Motivation is a Mechanism in your Brain

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone weasel their way out of the creative life by saying they don’t “feel inspired,” I could quit my day job. Others will go days, weeks, or even months without picking up their pencil to work on a new drawing.

If you are comfortable with this lack of production, that’s entirely acceptable. For most, there is no moral imperative to keep creating artwork. We often place unrealistic stress on ourselves to “produce,” and the goal of this blog post is certainly not to shame others for their lack of consistency.

But at times, most of us find that we do wish we were more motivated. We hem and haw and wait for the moment that inspiration will strike. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation.

Most people think that the chain of events that leads to the accomplishment of something goes like this:

Motivation>Task>Task>Task>Completion

Since the first domino never falls, they don’t begin their first task, and they make no headway in their creative life.

We tend to think of motivation as an abstract concept, like that of the Muse. In reality, we can easily dupe our brain into providing “motivation” through simple physiology.

The neurotransmitter most associated with motivation in the brain is dopamine. Simply put, when your brain needs to get things done, signaling of dopamine occurs, and you feel the compulsion to complete a task. This is why people all across the world guzzle coffee each morning, desperately trying to tap into this physiological reaction in the brain.

Endogenous dopamine, (that is, dopamine naturally occurring in the brain,) can actually be utilized in a much simpler way. Numerous studies have shown that ticking a task off your To-Do List, no matter how simple or trivial, activates this neurotransmitter.

In much the same way that strength-training tells your brain that it needs to grow more muscle, completing a task tells your brain that you’ll need more dopamine.

So, in actuality, the chain of events that leads to productivity goes like this:

Task>Motivation>Task>Motivation>Task>Completion

Have you ever wondered why on some days, you’ll get into a rhythm and clean your whole house in a whirlwind, while on other days, you can barely muster up the strength to do anything but watch TV on your couch?

This is why.

It’s the same rationale that leads countless self-help experts to advise people to start their day with the simple act of making their bed. These “gurus” know that by accomplishing one menial task, you’re cascading a series of events in your brain that will likely lead to the completion of many more.

So, what’s the secret? An incredibly simple one: any time you’re feeling unmotivated, complete one miniscule task, and give yourself permission for that to be the end of it. Tell yourself, “I’ll just sharpen my pencils to prepare them for the next time I’m ready to draw,” or “I’ll open up my Word Processor and just jot down three ideas for a short story.”

Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through drawing or writing your next masterpiece.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Poorly

(by Daniel R. Jones)

A shop-worn adage you’ve probably heard countless times states “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”

But recently, I came across a counterintuitive twist on the aphorism: 

“Anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing poorly.”

The application on this iteration is a little more difficult to parse out. Why would you want to do something poorly? 

Well, you wouldn’t. But that’s exactly the point.

Consider the following scenario: you accidentally snooze past your 6 a.m. alarm. You look at the clock and it’s 6:45 a.m. You’d planned on running a mile and getting some weight training in. But because you’ve overslept, you only have 45 minutes before you need to hop in the shower, not the hour and a half you’d allocated for working out.

“Forget it,” you think. “Even if I started now, I wouldn’t be able to get a full workout in. I’ll just sleep a little longer and pick it back up tomorrow.”

But if working out is worth doing, it’s worth doing it poorly. Which is to say, if you can’t go on a mile run and a one-hour weightlifting session, it’s still better to do some HIIT exercises for 15 minutes and lift weights for half an hour. Beats doing nothing, right? Better to do something poorly than not at all.

And yet, we constantly go to war with ourselves, allowing our self-defeating tendencies to win out:

-You had a donut in the break room, so the diet starts tomorrow.
-You broke down and bummed a cigarette after swearing you’d quit, so this whole day is a wash.
-You’ve only got 15-minutes to work on that foreign language you’re studying, so what’s the point?

What if, in every area, we took to heart the adage that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly?”

I believe that artists, a group who have a proclivity toward perfectionism, are among those who would best be served by taking this advice. 

You’ve got an idea for a painting, but you’re worried your lack of technical mastery will overshadow your artistic vision. Oh well, paint it poorly.

You enjoy writing, but you don’t think you can write the Great American Novel just yet. Too bad. Start anyway.  

You love the idea of playing guitar, but you’re middle-aged so you’d be very behindNo excuses; take the lessons.

At the end of the day, the only way toward mastery of anything is to begin. Once you start, you’ll likely do things poorly for a while. But anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, so get to work.

