Friday, May 4, 2012

Imagination and Being Stuck--New Brain Facts for Writers

The topic of creativity and brain science has exploded in the past few years.  There was Daniel Pink's amazing book, A Whole New Mind, which explored how we're becoming more right-brain able and how it's causing creativity to blossom in our culture.  This week I've been reading another wonderful new book--Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.  Lehrer brought us Proust Was a Neuroscientist, an easy-to-understand exploration of senses and how we access them as creative artists.

The opening section of Imagine talks about Bob Dylan.  How Dylan was on tour in the early stages of his career and hated it so much, he told his fans he was giving up music.  He felt his songs were meaningless, that they no longer thrilled him in any way.  He didn't like who he had become.

He ended the tour and got on his motorcycle, and he rode to his cabin in Woodstock, New York, intending to hole up and do something completely unrelated to writing songs.

One day, Lehrer recounts, Dylan felt a sort of buzz inside, the first tingles of imagination stirring again, new ideas coming through.  Because he wasn't trying, because he'd given up the "right way" to write songs, the lyrics and melody of "Like a Rolling Stone" began pouring through.  You may know that this particular song changed the face of rock 'n' roll;even Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon were influenced by it.  It broke all the rules back then, and introduced us to a new era.

Why did it happen?  Because Dylan got stuck. Because he got sick and tired of how he was doing things and decided to stop.  Lehrer says Dylan's imagination was then free to engage in a completely new way.  This seems to be a key component of breakthroughs, creatively.

We need to get stuck, first, Lehrer proposes.  Before the imagination can take new pathways, we may need to really feel we're going nowhere. 

Julia Cameron also talks a lot about this, in her well-loved guide to creativity, The Artist's Way.  As I understand it, Cameron originally wrote it for creative artists who were stuck, who were not doing their art anymore.  The idea was to actually acknowledge the stuckness, to almost embrace it (morning pages), then begin to give yourself creative alternatives.  Try new things, let go of how we "should" be doing it.  Only then can the imagination stir, buzz inside us, give us those ideas that might lead to a breakthrough.  Cameron very gently assigned readers a weekly artist date:  to spend an hour exploring something completely unknown.

I teach online book-writing classes and week-long book-writing retreats.  In both of these courses, there's the keen possibility of getting stuck.  I watch many writers reach this place, and although they despair, I am quietly celebrating.  It doesn't mean I am a nasty person who likes to watch people suffer.  I just delight in the knowledge that this "stuck" writer is about to breakthrough to a new level, because I deeply believe that getting stuck--even for an hour--is a prerequisite to that letting go that allows the breakthrough to happen.

It's obvious that many writers give up when they are stuck, rather than exploring how to fill up the creative well, as Cameron recommends.  The Inner Critic gets excited, shuts the creative gate, and that's that for the book project sometimes.  I hope more writers allow their support networks to coach them through this stage, past the discomfort, and encourage them to explore something new.

Remember this formula is exactly how the imagination gets sparked.  Odd, isn't it?  Creativity is only partly the ability to be disciplined and responsible to the Muse, to sit ourselves in the chair and write.  It's also about keeping the imagination ever seeking the new and different to spark from.

Interesting that brain studies are finding out the same thing:  the brain doesn't court imaginative breakthroughs as often if it's plodding down the same road, taking things in sequence.  Discipline is great, but it alone won't make you a great writer. 

So the point is to let yourself daydream, go out of focus.  How do you incorporate this kind of activity into your writing life, especially when you are working hard on a book project?

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  This week, put aside your project and go exploring.  Do something completely unrelated and allow yourself to become saturated by color, image, sounds, smells.  Spring is a great time for this--in our neck of the woods, the lilacs are in full bloom and the air is scented with heaven.  Go outside, barefoot if possible, and repair your nature deficient. 

2.  Get a copy of Lehrer's book, Imagine, and enjoy learning more about the brain and creativity.


  1. This sounds fascinating! Thanks for posting.

  2. Great post, Mary. As it turns out, my husband checked out IMAGINE from the library last week. Good timing!

    (btw... On your recommendation, I've been reading TURN HERE SWEET CORN.
    Beautiful writing! Seeing a former student publish an outstanding book must make your heart sing.)

  3. Great content on this blog. Great tips! It's so true that when you walk away for a while, things just come through, or they even come to you - some information you may need to consider and then continue. Thanks.

  4. I feel stuck lately. My imagination is sluggish. I keep trying to concentrate on writing my novel, and I am writing scenes I hope I can build on later, but my mind--maybe my creativity--seems not to want to focus on it, though my heart very much wants to. I feel old and tired!

  5. Very cool, Cindy. I think you'll enjoy it a lot!

    Yes, it's one of the big perks of my job to see students publish. I have shelves full of published books that they send me, a year or so after the class, and I celebrate with them.

  6. Jan,

    The stuckness is helped a lot by a support system of other book writers. My advice: look for an online class or writing group to join. Keep in touch with other writers, build yourself a community. The stuckness is a temporary phase but it can last a lifetime without good support from others in the same creative journey.


  7. Thanks for visiting, Barbara! So glad you found the post helpful.

  8. I'm late in reading this post, but it's funny as today I just couldn't take another day being on the computer and writing - feeling like I had nothing, so I went outside and worked in the garden. I feel refreshed! I'll add Imagine to my book list. Thanks for a great post.