- Books, Literature, and Writing
How to Wash Away Writer's Block - A Tutorial
For purposes other than simple cleanliness, the shower to me is a place of refuge. It is a quiet place I can retreat to isolate myself from the unforgiving rigors of society and pretend to be people I dreamed about being when I was growing up. For instance, some days I am Johnny Cash belting out "Folsom Prison Blues" in an edgy baritone, or Glenn Frey crooning about somebody's "Lyin' Eyes", or even Morrissey purging my woes with "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now." I give very versatile performances, usually finishing off with John Fogerty's "Who'll stop the Rain" right before I turn off the water. There are no encores; mainly because the drought here in California would make that environmentally irresponsible, and there certainly aren't any shower curtain calls.
The shower to me is also a place of inspiration. It seems awfully cliché and trendy to talk about getting good ideas while soaking under soothing warm water, but the shower is always that reliable pinch hitter I bring to the plate with two outs in the ninth when I have exhausted all means to move that tying run over from third base. The shower might not be batting a thousand, but is swinging at least .500 with runners in scoring position.
In other words, the shower gets me over that dreaded writer's block hump when all else has failed, and this is not just coincidental. There is plenty of experimental research to explain why the quiet isolation of places like the shower have been a source of inspiration and enlightenment throughout the centuries. The great thinkers and the great prophets through history have always gone out to far flung locations to better hear that quiet muse, that spiritual GPS put in place to guide humanity that sometimes just can't be perceived in the storm and stress of busy city life. It is our job as writers to tune into this same "still small voice," and at times we need to retreat to some remote meadow, go deep down into a cave, or climb a high mountain peak to hear it. But if all else fails, if you still can't figure out how your protagonist is going to hide the body, get the cookies out of the oven and still make it to the six o'clock PTA meeting, the good old reliable shower may be your key, even if personal hygiene is not your thing.
I know I'm being a bit presumptuous in discussing writer's block. Up until now a deep sense of meekness and humility has made me very reluctant to write about any self help topics or declare myself an expert in anything, except meekness and humility. I tried to corner a niche market writing articles for the meek and humble, in fact, but soon discovered that the Internet is swarming with narcissists who are not at all interested in my meekness and humility tips! So I've decided to abandon my timorousness, join the "experts" club, and pretend I really hold the key to coach you past your writer's block.
Therefore, forget about attending expensive seminars that deal with all sorts of psychological, motivational, cheerleading mumbo-jumbo that wears off almost as soon as you get home. Using my technique you won't need anything more than a little soap and water. Yes, writer's block can be washed off, it's as simple as that, and even if you are H2O intolerant a silent, secluded, non distracting place is really all you need to get past that barrier and get your stubborn pen cranking again.
Just why do the few peaceful moments we spend in the shower every day result in creative breakthroughs for writers and other imaginative folks? In an article published in Mental Floss magazine, Lucas Reilly ascribed this to three reasons; being distracted, being relaxed, and being tired.
Reilly reports that you are much more likely "... to have a creative epiphany when you're doing something monotonous, like fishing, exercising, or showering." Because these tasks don't require much thought, the pre-frontal cortex responsible for "decisions, goals and behavior" relaxes and the "default mode network" (DMN) is then activated, which clears pathways connecting different parts of the brain. This forms new creative neuron connections which the fully focused mind would have missed. While a keenly focused brain certainly comes in handy in very practical situations, it tends to suppress unconventional and creative solutions, which explains why allowing the brain to wander actually makes it more active than when focused on a specific problem.. A study by Shelly Carson at Harvard reinforces this notion in its conclusion that creative people are generally easily distracted.
Relaxing in the shower or any other locale in which the stress, distractions and problems of the day can be put aside causes the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that boosts creativity, and also to produce alpha waves. It has been demonstrated in the laboratory that highly creative people are able to whip up large bursts of alpha brain waves, but these are only present while in a state of relaxed alertness. There are almost no alpha waves manufactured during sleep or when experiencing intense anger or stress.
The third and somewhat surprising condition that enhances creativity is tiredness. Tiredness further weakens the control of the pre-frontal cortex and clears even more pathways for the DMN. Because showers are most often taken early in the morning or late at night, when our brains are most tired and groggy, the synergistic effects of being distracted, relaxed and tired all at once create a perfect storm for especially creative ideas. I understood this quite well even before I read about it, because when I used to work an all night security job I would come up with some really bizarre Twitter "tweet" ideas while showering after I got home. These little bursts of spontaneous brain outpourings elude me now that I no longer work the red-eye.
In a Time Magazine interview for his book "Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation," Washington University Psychologist R. Keith Sawyer explained why The Bathtub, the bed, and the bus (the three Bs) are the cradles of creativity. In essence, Sawyer's work points back again to the relaxation of the pre-frontal cortex and the emergence of the DMN when he explains that taking time off from working on a problem can activate different areas of the brain where an answer to a difficult problem might be hiding.
