I Miss My Writing Desk

This week, I’d like to talk about a concept I learned about in college: the idea of “Functional Fixedness,” as it relates to the writer’s brain. It’s why holidays are so hard for me, and why I’m so much less productive now than I was a few months ago.

From a psychological perspective, functional fixedness is a phenomenon in which humans find it difficult to use something in a different way than they are accustomed. The classic demonstration of this is called “The Candle Problem”; the shortest version ever is thus: subjects are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks. They are then instructed to affix the candle to the wall in such a way that it won’t drip onto the table below. The solution is to use a thumbtack to attach the box to the wall then put the candle into the box, but trials show the participants don’t reassign the function of the box naturally. Its function, you see, is fixed in their minds. This experiment has been replicated, and iterated upon as well. If you divide participants into two groups and present the box as one of the materials instead of a container for the materials, they are more likely to consider the box for multiple uses.

During the course of my college curriculum, we were shown how this tendency of the human brain can be exploited to our advantage. The professor explained that if we find a setup that is conducive to productivity, replicating that setup will replicate that productivity. He told us the story of a writer friend who kept an unloaded gun in his desk drawer. When it was time to write, he’d take it out and hold it to his head until he knew where to start. Then, he’d put it back in the drawer and on he went.

My system is considerably less violent, but no less important. I have serious attention issues, which come with impulsivity and hyperactivity, so I spend a great deal of time passively filtering myself and keeping a tight rein on how that hyperactivity manifests. This filtering gets in the way of writing effectively, so part of my functional fixedness process is going somewhere I can be properly alone. I have a standing desk (improvised, but still), and I set up my laptop to dual monitor with a television, with instrumental music playing through speakers which surround me. I’m a naturally loud person (an understatement), so it’s most useful to have music that is also loud. My desk has moved, but my TV hasn’t yet, which has created a struggle.

As Covid has progressed, I have found less and less time that I’m alone, less time when my neighbors are out of their apartments, so the system I’ve developed for directing my focus has gotten further and further from possible. Add to that the fact that Morgan and I are moving, AND that I’m not even writing the same thing I was a month ago, and you’ll begin to get a picture of how chaotic things feel for me right now.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not here to whine or present excuses; I am still working on To Save What’s Lost; progress simply looks very different from how it has over the last year. I don’t have a good rhythm with it yet, but I’m steadily working toward that rhythm. I keep scribbling down little worldbuilding tidbits, and this sudden infusion of proper winter has really helped. I also have written the beginnings of more standalone scenes with specific purposes. One is to look at my world’s magic from the antagonistic side of things, the other is a writing exercise. I began that “dark side” vignette intending to write it from a proper first person perspective, but found it to be like tying a necktie on someone else: I understand the theory without a problem, but the execution gave me more trouble than I expected. Consequently, I started another scene specifically to practice that first person perspective, and they’re both in the works. I also haven’t forgotten that I’m supposed to be updating the fiction project blog (I’ll start posting links again once I actually start doing that), but as I’ve said, my life is in disarray. My thinking is that if I keep telling you I’m going to do it, I’ll get to it sooner.

In the meantime, let’s do a question of the week. Do you have somewhere in your life you’ve developed this functional fixedness? It could be a show you watch while folding the laundry or a particular sports drink you prefer for when you’re mowing the lawn. Let me know in the comments!

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