Why Is Writing So Frustrating?
Neuroscience shows why despair is an essential part of the creative process.
I was in the zone. The words were practically writing themselves, and they were good, really good. Then the flow began to stutter, and my mood tanked. Suddenly, the whole project felt like a colossal failure.
It didn’t matter that I had a track record of success as a writer, at that moment I knew that I was a hack. No one would ever read my work again, and I would disappear into low-ranking oblivion on the search algorithms.
I might as well give up.
I was facing the despair inherent to the writing process. This is why writers talk about how hard writing is. For so many of us, it’s a regular experience to feel intense discouragement before a draft comes together.
This has led to all kinds of stereotypes about creative people, sometimes equating creativity with emotional instability. But what if it’s not instability at all? What if the discouragement is a key part of the creative process?
Writing is deeply emotional.
Writing, for writers, is deeply emotional. We are passionate about it. Writing comes from a core place in who we are. In fact, most of us have been writing constantly since we were children and it’s become key to our identity. But that’s not the whole story.
According to Dr. Elaine Arons, thinking itself is an emotional activity. She is the pioneering psychologist who identified the temperamental trait of high sensitivity, held by 15–20% of the general population. That number is likely higher among writers and creatives. One hallmark of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) is their depth of thinking, which according to Dr. Arons is actually driven by their intense emotionality.
Western culture has long held that emotion is irrational, but Dr. Arons has found the opposite to be true. Actually, there is no rational thought without emotion.
Human thought is driven by our emotions; we only think about what we care about.
“We feel so intensely. It is part of why we process everything very deeply — we are more motivated to think about things by our stronger feelings of curiosity, fear, joy, anger or whatever,” Dr. Arons wrote.
What happens in our brains when we write?
What writer doesn’t know that the best work happens when we are in the flow state? It’s that wonderful place where we become totally absorbed in an interesting task. In flow, we lose track of time. Some experts say we lose our sense of self. I believe it’s more our self-consciousness we lose as we fully engage our selves in creative expression.
Neuroscientists believe that the flow state happens when our emotional brain (the limbic system) takes over from our analytical brain (the pre-frontal cortex). The limbic system, known as our feeling and reacting brain, is located deep in our brain’s sub-cortical regions.
To go into the flow state, the brain shifts activity from the prefrontal cortex to the “parallel (fast) processing of limbic regions, sparking new, creative and spontaneous connections between information and events.”
Creatives know what that feels like — the spontaneous connections seem to sparkle as we pursue our projects. Creating in flow is an amazing experience, and it’s why people are so drawn to their creative work. But the fact that this happens in the emotional brain explains a lot about why negative emotions are part of the creative process.
So let’s try to understand how this works.
The flow state, or being in the zone, occurs in the limbic system, which includes the amygdala and hypothalamus. Most of us have heard of the amygdala in connection with stress or anxiety; we are talking about a very intense place.
Sometimes, our brain wants to communicate with us. So how does our emotional brain talk to us? How does it give us feedback when our writing isn’t working? It can’t do it the way our analytical brain would, with a nice organized thought like, “Hmm. That’s not quite there yet, is it? How about you rethink that.”
No, our emotional brain sends the only message it can: an emotional one. And that message hurts just enough to get us to stop writing.
The next step is the tricky part. The emotional output from our limbic system will generate certain thoughts depending on our life experiences. This is because when the emotional brain sends us a bad feeling, it comes with no words.
Wanting to help, the analytical brain jumps in to supply an explanation. For many of us, it’s going be a distorted and negative cognition like, “I just can’t do this. I’ll never get this. I am a terrible writer.” That’s what causes the stereotypical suffering of the artist.
We could do some psychology on ourselves to argue with these cognitions, but there is an alternative. If we understand what our brain is doing, we can sidestep the whole problem. Instead of indulging thoughts of failure and frustration, we can recognize the despair for what it is: a useful message from our creative brain.
How to use despair to succeed at writing.
The next time your flow state is rudely interrupted by negative emotions, do not feel thwarted. Instead, remind yourself that it’s a message from your own creativity.
And this is the key insight: the intensity of the emotion is not in proportion to the problem. It’s just the only way that part of your brain can talk to you. The message is simply, “That’s not quite there yet, is it? How about you rethink that.”
Then stop writing. Play with your ideas, or take a break. What’s critical to recognize is that there is something to rework. You’ll know you are making progress when your optimism about the project returns.
Understanding this changed my writing process dramatically. The moments of despair that once blindsided me now build my confidence. They are a message that can only lead to stronger work.
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