It happens to a bunch of writers—particularly those writers who are enthusiastic storytellers and seeking better ways to write those stories. (Perhaps writers like those who have attended, and are currently attending Viable Paradise. Just maybe.)
You spend years writing stories as quickly as your fingers can fly across the keyboard, thrilled with the ideas, the characters, the dialogue, the action, EVEYTHING. Every stolen moment is spent adding to the word count, and those stolen moments are absolutely necessary because the story is always right there at the edge of your thoughts. It’s ready. You’re ready. It’s all flow. You are the ruler of all story!
Then you learn a New Thing—possibly the most wonderful and accurate and encouraging New Thing any writer could dream of—and yet your stories grind to a halt. Words that once spilled effortlessly onto the page become painful little treasures to be counted one at a time as they are pushed through the keyboard. Days that used to yield thousands of fantastic, reader-believed words might now give you a few hundred painfully-awkward words that’ll need much revising. Stories that used to seem so natural and alive and perfect now sound stilted and dull and derivative. Everything is wrong.
You wonder what sort of fever-dream led you to believe you could string words together at all.
It isn’t writer’s block, exactly. You still have stories to tell, and you know how you want them told. But that New Thing keeps getting in the way. Are you overusing certain sentence structures? Could the character you love be reacting to events in ways offensively stereotypical of gender roles? Did you create a plot hole with shallow logic or insufficient research? Are your descriptions unique and interesting, or the dreaded purple prose? Do you have any grasp of the three-act structure, or the primal drive of myth, or the lure of archetype, and does any of that actually matter? And OMIGOD ARE MY PARAGRAPHS TOO LONG??
Rest assured, that sort of stalling out doesn’t happen because you’re a terrible writer. It certainly doesn’t happen because you aren’t “strong” enough to bear critique. (That’s an insidious little construct in certain segments of the neo-pro writer-world, truly.) It happened because your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that functions as a wet blanket when the rest of you gears up for fun—took control.
That Wet Blanket is also what helps us focus on what we want or need to do. It helps us solve problems, consider complexities, plan solutions, and weigh consequences. It keeps us from acting on impulses that civilized society might frown upon. It might permit you to say, “Fuck my stupid job,” to your friends (depending upon your friends…), but will recommend you refrain from blurting it out during a business meeting.
Total Wet Blanket.
Frankly, I’m glad my son has a Wet Blanket that enables him to self-regulate behavior like, say, driving at the speed limit posted on signs rather than the speed limit his car is capable of achieving on a straightway. But when it comes time to work creatively, it’s fucking murderous.
Bits and pieces of research (like this one involving jazz musicians improvising while in an MRI scanner) demonstrate creativity lights up distinct parts of the brain. Neural systems that regulate emotions ramp up. Areas involved in processing sensory information become hyper-engaged. A small segment of the prefrontal cortex—the one involved in relating memories and stories—kicks in. It’s a pattern very much like the one seen when you’re dreaming, and that’s a pretty cool correlation, really.
And the most consistent finding in studying creativity is that creativity is stunted and gray and timid until one specific part of the brain—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which keeps a close eye on your behavior—clocks out. Creativity happens when the Wet Blanket takes a hike.
We sometimes describe that experience as losing ourselves in the story, as clearly seeing and hearing the scenes unfold, as sudden inspiration, as feeling what the characters feel in moments of fear, hope, crisis, victory, confusion and anticipation.
Think about some of the language we use to talk about creating first drafts. We turn off the internal editor, immerse ourselves in the story, just let the story flow. Those aren’t touchy-feely woo-woo pieces of crystal-gazing platitudes. Those are clear and polite instructions delivered to your Wet Blanket: BACK OFF, SHUT UP, DON’T COME BACK UNTIL YOU’RE CALLED.
And, as you know Bob, that always works.
Back to that New Thing I mentioned above, the one that locked your creativity in a steel-banded treasure chest dropped into the Mariana Trench. Your brain likely didn’t sort that New Thing in the creativity section. It’s a rule, after all. A restriction, a direction, a do-this-not-that. It’s tucked in your prefrontal cortex—probably the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—because that’s where the department of Proper Action lives, and that New Thing is supposed to improve how your creative endeavors are seen by others. Others who matter. Like readers who will pay money for your art.
So the part of the brain that inhibits creativity wants to apply New Thing to your creative process in order to improve the final creative project. You can see the problem here, yes?
That’s why so many young artists (and by “young,” I actually mean “inexperienced”) claim learning New Things crushes creativity. That’s why so many writers come home from writing workshops or critique circles, or finish reading writing-advice books and articles, to find themselves filled with hope and excitement yet unable to satisfactorily move forward.
So you sit in the most frustrating of places—in possession of awesome New Things, knowing what you want and need to do, unable to make it happen, stuffed with stories that just don’t seem to come out the way they’re supposed to. Sit there long enough, and you’ll start thinking anyone who ever once mentioned liking your work was just trying to be nice.
But trust me, my darlings, these are not the death throes of your writerly self. They’re growing pains of a sort. It happens for athletes. It happens for musicians. It happens for students. And it happens for writers, too. The difference is athletes, musicians, and students all expect to practice a new skill, and expect it’ll take a little time for it to settle in, become second nature, and create results.
Writers? Well, we like to believe we’re smart folks. We assume if we know something we can do something, and we aren’t above slipping into maudlin when we find this isn’t true. Then, hoping we’ll gain control over what we’re not-quite able to do, we tend to mistake editing for practice. But editing and revising—both of which require the more executive functions of the Wet Blanket—are no substitute for actually writing in a free and creative state followed by refinement. Certainly your end result is likely to be improved with editing, but the ability to shut down your analytical self in order to make room for true creativity is not.
The best thing you can do is follow that common, true advice that sounds both hollow and impossible when the Wet Blanket is in charge: write more. Write even if you’re certain it all sucks, write even if you think no one will ever consider it worth reading, because the more you write while that New Thing is nagging at you, the sooner the New Thing becomes the Known Thing. And Known Things get folded into the stuff you do so often that you don’t need your tut-tutting Wet Blanket to keep tabs on it anymore. Known Things become the tools and materials of creativity.
Tobias Buckell’s informal survey found a mere third of responding writers sold the first novel and only novel they’d written. Two-thirds had written at least one other novel or a bunch of short stories. Twenty-five percent wrote five, six, seven or more novels before making their first novel-length sale. Sometimes the sale was of one of those early novels. But based on what I’ve heard from writers over the years, that earlier-novel sale usually comes after it’s been revised with the knowledge gained from writing later novels.
Seven or more novels. That’s practice.
Practice isn’t the only way to convince the Wet Blanket to take a vacation. Specific other means are likely to vary from person to person, but I’ve found a few that work for me and have seen other interventions work for others. I’ll chit-chat about those later this week. Feel free to share your own methods, too!
Follow-up post: The Light Beyond the Wet Blanket
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