How to vacuum your brain

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I’m a big fan of a technique called “vacuuming your lungs.” Designed to eliminate breathlessness in people who need to deliver speeches, do radio interviews or even teach classes, it involves expelling all the air from your lungs, bending over and temporarily denying yourself of air and then taking a normal deep breath. See writer and editor Paul Ford’s blog for a terrific description, complete with illustrations.

When I first saw this technique described as “rebooting your lungs,” I wondered if the same concept could apply to writing. Then I received this serendipitous note from subscriber Mandy Cosser:

“A few years ago I took time off from working and writing to travel in the Middle East with my husband,” Mandy wrote. “And when the time came to earn some money from my writing again, I was totally out of form. I needed to practice without inflicting the pain of poor writing on my clients!

“So I started writing an informal blog about my travel experiences. Not only was it fun, it also allowed me to reinvigorate my writing skills in a less structured environment. I was also lucky that the blog got picked up by a publisher who needed a copywriter for a travel guide!

“Now, whenever I feel my writing is getting old or I am feeling out of form, I do some personal writing — words that are just for me. Whether it’s a journal entry, a long letter to family back in South Africa, or an arbitrary blog page, it helps reset my skills.

“And apart from that, it’s also a great way to get in touch with my own creativity, as opposed to creativity on behalf of my clients. After all, I started writing because I love to do it, and sometimes I need to feel it’s more than just a job.”

Way to go, Mandy! You’ve articulated a strategy that all writers — yes, even corporate and copy writers — can use. The whole concept of “resetting” or “rebooting” is a terrific idea. Don’t you want to learn how to vacuum your brain?

Why? I don’t want to get too psycho-babblish on you or anything, but I believe almost all people are badly damaged by the way writing is taught in school.

1) We’re seldom instructed how to write — instead we’re just turned loose with assignments and left to our own devices. This sink-or-swim method (which works for the “natural” swimmers/writers but leaves the rest of us in trouble), was my primary reason for producing a step-by-step guide to the writing process.

2) Teachers and parents often respond vehemently to relatively small, grammatical and spelling errors (remember the dreaded red pencil?) This intense focus on the “objective” side of writing tends to make us unduly nervous about “getting it right,” thereby stifling creativity.

3) In school we had to write about all sorts of things in which we had absolutely no interest. When this challenge inevitably re-occurs in our working lives, instead of responding in a more mature way, we harken back to the old emotions we felt as children — boredom, frustration, a sense of failure, the overwhelming desire to procrastinate.

But writing needn’t be a source of constant frustration. As Mandy has suggested, you can start instead by working on a piece or a subject that interests and inspires you. The experience of writing something — anything — quickly and with ease and pleasure will give you momentum and help you face the writing tasks you don’t enjoy so much.

Call it what you will –“vacuuming” your brain or “rebooting”– it’s a technique that can help dramatically improve your ability to write faster, better.

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