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Desert landscape near Alice Springs, Australia

I’ve gone through creative dry spells. Everybody does, but when it is happening to you, it is hard to not take it personally and forget that the condition is common. It is easier to talk about it when the episode is over. It’s a little like childbirth: Give me a while before I tell you about how it was to deliver an 11 pound child.

Reading through the rich responses to Jerry Saltz’s recent posting on the reality of being an artist (here) started me thinking (again) about the highly interior and intensely private nature of the struggle for flow. So many artists owned up to and spoke about their experience with such candor, and I was deeply touched by many of their words.

One writer included a link to Susan K. Perry, a psychologist and writing consultant, who is also the author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Over the years Perry has collected a list of the most common fears that lead to creativity blocks:

The worry that the work isn’t good enough
The fear that I have no talent.
The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won’t like it.
The fear of appearing foolish.
The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it’s done.
The fear that I’ve wasted my time.
The fear of offending somebody.
A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
Feeling I’m in over my head, that I won’t be able to do this without appearing stupid.
The fear that I’ll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.

Does anyone ever conquer all of these demons? Probably not. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?”

Perry points to another writer’s insights:

The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have “this part in their brain” that allows them to turn off thoughts of “what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around.”

Wallace at first figured “this stuff” doesn’t occur to professionals, then added, “but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.” Such self-consciousness, he said, is “literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights.” Wallace couldn’t turn it off and gave up tennis.

One of Perry’s suggestions for dealing with the feeling of being frozen by a fear: Trivialize the task.

I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.

It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you’re doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Because you can’t fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.

In a different post Perry compares creativity to making love. That’s extra credit reading.

I’ve been in my studio all week, doing very little in the way of art making. In my vigil of just sitting, I have pondered this question: How is it that a juicy, lush stream of creative expression can dry up and disappear overnight? What is the fragile chemistry of the brain or the body (or both) that is unkiltered by grief and suffering?

Sometimes sorrow can bring on an outpouring of expression. The number of exquisite poems birthed from the fractured shards of a broken heart is not insignificant. At the same time, I know of artists and writers who have gone lights out for years because of a deep loss.

The question feels more rhetorical than answerable. But thinking about it so much has led to research, and the exploration of its rational/scientific manifestation is a kind of palliative distraction.

Here’s an interesting extract I found in the Harvard Gazette. The work of Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard and the author of The Midnight Disease, is featured in this piece:

The notion of muse as a “divine voice” or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.

The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.

“It’s likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes,” Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.

Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls “intellectually unhygienic…”

In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty’s theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn’t go on when it’s blocked.” Flaherty notes…

What about people who believe they have something to say but can’t get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. “Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy,” Flaherty says. “This condition is best treated by taking a break.” John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer’s block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.

I quite like that phrase, “intellectually unhygienic”. But I’ll take my chances.

And as for Keats’ solution, maybe I’ll give the haberdashery cure a try…