Overcoming Uncertainty and Finding Creativity

When sitting down to write a new piece, writers often experience uncertainty, anxiety, and sometimes outright fear when looking at a blank page or screen. As described in this post by Jonathan Fields, this reaction is typical for most people. Uncertain or ambiguous situations light up our amygdalas, that lizard-brain part of us that provokes our more primal responses. This is a shame, because, according to Fields, “a 2008 study published in the Journal of Creative Behavior revealed tolerance for ambiguity to be ‘significantly and positively related’ to creativity.” Fields offers us five tips to help us become more comfortable working in a state of uncertainty. Make these changes, Fields suggests, and you will unlock creativity.

First, Fields suggests pitting your brain against itself. If the amygdala triggers a fear response, your pre-frontal cortex helps you control fear. We can access the pre-frontal cortex by focusing on a single task because that part of the brain controls working memory. Working memory is quickly overloaded if we multi-task. So if we focus on one thing, we access our pre-frontal cortex, and we can help control our fear. In her book, Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott talks about a little glass box about the size of a postage stamp. When she starts to feel fear or uncertainty, she tells herself that she only needs to write a tiny bit more–enough to fill up that box. By focusing on that next little bit, she finds a way to go on. So don’t think about all the details your story will cover, just think about the next couple of words. Take that next baby step forward.

Second, Fields notes that meditation and high-intensity, cardiovascular training affect the brain in two ways. Not only do they have “a profound impact on creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving”; but they also “bolster your ability to go to that edgy place where the good stuff happens and stay there long enough for next-level innovation to emerge.” Many writers suggest taking a walk when stalled. I guess this would fall under the meditation column. So if you run a bit as well, Fields suggests you might benefit even more. It seems to me that Fields is suggesting a healthy, mindful person is more able to control his or her fear, and I have to agree. If nothing else, I find those activities help reduce stress, and my anxiety and fear seem to be fueled by stress. Less stress, less fear, more creativity? Sounds like a winning combination.

Third, and related to the above point about mindfulness, Fields suggests reframing our story when we get stalled. By looking at our problem from different angles, we can more sharply analyze the problem, and more easily find solutions. Can you look at the scene through another character’s eyes? Is there another context–a lie, a joke, or a secret–you can incorporate into your character’s words? Has a character disappeared from your story? If so, could you reintroduce him or her at this point? If there a wild card you can introduce to change things?

Fourth, Fields says “attention, creativity, and cognitive function decline rapidly” after 90 minutes. He suggests working for 90 minutes, taking a brief pause, and then resuming. Come back refreshed so you can focus and power through the next 90 minutes. If you set a timer for 90 minutes, this may also help you focus on a single task: your writing. Ignore e-mail, phone calls, and (most difficult of all) the internet for 90 minutes, access your pre-frontal cortex, and create.

Lastly, Fields suggests finding small opportunities for routine. For example, eat the same breakfast every day, or take the same route to work every day. By knowing for sure how you will do something, you remove a bit of uncertainty from your life. The decision is already made, so there is no need to worry and fire up your amygdala.

What do you think of Fields’s advice? How do you respond to uncertainty, ambiguity, and fear? How do you get going when you face the blank screen or page?

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