Five Quick Tips to Beat Writer’s Block

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I’m convinced every living writer has at least one shared experience: staring at a blinking cursor on a word processor, entirely unsure of how to proceed. And although writer’s block might be the plight of every wordsmith, there are a few tips and tricks that help to keep it at bay. Here are five techniques I’ve recently put into practice to stop procrastinating and start writing:

1. Practice Mindfulness Meditation to eliminate “White-Room Syndrome”

White-Room Syndrome occurs when you haven’t added enough sensory detail to help your reader adequately imagine a scene’s setting. Instead, it gives off the impression that all the action and dialogue is occurring in a “white room.” It’s important to note that in terms of description, quality beats quantity. You don’t need to pad your chapter with blocky purple prose and lush description. Instead, your description should match the content of your book. Consider, for instance, the sparse, austere description employed in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In such a novel, a Tolkien-esque description of flora and fauna would hardly be appropriate.

In order to combat white-room syndrome, writers can utilize a pretty simple trick. Prior to writing, immerse yourself in a 15-minute mindfulness-meditation session. When you’ve tuned your brain to soak up all sensory input, you’ll be better able to draw on your five senses and write compelling settings. This can be easily coupled with the next exercise, which is to… 

2. Shower, as it’s a Poor Man’s Sensory Deprivation Tank

Have you ever noticed you strike upon some of your best ideas while in the shower? Did you ever stop to wonder why that is? The concept here is simple. The shower acts as a sort of poor man’s sensory deprivation tank, drawing out your inner-thoughts more easily. While showering, your eyes are typically shut (or at least they have access to the unexciting images of a tiled wall,) your tactile senses are stimulated by the hypnotic drizzle spouting from your showerhead, and the running water creates a steady white-noise that drowns out conversations or the television in the other room.  

The net effect of being in a shower is that you’re keeping all of your senses busy with a static input. This allows you to focus inward, and can greatly improve your creative powers. When you’ve turned down the dial on all of your senses, so to speak, the volume of your mind is turned up and your brain can go out and play.

3. Create “Stand-ins” for Characters

If you’ve got a great concept for a scene, but you haven’t yet fleshed out your characters, an easy way to commit that scene to paper is by using a “character stand-in.” Get a rough approximation of the type of person your character is, and then substitute the closest analogue you can find from fiction. You can always go back and add nuance later.

Need an unflappable leader who eschews the rules for your suspense thriller? Pretend Captain Kirk from Star Trek is facing the same problems as your main character, and make him react accordingly. Do you want the protagonist of your Rom-Com to be a man who uses humor as a defense mechanism? Write the first chapter from the perspective of Chandler Bing from Friends.  You get the idea.

4. Use Word Association (with music)

Simple word association has been a staple in my writing arsenal for years. If I am truly at a loss as to where to begin writing, I put on some music, pace around, and let my brain off its leash. You can do this by either latching on to a lyric and “giving the horse its head” when it comes to your thoughts, or you can literally sit in front of a word-processor and type in stream-of-consciousness everything that comes into your brain. Personally, I find that physical movement helps loosen up my thought patterns, but your mileage may vary.

5. Try Word Sprints

This is an idea that first appeared to me in 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox. As the name of said book implies, Chris’ creative output is astronomical. The idea here is simple: you set a timer, sit down to write, and don’t allow yourself to stop or become distracted until after the alarm has sounded. This exercise is absolutely a numbers game: by measuring how many words you write, you can set lofty goals as you gradually increase your word-count. In his book, Chris delves into alternative methods to up the ante, such as using dictation softwarebut these are optional.

Book Officially Released! 10 Reasons You Should Buy It

IT’S HERE!

You can buy my poetry collection for less than 8 bucks on the publisher’s website! If you’d like to purchase it directly from the publisher, head this way: https://wipfandstock.com/the-wrenching-of-the-hip-that…

If you’d rather purchase from Amazon, feel free to follow this link.

10 Reasons you should buy my book:

1.) You love books of poems that have a mix of light verse, fixed form, free verse, prose poems, ruminations on the tedium of everyday life, and spirituality.

2.) You are worried about the decline of physical books as a medium.

3.) You promised you would buy a book if I ever got it published. No take-backs.

4.) You vaguely knew me in high school and you want to see if there are any oblique references to you.

5.) You’re actually my mom, or directly related to me. You’re basically obligated, in this instance.

6.) You recently read a think piece that guilted you into supporting small-time artists, especially during COVID-19.

7.) You’re concerned you will run into me in person and I will ask if you bought it and it’ll get awkward.

8.) You think you can get away with running into me once and saying “I’ve been meaning to!” But after reading #7, you realized you’re likely to run into me twice, and on the second run-in, it really could get weird.

9.) Literally, pity. You keep imagining me clicking “refresh” and venting to my wife about how I expected SOMEONE would buy it.

10.) You like to support your friends’ endeavors, and you appreciate that I’ve never messaged you to “catch up,” only to sling Young Living, Herbalife, Primerica, etc. at you.

