Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How Pavlov's Dog Can Help You Get Big Things Done


I have completed a novel.

Five years ago, I would have told you that I would never be able to write that sentence. Though I was very good at helping others to overcome their writing and creativity blocks, I did not seem to be able to take my own advice.

Of course, I was writing all sorts of stuff on a regular basis, but the Great Almighty Novel teased me like a Giant Carrot gleaming in a dewy field before a small and hungry rabbit.

I was full of ideas. I had scraps of paper all over the place with titles, character names, two sentence plot descriptions. I had a couple of first chapters that never went anywhere.

One day, not long after Marcy had gotten me a manual 1969 Olivetti Valentine typewriter, I was walking back from the bus stop, and out of the blue, the first few sentences of a novel came to mind. As I walked, I kept repeating the sentences like a mantra. Each time, I knew there was more coming. I walked fast.

I got home and sat down at that typewriter and produced the first chapter.

I was so afraid of what I had done.

I had moved from idea to Real Work, and I wasn't sure that I could sustain this. I had tried and failed so many times before.

Yet the voice of the narrator was strong and I knew what the next chapter would be about and soon I knew what the one following that would be about.

The next day, I sat down to write chapter two. I had notes. I had my typewriter.

Then I accidentally came upon just the magic that I needed.

I slipped in the CD of the soundtrack from the movie Frida.

This music is perfect, because though there are words, they are in Spanish and I don't speak Spanish. (Shame on me.)

After typing for a wee bit, the music receded and I didn't realize that the CD stopped.

I listened to that same CD for the entire time that I wrote that book.

Every time I sat down at that typewriter (or at the computer when I would do the second drafts), I put in that CD, and those first lilting bars of music would send my fingers across the keys.

I told people, "I have Pavlov-Dogged myself."

And I had.

It wasn't just the music, though. It was also that typewriter.

The feel of the keys. The sound of the keys. The way I had to get stronger pinkies to use the keys. The smell of the ink on the ribbon. The winding of the ribbon when it got to the end. The pulling of the paper from the carriage and the piling of it to my right, seeing that pile get higher and higher.

None of this sensual experience of writing happens when we work directly on the computer.

I have used this same technique with working out and dance.

When I first started taking myself seriously as a dancer again, I knew there would be days when I "wouldn't want to" (whine whine whine), and so I used the same few songs every time I started different workouts.

And yes, those Whine filled days come, but all I have to do is get myself to the iPod. If I can do that, I know my body will take over once the music hits me.

It works every time.

Most days, I want to do what I do because it's...what I do, and on most days, I don't have to treat myself like a dog. But I am thankful that on the difficult days, I am a well trained dog.

What kind of rituals have you used to get big, impossible-seeming dreams accomplished? How do you get yourself drooling?

22 comments:

Jean said...

First of all, Congratulations! Second, this is brilliant! Thank you for sharing. As I was reading your post, I was nodding at how true your words were - about practicing something into muscle-memory and about the sensory experience of a typewriter versus using the computer.

I'm going to use this. Today. Thank you!

Rachel said...

Funnily enough it was a selection of CDs that helped me write my novel. Every time I got the dreaded block I stuck on one of these particular CDs and away I went!

Brooks Hall said...

Congratulations, Christine! It was fun to hear about your ritual, and Pavlovian influence! Yea!

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I learned how to type on an old Olivetti -- they were terrific typewriters! But the ones we used weren't those fancy modern 1969 ones but the old grey hulks with "bulky cast-iron housings" as the website says. Still, I understand your devotion to Olivetti. Congrats on the novel, too!

Lisa said...

Excellent post!

Seems I might need some similar kind of ritual in my life right now. Thanks for the examples :)

Analiese Marie said...

Great post. I also use music in this way. I've recently discovered the Vitamin String Quartet (they do string covers of popular songs), and something about listening to familiar songs played in a new ways gets my creative juices flowing. I've also found that scent can act in the same powerful way. I've started to light scented candles or incense when I sit down to write or draw. It's interesting how engaging more than one sense at a time can change the nature of the creative work.

Susan said...

