When we are in flow and the writing is pouring out of us we seem to act on automatic. But at other times we feel dry and the writing seems forced. What do we do to find the inspiration again? How do we find the rush of words, images, associations and story again?
The clue is to go deep within, to relax and cease trying to force the writing with painful conscious efforts. Thinking is an essential stage of writing (or solving any problem), as is the passion to solve it (we have to care) but having done the thinking and imagining, we need to desist from conscious effort.
1. trust your subconscious pilot
Genius is a process, not a personal possession and it’s available to everyone, but so often we get in our own way with too much struggle and anxious pressure. We need to hand over more to the subconscious and trust that flow will happen.
In The Conquest of Happiness the philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it like this:
…if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan it to think about it with very great intensity… for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique I used to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.
The subconscious writer is not easily overwhelmed or likely to suffer from anxiety. In The New Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz talks about the subconscious as an automatic creative mechanism that can he likens to an
infinitely capable servo-mechanism
The mechanistic language isn’t a metaphor I warm to, but the etymology of cybernetics points towards automatic systems in living things as well as machines and comes from the Greek, ‘to pilot’ or ‘to steer’. The notion of this inner pilot is much more creative. As Maltz says:
Our problem is … that we try to do everything and solve all our problems by conscious willpower. … You pile on stress by striving to do it all: you relieve stress by learning to assign ‘problems’ to your [pilot], then letting them go
Too much conscious thinking about how to solve anything from life problems to a poem is stressful; it makes us anxious and over-cautious as the fear piles up.
To let go and be able to trust the subconscious writer within demands certain elements are present in our lives:
2. establish daily rituals
You need a daily practice of habits or rituals that support your:
- soul (used in the broadest sense)
You need to:
- sleep well
- eat nutritiously and intentionally
- read and find intellectual stimulation
- connect with others
- do things that excite you and give life meaning
- live your values
In short, you need morning and evening routines and days that encompass play, love, imagination, quests and a supportive environment.
3. journal every day
We develop the mindset of a writer by practice and journalling is a great way to do this, whether you are reflecting on life, imagining he future or playing with words through writing exercises.
- prime your creativity
- make your thinking and living not only clearer but more congruent
- increase your equanimity and gratitude
- sharpen your mind
- fuel your passion and purpose
Journalling can nurture the writer within as well as providing material.
4. inhabit your body
If we feel dislocated and disconnected, if we shy away from inhabit ourselves fully, and write from the senses; from authentic, embodied human experience then we will be less likely to trust the subconscious too. The self is complex and dynamic. We need to attend to all of it, not with anxiety and force, but by trusting the depths while you
… let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves
Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’
5. rest and recuperate
Rational thought is essential, certainly. This is not a manifesto for never thinking and deliberating. But over-thinking kills creativity. In his essay ‘The Gospel of Relaxation’, written in 1899, William James railed against being too stressed, busy and concerned with products rather than process. He put it like this:
When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good
In short, rational thinking has it’s time and place, but once it’s done, don’t second-guess yourself. Trust the process. Part of this trust is handing over to the subconscious pilot. And part of it is not worrying away at the writing, endlessly driving yourself round in ever-decreasing circles.
Creativity takes a lot of energy and requires a great deal of recuperation. Remember: you have to switch off to switch on creativity. The world is busy, loud and sometimes harsh and you need to recover from it. You need time away from and to recover from:
- the constant barrage of technology
- work and the demand to always be producing
You need activities that replenish and nurture you, whether it’s:
- time with loved one
- seeing art of films
- listening to music
- moving — dance, walk, do yoga, cycle…
- cooking and eating
- gazing at the stars/the ceiling … doing sweet nothing
What are your soul vitamins?
6. find the silence
Rest and recuperation is essential, so vital, that sometimes we need to focus on the art of ‘being’. When we are in being mode, the world is richer. We are more aware of senses and emotions, as well as thoughts.
Earlier this year my daughter spent ten days in silent retreat, up each day at 4 a.m. and meditating at least ten hours each day. You learn a lot about who you are during this kind of time out. It’s not for everyone, but we can all benefit from more silence in our lives. We can all need time to think about the the person we want to become, so that when we act, the doing is congruent with the being.
When we pay attention to qualities and inner states, we
- pay more attention to process than product
- feel calmer, less fearful and anxious
- feel more sense of control in the face of obstacles
- value fulfillment and meaningfulness over outcomes
Why does this matter to writers? Why will this improve how your subconscious assists you?
- Because writing is an act of witness and human connection.
- Because story is vital to every society and every individual.
7. change your inner world
When your inner world changes the outer world will follow it. We know this in our bodies. Not all illness is ‘psycho-somatic’ —
environmental and other factors all play their parts, but we also know how stress triggers a plethora of illnesses cand suffering.
And it’s not only direct physical effects. Inner harmony gives us clearer thinking and intellectual rigour. A strong (not egotistical, but healthy) self image gives us the confidence to make better decisions and be more effective.
When we change how we think, the world alters with us. This isn’t magic. In ‘Chess Story’, Stefan Zweig notes:
People and events don’t disappoint us, our models of reality do. It is my model of reality that determines my happiness or disappointments.
Friedrich Nietzsche puts it more obliquely:
And those who were seen dancing, were thought to be crazy, by those who could not hear the music.
Changing your inner world is the courage to hear the music. Or inner world, after all, creates the horizon of meaning in which we operate; in which we write.
8. understand flow
And so we come full circle. When we support our writing selves though:
- strong daily rituals
- nurturing the body
- rest and recuperation
- finding a sense of being in the silence
- changing our inner world
then we will relax sufficiently to trust the inner pilot and get into flow.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term flow for a state of energised focus and immersion in an activity, particularly in creative work. For flow to happen you need:
- intrinsic motivation and goals
- a balance of challenge, skills and confidence
Writing about flow in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, Csíkszentmihályi and Jeanne Nakamura talk of how:
… experience seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment, and one enters a subjective state with:
Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
Merging of action and awareness
Loss of reflective self-consciousness (i.e., loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor)
A sense that one can control one’s actions…
Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.
We get lost in flow and the conscious self drops away. We operate at full capacity. In flow, we are in the process of genius and we get there not only by being writers of persistence and skill, but by taking time to hand over to the subconscious pilot whenever we reach an obstacle that requires more than conscious thought.
There comes a point in creativity when conscious struggle isn’t sufficient and we reach the paradox of the Taoist wei wu wei: ‘action without action’ or ‘effortless doing’.
As Priya Hemenway translates Chapter II of the Tao Tê Ching:
The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
the Sage has nothing to lose.
This is the process of genius.
Becoming a Different Story with journalling…
This autumn I’ll be launching a journalling course for becoming a different story — working on creativity and the writing life. If you’d like details sign up to my email list or email me @ email@example.com. I’ll send you my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.