Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Shadow Work and the Writer's Block

"I can't write."
"I want you to write a page. Think you could do that for me?"
"Can it be bad?"
"I'd like it to be very bad."
-Ruby Sparks (2012)
You have a first world problem: you can't write.  People with anger management issues, who beat their family and kick their dog have bigger things to worry about. You, however, are a well-socialized person who plays well with others. This is why you have writer's block. Your internal editor has got the upper hand over your muse, the productive, creative part of yourself.

Alice Flaherty's research on creativity discusses this imbalance between the frontal lobe (executive functions and judgement) and temporal lobes (generation, association and creative impulses). In temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder cases, where the temporal lobe is unusually activated, there's a radical opening up of writing, resulting in endless pages of writing, sketches and other expression. In balance, writng happens in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state--naturally, pleasurably, continuously and without effort.

Under subclinical blocked conditions, the best advice seems to be Anne Lamotte's: write a shitty first draft, and turn down the volume on your inner critic. Write something intentionally bad, or lower your standards so that just writing is the success. Phil Stutz and Barry Michels take a similar approach with The Tools,  but with a Jungian angle; they recommend inviting your Shadow into the creative process with you.

In Jungian terms, the Shadow is that part of your self that has all the traits you'd like to do away with. It's the version of you that got picked last in dodgeball (everyone remembers being picked last, right up to the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader, the class president). This is the part of you that you try to hide, but it's also the part of you that generates the creativity--because it's the vulnerable part, and because it's the part that you yourself are criticizing. So, performing active visualization and personification on this part or version of yourself allows you to do several things: first, it makes this part more vividly real for you, drawing more attention and resources toward this aspect of yourself relative to the inner critic, producing stronger, better defined sensations and reactions around this inner component. Second, by seeing this part of you as a person, you are expanding the ways for you to relate to it--we have a lot of mental equipment for relating to other human beings, and for interpreting phenomena as if they were produced by a thinking being--so it is therefore easier to envision a broader variety of interactions with an inner component. Third, it allows us to recast our conscious mind as a Hero figure, protective of the Shadow, rather than critical of it. In myths and legends, when we make this shift to become an ally of the Shadow, it changes from being the ugly monster we're disgusted with, to being luminous and beautiful: the Shadow becomes the Muse, the creative spirit.

All of this may sound a bit woo-woo mystical, but as I said above, it's a personified version of dealing with the psychological structures that you, I and everyone else experience, however we experience them. If you'd rather deal with the situation as just inner sensations or biological processes, that works as well, but the language is more technical.

Below is a roundtable discussion about disorders of writing (hyper- and hypo-graphia) held at the Philoctetus Center with Alice Flaherty, Jonathan Lethem, Pedro Reyes, and others:


Flaherty, AW "Frontotemporal and Dopaminergic Control of Idea Generation and Creative Drive." Journal of Comparative Neurology. 2005 December 5; 493(1): 147–153.

Flaherty, AW The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain. 2004, Mariner Books.

Stutz, P and Michels B The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity 2012, Spiegel & Grau.

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