Writer’s block, procrastination and your body
By “process”, I don’t just mean the way I go about making a piece of writing.
I also mean my ‘processing’, as in brain processing. This covers how we get from idea to execution and the factors that get in the way.
One of the major roadblocks in the creative process is the ‘BIG P’ – procrastination.
Unfortunately, writing – unlike other forms of expression – is especially prone to procrastination.
There’s even a specific name for it: ‘writer’s block’.
The French writer and creator of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, describes writer’s block:
You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word.”
Sounds painful doesn’t it?
And anyone who’s experienced writer’s block or any other sort of block knows what a misery it is.
Notice how Flaubert describes holding his head in his hands?
I wonder if the image of the creative person holding her head, banging her head or generally focussing on her head is a metaphor for tackling blockages in the wrong way.
“ Rather than seeing this lack of flow as a ‘mental’ problem, what if we saw it as an entire body problem? ”
All art and expression are deeply subjective and sprung from the mind, but some require the participation of the body in a way that writing does not.
Dance, for instance, or sculpture, require physical movement, where hitting a keyboard or scribbling with a pen don’t. Writers can easily become disembodied brains, or, as educationalist Ken Robinson says of university professors (whose work is predominately writing):
There’s something curious about professors in my experience — not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads. They live up there, and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads…Don’t they?
It’s a way of getting their head to meetings…If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, get yourself along to a residential conference of senior academics, and pop into the discotheque on the final night.”
Perhaps one of the reasons writing is prone to procrastination is because it lends itself so easily to the type of disembodiment Robinson is talking about.
Simply put, when we’re disembodied, not only do we stop moving physically, we also stop moving in terms of thought and creativity.
This is an important point not only for writers who want to improve their productivity and the quality of their writing, but also for other creatives who’d love to improve their process.
Recent research highlights the dangers of viewing creativity as an activity solely of the ‘mind’.
A paper by Stanford professor Nalini Ambady and researcher from Columbia University, Michael Slepian shows the significance of the body in generating creativity. Participants who enacted fluid movement showed enhanced creativity in not one but three domains: creative generation, cognitive flexibility, and the ability to make remote connections.
Ambady and Slepian conclude that, “ [b]odily movement can influence cognitive processing, with fluid movement leading to fluid thinking.”
Of course, the integration of the mind and body is by no means a new idea.
Continental and Eastern philosophers alike have been promoting the benefits of movement for centuries. But perhaps, like many ideas, they’re not foregrounded until we need them.
And now, more than ever, we need to be reminded of the benefits of movement.
Movement and activity improve physical health in terms of spinal mobility, weight and cardiovascular function.
But movement is also important and perhaps also vital for creative health too.
Experimenting with the body
Over the past year, I’ve conducted a small self-experiment, committing to a program of weight training to improve my strength and balance. I also taught myself to rollerblade and dance, two physical activities I had yet to master. I wanted to see if changes in my patterns of physical movement could improve my creative process.
Here’s what I noticed:
- on days when I have a problem with my work, I have trouble moving fluidly and with co-ordination. Rather than imbibing a sense of freedom, rollerblading feels like wheeling through sludge. And I’m clumsier when I dance on these ‘bad” days. So there does seem to be a direct resonance between what’s happening mentally and how this translates on the level of physical performance.
- on “good” days, when my writing has gone well, I’m much more co-ordinated.
- I can use music on bad days to help me forget my mind and find physical flow. When I focus on a beat, my performance improves
- my focus has improved exponentially. I don’t have as many moments of needing to fall asleep at my desk
- my idea generation has improved
- my writing is clearer and better structured (important for me because, believe it or not, structure has always been my creative nemesis)
In summary, the improved strength of my body is a physical metaphor for the strength of my mind.
Of course, none of this is scientific, but there’s plenty of evidence from science to suggest that exercise increases brain function generally. You can find that yourself.
My aim in sharing this with you is not to prove conclusively to you that movement can make you more creative. Instead, I’d like to question the effects of the lack of emphasis creative environments and workspaces place on movement.
If our bodies metaphorically and literally reflect and create our mental spaces, then this means the creative who lives in their head – pays little attention to daily movement, lacks the physical strength required for diversity of movement – sets up conditions for stagnation, lack of motivation, unsustainable bursts of productivity and stunted thinking. All, I’m sure you’d agree, major enemies of getting work out, but also of feeling good about what you’ve made.
This may in fact be one of the reasons mental illness is rife in creative cultures.
You may be thinking this all good and well for her to say, but I’m not fit, I’m not into sport etc so I wouldn’t do something like this.
In that case, your challenge involves starting in small ways. Embark on a mini version of my experiment.
If you’re not physically active, commit yourself to one new activity that you do every day. It may be a little thing like walking up stairs instead of taking a lift, walking to the shops during lunch, or doing a small series of body weight exercises and movements.
Small changes. For big effects.
Note the difference in your work after three months. Drop by and let me know how you go.