On writing one's first book

The cliches abound. It’s a process of self-discovery. You write in order to find out what it is you are writing about. You have an idea, but it morphs into something else. You go deeper than you intended.

I’ve been told by people for a long time I should write a book. Great. A ready-made audience! But will they read it? Ideas are addictive. A quick hit. But the effect wears off when reality sets back in.

The process of writing is one of struggle. Unless you hit your stride on that occasional day, fuelled by caffeine, possessed by a force beyond your conscious reckoning, sleep deprived late into the night. Frustration, mental block, wrestling with words that just don’t come out right seem more the norm...

Be wary of committing down that path.

I just wanted to share some personal thoughts and experiences as I plunge down the rabbithole to publishing my first book.

After years of false starts I finally gathered some momentum. But now I fear careering out of control as the momentum sweeps me off downhill, brakes possibly failing. Writing feels like trying to create order from chaos, but risking spawning greater chaos in the process.

For me the consolidation of the idea took a few attempts that were abandoned as I realised having a vague idea and the ill-founded belief “I will work it out” didn’t get me very far out of the blocks.

But with perseverance those early attempts, like therapy that takes a while to establish trust and rapport with the therapist, starts to get past the superfice, the clutter, to the clarity beneath. A sleepless night heralded a clear thought, a meaningful structure. It doesn’t have to be linear, chronological. Not completely. Like Tarantino breaking free of the convention of storytelling from beginning to end. Start ‘somewhere’, go somewhere else, finding resolution as it slots together free of the normal constraints of expected procession.

My own manuscript follows themes that interweave personal experience, autobiography, with a progression in confidence, life skills, and a philosophy of thought. This is not purely linear by any stretch. My mind doesn’t work that way. In fact it all starts to make sense when worked out in this slightly haphazard, but thematically organised way. Some might say that time is a construct of perception. Some others even say reality and concepts like spacetime do not actually exist in reality – that these notions are just that – symbols on the interface of our subjective experience of ‘reality’. Maybe there is no reality even below that interface. I recommend the writings of Donald Hoffman for further exposition...that’s his show not mine. I digress. The point being that the jigsaw doesn't always make sense piece by piece until much later when it all slots into place - rather than sequentially ordered.

So, the writing is indeed that cliched process of discovery. I’m learning all about myself. Writing late at night seems to suit me best, and I have learnt gradually to look forward to this period of the day, as if awaiting a parent telling bedtime stories. Yet these tales encompass my own experiences woven into the background tapestry of my life, now brought forward into the foreground and re-immersed within. I start to understand more clearly where they fit into a wider perspective.

What, then, is my book about? It started out as a wander through the workings of the brain as shaped by experience – particularly experience that might be outside of the norm: adventurous encounters, exploring the world. I am a psychologist and neuroscientist, but also an adventurer. Hence, it is a coming together of the experiential and the scientific. The brain is built to explore the environment, adapt, evolve. My own voyage of discovery intertwines these threads. You might call it ‘psycho-cartography’ - a mapping of self, brain, and world. Understanding who I am, where I am going, how I can get there most effectively, and as a blueprint for helping others do likewise. At the same time unravelling the mysteries of this organ in our heads – how it constructs the world outside, how it motivates us to keep going, to evolve, to strive and aspire. And how it also turns in on itself, holding us back if allowed to. The spark of adventure provides impetus to point it in the right direction and unleash potential.

At times this enterprise feels like writing fiction. Such is the nature of adventures – many of which have felt dreamlike, in otherworldly landscapes. The imaginary made manifest. It calls to mind Roy Batty’s soliloquy at the end of his replicant life (In Bladerunner) reminiscing on things he has seen “that you people wouldn't believe”. Now I can’t claim to have seen attack ships off the shoulder of Orion, but I have been to some pretty far out places (underwater ice, high glaciers, deserts, jungles, arctic wastelands). There is a surreal quality to many of these experiences that seem fictive at times. But I’ll get to actual fiction after I’ve got the fact out of the way (perhaps inverting the therapeutic process as described earlier).

The book focuses on different environments, some might call extreme, from high altitude mountains to diving deep underwater, ice worlds, and aerial pursuits. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the company of those who excel in these arenas, learning more about the mindset, fathoming the workings of the brain that underpin this capability for high performance under ultimate stresses. To be conversant in this ‘adventure neuroscience’ one has to throw oneself into the mix and experience it firsthand. Thus, my voyage in science dovetails with a journey through these habitats, developing skills and competence along the way that supplement insights into how the brain operates at the extreme.

All will be revealed.

Transformative journeys by nature encompass struggle. But that’s the age-old template for becoming stronger, wiser, tempered by challenge and adversity. Writing lays bare this conceit.

I’m getting there, slowly speeding up towards the finish line.

Now editing it, that’s another story. Where angels fear to tread...