(I recognize that if you sell any of the above MLM products, you probably no longer want to buy my book. That’s okay. You’re absolved.)

In other news…

I’ve decided to break down and start an “Author Page” on Facebook and Amazon. This will help me to better send out new information related to my writing without inundating people on my personal page who might be less than interested. It would mean a great deal to me if you “liked” and “followed” my Facebook Author Page and my Amazon Author Page today!

The two types of writers: Writing vs. Written

Dorothy Parker famously quipped, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

While I adore the Queen of Wit, her and I part ways on this subject. 

So often, in the literati parlance, you hear the same sorts of adages. People down through the ages have echoed the same mentality. Some famous examples to illustrate the point are as follows:

“I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am.” – Jane Austen

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.” – Gustave Flaubert

A large quantity of writers throughout the years have seemed to prefer “having written” to writing. On the surface, it’s pretty easy to understand why. There’s nothing quite as dopamine-inducing as looking down at a completed manuscript and knowing that it only exists as a fruit of your labor.

Still, I can’t quite agree with the sentiment.

For me, the writing–the actual act of putting pen to paper or clicking the keys with my fingertips approaches sacramental. Perhaps you can chalk it up to my affinity for poetry, but I actually prefer the “main event” to the moment when I can throw my pencil down with a sigh.

At the risk of sounding reductive, I think there’s a fairly black-and-white distinction to be made between two types of writers. Much like you can supposedly divide novelists into the two groups “plotters” or “pantsers,” I think you can divide writers by those who enjoy the writing and those who enjoy “having written.” 

You can think of the writing/written binary as Apollonian vs. Dionysian. 

The Apollonian writers enjoy having written. The process is but a means to the end. What really counts is having the ink dry. Each of the quotations above illustrates this point of view.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with Apollonian writers! I, too, love checking boxes and hitting deadlines. With that said, I think there’s another (perhaps rarer) type of writer that doesn’t fit this schematic.

The Dionysian writer revels in the process. The actual intoxicating act of thinking up new ideas is where it’s at for this type. The writing is as important or more important than the finished product. I believe myself to be among these types.

Here are a few quotations from the greats that serve as a sort of “counterweight” to the aforementioned “Apollonian” writers:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anais Nin

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” – Anne Frank

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.” –Leonard Cohen

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

What about you? Do you think that this division of writer-types is valid? If so, which do you count yourself among?

Why I write (Creative Nonfiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Every human is born with a mind-palace.

Well-kept, clean-swept, fastidiously organized. When it comes time to retrieve an idea, they walk through hallways of doors, each arranged in some methodical alpha-numeric sequence. Upon reaching the right room, they scan metal cabinets, open the drawer they need, thumb through the file-folders until they find the words they wish to write. In this way, they always have the right words to say.

When I was born, the doctors stood in semi-circle, confused by the CT scan that hung on the wall. Where my mind palace should’ve been, there was nothing to see.

Mine had sunk to somewhere deeper in the brain; somewhere less stable- the amygdala.

And what should’ve been a palace was instead a thicket of trees.

So, when I’m tasked with finding the words to say, I take to the trees without so much as a map to guide me. I amble around through thistles and brambles, looking for a sugar maple that I can tap.

The words don’t come gushing forth all at once. Rather, it’s a drip, drip, drip, slow as…well, molasses, as the thoughts freeze and thaw. It is not at all consistent.

After some four, maybe five months, my pail is filled.

I hack down the selfsame sap-producing maples and feed them to the fire, boiling buckets of sap over the open flame.

This converts thought-sap to syrup at a ratio of 40 gallons to 1.

After the foraging through the thorns and the cuts on my arms and the rips through my sleeves;

after the poison oak spreads and there’s a hitch in my step from the long hike and axe-wielding;

after the woods around me have been reduced to smoldering embers just to produce this:

I hold in my hands, my sticky, resin-stained hands, a piece of conscious concentrate: something that can be so essentially saccharine and sappy that it ceases to be so.

Bearing little semblance to sap, it becomes something else altogether.

Then, having drunk deep of this syrup, I pick up spade and seedling, knowing the next batch won’t be ready for another 50 years.

I write because words are the labor, and the reward.
because in the Scriptures, God Himself identifies as “the Word.”
Because words are both the mystery and the revelation.

Don’t phone it in

Students of history may be familiar with the famous (or perhaps, infamous) perfectionism of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Politics aside, there is an illustrative story of his uncompromising standards during the late sixties:

Winston Lord, the Ambassador to China at the time, was tasked with writing a speech for Kissinger. Kissinger, a gifted speechwriter himself, had exacting standards for those who served under him.

