I did my best writing the last year of the 18 months I was homeless. It was the year I learned to dance with my lizard brain and write from anywhere. The lizard brain is an actual thing—a physical part of your brain called the amygdala. It’s the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive, procrastination and, of course, writer’s block. It’s responsible for why most of us can’t write from just anywhere. The lizard brain has convinced us that we just can’t.
journalist, editor and photojournalist. She
spoke at TED Global 2009 in Oxford, England
about her experience of being one of the
working homeless for more than a year. She
is working on her book, Staying Hungry, about
how people create gourmet lives
out of the crap life sometimes piles on their plates.
See her website here.
The year was 2006 and it was the year the lizard brain kicked my butt. The month after my father died, I quit my job as a newspaper editor to travel, freelance and grieve. What began as an adventure became almost a year and a half of homelessness of living in a 1975 Chevy van with my rottweiler and my cat. It was a year of evading bored cops who liked to bang on the side of my van at 3 a.m. and tell me to “move along.” I worked a minimum wage cubicle monkey kind of temp job and forgot I could write. My lizard brain was in heaven—bathed in fear 24/7. I wasn’t writing anything. I was kicking out excuses like grocery store tabloids kick out new diets and celebrity rumors. It wasn’t until I confronted my inner lizard and kicked back that I began to write again. What being homeless taught me about writing from anywhere is this:
WHY YOU CAN’T WRITE
The lizard brain feeds on fear—your fear. He’s not particularly picky. As long as you’re bathing your brain with fear (adrenaline) like a teenager splashing on cheap cologne for a big date, he’s happy. The problem is, if he’s happy, you’re not writing.
1. IGNORE THE LIZARD’S LIES
You don’t need a computer. You don’t need to feel inspired. You don’t need a muse. You don’t need special software. You don’t need an office. You need a pen, paper and the ability to focus.
Stress happens when the demands on you overwhelm your resources. When your resources are overwhelmed your lizard brain responds like rednecks to a new Jeff Foxworthy joke. If you’re stressing, feeling anxious or experiencing writer’s block and you’re working on several things at once —Stop. Work on just one. Don’t think about the entire book. Think about one chapter. If that’s too much, think about one page, one paragraph or simply the next sentence.
3. WORK WHILE THE LIZARD SLEEPS
Unless something life-threatening is happening, the lizard brain takes a few minutes to wake up in the morning. That 10 to 15 minutes you have when you first wake up, before you get out of bed with a novel idea, is a great time to avoid the lizard. Keep a notebook by the bed so you can scribble it down before the lizard realizes what’s happening.
4. GO HIGH-TECH
If you can’t write, talk. Use a digital tape recorder and talk your ideas out. Call a friend and tape the conversation the two of you have about your block, or story or writing. Use freeconferencecall.com and download the call and replay it immediately afterwards to help shake your block. This also works if you’re on location, stumble onto a great story and don’t have a tape recorder. Use your cell phone to call your conference call number to leave notes, or to do an interview.
Location, stuff and technology doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Attitude and action do. I’ve written in the middle of forest fires, while homeless, on river rafting trips, at fires, while sitting next to dead bodies—anywhere. It’s a mental game—not a physical one. So practice. You can do it.