My Mind is Jammed: The Creative Ebb and Flow

“There is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam.” -John Updike, writer (1932-2009)

Although the external causes of a roadblock are clear, the internal causes of this same type of block often boggle the mind. Tension builds, the mind freezes, the chest tightens and a situation much more frightening than the tunnel jam occurs. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how our obsessions with our own utterances build up pressure crippling our ability to free flow in a variety of creative outlets. Even the ability to brain/idea storm is plugged creating frustration and fear.

As we are advised by many famous writer’s, “you are not alone”, and truly you are not. Suggestions abound in how to treat this ubiquitous experience such as take a shower, take a break, do something else, take a walk, a jog, run a marathon. Mixed results are reported by users.

Elkhonon Goldberg discusses the relevance of “Executive Functions”, those higher-level thought processes that control our ability to plan, initiate, sequence, organize, pace, sustain behaviors towards defined goals, all helpful sounding structures for creating, right. The prefrontal cortex, where this function resides also has the ability to imagine beyond the present moment into the past and into the future, or in other words to maneuver in the fourth dimension of time, the arena of story telling or putting disparate elements together in some coherent way.  Sounds like writing.

Executive Dysfunction is a disruption in the efficacy of the internal manager, thus interrupting the ability to plan and execute tasks. Russell Barkley describes this dysfunction as the inability to suppress a present behavior in favor of the past/present task of executive functions, checking emails rather than working on that next chapter perhaps. Disorders such as ADD and OCD hallmark executive function disabilities that make organization, focus and prioritization difficult with the similar result of an inability to complete the task at hand in favor of getting lost in repetitive or distracting tasks.

Writer’s block has been defined by Merriam-Webster as “psychological inhibition preventing a writer from preceding with a piece.”  A debate exists between those who define this process as the inability of a writer to think of what to write or as a cognitive obstacle, a block, that prevents the ability to move further in the creative process.  However, the result is the same, the lack of ability to create some desired result.  And the repeated occurrence of this struggle can result in decreased motivation, avoidance behavior, anxiety and depression.

Patricia Huston MD defines writer’s block as “a distinctly uncomfortable inability to write”, an understatement perhaps for those who experience it. A combination of uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disappointment, hopelessness, or frustration and distressing or distorted thought patterns of magnification, self or other blame, fortunetelling, or seeing the glass as half full trigger, exacerbate and maintain this condition. They mix together and fuel a spiral from a temporary state into a more chronic problem. One’s perspective narrows and the inner critic is fueled into power resulting in a cycle of self punishing talk interrupted by avoidance behaviors, in other words getting caught in all of those less important activities that can consume a moment, an hour, a day. The internal struggle intensifies and worse yet, nothing gets accomplished.

As stated, many suggestions and tips are out there, methodologies to address writer’s block that are quite helpful exist. Within this tendency to block creativity appears to be a deeper understanding of how to step into the flow of the creative when the desire or need to create is present. How to allow rather than impede stepping into this river of inspiration and movement is an ongoing inquiry for anyone who engages in this process.

I suppose those who are successful have found their own understanding of their very personal creative ebb and flow. Perhaps they discover a rhythm of the necessary and unnecessary to live some balance that keeps the minor block from becoming a major one. Rivers find their way around stones in their path. Artists find a way to work with or around the blocks that they encounter along their path of creation. Perhaps in the process of recognizing possibility within limitation, resolution results in taking a path that is just a little more human in what is frequently a super human endeavor.