24 August 2012

Working on Autopilot

Earlier this week I had to go to a meeting at a client's office. I parked the car a couple of streets away and headed to their building. One of the roads I cross is a one-way street, although it has two lanes. While I knew the traffic was only going in one direction, I couldn't stop myself looking in both directions before crossing.

I suppose the childhood training of 'Look right, look left, look right again', is so ingrained I had done it automatically.

I lived in Germany for a number of years, and on mainland Europe they drive on the right. The first few weeks I drove in Germany I recall being in super-alert mode to avoid making mistakes after being so used to driving on the left, although I had a few close calls when crossing the street while walking.

After a short time, driving on the 'wrong' side of the road became familiar, and I settled back into auto-pilot mode. When I returned to England there was a similar period of time getting used to what had originally been the norm.

When we first learn something new it's arduous and takes a lot of effort, but the brain is very good at forming habits. Once it knows this task is something we're going to do on a regular basis, then habit takes over. Think back to when you first learned to ride a bike, or drive a car. Everything was difficult, so many things to take notice of and do, but after a period of time it becomes a habit. If the brain didn't work this way we'd be overloaded.

This function is very useful, but it does mean we can sleepwalk our way through life if we're not careful. 

There are lots of simple things we can do to increase brain activity and keep us alert. Try doing a few tasks with your non-dominant hand. For example brush your teeth with your left hand instead of your right, or for those of you like me, try using your right hand instead of your left. Simple exercises that involve crossing the hands over the body are good for engaging both sides of the brain, or the good old rub your tummy while patting your head exercise. When I taught computer applications, a good wake-up exercise was sitting on the office chair (one with wheels) and moving backwards on it.

This autopilot mode can also invade our writing. We miss plot holes because we're too close to our writing, or don't see things such as weak dialogue, too much description, characters that aren't believable, or any number of other things that might need work in an early draft. 

Last night we had a good meeting of the writing group I belong to. We haven't met for some time as life has interrupted us on a few occasions, and one of our members now lives in Melbourne and another in the South Island. This week Bron was up from the South Island for the RWNZ Conference and most of us were able to make the meeting. It also happened that I was one of the two members having writing critiqued. Our format is that we email the extract (about 20 pages) to the group one to two weeks before we meet, so everyone has time to read and note comments before the meeting. As it's been some time since we met, we also had a great catch up. 

It's so good to have constructive feedback. The others will pick up things I've overlooked, and they often have a different take on a scene, or see it in a way that I haven't. They read the extract both as writers and readers. This feedback is invaluable in the journey to turning early drafts into polished books.

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