writing

Write to better understand your creative potential

Writing changes how we think. To write is to invoke new ways of exploring ideas, expressing thoughts, and uncovering creative possibilities.

When we write, our brains begin to think in terms of prose and narrative, structure and meaning, not merely patterns and dynamic connections between invisible forces. Writing can unlock entire new patterns of thinking for us, similar to how exposing ourselves to new languages, cultures, or even tools, influence our thinking.

When an architect looks at a room, they see everything behind the aesthetic: the way the walls are constructed, how everything is supported and frames, the subtle details most everyone else will overlook. Similarly, when a writer looks at a room, they think of the details nobody else can see. The story the room tells. The characters and their stories, how it all relates to interweaving moments and narratives.

Writing is not merely a way to turn our thoughts into tangible constructs, but it’s also a way to change how we think what we do. You can think of writing as a cognitive technology we use to think in ways other than how we typically do. In our brains, thoughts are presented as networks between many different concepts. When we write, thoughts have to mutate into something we can put onto the page in a more structured and transferable way.

The same goes for drawing, dancing, designing, coding, playing music, and speaking in other languages. When we do these things they require ideas to transform from intangible, ill-defined networks of relationships into more structured representations of themselves. It’s through this transformation that our thinking itself changes. When we conduct these things, not only do we need to have the ideas behind hem, we must find also ways to transfer and communicate them through written formats, spoken words, or other tangible means.

The tools we use to conduct this work influences our thinking as well. The architect who relies on mathematical formulas and software to conduct her business is more likely to think in terms of equations and structure. The artist who expresses himself in cubism is likely to see things from more abstract vantage points. It’s the writer who sees the connections amongst things and the invisible spaces between them.

As Michael Nielsen explains: “You begin to think with the interface, learning patterns of thought that would formerly have seemed strange, but which become second nature…[these] make it easy to have insights or make discoveries that were formerly difficult or impossible.”

The power of writing is that it enables us to, as Michael explains, have insights and think in ways that were previously difficult or impossible to have. Any activity is beneficial in this regard, but it’s writing which enables us to quickly capture thoughts as they occur, to reflect on them in such a manipulatable way. Writing captures these fleeting concepts we call “ideas” and puts them bare in front of us, to explore and manipulate and better understand.

If you want to better understand your creative potential, try writing. A few words a day can go a long way.



What writing teaches us about creativity

Albert Einstein was a prolific writer, of course. So were Edison, Darwin, Picasso, the Wright brothers, da Vinci, and Marie Curie.

If we were to skip over all the creative geniuses in history who were writers by profession, we would still find that many of the most creative minds worked like theirs: writing has been invaluable for working through ideas.

What makes writing such an powerful part of the creative process? The act of writing enables us to do things no other method of expression can.

Have you ever written something—as an assignment, in a journal, as a scribbled idea, or as a letter or email—only to look back at it and find some part of yourself unable to recognize what was written?

The reason is that ideas are fluid in the mind. When we recall an idea we rely on a vast network of synapses to active in just the right order as they did when we first had the idea. As neuroscientist Paul King once stated: “A ‘thought’ could be viewed as a chaotic attractor of neural activity in the brain – a semi-stable transitional state that is sufficiently organized to have some associational structure.”

This is why memories change over time, possibly becoming more and more inaccurate the more we recall them.

It’s only when we capture ideas in writing that we can more accurately recall and interact with them.

Writing also allows us to evaluate how our minds and creative processes evolve over time, allowing us to have more concrete representations of our thoughts or thinking processes.

Author and artist Austin Kleon:

Documenting your process helps your progress. Keeping track of what you’ve done helps you better see where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re headed.

When it comes to creative thought, ideas are even more susceptible to being forgotten or otherwise uncontrollably altered in the mind. And whatever novel connections between neurons sparked a worthwhile idea in the first place are likely to be weak (since the brain develops strong synaptic connections only after ideas have sufficiently been repeatedly bonded).

Truly creative ideas are remarkably fragile in the mind. It’s likely that Einstein, Curie, and Picasso, et al. would occasionally dismiss an idea without giving much thought to it, even subconsciously. It’s only by being open to receiving ideas, and then by capturing them as they occur in some form, that we give our full capacity for creativity the attention it deserves.

