Hacking Your Brain: How to Embrace the Mess of Your Creative Process

by Catherine Bakewell and Trisha Kelly

Hey everyone! I’m thrilled to have contributed to my good friend and fellow writer Catherine Bakewell‘s blog, and she was kind enough to allow me to cross-post it here! Read on for our thoughts on ways to hack your creative process to make it work for you. Working with yourself instead of beating yourself up for not performing a certain way “everyone else” does is the best advice I’ve ever heard regarding creative work. Cheers! -Trisha

Hacking Your Creative Rhythm — Thoughts by Catherine Bakewell

I’ve become an advocate for what I call “hacking your brain.” 

Instead of shaming yourself for only being a productive writer at night, or not being able to work in a loud room, or needing to take a break to watch TV; instead of calling those things bad and worrying about what your creative process should look like, I think like this: 

Embrace your creative rhythm and use it to your advantage. 

Take a moment to think about what your creative rhythm looks like. 

No, not what it SHOULD look like, but what it DOES look like. Maybe you write best in short bursts. Maybe you can only work on your book one day a week. Maybe you need a whole day carved out to write. Maybe you’re most active from 2-4 PM (like me). 

If you don’t think you’ve found your rhythm just yet, that could be a reason behind your writer’s block, your imposter syndrome, or your procrastination. 

Remember–what works for one person may not work for you. And what works for you for Project A maybe doesn’t work for Project B! Be flexible, be kind to yourself, and be willing to change up your routine!

The following are some new habits that you can try. See if they work for you, if they feel good, if you’re writing a lot, if you’re happy with what you’re writing… and if not, that’s okay. You can ditch one method and then try out another one. There is no right way to be a writer.

Try these: 

Habit trackers. I fill in a bubble for every 1k I write. And this really works for me! I feel so accomplished and proud when a page slowly gets filled and I can see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve written. Below are two of the habit trackers I’ve made for projects…

Word Count Bub
Look at Cat’s beautiful word count trackers, above and below! She’s amazing! -Trisha
Word Coutnm Chand

—Immersion. Maybe to write your project, you need music, ambient sounds, or even a scented candle (to match your book, perhaps?) to help get you in the writing zone. I put images or aesthetics in my document so I can “look” at my characters’ faces while I’m writing.

Try writing by hand or by dictation! If typing on your laptop is your default, maybe you’ll work better by changing up your writing routine.

—Write with a partner. Having an accountability buddy, in person or online, can really make a difference and help you get your butt in the chair and write! It’s also super helpful if you suddenly find yourself stuck mid-scene. You can lean over and just brainstorm with your friend!

Write in sprints. Set a timer for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. You can do NOTHING but write for just those few minutes. It’s short enough of a time that you can dedicate to writing, and you put pressure on yourself to get words on the page to beat the clock. I do even better in sprints if I’m competing against another writer, or mark down or post my word count somewhere. 

—Don’t look back. This method has been extremely helpful to me with the book I’ve been drafting lately. Basically, I accept that I will make mistakes in my first draft; that there are bits that probably aren’t very good. Instead of wallowing over this or hemming and hawing over parts to fix, I leave a comment for myself in the document with my complaint and just keep writing. Sometimes I also leave [brackets] if I need to come back to a scene and add something. For example, a lot of my characters are Mr. [Last Name], and a lot of scenes have [poetic description] for me to come back to later!

On Refilling Your Creative Well — Thoughts by Trisha Kelly

Hi everyone! So yeah, as Cat says, learning to work with your process instead of against it is something that has helped me so much. As Cat knows, my writing process has a lot of ups and downs, but through a series of different tricks, productive procrastination, and being kind to myself, I’ve become a happier and more productive writer, generally speaking. I’ll start with the tips, talk a bit about productive procrastination (or, how I binge-watched Gossip Girl this past summer and it worked out great for my writing) and wrap up with how I’m handling the ups and downs of my mental health along with writing. 