Hi all! I've been hanging out here for awhile but this is my first comment and wow what a great post and perfect timing! I have often used the idea that I don't have to do it all when a project seems too huge to take on and I find myself procrastinating and avoiding it. But today I am going to tackle a project that I have been avoiding for way too long; and I believe music will be my coach!

babs said...

Congratulations! It sounds like it was a beautiful experience!

Grace said...

Wow, I got to find me one of those magic CDS, as my "novel" has all but stalled. Need to get those creative juices flowing again. I hope we get to read your novel someday.

karmacoy said...

I've been in holiday hiding, but I have been enjoying your posts all along (well, on the days I bothered to go online anyway!)

I love ritual. Sure feels like I could use some kind of bell to get me motivated. Lauryn Hill cd's work for getting the housework done..... :-)

Bethany said...

Holy Wow, a novel and written on a typewriter. Congrats, congrats woots and hollers. This astounds and delights me. I loved your description of writing on the typewriter, the pile of papers. How magical.
I need to be Pavlovian myself more. I really like this idea. Esp connecting it with music.
Thank you.
You're a genius and a novelist!

Rowena said...

To do those big impossible things, I need to see results. For something like a novel, you don't really GET your progress, so every time I've attacked a novel, I have to keep a writing log, with the amount of time I work each day, how many pages, how many words.

It helps to be accountable to someone, whether a writing group or a blog or nanowrimo.

Also, it helps me to write every day at the same time. If I take days off, I often lose it. But then, I don't really have freedom to always write everyday, so I have to be strict.

I don't have any physical habits. I don't really have the luxury with the kids and all. I just have to steal time where I may.

Kids have changed my motivation and my intentions, though. I HAVE to be committed or it disappears. Poof.

Sara @Soulspackle said...

I love this. Especially what you said about playing the same songs. When I need to dance but don't feel into it, I choose one of the songs I know will "dance me". It may not happen immediately, but they're somehow on my inspiration wavelength.. they eventually work their magic.

Jan said...

This is such good news, Christine. A novel is a huge endeavor. Congrats to you!

Your question is a good one. For me, it is also music. Whenever I am feeling a bit stuck I use music by Soundings of the Planet. In it is something called the Earth Resonance Frequency...it immediately centers you. I love it. I do my best writing to it.

Also I now have a laptop, courtesy of my Santa husband. (LOL) And I am going to town on it. I did not realize how tied up inside I was tied to a big old clunky outdated computer at a desk. I feel like freedom is mine, one key at a time. Like you! xo

Linnea said...

Pavlovian responses are just great -- and most writers have certain "writing rituals," that may be anything from drinking tea out of a certain cup to using a certain kind of notebook/pen when they find themselves away from a keyboard.

YOU GO, GIRL! What an amazing past few months you've had!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations!
I just recently found your blog - I'm ecstatic! I can't wait to read more!
Best wishes for this New Year to your and your loved ones,

Jordy

TheAnalyst said...

Congrats! That is amazing! Pavlov....oh, I need to take your advice (and his) and Pavlov myself more often. Except, I should do it your way with music (and not food). ;) Again, congrats! I can't wait to hear more and read more about it!

Ruby said...

I also want to congratulate you: Such an achievement so early in the year! Fantastic - I keep my fingers crossed that you'll find a publisher! And maybe then I will translate it into German for you!

Well done, Christine!

Susan said...

Woot! Mission accomplished and project done!

Tess said...

Fabulous news, and great Pavlovian advice. Such a good idea to fix good habits rather grow up around bad ones. So when do we get to read the book?

Paige said...

What an incredible accomplishment!

I have those albums that manage to keep me focused (Abbey Road being my best example), but I found that, when I was writing my script, it helped to put on a movie. I have a selection of movies that I've seen so many times that I don't really have to pay attention, but they also seem to provide just enough familiar, reality-blocking sound that I can focus on the work at hand. I've been known to put a Harry Potter movie on and just write away.

I just found your blog through Heidi. Very nice! I'm sure I'll be back!

The Other Laura said...

I too have a thousand and one starts of a novel but run away scared as soon as I begin. I think you've inspired me to sit back down and pick out a cd and see if I can't be a bit more brave this time...