How do we make more time to capture ideas before they’re forgotten, re-written, or ignored?

Carry a notebook or stack of cards with you, or use a smartphone app (I made one exactly for building a habit of free-writing), and try to write a little bit every single day. It doesn’t even matter exactly what you write, gibberish or otherwise, what matters is that you start to build a habit of writing things down.

If you can build a habit of capturing ideas, or even writing your thoughts down in a hourly or on a blog, you give your creative ideas more of a chance to flourish or, if anything, merely exist in a more concrete form.



Tayarisha Poe: You’ve got to be dumb and stubborn to get good

“A whole world of thinkers and creators would have died before they began if they had listened to the people telling them what not to do.”

There’s a certain level of naivety that must be in-place for creativity to occur.

When we get too comfortable with the way things are – or when we heed the guidance given to us by those who are, themselves, overly comfortable with the way things are or have always been – we close ourselves off from the doors of original thought.

If we listen to what we’re always told, we greatly hinder our ability to explore what’s possible.

It’s only by embracing naivety and finding our own way that we can open ourselves to creative thought.

Such is the case for writer, photographer, and videographer, Tayarisha Poe.

In her youth, Tayarisha had a sudden realization, that she could create what she loved most: books.

Once I figured out that all the books I loved as a kid were written by someone else, I realized I could be someone writing books too.

So she started writing. Nobody came out and told her that 13 year-olds can’t write books. So she wrote.

Then, in high school and college, Tayarisha began experimenting with other means of telling stories: through photography and video. Only this time she faced those who told her what to do and how to do it.

The professors and counselors told her she couldn’t be a photographer, and a writer, and a videographer. Instead, they told her, you have to pick one and become an expert at it.

“In college, at first, I kept being told that I had to choose between writing, filmmaking, and photography,”Tayarisha tells me, “I ignored that.”

“I can’t think of one without the other, they’re so intertwined. Of course, that isn’t to say that I don’t write stories that are only meant to be read or take photos that are only meant to stand alone. But when I’m starting a larger project, I tend to think of it as all three of these mediums coming together to tell a story.”

The result, it seems, is more vivid stories, more powerful photographs, and the combination of the two to create captivating video.

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“It was in college when I realized that people usually tell you that you can’t do something because they’ve never thought to do that thing, or because when they tried it, it didn’t work. Who is to say that you won’t be the one to make it work?

Tayarisha has been diligent to work across all three mediums – the written word, photography, and videography – and her luck seems to have paid off. Her latest project, Selah and the Spades is a beautiful story in the making, paired with humanistic photography and vivid details like those you would see in a film.

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It all stands to remind us that it’s not enough to do what others tell you to do (or not to do) or what works and what won’t.

To be creative is to find your own path. Listen to the advice, of course, but in the end you must find your own path to truly be creative.

You’ve got to be really dumb and stubborn in order to get good at something.

Browse Tayarisha’s portfolio, or explore her latest project: Selah and the spades.

This article is part of the Creative Something Footsteps series, exploring the stories of creatives from around the world to share insights and wisdom. Submit your story here.

Read this next: The power of naive questions



The ways writing helps improve your thinking

A pen and paper, or a digital notepad, are undoubtedly some of the absolute most powerful tools a creative worker can have.

Actually, writing tools are some of the most valuable tools anyone can have.

The reason why writing matters for creativity is simple enough to understand. When you go about your day-to-day your brain is automatically consuming, filtering, and sorting through information. Most of the thoughts you have throughout the day are ignored by your lower level consciousness. i.e. You have thoughts you don’t even realize you have.

Unfortunately the value of those missed thoughts is lost. Again: without us even realizing it.

We’re unable to solve a problem or come up with an original idea because the information that could feed our solution is being filtered out, mentally ignored. That means creative insights are less likely to occur as a result of day-to-day thinking, when we’re not aware of the thoughts running through our own mind.

One way to combat this automatic filtering and sorting process in the brain is to work around it through free writing exercises.

Free writing allows you to capture your stream of thinking without first filtering all of the information.

