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Stop Staring at the Blank Page: How Creativity Works in Our Minds

Every screenwriter gets stuck. Some call it writer’s block. Others don’t believe writer’s block exists. Either way, every writer runs into a problem that stops the writing process cold. Then despair sets in. Usually.  Science, however, now tells us this obstacle is a good thing. In fact, it is essential in the creative process for the mind to have a breakthrough.

Jonah Lehrer, a contributing Editor at Wired Magazine and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, recently published a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works, in which he describes how scientists have studied how the brain works when we engage in the creative process. Lehrer recently recorded an interview with Steve Paulson for the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge where he summarizes how creativity works in our minds. You can listen to the interview here:

http://www.ttbook.org/wpraudio/stream/52296/audio_mp3


One of the highlights from the interview includes Lehrer’s telling of the story of how Bob Dylan reinvented himself as a musician. As Lehrer points out, Dylan was creatively stuck and tired of his political folk music image. So, Dylan decided to give up music altogether. He went to a cabin in the woods without his guitar to paint and write a novel, but in a few days, something mysterious happened. His mind wouldn’t stop creating lyrics. Dylan “vomited” out 25 pages of lyrics, including his signature turning point song, Like a Rolling Stone.

Lehrer explains how Dylan had his breakthrough:

[I]t came at his darkest moment.  It came when he quit, it came when he hit the wall, when he had no idea what else to do, and then it came out of the blue and when it arrived, it felt like a revelation.  It came attached with this feeling of certainty and those are both defining features of this very particular creative moment called a moment of insight and the defining features of this moment as defined by psychologists over the last few decades are one, the answer comes out of the blue.  The answer comes when we least expect it.  The answer comes often after we’ve been stumped, after we’ve been blocked, after we’ve basically given up, and then once it arrives, it feels like the answer.  We don’t have to double check the math or reread the lyrics.  We know this is what we’ve been waiting for.

Using Dylan as an example, Lehrer goes on to explain that the way we traditionally think of productivity and solving problems is essentially backwards:

I think we’ve got this very narrow notion of what productivity is, that productivity is being well caffeinated and being chained to your desk and staring at your computer screen, but when you’re solving really hard problems and when you get stuck on that problem, that’s the worst possible thing you can do.  It’s in moments like that that you should get up from your desk and take that walk, take that hot shower, play some ping pong, do whatever it is you need to do to get relaxed.  There’s this great line of Einstein’s which is that “creativity is the residue of time wasted.”  You know, I think that captured a lot of wisdom, that sometimes we need to get better at wasting time.

Lehrer also explains that daydreaming is a key function of creativity, one that shouldn’t be beaten out of kids in grade school, but rather encouraged. And the shower has become one of the best places for daydreaming and solving tough problems in our techno-crazy world:

We should learn how to daydream productively, and I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons there are so many anecdotes now about people having their best ideas in the shower, is because the shower is one of the last places we can’t take our phones.  We can’t take our smart phones and so we can’t check our email and we can’t check Twitter and we can’t check Facebook, and so we’re forced to actually daydream for a few minutes, you know, while shampooing our hair without interrupting that process.  So maybe that’s why the shower is this, you know, this incubator of good ideas now.

The final point worth highlighting from Lehrer’s interview revolves around brainstorming versus constructive criticism. Brainstorming, when performed in a group setting, stipulates that no ideas should be criticized. Lehrer reveals that research has shown that groups engaged in brainstorming without constructive criticism develop worse solutions than groups that engage in open dissent and debate when solving tough problems. Criticism is good during the problem-solving process, as long as it is constructive in nature.

So, the next time you’re completely stumped, don’t get upset. Get up. Take a walk or a long hot shower. Give your brain time to process the problem and you may be surprised at the solution you discover.

To download a copy of the radio interview, to read a transcript of the interview, or to purchase a copy of Lehrer’s book, see the links below:

["This page intentionally left blank" graphic by Flickr user Ecstatic Mark (CC)]

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COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 15 COMMENTS

  • It’s weird, i remember staying up late one night because I was frustrated with my lack of progress on a script. After 2 hours procrastinating, staring blankly ahead at my screen, and grinding out what amounted to trivial setting descriptions, I decided to accept failure, take a long shower and go to sleep. The entire scene proceded to play out perfectly in my head during the shower and my writer’s block was unlocked.

  • I guess it’s true to a certain extent. I think sometimes the creative muscles need some time to regroup and channel out of the tunnel vision before they can churn out good stuff. But I’ve also been ‘successful’ otherwise. Sometimes when this block happens too often, I sit at the laptop and bully my way through the creative problem. I sit and write shit over and over again knowing it’s shit but eventually something clicks and I get ‘it’ and I finish what I intended to do.

    • It’s actually pretty common where I work to get all your shit out on paper, even if you know it’s shit. It’s like your brain can’t move on to other ideas until you’ve got all the ones you’ve all ready thought of down. That being said, I do find I have an easier time ‘being creative’ when I’m not in front of a computer. The shower works great.

  • john jeffreys on 05.22.12 @ 1:03PM

    i always think of the best shit when im NOT actively thinking about making new ideas and such. my best ideas have all just come to me spontaneously, shooting out of the depths of my subconscious. usually happens in the shower, while im walking to class, or when im intoxicated.

  • I had this problem a few weeks ago. I ran into a nasty writers block, but before I go on, those that don’t think writers block is real (I) think that they are lying to themselves.

    Even machines get stuck. But writers block is a huge helper to any creative person. This happens in any production company, from the top all the way to the bottom. It is just learning not to flip out when we get and what tools we can use to over come writers block.

    As I was saying before I went three weeks without even writing a single line on my script. Nothing was coming out and I was so pissed off until I called my dad. My dad is not a creative person what so ever, but the fact that he gave a damn to just listen helped. He told me that it was normal for creative people to have writers block, and to embarrass it. Don’t look at it as a bad thing, you brain is telling you to take a brake, do something that has nothing to do with script writing or movie making.

    The point of this story is two days after talking to my dad I went to my local Starbucks, opened my laptop and ideas flowed out like wine, and also I put my fears behind and entered that scripted into Slamdance.

    Very good read, thank you for the post.

  • Do the write thing.

  • I’d add a car drive on an empty backroad to the list on creative “incubators.”

    • Very true…used to have a gig test driving vehicles where we had to drive 6 hours per shift on designated routes. As I was merely following the team leader and not initiating the drive, my mind often wandered so I always had my recorder ready ’cause this happened every day…