Writer's block, an owner's guide: Writer’s block and the Zone (part 5)
“It’s almost midnight, the time when some mystery writers believe their best work is done. But as we peer through the drapes and onto the cluttered den of a writer I have in mind, he is not writing. For some reason he is making strange sounds and staring at a blank sheet of paper.
“The following morning we visit the bedroom study of a well-read children’s book author. It is a little past nine and her youngsters are in school. Her husband has been at his office since eight. She has six delicious hours for her work. But she is not writing either. Instead, she is smoking and pacing and muttering. Why?
“There is a very good chance that if it were possible to monitor writers in this country and abroad, we would find many of them grappling with the same invisible presence: a two-headed monster whose insatiable appetite consumes creative energy with one head as the other devours confidence.”
This is the opening of Right Brain Write On!, by Bill Downey, published 1984 but still in print. It’s a fine description of some of the ways writer’s block affects us.
But what is all this talk about your brain?
I have no idea whether the left and right brains really work in different ways as so many people say they do. That’s a little embarrassing to say, because I work with EEGs every day and with their relationship to behavior and experience. But I do not know or care whether the left brain is the orderly rational part of you or whether the right brain is your artistic creative part. That’s of no importance for my work.
And it’s of no importance to us here and now. Downey wasn’t writing about neurobiology, he was writing about accessing your creativity and about not being blocked by your rationality. He just happened to give his book a catchy title using trendy 1980s language.
He seems to have picked up the right-brain idea from Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book about drawing and painting for people who just can’t do things like that. I remember that book from the 80s; I even bought it, and her ideas seemed to work (I still can’t draw, but that is not her fault, I just Failed to Apply Myself).
I learned that, even though I can’t copy a picture of a person when I know that it’s a picture of a person, I can copy it quite well if I turn it upside down. That says something really interesting about cognitive psychology. It says something about how my preconceptions limit my ability to see what’s in from of me. It’s a clue to how I could switch off my Inner Editor and think outside the box and release my creativity. But it doesn’t matter what parts of the brain are involved. The right and left stuff, the way Edwards and Downey both use it, is just a metaphor, just a handle to help us grasp their ideas about creativity.
So let’s not talk about neurobiology. Let’s talk about writer’s block, Downey’s two-headed monster (I guess it must have two right brains) and about unleashing the hounds of creativity.
Actually, writer’s block is not what the book’s about. This is just one more engaging, interesting book about the craft of writing. It includes almost 60 pages of interviews (not about neurobiology) with various writers, quite a few of whom are people I have heard of.
Then why am I mentioning this book here at all? Because Downey’s description of “crossing over to the right brain” is exactly like a description of flow. “When I glance at the clock and see I have been writing for several hours, I am stunned,” one writer told him. “I did not hear [the phone] ring.”
Other writers told him about a strong sense of involvement in their scenes, and a deep satisfaction at the end of the session.
So writing in the right brain is the same thing as writing in flow.
This isn’t a scientific discovery. What I’m saying is that these are two out of many ways of describing a particular state. Think of them both as metaphors, if you will. Whichever works for you, works for you. Different routes to access the same goal, which another of Downey’s writers called “heaven.”
I think what this left / right thing is about is the difference between thinking and feeling. One of the reasons that getting into flow, into right brain, into pure feeling, is harder for writers than for, say, painters is that writers more or less have to do some thinking. If we were musicians or runners we could operate on instinct and body-learning. We could get the flowing, uncomplicated feeling of what it’s like to be an animal (your cat doesn’t really think, she just does her cat thing, she just is, she just responds to the environment, she doesn’t ever figure things out and probably can’t count to three). What bliss to be in the flow state, simply running through the trees doing what nature meant you to do!
I’m saying here something just slightly complicated. I’m saying that in my personal opinion, flow has to do with a reduction in thinking and an increase in what I called “instinct and body-learning.” Flow puts us more in touch with our drives and our basic rewards; bringing us closer to our essential animal nature, and burrowing under the intellectual layer that every human lives above. Flow stops the constant annoying chatter of your own thoughts, just as meditation does. Just being where you are, doing what you are doing. As the Zen master said, “when I am hungry I eat.”
Animals don’t have thoughts, as far as I can tell. They certainly don’t have the same worries and self-censorings and other left-brain problems that the curse of language has burdened us with. But then why do animals have left brains at all? It can’t be just because most of them would look so ugly with half a head.
To be continued…
Published on April 20, 2005 at 8:04 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/writers-block-and-the-zone-part-5.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Writer’s Block (by Leader)
As I threatened earlier, I read Zachary Leader’s book on “Writer’s Block.” I skimmed most of the chapters on psychodynamic psychology but here’re my notes on the rest of it. This isn’t really a book review, more my personal list of quotes I might want to use some day.
Pointing out that Edmund Bergler [to do list: Bergler] was a prolific writer, Leader says “that Bergler should have coined the term writer’s block and become its foremost theoretician is richly ironic.” Is that true? I’d have thought that if you want to read about writer’s block you want to read the thoughts of someone who is not its helpless victim.
Arguing for the psychodynamic approach, he objects to all attempts to attribute writer’s block to cognitive errors or deficiencies. The objection is that blocked people are, by definition, writers and therefore they do not lack (as cognitivists suggest) “basic writing skills” such as outlining, time management and so on. And so the problem must “involve,” apparently mainly or exclusively, willing and feeling.
I think this could be too broad. First, many writers welcome additional or improved strategic and tactical skills; as one’s craft grows the toolbox must be augmented. Secondly, the problem seems to me to combine substantial cognitive and affective elements.
An interesting quote from Coleridge, one of the earliest blocked writers, shows that he was unblocked while writing for newspapers and journals; (something that I was interesetd to note because it fits with the research I am working on currently).
Following Ong, “Orality and Print,” Leader says “the inability to finish work… can be connected to a bias towards… oral culture. This is because it is only with texts that closure becomes a defining characteristic of communication.” (p.230) Print culture is the source of inhibiting Romantic notions such as “originality” and “creativity.” This too fits with my own developing understanding of writer’s block and of how techniques like blogging can help us bypass it.
“Writer’s block is a term that… has its uses… as long as it is carefully restricted, to begin with, to genuine writers… When such writers find themselves unable to write because of obstructing internal actors… or internalized external factors… – they are blocked.” (p.251-2)
The three major themes of the book:
(1) “Blocked writers fail to negotiate rival or opposing claims, variously associated with pairings such as inner and outer, primary and secondary processes, emergence and embeddedness, independence and incorporation, inspiration and elaboration, defusion and merger, subject and object, written and oral, ‘male’ and ‘female’… Writing asks of writers, even those who feel most alienated, that they be at home in the world, by which is meant using and shaping it, as well as recognizing its otherness and integrity.” These may be post-Kleinian object relations notions but they fit well enough with my postmodern constructivist ideas.
(2) As we said a few days ago, “there is a historical dimension to the problem” …a tradition of Romantic self-consciousness.”
(3) “Blockage itself can bring insight, and with it the power to write… The obstructing factors in composition – the blocking agents – are not so much dissolved… as sublimed, by being seen from a higher perspective; and the knowledge gained from this new perspective is knowledge of something more than just writing… Also, the great paradox of creative impairment is that it can be a necessary precursor to health, that blockage and breakthrough can go together.” Yes, breakthrough follows breakdown, we know this, Rollo May said it. When you acknowledge that you can’t make things go the way you planned, they often start to go an astonishing better way. Books change as they are being written. So does the story of your life.
That’s all for today, folks.
Published on August 13, 2004 at 12:18 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/writers-block-by-leader.html