During free writing, your brain is occupied with the act of writing itself – moving the pen across the page or your fingers over the keyboard – as well as the objective of creating at least somewhat of a flow to what you’re writing. So much so that there isn’t much energy or room for the standard filtering process to take place.

Free writing steps over our mental filtering processes to unveil our more basic thoughts. Of course, at some magnification this isn’t true (or at all possible), but on the face of things the argument stands.

It’s through this overcoming mental filtering that writing helps us to clarify our thoughts and explore possibilities too. When we free write, we control our focus in a way that allows the brain to look just outside of our scope without the burden of staying too-focused.

If you find yourself creatively stuck or digging for new ideas, free writing may be all you need to move forward.

In addition to getting unstuck, writing can help us feel grounded to a situation or event. Seeing written thoughts on a page allows us to manipulate them in a more tangible way than merely thinking can. Rather than trying to imagine how a situation might play out, for example, we can write the words down and then expand on them with additional words (or by erasing or deleting words). This act is ideal for capturing ideas as well as exploring them in depth.

A daily journal, for example, allows us to sort through feelings and situations in a way we otherwise could not. When we write down a problem we’re having or a victory we have achieved, we are able to explore those feelings without the mental filtering process and without the burden of having to sort through so many varied thoughts. In this way, writing allows us to relieve our minds of those situations and make room for newer ones.

Similarly, when we use the likes of sticky notes or a moleskin journal for capturing ideas, that frees up room in our mind for other ideas without risking the loss of previous ones.

I created an app to help this process along, it’s called Prompts.

Even the best ideas must be sorted and stored in the recesses of the mind. No matter how great we think our ideas may be – no matter how hard we believe “I’ll remember this later“ – the brain is a machine that makes the calls, and ideas are regularly shuffled away into places both dark and distant.

If you’re hoping to sort through your thoughts, solve a problem, or have more ideas, try writing.

Related:

This is your brain on writing

Unloading mental debt to make room for creative ideas

You should free-write, even if you’re not a writer

Photo by Jeffrey Pacres.



How to deal with writer’s block

Writer’s block should be taken serious.

Some people like to tout that block is “all in your head” and that fact makes it popular to believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

Yet research has shown that writer’s block is very real. It may be a psychological block in the brain, but so is agraphia: a very real, physical brain disability that prevents communication entirely.

Famed writer of the early 1900s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, (who you’ll remember wrote “ The Great Gatsby”) struggled so viciously with writer’s block that he led himself into believing that inspiration was a finite resource; a well that, after some use, would dry up for good.

There are other types of blocks outside of writer’s block too. Sculptors block, dancers block, composers block. All very real psychological blocks that we often feel powerless to overcome.

Yet, for writers, block is arguably more vital to beat than any other form of block. It isn’t enough to brush it aside saying: “It’s all in your head, so get over it.” Why?

Writers write to communicate. Writing is a clear form of expression, but more than that: it’s often the writer’s way of communicating. More often than not writing is the only form of communication the writer feels comfortable with, particularly in the case of professional writers.

A writer that feels block isn’t simply feeling stuck. He or she feels as though they truly cannot communicate. Block isn’t about simply being unable to write, for the writer, block can sometimes feel like the equivalent of being unable to suddenly move a limb, or – in some cases – being unable to breathe. Wrier’s block is very really debilitating. It’s not something we should brush aside lightly.

There are distinctions worth making here, between a writer who finds herself unable to write, and someone else who is simply unable to write.

In The Midnight Disease, author Alice Flaherty describes the difference between a writer who has block and someone who else who is stuck as such:

“Someone who is not writing but not suffering does not have writer’s block; he or she is merely not writing.”

For writer’s, block is something that must be dealt with, not effortlessly brushed aside.

In her book, Flaherty explores the numerous reasons for a writer to feel stuck. She lists external causes as a common reason for writer’s to experience block.

External causes for writer’s block are difficult for the writer to identify, for the fact that external blocks are ones that we form in our own heads based on external feedback. Feedback that we may not be paying conscious attention too. Though that’s not always the case.

Flaherty shares the story of novelist Paul Kafka-Gibbons: “[Gibbons] decided to take a relaxing summer off from writing his novel. He then spent those months wrestling with his psychoanalyst who thought he should face the fact that he had writer’s block.”

