Writers block once owned me, and then it didn't.
True story: for a couple of months, I didn’t write anything until I’d spent 20 minutes colouring in pretty fairy pictures with my specially-purchased watercolour pencils and glitter crayons.
This was a little while before that whole adult colouring book thing took off – and I have to admit, I felt relieved when that happened because it meant I wasn’t the only 40-year old woman rockin’ her glitter pens.
And why was a grown woman spending valuable time with her pretty fairies 2-3 times a week?
I desperately needed a cure for writers block and they were my amygdala de-activation device.
I know that sounds like something out of a Star Wars movie, but bear with me…
The brain has several component systems and one of the critical ones for your creative life is the limbic system, which processes your sensory experiences – it takes all the info constantly streaming in to the brain through your senses and passes it along to the cortex.
When we’re sitting calm and nicely relaxed, the brain cortex is activated and we can be focussed and creative. You know what that feels like when the words are just humming through you with no resistance: that’s the cortex on a roll.
But when we’re afraid – even just the teensiest bit – the limbic system (hello amygdala!) takes over and our instincts kick in. I like to think of what happens next as the Fight-Flight-or-ExtendedNetflixBinge response.
When our amygdala is triggered we feel tense and stressed, with cortisol and adrenaline flushing through our systems. And amygdala don’t care; it’s the brain’s Honey Badger. Just a whiff of fear and we’ll react – we don’t even know most times that the limbic system has kicked in the door and pushed the orderly cortex aside. Cue writers block.
One minute we’re intending to be quietly focused on making art, and the next we’re staring at the bottom of a package of Girl Guide Thin Mints. (I always freeze chocolate-in-hand. You?) Or cleaning out the junk drawer in case we need those extra batteries for the voice recorder so we can record our great ideas in the car. (Umm. Sure.)
Ah, friend – if only it ended with Thin Mints and 9-volts!
But no, it’s not over until you’ve said some truly horrible things to yourself about how lazy and undisciplined you are, how you’ll never be able to focus and get your writing done, which only goes to show you’re not a real writer anyway. It’s not over til the blame and shame guys go through your brain with their sledgehammers and flame-throwers.
Some of us do that a lot; in fact, some of us just call that Tuesday.
But it really doesn’t have to be like that — which is how I ended up tenderly colourizing fairy pics.
I stumbled across Rosanne Bane’s book Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Overcome Writer’s Resistance. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you read this book if you are a writer or a visual artist or pursue any kind of creative endeavour.
When I came across it, I’d already set myself up with Short Time and Long Time writing sessions and found ways to keep myself writing consistently. But I wasn’t loving my writing practice as much as I used to, before I started publishing my work and the stakes went up.
The amygdala loves itself some nice juicy stakes.
I was putting so much pressure on myself – everything I wrote had to be GOOD, which is the quickest road to mediocre I can think of. And that was no fun. No fun at all.
What I needed was some playtime, some time to just be creative and enjoy the process of making without stakes, without pressure. Bane calls this “Process” time but I prefer Play Time because, really, I am still 12.
So I got myself a fairy colouring book and a lovely set of Faber Castell watercolour pencils. Then I’d colour for 15-20 minutes at the start of my Long Time sessions of writing, at night or on the weekends, colouring long enough so that I was really enjoying myself. Then I’d put the pencils aside and immediately start writing, diving into whatever story or poem I’d left off in during my last session.
When I did my fairy colouring sessions first, there was no time for the amygdala to get all charged up again and my writing time could be free from fear. And I went from quivering with writers block to writing with ease.
And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? To feel that we can be completely free to write and enjoy ourselves in the process. How to get there, you ask?
- Know this can happen. The amygdala can get triggered and stop the words from flowing.
- Know it’s not you. (Repeat: It's. Not. You. ) You’re not lazy or unfocused or undisciplined. It’s just run of the mill, garden variety fear. It happens to everyone and there are ways around it.
- Ratchet down the stakes. Give yourself freedom to fail, let yourself just write any old thing and come back to it later. Write something no one else will ever see – whatever takes the fear out of the process for you.
- Let yourself play. Add 15-20 minutes of pure creative play to your day. Free writing, or using writing prompts, journaling, or even gardening or knitting or taking photos…or, get your glitter freak on and colour in some fairies.
I now do this as Short Time writing sessions where I free-write or work with writing prompts, or use mind-mapping as a way to sketch out story or poem notes. (Another blog, another time!) But try it out and see what’s best for you – many separate short sessions of random play during the week, or adding playtime to the front end of your longer writing sessions.
If you try it, I’d love to hear how it goes. I hope you kick your writers block to the curb and the fairies reward you with all the freedom you need.
It doesn’t have to be fairies, or even colouring. Find the play time that makes you feel 12 years old again and do that.