You may have heard of the apocryphal tale of Ken Jennings, who ended his winning streak on Jeopardy! when his brain got stuck. When given the final Jeopardy! clue, “Most of this firm’s 70,000 white-collar employees work for only four months of the year.” His brain flashed on the Christmas season; he couldn’t shake it, and he lost.
Jennings came to mind when I realized I was in the same boat. My brain was stuck, I owed a client four plots, and my brain wouldn’t give up working on the first one and move on to the next three.
Christmas was on repeat in my head.
In a Creative Möbius Loop
It felt like I was running a Möbius strip, continually covering the same ground over and over again.
FYI – if you haven’t made a Möbius strip, it is easy. Take a strip of paper or flat ribbon, long enough to make a nice circle (longer than you would need to make Christmas paper chains – yes, Christmas is on my brain now, too!) twist it once before taping the ends together.
Whoop! You’ve just made an object with a single continuous surface. Mind-bending, no?
I’d never experienced this situation before. Between the deepness of the rut and my limited time frame, I was starting to panic. So, I did what I always do. I turned to Dr. Google to research what ailed me and come up with a course of treatment.
First off, Don’t Panic
Forbes and Douglas Adams agree the first thing to do is not panic. Recognize you are stuck, and then start working through various tactics to get un-stuck. I was on the clock, but unlike Jennings, I had a week rather than 30 seconds. So I breathed through my panic and asked myself, “What defines the creative process?”
It turns out a description of the creative process was first defined by Graham Wallas in his book, The Art of Thought, written in 1926. He divided creative work, or thought work as he called it, into four stages: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. Although my brain jumped right to “Illumination” or the A-ha! moment, as my problem – I decided to look at all four steps to see if I’d missed something.
Had I prepared enough? Since the plots were fiction, most of my preparation was learning my client’s preferences, there were content guidelines, but they were so loose as to be unhelpful.
When I write non-fiction, I always go through what Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book and The Orchid Thief, calls the “learning less” phase. As she describes in her essay, “How do you Know When You’re Ready to Write,” it is a point in her process when she realizes she isn’t finding any new information. At the same time, Orlean begins to spill over with the story and can’t stop herself from talking about it to anyone who will listen. This is the moment she knows she is ready to sit down and write.
That’s a moment I know, and sadly so do my friends. When I’m consumed by story, I come off as a weird melding of the Ancient Mariner and Richard Madoc at gatherings.
So, I asked myself, “had I prepped enough?” It didn’t feel like it. I was still stuck on my first idea. Maybe if I dose myself with story – fiction both written and filmed – I could shift my thoughts into new pathways. After reading, watching, and brainstorming stories with limited success in exorcizing my first plot, I moved on to Wallas’ next step to see what help I could find there.
For me, Incubation is that moment when you walk away, take a walk, wash the dishes, or put the draft in a drawer for a day or a month. It is a time when I let my mind wander and do something to give my subconscious time to mull it over.
I was having trouble with this; the first of the plots just wouldn’t leave me. It kept talking to me as I walked, showered, or dozed– the story just wouldn’t shut up.
As I researched how other people deal with this moment, an idea from cognitive therapy kept cropping up, the process of Self-Distancing.
Self-Distancing is the concept of moving your focus from inside to outside. It’s a way of forcing objectivity by changing perspective. One of the simplest things to try is to talk about yourself in the third person. “Why do I feel this way?” becomes “Why does Tess feel this way?”
“Why was Tess locked into one plot?” I thought, and from a great distance came the answer, “Tess still isn’t done with it.” I guess I needed to get everything about that plot out of my system to make room for the next one.
So I wrote into exhaustion until I had finally exorcized my first plot. Now I just needed to get inspired to dig in and find my next three.
Inspiration is an odd thing. For some, it is a lightning strike; for others, it is a slow burn. I wasn’t looking for a single moment of inspiration but an inspired state from which I could create.
Neuroscientists research a subset of Inspiration called Insight — that A-ha moment when the solution comes together, not from structured trial and error, but feels that it has appeared out of thin air.
The work Mark Beeman and John Kounios did uses fMRI imaging to look at what parts of the brain are active in that A-ha moment. What they found is a portion of the brain called the anterior cingular cortex (ACC), which detects and moderates conflicting signals and lights up on the fMRI during A-ha moments. When your ACC is happy and relaxed, it is more likely to take notice of the weaker signals – ones that may be novel or off-kilter. The correlation they found is when your ACC is stressed and unhappy, it looks for the easiest answer, and insight can’t occur.
So, how do I keep my ACC happy and relaxed so I can create?
Creativity and flow researcher, Steven Kotler, has an answer. He describes four key steps to keep your ACC happy and receptive: gratitude practice, mindfulness, exercise, and sleep. All things we tend to backbench when we are stressed, under a deadline, or stuck. All things I had back benched as the stress increased and my deadline loomed. I needed to go back to that first piece of advice I found. Don’t Panic. To get un-stuck, I needed to start taking care of myself again. I needed a happy ACC.
I also needed to make the space for inspiration to happen, and for that, I took a moment and returned to my favorite TED Talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert.
It’s old, from 2008, when she was working on the book that followed Eat, Pray, Love, and she found herself struggling with the idea of genius (inspiration) and where it comes from. In her research about the roots of the concept of genius, she found that many cultures see it as something beyond the self—a thing to be blessed with. But as we all know, it doesn’t always show up when we want it to.
So, Gilbert had a sit down with her’s because, at this point, the book didn’t seem to be going well, and she was frustrated. Her conversation with her own source of genius and inspiration ended with this.
“If you want it [the book] to be better, you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”
It is my reminder that in order for inspiration to strike, you have to show up.
Take care, be good to yourself, and put your ass in that chair.
While putting in the time, showing up, and writing, I occasionally found myself distracted by bright shiny things. They were exciting and fun to write but had nothing to do with the project for my client.
At this point, my brain was all over the place, so I had to find my own method of Verification. This, like a lot of things lately, was a moment of A-ha!
I limited the amount of time I gave to each random thought. First, I wrote them all down (there were dozens) and gave each of them 5 minutes. I wrote down the list, did a reality check, made a new list, and then did it again. Each iteration got me closer to a plot that would work for my client.
This process was surprisingly freeing — it was fun and lacked judgment, and gave me a tone of ideas not just for my client but for other projects. I was out of the rut; the Möbius strip was torn. Finally!
A-ha! The Takeaways
Unlike Jennings, I got un-stuck in time. After working through my research and trying different methods, I moved beyond Christmas into Tax Season (What is H&R Block? was the correct question) and got my groove back.
Wallas’ four steps provided a great structure from which to hang different ideas and tactics on how to get un-stuck. I even immortalized the core of what I learned into a checklist:
We all get stuck at some point. Just remember, Don’t Panic, and check the list. Feed that your brain, make friends with your ACC, take care of yourself, and show up so inspiration can strike.