Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, also the author of a memoir entitled Find a Way, recently answered questions in “By the Book” (a fabulous resource for writers) in The New York Times. Nyad revealed that she loves to read about the cosmos. “The genre that has captivated me all my life is lay astrophysics. When I was younger, it was Carl Sagan. Now Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene, with his substantial The Elegant Universe, pull me in. The basic facts of our universe, that before the Big Bang all the energy and matter we know of existed, literally, in a space the size of a millionth of a millionth of a penny, blow one’s mind. I took four months to read Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing, because most every sentence required putting the book down and attempting to fathom what I had just read.”
I note this because Nyad elucidated two primary ways to fire up (program, prime, prep, stimulate) your writing brain:
- Read outside of your comfort zone (field, genre, usual favorites). Reading something seemingly unrelated to what you usually read or write creates and sparks neuronal connections that often lead to a “bright idea” or a fresh way of thinking about something. It can lead to that marvelous “aha” moment we all desire.
- Read complex works that require you to decipher new material. If the sentence structure or the new information is complex and causes you to have to read more slowly, with a focus on interpreting what you’re reading, your brain responds to your request for it to “work harder.” It’s like working a muscle, something that doesn’t occur if you never read anything that you have to struggle to understand or that introduces you to new concepts or new ways of thinking about things.
Bonus: Ms. Nyad also revealed a third way to fire up your writing brain: Learn new vocabulary before falling asleep. The book Nyad always keeps beside her bed is 501 Spanish Verbs because she is a “firm believer in imbuing the brain just before sleep with some empirical data…and thus waking up a tad more fluent than when you went to bed.” Right before you sleep is a great time to break out a dictionary and learn new words. Your brain can be highly receptive and, if you spend a few minutes intentionally studying the words, your brain will continue processing—linking neurons—while you sleep. Even better, create a few sentences using the word before falling asleep.