Writing Tricks:

I need three things to get started with a project: A playlist to listen to while I draft, a Pinterest board full of character references and other inspirational quotes and images, and a very thorough outline. Like Cat mentions with “immersion,” I definitely need to be in the right headspace to draft. Seeing images of my characters and listening to their songs helps me get into the right mood–and stay there. With outlining, I like to set a target word count and break the story down into acts. Then I figure out the main points–inciting incident, midpoint, the beginning and ending–and fill it in, chapter by chapter, until I have a complete road map. Some people need that discovery in drafting, but if I don’t know what I’m writing each day, I get stuck fast. 

I also utilize writing sprints, like Cat suggests above! I write in 20-30 minute sprints and keep track of how much I write each time. The pressure of the clock helps me get words down, and seeing my word count go up so steadily in short periods of time is very motivating! 

Productive Procrastination: 

This summer I watched Gossip Girl for the first time. It was after I’d decided to write a YA contemporary–and was supposed to be drafting it. But GG hooked me in, and for a couple of weeks, I couldn’t focus on anything else. I was annoyed with myself for being unable to write…and even when I finished GG, for being stuck with my draft. What I didn’t know at the time was that GG was actually helping my subconscious making this book idea better. I re-wrote my outline with the mood and glamor of GG in mind, and now, several months after getting the initial idea, I’m finally ready to draft it. Sometimes your brain needs that break–and your writing well needs to refill. Watching television and movies, reading books (of course!), playing video games, consuming art in other ways or making other forms of art… all of this can help you get ready for your next project. Instead of getting mad at yourself for your apparent lack of progress, recognize that your brain is getting the rest and inspiration recharge it needs! When you feel ready to draft, you’ll have the right story in mind, and I’ll bet it’ll go faster as well. 

Work with your Mental Health: 

Full disclosure, I have anxiety and depression, and I take medication for it as well as go to therapy. Despite this, I’m recognizing that over the course of the month, my mental health goes through ups and downs. For example, around my period, I can’t really work on my writing. I’m negative about everything and don’t really have the energy–and those days are perfect for consuming media for inspiration and resting my brain, so on the days I feel good, I can write more. I also tend to have a lot of indecision wrapped up in my writing process–I won’t be certain I actually want to write what I’m working on, or have issues with my plot or characters. In cases like that, it’s helpful to have friends to work things out with! Cat has helped me through a lot of mini-freakouts AND helped make my writing even better. I’m so grateful to her! If you can, find a writing buddy you can be totally real with. 

Overall, the best advice I have is to be kind to yourself and recognize your process. Mine is still evolving and I’m sure I’ll continue to stress over my writing, find new coping strategies, end up in Cat’s DMs… but I’m still making progress on my work, which is the main thing. Whatever you’re writing, try to be conscious of how you’re doing it and how you can improve. The ability to grow and change is, by and large, the most important thing when it comes to writing.

Catherine: I love Trisha’s philosophy of being kind to yourself. As artists, we place such high expectations on ourselves. But we aren’t book-writing machines. Although we are capable and creative and talented, we also need to allow for ourselves to mess up, to need breaks, and for our productivity to have highs and lows. 

Pay attention to yourself and your writing habits, and overall, forgive and be patient with yourself. Writing is a hard business and a hard art. But you’ll learn so much about self-care and self-love through this process. 

And as Trisha said, above all, don’t go at this alone. Author Mentor Match will be hosting a Critique Partner match-up on October 24, and while the goal of that is to find someone who can help you hone your novel (and you theirs), hopefully, your CP will become a lifelong friend and supporter through the ups and downs of writing.

Trisha: I second Author Mentor Match! Twitter meet-ups are wonderful ways to connect with other writers. And if you try any of these techniques, let us know! Comment below or drop a line on Twitter.

More about Catherine:

Catherine Bakewell Headshot
Photo by All Things Simple Photography

Catherine Bakewell is a writer, artist, freelance editor and translator, and an opera enthusiast. She’s lived in Spain and in France, where she romped through gardens, ate pastries, and worked on her novels.

She is represented by Devin Ross at New Leaf Literary and Media, Inc.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact her at catherinebakewell@gmail.com. You can find her on Twitter here.

2 thoughts on “Hacking Your Brain: How to Embrace the Mess of Your Creative Process

  1. Heyy! Just came across this and it rid me of my guilt for being unable to write and post regularly on my blogpost! This was so insightful. Thank you so much! I’m going to try a
    habit tracker for sure!


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