I discovered this phenomenon for myself one night many years ago when driving home from my job at a bank distribution center. In this case I think we can safely substitute the car for Sawyer's bus, because after you have been commuting long distances on California freeways for several years your brain tends to go on autopilot. At the time I was taking an Accounting course and had been banging my head against the textbook for hours, trying to understand the principles of debits and credits. Finally, right there in the car, pretty much around the moment when I ceased to worry about it, the light in the attic went on and everything I had been frantically, doggedly studying suddenly made sense. Similar experiences have happened to me on several occasions while trying to overcome writer's block. Sometimes in order to fully come to grips with a solution that evades us, as writers we need to back away and let that subconscious network find the solution.
Find a Market for your Muse
From the Shower Into the Wilderness
Science is gradually unraveling the secrets of how the mind works, but the ancients intuitively understood the key to achieving inspiration without the benefit of knowing about dopamine and alpha waves. Answers to the universal questions explored by writers have also been diligently sought by those men and women of intuition; the inspired prophets of history who helped mankind come to terms with the difficult secrets of our existence here on earth and our relation to the cosmos. Writers and prophets are alike in the sense that we both seek to identify, quantify, explain and remedy injustices and suffering that are part of the universal human condition.
Because there was often no running water available, great prophets of the past everywhere retreated into the wilderness to dream their dreams and experience their epiphanies. The wilderness was much like the shower in the way that it opened up the mind to drift from the particular into the general and in so doing to find "enlightened" solutions to the spiritual darkness that human beings often find ourselves immersed in.
When the Buddha was struggling to find a way out of the suffering that is part of the endless human cycle, when he had sunken to the extreme depths of self denial and self abnegation by practically starving himself to death, he finally located that quiet place in the wilderness beneath the Bodhi tree that was conducive to the calm meditation necessary to open his inner eye. It was in that ambiance of quiet reflection that he at last discovered the great truths and the "middle path" that must be followed to relieve one's soul from the endless cycle of misery called Samsara.
After the Prophet Muhammad had spent endless hours praying for an end to the social unrest, discrimination, injustice and fighting that was occurring all around him, he finally retreated to a secluded mountain cave near Mecca. There in the serene solitude of a mountain grotto he was able to hear the voice of the angel Gabriel, who gave him the answers he was so desperately seeking.
When Jesus of Nazareth was preparing to embark upon his mission to liberate mankind, he too embedded himself deep in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, emerging with the spiritual clarity necessary to do battle with the Pharisees and other hypocrites who cruelly oppressed the population of Judea for their own worldly gain.
An Interesting Case of "Prophet's" Block
Long before the New Testament accounts of the mission of Christ were written down, the Old Testament prophets walked the Earth, and like their illustrious successor they had a propensity to disappear into the wilderness for long periods of time when suffering from "prophet's block," a malady that arises when the prophet wonders how he is going to carry out God's mission and still keep from getting his head chopped off and put on a platter by some ruler he is denouncing.
When Moses was fleeing the Pharaoh he went into the desert to try to figure out his next move, and his "prophet's block" was overcome by a strange voice coming out of a bush that burned, but "...was not consumed." Some of the skeptics in the crowd might be thinking that maybe Moses had consumed something before he had this remarkable vision, but whatever sparked this source of inspiration Moses went on to successfully lead the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and on to freedom in the promised land.
My favorite story about "prophet's block," which by extension relates perfectly to writer's block, comes from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings Chapter 19, where we find the Prophet Elijah in the desert, just like many of his kind before and after, fleeing the wicked Queen Jezebel, who had designs on this reluctant prophet that were not conducive to his continued good health. To make a long story short, Elijah's headlong flight finds him on Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he enjoys a remarkable moment of epiphany which relates to prophets and also to aspiring writers. I'll let you read these beautiful words for yourself.
And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake into pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
1 Kings 19 11-12 KJV
Find your Still, Small Voice
Turns out the Lord was in that still, small voice, whether the voice was just random neurons firing away, fueled by biochemical processes, or whether the voice had a deeper, mystical, spiritual source behind it.
Whatever the case, all writers slash prophets suffer from writer's block; those who compose inspiring scrolls of spiritual edification, as well as those who scribble out simple self-help books for dummies or write blogs about baking cupcakes. The task in all these scenarios is essentially the same, and this is the enlightenment of the rest of the members of the tribe of humanity. To do your duty properly in serving the human race you need to get past this writer's block wall and become intimate with your writer's muse once more.
The lesson to be learned for writers here is to stop seeking the muse in big, booming, noisy things like earthquakes, wind, and fire. If you want to get over your writer's block, find a quiet place where you can hear that "still small voice." You might not have any caves in your neighborhood, but you can rediscover the mysterious voice by getting up to take a walk, or sitting quietly in an empty locker room like many athletes do before games, or simply by taking a shower. In any case, retreat to a place where you can get away from the destruction, anger and noise all around you and let your muse come to you. Don't exasperate yourself wasting energy searching in vain for it, but meditate patiently and silently and your muse will flow into your soul on a quiet, gentle, unexpected breeze of inspiration.