How many times have we sat down in front of a blank page and tried, to no avail, to force the words to come? On the other hand, how many times have we felt that “click” where we just sort of let go and the words seem to spring unbidden from somewhere beyond our consciousness, almost as if it were someone else writing the words on the page?
Recently, I came across this video of Professor Charles Limb’s TED speech about how the brain functions during activities of improvisation. In his study, Dr. Limb observed the brain activity of jazz pianists and rappers as they played or spoke memorised music versus their brain activity during pure improvisation. What he found is that the part of the brain that handles personal identity and self-awareness received more blood flow during recitals of memorised pieces, but during improvisation, the flow of blood was redirected towards the “autobiographical” or “self-expressive” sections of the brain. While his study focused more on musicians’ improvisation, I found several of his results applicable to the writing process as well.
Pay particular attention to 8:40-9:05
In my personal experience, facing a blank page can be a pretty daunting prospect the majority of the time. If I don’t have any sort of plan of action, it is extremely difficult to essentially pull words out of my mind and put them on the page in any sort of meaningful fashion. However, there are some times, usually when I’m feeling relaxed or in a creative mood, where I don’t think about what I’m writing, and instead, once I get going, my subconscious– that ethereal sense of “other” we artists like to call our Muse– takes over.
Veterans of NaNoWriMo will often speak about silencing a demon affectionately called “the inner editor.” As writers, we write to communicate and somehow “get inside” the minds of our readers through our words. However, this intimacy between our minds– and souls– and those of our readers, can often spook us into paralysis:
“What if people don’t like what I’ve written?”
“What if they misunderstand what I’m saying?”
“This stuff SUCKS! Who do you think you’re trying to fool?”
“It has to be perfect before I’ll let anyone see this!”
All of this is the self-conscious part of our minds trying to protect us from a very harsh and unforgiving world. However, like we celebrated on Monday, it is a wonderful world, too, and even though there will always be naysayers, nothing extraordinary or paradigm-shifting was ever accomplished by those too afraid to risk failure. If we all huddled in the safety of our own existences without ever stretching beyond to that “other,” it would be a very depressing world indeed! In fact, I believe it is our vulnerability that gives us artists the power to touch others and share with them the wonder of our own experiences. In this way, we show them how wonderful the world is, but also how much more wonderful it could be.
The question is, then: How to “turn off” that nagging, self-critical part and open up to the disassociated subconscious part of ourselves? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, and it’s something I struggle with all the time. On the upside, because there is no “right” answer, this just means that there are as many ways as there are artists!
Personally, I find it helpful to play music that suits my mood or the tone of the writing I’m working on at that point. This gives me the sense of being a spectator watching an epic movie unfolding on the screen as I, the writer, am creating it. Another thing I do sometimes is to take just a few moments before working on a particular piece and close my eyes to clear my mind. Then, I try to assume the perspective of one of the characters in the scene, in a sense becoming that person for the time being. This way, as I am writing, it feels more like the character is the one shaping his own destiny by acting out his own choices instead of “me” randomly making it up as I go along.
Surrendering to our subconscious is no easy task, but it is essential for producing natural, powerful writing. I think with practice, it becomes easier, though like any skill, it must be learned and developed.
Next week, we’ll talk more about this idea of “the Muse” and our subconscious, and how this ability to disassociate ourselves from our writing is helpful. How do you get into “the zone?” What are some of the things that cause your brain to shift into creative mode?