External pressures to write can lead us into believing that we’re the ones at fault, that we’re stuck because we’re lacking in talents, because we haven’t nothing worthwhile to write, or for deeper reasons.

In the case of student writers who feel stuck, the external drive may not be any person, but the subject itself.

Flaherty writes: “Students who seem blocked often turn out instead to have a secret dislike of their subject ” or their teacher, or their parents.”

Or, in the case of non-writers who dream of writing, the societal pressures can be internalized effortlessly. The result of external pressures is that the writer doesn’t feel as though he or she has anything valuable to say, and so doesn’t write. “I’m not a writer,” the belief goes, “so I can’t write.”

Outside of external causes there are other, more internal, reasons for writer’s block as well.

Researcher Mike Rose has a few leading theories on the subject. One of his primary theories for writer’s block is that writers place debilitating rules over their work. These rules ” which can often take shape subconsciously, on their own, without our knowing ” hinder our ability to write. Rules like avoiding sentence fragmentation, following a certain rhythm, or the editing too early.

In the end, the reasons for writer’s block varies from writer to writer.

What is commonly believed among researchers and writer’s alike is that block is predominantly an imbalance between the cognitive desire for writing and the emotional need.

Either the higher-process thinking of cognitive writing has tuned-out the emotional appeal (which can result in raw, but unemotional and un-energetic writing), or the emotional process has taken control and the ideas for writing become too uninhibited, more about “expression” and less about “communication” as Flaherty describes it.

Knowing what we know now, we can look to the array of options for getting unstuck. Because of the many reasons for block, there is an equal number of solutions for overcoming it.

On one hand are cognitive solutions. You’ve undoubtedly heard them before: mind maps, brainstorming, editing other’s work, etc.

On the other hand are more strict solutions, such as Chekhov’s rifle: the notion that every element of your story be essential and utterly irreplaceable. “A rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter must be fired by the third.”

What other effective solutions are there for writer’s block?

Writer’s apps

In recent years applications have been developed to help writer’s overcome block in a number of ways. I even created an app that provides creative prompts to help you keep writing whenever you may feel stuck or unable to start.

Writers workshops

Workshops can be helpful in the context they give to both the writer and the writer’s work. A supportive structure to write in can help remove external pressures, while the knowledgable criticism of an experienced working group can be what you need to overcome internal rules or pressures you’ve placed on yourself.

Breaking tasks into smaller chunks

Often the thought of writing a novel – or even a series of pages – can be daunting enough to cause block. An effective solution is to break your task down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Rather than looking at the writer’s job as that of creating a large volume of text, look at it as simply to write a single paragraph. Then to write another, onward until a story begins to form naturally.

Addressing the fears of writing

Rejection and failure are the two biggest fears any writer faces. Often those fears cripple without us knowing. The solution is simple: take time to sit down and think about what your fears of writing may be and what you can do to overcome them. More often than not the fears are irrational (or don’t outweigh the potential benefits of writing). In the end, the best option is to get out of your own way.

Change your environment

It’s amazing what a subtle shift in environment can do for the creative person. In a cafe the noise may be enough to distract you, but it might also help to have people looking over your shoulder to see that you are, in fact, making progress on whatever it is you’re doing. Your environment can make a huge difference.

A dozen more things

From The Midnight Disease Flaherty uncovers more promising and practical efforts for overcoming writer’s block:

“Edit something you wrote the day before, always stop at an easy spot, start with an outline that gets more and more elaborate until it becomes your text, start with stream of consciousness writing, don’t edit too early, drink lots of coffee, take a break.”

When it comes down to it, the absolute best way to deal with writer’s block is two fold: first, experiment. Try any of the options listed above, or even seek professional counseling – as many prolific writers of the past have had to do for their block. The second part of overcoming writer’s block is habits.

Form a habit for writing. It doesn’t much matter what your habits consist of, only that they exist. A quality writing habit helps overcome nearly all of the pressures that have been known to cause writer’s block. External pressures are defunct because they have no part in your habits, and internal pressures can be made powerless as a result.

Creativity is, after-all, like riding a bike. The only way to effectively learn to ride it is to get on regularly and practice. Habits should be your practice.

Photo by Jochen Handschuh.