I have never done writing for a living yet. My writing has always been mostly for study or passion.
Yet even though I haven’t been under the pressure of having my monthly income depending on the flow and quality of my writing as any paid writer would, my own experiences still brought to my conscious awareness two important and closely linked notions: Inspiration and its dreaded enemy writer’s block.
This concept notoriously gained an iconic status having been so widely referred to in the media and arts. We all have collective unconscious images from the movie classics of some writer at a desk in front of an old-style typewriter, an ashtray full of half-snuffed cigarette butts and a paper bin overflowing with balled up papers of unfinished sentences.
Conventionally, writer’s block is understood as that part in a writer’s career where her creative process comes to a halt and her inspiration runs dry due to some psychological blockage or emotional distress. Less dramatically, it is when we are doing a writing job and words and ideas stop coming to our heads. We stop for hours trying to get the thing started again sometimes with no success.
There are two main views on writer’s block. Both views see it as some block in the overall creative process but while one view sees creativity as predominantly or even exclusively a generative process the other sees it as a receptive process.
The difference between the two notions of creativity is stark but very often overlooked. In the former, creativity is thought to be something that is internal to the individual, resulting from a thinking process and involves effort to produce.
In the latter creativity is seen as passively receiving, tuning-in or listening to a ‘stream of ideas’ that are external to us. These streaming ‘Universal ideas’ are always present but we either connect to them and get inspired or just block them out and stop listening to them, hence the writer’s block according to this view.
I tend to subscribe to the point of view that creativity is both a generative and a receptive process, kind of a yin and yang thing, but the receptive part plays a big role in writer’s block which is very often overlooked. I’ll come to this later.
The universal & un-copyrighted source
This belief came to me when I started doing my dissertation for a Masters in Philosophy back in summer 03. Although it took me 3 and a half years to complete the course, all the raw ideas for the dissertation came to me in the first 2 months of that summer, most of the time in intuition or in dreams (I very often used to wake up at night jotting down ideas). These ideas were very novel to me at the time although I thought ‘I’ was the one coming up with the ideas.
When I started the research process and started reading piles of books and papers, I started encountering a lot of material not only with similar ideas and concepts to my own but even using the same analogies and metaphors. To my true disbelief I once came across an exact copy of a diagram with the same details I had used to sketch one of my ideas! Now I hadn’t seen it before and the other author could certainly not have copied it from me since my work was unpublished.
It was from that day that I remember starting to believe that people who claim possession of original ideas are unaware of the fact that we do not ‘possess’ ideas but we attract ideas and get inspired if we are listening and tuned-in to them. It was also a lesson in humility for me to come to see ideas as coming from a universal and un-copyrighted source (or shall I say open source?) that we tap into and get inspired. This points at an even deeper philosophical truth that everything in the universe is interconnected and the separateness of self is only an illusion of mind.
Having a creative genius vs. being a genius
Anyway, recently I also came across a very interesting TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the massively successful book ‘Eat, Pray, Love”, in which to my utmost bewilderment and astonishment she talked about her coming to understand the uplifting and ultimately liberating notion that creativity and inspiration come from outside of us rather than within us. (That came as a relief to me knowing my idea wasn’t completely crazy)
In her talk she explained how she traced back the concept of creativity down to the ancient world where the ancient Romans or Greeks used to belief that creative people had their own genius or daemon, a sort of divine ethereal entity or spirit, which inspired them.
This all changed through the onset of the rational Humanist movement where Man was placed at the centre of the Universe. The perspective shifted from people ‘having a genius’ to people ‘being a genius’. This is how it still is. We say “that person is a genius” but not “that person has a genius”. According to Elizabeth Gilbert this was an immensely huge mistake and I cannot agree more.
What happened with this shift in perspective is that people got under the false impression that ideas have to be given birth rather than received and as any mother knows birth is an exercise of force, hard labor and a good deal painful.
Very often, writers who become blocked feel that they have to push themselves more and force the ideas out of themselves. This has often proved to be damaging to a writer’s career, emotionally stressful and in some unhappy cases even tragic.
Creativity is less not more
Creativity is not about doing something more or forcing something out. It is actually about doing something less. It is about letting go of certain preconceived ideas and notions and not allowing our conditioned and limited patterns of thought to interfere with the process. This is why lateral thinking is about leaping over normal routines of thought or why meditation is highly recommended in expanding creativity since it encourages us to suspend judgment, cultivate authenticity and keep a beginner’s mind.
Anyone who is engaged in creative work knows that creativity is not a rational process. It doesn’t come out of our more rational and linear left-hemisphere of our brain. When I am actually writing I very seldom think. If I think I stop writing because I stop the flow. I think and analyze only after I finish my writing in order to check, correct and edit.
Every person involved in some creative work knows that at the moment when we are in the flow, the ideas or the visions come from a source we can’t really identify. One thing is certain – it doesn’t come from our rational and conscious thinking.
The part of the creative process in which we are consciously and actively engaged in is the part where we brainstorm and play around with concepts, make unconditional leaps of thought and question the obvious like little children. The rest is pure receptive inspiration which combines beautifully together with the generative aspect of creativity in a yin and yang kind of way.
Accepting our role as creative agents
Here is where Elizabeth’s advice shines through beautifully. In a few words she realized that when writers shift their perspective from thinking of inspiration as coming exclusively from their heads to accepting that part of it comes from an unknowable source and the other comes from their efforts and background knowledge, they recognize their true authentic identity and roles as writers and creative people.
This reduces the pressure of expectation and self-blaming. It makes us more open and in line with our true roles as creative agents of universal ideas. This perspective keeps us on the leading edge of the creative process effectively making us less prone to writer’s block and more in tune with the ever-flowing stream of ideas out there.