The story is told that Winston Lord brought the first draft of the speech to Kissinger one evening for his feedback and approval. The next morning, Kissinger called him back and asked, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord thought it over. He thought he’d done his best. He answered, “I’ll try again.”

A second time, he tinkered with his speech and brought it back to him after a few days had passed. And again, Kissinger asked him, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord was shaken up, but stated he could do better.

The process continued for eight drafts. Each time, Kissinger resolutely asked, “Is this the best you can do?” After the ninth draft, Lord finally responded, indignantly, “I know it’s the best I can do! Not a word can be improved upon!”

Henry Kissinger looked on Winston Lord and replied, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”


Maybe this story made you smile. Or maybe it made you cringe at the unrelenting perfectionism showed by Kissinger. In any event, I believe there’s a takeaway for each of us, as artists, from this anecdote.

They say that artists are perfectionists by nature. I didn’t get that gene.

The first time I read this story, I felt a sort of conviction related to my writing. True, I’m not delivering important, policy-shaping speeches to heads of state…but how often do I just “phone it in” when I’m working on a new piece of writing? If I’m being honest with myself, it happens more often than I’d like.

Steven Pressfield makes a great case for rugged self-discipline when it comes to writing in his book The War of Art. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, I highly recommend it to start winning “your inner creative battles,” as he puts it.

That book (and this post) is not for everyone. Some writers edit and revise their pieces to ribbons. Some artists trash their seventeenth version of a painting before tearing their hair out. But if you’re like me and you sometimes struggle to “give it your all,” I hope this blogpost acts as the kick in the pants that you need.

The Brash Editor (Poem)

[Note: This poem originally ran in the literary journal Parody Poetry on Oct. 31, 2016]

(by Daniel R. Jones)

With apologies to William Carlos Williams.

so much depends
upon

a brash, portly
editor

and whether he’s
eaten

before he reads my
poem.

Namaste: To Err is Human (creative non-fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I feel guilty calling their posture “impish,” but in several mythologies imps carry transcendent, supernatural knowledge, so maybe it isn’t such an insult?

There were six or so of the women, tiny and ancient, crouching outside our apartment on the daily, sucking down scented smoke and blowing rings that would put to shame the pool-hall regulars down the street. They were clad in Kurta Suruwal: traditional Nepalese dress, the colorful patterns contrasting beautifully with their tanned, weathered skin that resembled leather in so many ways. Their eyes were deep and friendly, constantly inviting you to conversation, but their tongues were unversed in English, making dialogue next to impossible.

Deepak, whose name means “lamp,” shed some light on these women, our neighbors. Like himself, they were refugees from Nepal. Several, in fact, were family members, sharing his inter-generational two-bedroom sardine can. 

To make their day,” he instructed me, “simply place your hands together, bow your head, and say ‘Namaste’: ‘I bless the divine in you.'”

In a former life, before he was driven from his home, Deepak used to be a professor. But when his political allegiances put him in danger, he was forced to emigrate from his homeland and work in a dog food factory on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. In Nepal, he had fortune, status, and political sway. Now, he had nothing. As such, he always seemed to me a microcosm of Cleveland itself. The two were meant to be together, though both acknowledged one another only begrudgingly.

Pain, to him, was now measured on a scale of one-to-his-exile. We spoke often while the remnants of daylight slowly receded below the horizon. We’d watch his children push each other in shopping carts across strewn shards of glass. In such poverty, makeshift toys can be fashioned from just about anything. 

Sometimes Deepak would say wistfully, “You never can know what to expect out of life.” He was over trying to change the world. He’d decided it was enough to keep the world from changing him. He just wanted to minimize the damage.  

Sometimes, I would ask myself: how can being human feel so akin to the divine?

I could feel it: the crumbling brick building wanted to be rid of me. When I stepped out onto my balcony at night, sometimes I almost heard in its creaking a message just for me. “You don’t belong here, Daniel,” it seemed to tell me. “I am not your home.”

In Cleveland, there’s an expression, “Success in Cleveland is making it out of Cleveland.”

My mind was made up. I’d head home to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the city where I was born. 

I was about to experience 258 miles of sheer success.

In a year’s time, I had landed a new job out of state. I only had a week to pack up my apartment and be on my way. My Nepali friend promised to help me move out on our last day. It came as a relief to know I’d have some assistance amidst brown boxes, packaging tape and a sense of overwhelming, unnerving haste. 

But early on in the morning, Deepak received a phone call that pulled him away. I was forced to lug a queen-size bed down three flights of stairs with the aid of only my wife. After our U-Haul was jam-packed and ready to pull out of the parking lot, Deepak was still nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps moving so quickly felt too familiar.  But in his unwillingness to return, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Deepak, namaste.

I forgive the human in you.