by | Nov 11, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 9 comments

By Francine Mathews

For reasons I won’t go into, I spent much of Wednesday, November 9, curled in a fetal position on my couch, experiencing anxiety, dread, and fear of all I cannot control. Or, as it’s sometimes called, a panic attack. Adrenalin-flushed bloodsteam, stomach nausea, occasional full-body tremors. My dogs do the same thing when a smoke detector chirps. Only I had no lap to climb into.

At seven a.m., I drank my morning coffee. Caffeine is not advised in a panic attack.

By ten a.m., I was drinking chamomile tea instead and had turned on my gas fireplace for warmth and comfort.

By two p.m., I was able to “take a little soup,” as Jane Austen might say–although in her case, it would have been a little thin gruel. Not having the attention span to research gruel recipes on the internet, I settled for heating a kale-vegetable concoction from Whole Foods.

By four p.m. I was drinking wine, by the fireplace again.

And by six in the evening, I at last got a little work done. Not writing, you understand–but a chunk of reading for research that comforted me profoundly. I might not have been able to focus enough to create prose of my own, but I could take in the stately nineteenth-century passages of an Englishman’s memoirs without my brain fluttering like a moth impaled on a hatpin. 

And so the healing began.

Writers are creative and thus emotionally sensitive people. Particularly writers of fiction, who unleash their imaginative power in ways that sometimes horrifies even themselves. But at the same time, we’re disciplined minds who channel that potency into complex storytelling. We like to think that as professionals, we can summon our creative forces and master the chaos at will. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes during periods of upheaval, the words refuse to come. The page stays blank. The story goes untold.

Some call this writer’s block. I call it being human. 

Over the past several decades I’ve discovered that the answer to blockage is NOT to stare at my computer screen. It’s NOT to write pages of forced paragraphs I’ll end up deleting. My solution instead is to get out of my desk chair and pick up a garden trowel or a stack of dirty laundry or a jigsaw puzzle. These things have nothing to do with each other except for this–they occupy my hands, which ties up the control-freak in my brain.

I know very little about brain structure, but enough to realize that what I’m about to say is not real science or even accepted fact: that the left brain governs the linear and organizational, while the right side is supposedly abstract and creative. I have found, however, that when my creative (right) brain is stuck, my left (linear) brain goes into overdrive and attempts to analyze my problem to death. This never results in storytelling I love. It results in wasted hours, frustration, and the conviction  that I am a failed writer.

What DOES unblock my muse is switching from one side of my brain to the other.

I give the linear half of my mind a simple task to organize: shoveling dirt, for instance, and planting bulbs at a precise depth; sorting colors and delicates and whites into separate piles by family member; driving a predictable route on a familiar errand so unconsciously that I arrive at the grocery store or school pickup line without remembering how I got there. While my left brain manages the task, my right brain roams far and wide–and finds the knot snarled in the thread of my story. 

Creativity does not occur at the conscious level of the mind. Its powers are magical, whimsical, and uncertain. It cannot be summoned or entirely mastered. We can only be open to it–and sometimes, that happens most when we shut down the manic busybody inside our heads.

How do you jumpstart creativity, readers?


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  1. S. Lee Manning

    For reasons I won't go into either, I have been calling friends and family, unable to focus, writing posts and things I shouldn't on Facebook and Twitter. Haven't done a thing on my novel. Haven't thought of doing a thing on my novel. My husband yesterday finally dragged me out of the house and we climbed Elmore mountain. I've learned over the years that I do this – and to let it go. It will work its way out. I'm writing again, now, (although I will admit that my Russian character was up to no good on Twitter this morning, but he has an irascible streak). The other thing I've learned is to not feel guilty that I can't do anything constructive until I work through whatever has a hold on me.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    Ah, Wednesday. Yes. I very much like your description of switching from left to right brain and back again to unblock. Never looked at it that way. It makes so much sense, and I love your fireplace!

  3. Francine Mathews

    I notice that working out also helps. But I'd much rather eat bon-bons. 🙂

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    I run. Needless to say I have been running a lot lately. I never eat under stress. I bought Ben & Jerry's, but it has remained in the fridge, unopened. I'm not even drinking–just my usual one glass with dinner. I'm losing weight (not my intention at all), but I agree that physical activity with no agenda is the ticket. Like your idea of reading older literature and perhaps I'll pop in my Pride and Prejudice DVD tonight and watch Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy match wits. Thanks for the post!

  5. Karna Bodman

    First, Francine — I wonder where you found those great photos you've embedded in this terrific blog post (the "Help" at the top really captures the "mood.") I admit that there are many times when I too am trying to be creative, but end up feeling totally constrained. Thanks for letting me know that I'm not laboring in this endeavor all alone!

  6. Sonja Stone

    Francine, thank you for this. I've been shrouded in an unshakable sadness. Hearing that my blog sisters–women I very much admire–are experiencing the same sadness and anxiety makes me feel less alone.

  7. John Sheldon

    Glad to hear that when I switch from the computer screen to something non-thinking I'm not just being lazy.

  8. Francine

    You're being constructive, John.

  9. Chris Goff

    I find it sooo easy to find other things to do than write. Now I have another way to justify my behavior. Thanks.