Story Concepts & Development for Novels, Comics, Games, Film and TV

When Focus Seems to Backfire

Every writer has his or her own unique creative process. But it takes time – sometimes years – to recognize it. And while it would be lovely to dream that every moment of a writer’s professional life is filled with perfect creative clarity, this is far from the reality.

Inevitably, there are days when the ideas refuse to surface, no matter how many hours I sit at my desk or how much brain space I dedicate to the task.

And when I’m working on a deadline – which, let’s face it, is nearly 100% of the time – hitting that wall is never opportune. [See my blog on Being Creative on a Deadline if you need some practical tips on staying inspired when the pressure is on.]

What I have learned over time, however, is that what often looks like a creative “block” is actually just another facet of the creative process.

The brain is a complex instrument, capable of retaining vast amounts of information, of creating elaborate connections with the data it collects, and of making valuable insights from those connections.

For the context of this article, I am leaning on the definition of insight as it pertains to psychology. From Dictionary.com – Insight: an understanding of relationships that sheds light on or helps solve a problem.

While I have written my share of original IP in my career, most of my work is on licensed properties (Dreamworks, Disney, Warner Bros., and the like), which means I play a lot in other peoples’ sandboxes. Ideas and insights are this writer’s bread and butter, and the ability to create them under pressure can often make the difference between success and failure – not just for the project I’m working on, but of ever getting hired again.

Gee, no pressure there…

Well, what if I told you that there are times when the brain runs more efficiently when you’re not trying so hard?

In the book, Your Brain At Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, David Rock suggests that insights are linked to the unconscious processing in the brain rather than the conscious. This means that when you’re using up all of your brain’s conscious resources to solve a problem, you can actually hinder the creative process.

[If you’re suddenly having flashbacks of those lightbulb moments that have come to you when you’re doing mundane things like driving or taking a shower, you’re following along just fine.]

Finding ways to trigger the unconscious processing of the brain forces it to think about the problem in another way, giving you a “clarity of distance”, which increases your chance of resolving it.

Rock’s book goes on to offer practical strategies for helping to increase insights like taking a walk, presenting the problem to a friend who doesn’t have as much detail, or doing an activity that makes you happy. These activities helpt to shift the brain into “big-picture” mode – lowering the overall electrical activity in the brain and allowing for more subtle connections to be made.

And increasing the quality of our ideas is what we’re all after, isn’t it?

So the next time you find yourself at a creative impasse, try “pulling your camera back” and letting your subconscious brain play wingman for a while… and see what insights come up.

Comments are closed.