and it’s great to see you enter Social Media. All the best!

  10. Wow – Charlie thanks for the way you tackle the writing process from the position of the human brain. Thanks also for the link!

    What people call “writing under stress,” is sometimes more of an adrenalin surge, than the more toxic cortisol chemical. So while it appears others write under stress, their best writing too, tends to wait in the wings for a better suited adrenalin:-)

    Key is to know how to generate ideal chemicals as a person writes, and from the brilliant insights evident on your site – I’d say you must be already there:-)

    About looking into the mind of writers? That ability may be here sooner than we think, because researchers can now extract and observe images directly from the brain to project people’s thoughts! Imagine a person reading your most dynamite headline story while it’s still processing in your mind, and then racing the piece to press before you even write it:-)Yikes!

    Cutting edge brain tools will be fun and scary at the same time, so I’m happy to merely question top writers for a tip or two:-) It’s why I’ll be back here soon too. Thanks Charlie!