My best day ever of writing happened not at a retreat but while riding an elephant through Thailand’s Um Phang province. A nasty case of writer’s block had bogged me down midway through my novel-in-progress. But as I swayed through the jungle on vacation, I experienced a sudden burst of illumination and practically finished the story in my head.
Such moments of creative clarity happen to most writers at one time or another. But why—why hadn’t this breakthrough occurred during the countless hours I’d spent sweating over my keyboard, struggling to shape plot and dialogue by brute force? Because I’d been thinking too hard, according to Rex Jung, a principal investigator at The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, N.M.
Creative bursts, Jung says, occur when discrete bits of information stored in our brains connect along new pathways. In my case, the Asian culture experience hooked up with a childhood memory, and voila! I created a character out of the jungle air.
A growing body of research in neuroscience, psychology and even business supports this laid-back approach to innovation. “You can’t force creativity to happen,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the effects of workday design on creativity. “It needs incubation, it needs downtime. It needs to happen on its own schedule.”
Brain research also underscores the smothering effect of stress on creative thought. In the months leading up to my Thailand vacation, a demanding day job had left me in a constant state of mental exhaustion. When I’d tried to write, my strung-out neurons had transmitted messages along safe, established pathways, stifling spontaneous connection and generating bland, predictable prose. Jung calls this rut “cognitive inhibition,” a one-track state of mind.
So how can writers turbocharge their powers of spontaneous creativity in the face of deadlines, rejection and demanding day jobs? Here’s the fantastic news: The answer involves hot showers, sunshine and healthy doses of downtime.
1. CHANNEL YOUR FLOW.
To unleash your full creative potential, you must first quiet your brain’s frontal lobe, the powerful control center that directs planning and problem solving. But before you tune out your inner taskmaster, you can prime it to generate and seize upon useful ideas—in the background and without conscious effort on your part.
When starting a project, take a moment to reflect, suggests Harvard psychology professor Shelley Carson, author of Your Creative Brain. What’s the subject of the piece? Who’s the audience? What main idea do you want to convey?
Once you’ve set creative parameters and constraints, your brain will scan your stream of consciousness for usable ideas, Carson says. Connections that fit the bill will then enter your awareness as those “aha!” moments writers crave.
2. CULTIVATE “MINDLESSNESS.”
Now that you’ve programmed your mental DVR, it’s time to turn down the volume on goal-directed thinking. If zoning out doesn’t come naturally, try research-proven strategies like exercise, meditation or deep breathing to lower your frontal lobe activity. Anything that relaxes you, from yoga to a hot shower, can do the trick.
To foster a sense of calm engagement, Elsbach recommends scheduling some “mindless work” into each day. Spend 30 minutes cleaning, gardening, sorting mail or doing any chore that requires some concentration but isn’t mentally taxing.
“Don’t feel like you have to come up with something creative during that time,” Elsbach says. “If nothing happens, you got something done that needed to get done anyway. But it often helps people to have those creative leaps.”
3. CHANGE YOUR SCENE.
You don’t need to ride an elephant or hike across outer Tajikistan to get your neural network firing along new pathways. Volunteering, spending time outside, visiting old friends or writing at an unfamiliar coffeehouse may all provide enough novelty to spark innovative thought. In this respect, the oft-derided day job may actually offer part-time writers a creative advantage. “They’re exposed to different kinds of problems, different co-workers, different environments,” Elsbach says.
Relating a new experience to previous ones forces your brain to reprocess stored content, which can set off a chain reaction of original ideas. “Take everything you come across in life and try to either connect it to something else or think, what if?” Carson suggests. “What if one thing about this were different? What would happen?”
4. NUDGE YOUR MUSE.
If a laid-back approach doesn’t spark any creative breakthroughs, Carson suggests the following proactive exercise. List key ideas, characters and phrases from your story and look for new and unlikely associations between these elements. What does your protagonist’s secret mean for her archenemy? How does the war-torn setting color your character’s first romance? “The more connections you make, the more interesting and novel ideas will come to mind,” Carson says.
Stretching your story’s possibilities may also help. “Really start playing with your imagination and ‘what-iffing’ all the crazy directions the writing can go,” Carson says. “One of those may, in fact, work for you.”
A final caveat: Treat creative downtime as a strategy, not an excuse to coast. Your best ideas will be wasted if you avoid the laborious work of crafting them into a finished piece. “It behooves all writers to be authentic with themselves,” Carson says. “I think deep down we all know when we’re procrastinating.”
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