No. 122 | By Christine Carron
Many years ago when I was in a workshop taught by famed high wire walker Philippe Petit, I wrote down something he said about himself: “I'm not a strong man, but I'm strong in the nervous system.” He tapped his head with his index finger when he said, “nervous system.”
Along with being a master of the high wire, Petit is most definitely a master of his mindset. It would not be possible to do what he does, if he weren’t. (I highly recommend the documentary Man on Wire about his walk between the Twin Towers in 1974.)
I walked a high wire in that class, strapped into a harness and connected to a safety line. That was exciting—and a bit nerve wracking since I am somewhat afraid of heights. I had no grand plans, however, to be a high wire walker.
The workshop’s draw for me was getting to listen to Petit talk about how he approached his art. Three of the gems of wisdom I learned from him have to do with maintaining confidence and delight in a daily creative practice. Those three tips are totally applicable to the writing adventure.
My notes from the workshop: Be playful—doodle, be foolish, take yourself lightly. In playfulness, there is much creativity hidden that can be discovered. There is gold in playfulness.
Playing can seem frivolous. It might also feel like a distraction from the real, serious work of being a writer. “You don’t need to play,” your Inner Pusher might whisper to you, “You need to get your butt in the chair and churn out pages.”
What your Inner Pusher doesn’t realize, however, is that playing is a productivity and creativity booster. Play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown writes:
Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. Most important, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play. - Dr. Stuart Brown (from Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.)
Apply the Tip: Add a little more play to all your writing sessions. (Perhaps first, however, you’ll have to take time to brainstorm what “true play” in writing would look like for you.)
My workshop notes: He takes breaks on the wire! He is resting but still with his art. His advice: Let the work inhabit you; don't separate from your art; rest into—rest with—your art.
As a productivity coach, I know that writers are looking for ways to maximize output. It is always easier to sell them on a process that is productive and also feels productive. It is harder to sell a process that feels unproductive as you are doing it, even if gives you a productivity boost.
An example of the former is the Pomodoro Technique: you feel productive as you are doing it, and it absolutely does help you focus and churn out words.
This tip from Petit is one of the harder-to-sell types because resting doesn’t feel productive.
Goodjelly is focused on massively expanding your writing productivity toolkit, however, and that means I don't shy away from highlighting tools that may not feel productive but actually are: like rest—and also play. Both spark leaps of productivity and creativity.
In relation to rest, Bret Stetka writes in Scientific American:
[Thomas] Edison may have relied on slumber to spur his creativity. The inventor is said to have napped while holding a ball in each hand, presuming that, as he fell asleep, the orbs would fall to the floor and wake him. This way he could remember the sorts of thoughts that come to us as we are nodding off, which we often do not recall.
Sleep researchers now suggest that Edison might have been on to something. A study published recently in Science Advances reports that we have a brief period of creativity and insight in the semilucid state that occurs just as we begin to drift into sleep, a sleep phase called N1, or nonrapid-eye-movement sleep stage 1. The findings imply that if we can harness that liminal haze between sleep and wakefulness—known as a hypnagogic state—we might recall our bright ideas more easily. - Bret Stetka (from Science American: Spark Creativity with Thomas Edison’s Napping Technique.)
Apply the Tip: On occasion, weave in an Edison-style napping (i.e., rest) trick to into your writing sessions.
My notes on this point were all bolded: NEVER end a practice on a failure, do something, even a small something, so every practice ends with a victory, a triumph—a ring of the bell!
I encourage writers to create Done Boosts in every writing session. Conceptually, Petit's advice is similar with the specification to absolutely get a Done Boost as you close a writing session. Finishing with a bell ring moment is about giving yourself a final flourish of “I can do this!” energy that will carry you into the next session. You are paying it forward to yourself.
“I can do this!” energy is an expression of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is slightly different than self-confidence. According to renowned psychologist Albert Bandura, self-confidence is about firmness or strength of belief but does not specify a direction. Self-efficacy comes into play when a goal has been set. He writes:
People with high perceived self-efficacy . . . approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided. They are deeply interested in what they do, set high goals, and sustain strong commitments. . . . They redouble their effort in the face of obstacles and soon recover confidence after a setback. This outlook sustains motivation, reduces stress, and lowers any vulnerability to depression. - Albert Bandura ("Self-efficacy." Harvard Mental Health Letter, vol. 13, no. 9, Mar. 1997, pp. 4+. Gale Academic OneFile Select. Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.)
"Never finishing on a failure" is basically a mindset hack that builds grit.
Apply the tip: Find an easy way to close your next writing session with a win.
A word of caution: to get healthy bell ring moments at the end of every writing session is less about pushing yourself to overachieve, and more about knowing how to design your work so it is easy to get a bell ring moment.
For example, one writer in The Jam Experience realized it really helped her creative flow in her next writing session when she put all her work and research back in its place at the end of her current writing session. For her, that resetting of her space is a super simple way to get a bell ring moment, even if the main task she is working on is still undone. She finishes on a small but mighty win. Mindset triumph!
When we are strong in the nervous system, it is easier to stay committed and make progress on this wild writing adventure. These three tips—Be Playful; Rest on the Wire; Never Finish on a Failure—are simple process improvements you can make to your writing practice that will strengthen your confidence, your motivation, and most definitely your nervous system.
High wire walker wisdom for the win! You’ve got this!