deactivating the ugh field

Chronic respiratory issues kept the young Patrick O'Brian out of school and sometimes landed him in a hospital bed. As a result, the precocious boy spent many hours alone growing up, bored out of his mind and desperate for an escape. Naturally, he turned to books and magazines. (This is a century before the Nintendo Switch.)

Even reading can't fill every waking minute when you're stuck in bed. O'Brian started making up his own stories, and writing became his new escape, not just from sickness but from his unhappy home life as well. By fifteen, he'd published his first novel (under his birth name, Patrick Russ), and many more followed under his nom de plume. (For complicated reasons, O'Brian wanted people to think he was Irish.) Hussein is a pretty good book regardless of the fact that O'Brian was a kid when he wrote it, and the novels O'Brian wrote as O'Brian are among my favorites.

Patrick O'Brian wasn't a cheerful customer. That said, I get the sense from two biographies that he turned to writing as a respite. Can you imagine? He sought it out! I don't know about you, but I have to shove myself into the work and hold myself there with a white-knuckled grip on the keyboard for as long as I can stand it. Then again. And again.

It wasn't always this way. Since I went to a rough middle school, I often spent my lunch periods hiding in the Macintosh lab. There wasn't much to do in there besides write, so I wrote and rewrote the same short story every day. I know writing can be an escape because I've experienced it, but does the rest of your life have to suck to keep it that way?

The more insidious aspect here is the Ugh Field. When you're working on something that brings up negative emotions—discomfort, dread, the usual suspects—your brain develops a Pavlovian response to it: ugh. This instinctive aversion leads to procrastination. Putting things off exacerbates whatever it was that created the negative feelings—an impending deadline, for example. Before you know it, the very thought of the project gives you a knot in your stomach.

So you stop thinking about it.

An Ugh Field is bad enough in the case of something like your taxes. If your novel develops one, you're really in trouble. That's because the most important work happens between each writing session. Surrounded by a big, fat Ugh Field, your work-in-progress simply doesn't attract your mind's attention the way it must. Since the material hasn't been simmering in the background, you return to the page as blank as you were when you stepped away. No exciting new insights into your protagonists. No delightful resolutions to knotty plot problems. In fact, you have a hard time even remembering what the story was supposed to be about. Who are these characters again?

Authors as prolific as Patrick O'Brian certainly find writing as difficult and sometimes uncomfortable as the rest of us. But they're often bored the rest of the time. I suspect the underlying, perhaps unconscious, intention behind authorial hobbies like winemaking (O'Brian), running (Joyce Carol Oates), or hours in the wilderness (McPhee) is to remove the brain's escape route, to force the subconscious through the Ugh Field.

When they can, many writers retreat, whether formally at Yaddo or MacDowell or simply, as was the case with Maya Angelou, by booking a hotel room. If you want to be bored in today's world, you have to lock yourself in and throw away the key. "I take off my shoes before I enter the dance studio," explains the choreographer Phoebe Berglund. "The marley feels cold under my bare feet. It’s very quiet, I can’t hear anything but my own heartbeat. I feel bored and that’s good because boredom activates my imagination whereas being busy makes me feel numb. Somewhere in the middle of the three-hour rehearsal, I feel present in my body, my mind becomes empty, and I am free to wander." Get bored and you activate your imagination—this is why Julia Cameron takes away all your devices in The Artist's Way.

You can't simply willpower through an Ugh Field the way you can sometimes force yourself to spend ten minutes writing in the morning. The work being avoided happens below the conscious level. A hidden part of you is shirking its creative duty. The only solution I can see is to barricade yourself. It seems so inefficient. But you can't negotiate or reason with your subconscious. Cage it like a wild animal or it will flee. No escape, no mercy, or no breakthroughs.

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