Artistic states of block and flow are infamous and strike fear in creative people. Just after the end of WWI, Jackson Pollock shocked the world in 1947 with a subtle artistic innovation, emerging from a block of his own. His art studio was an old, messy farm shed littered with paint cans, brushes, and canvases, nothing else.
Flowing Rivers of Color
After a period of block in his painting, Pollock broke through ingeniously. Unable to achieve the ultimate abstract vision he held in his mind using conventional strategies, he tossed the traditional vertical canvas on his shop’s floor, puffs of dust flying up around the white square. Focused, Pollock made familiar tools foreign, canvas and paint, body and brush, rivers of color, entering his work, embodying the process. Paint flew. Pollock was the painting, the painting Pollock.
He wrestled with the flat canvas, dancing around the perimeter, trouncing in the red and black swirls and splotches, yellow and gray patches spotting him head to foot. He armed himself with multiple buckets and brushes, a can of paint in the left hand, brush, arm, and left hand merging into a single instrument, dripping, slapping, and flinging color against the white.
Pollock worked fast, the vision of the work etched in his focused facial expressions. He entered a fluid zone, where all was color and creativity. His passion flowed like small rivers of red and yellow, filling the blank space with the process of art.
Pollock’s famous drip paintings fundamentally disrupted the art world, and his creative brain was declared ingenious.
What was happening in Pollock’s mind? Cognitive studies suggest that the zone of creativity, in whatever medium of expression, reside in the same brain region. The right brain is typically associated with creativity in both art and writing, and in fact, Susan Sarah points out that “writers have an inexplicable, irresistible compulsion to express themselves via the art and craft of writing — often with a right brained, spontaneous, creative approach.” Pollock’s creative flow likely came from the right hemisphere of the brain, just as your own brain when in the grips of flurry of words that you cannot write on the page quickly enough.
The process of Pollock’s work inspires a writer. All art possess overlapping processes that elevate humanity, even when both artist and observer are driven into the deep. Unfortunately if we are inhibited by a block, inspiration disconnects, and neither writer nor reader benefit. Writer’s block is a serious cognitive state that all authors fear.
I ruminate over writer’s block often. Too often. Focusing on the block rather than the flow can be counterproductive. While the brain experiences moments when the words will not flow, the writer determines whether a momentary dry spell becomes a serious issue or forces innovation. A writer is blocked if she ceases to write, but if she links words on the page, though imperfect, she presses toward genius. Focusing on maximum flow naturally reduces or eliminates writer’s block, but ironically, the web is full of tricks to overcome the block. The better approach is to really examine how and when you flow, maximizing the environmental and mental factors that free you to write.
To focus on flow, you must shift the emphasis of your thought processes. Pollock reveals the artistic process as the essence of creation, not the product, or finished painting. Process is action, and product is passive. Looking at a painting close up, this is what you see in Pollock, the creative process captured, still alive with movement, texture, and color. You are not looking at a painting, you are looking at painting.
Writing lessons learned in Pollock’s living paintings
- The value and pleasure of writing: The essence of art is in the process of creation, so savor the moments of heightened creativity as you weave words into story.
- Writer’s block defeated: Flow represents the polar opposite of block. Many opposites shed light on the nature of flow and block: process vs. stagnation, activity vs. passivity, action vs. thought. The beauty here is that writer’s block disappears when you focus on process, activity, action and flow. Notice that I do not qualify that list with adjectives like good or great. The process is all, even if you don’t perform it to perfection. The solution to block is writing.
- Emphasis on the process: Focusing on the end goal of a finished blog post or a novel actually stifles your writing. Instead of thinking of the finished post, remind yourself that you need to be in the present moment, not the future. The completed blog lies in the future. You must write in the present, and writing will solve all of your worries. If you sense a block coming, write immediately, in whatever form, putting words together whether they are brilliant or dull. If you accomplish this, you are forcing yourself into the process of writing, which will eventually lead to flow. Write anything. In Pollock’s case, forcing himself to paint, even though he knew his art lacked something, led to his break through. This is key: forcing yourself into the process leads to innovation.
- Process captured in writing: While writing does not suit throwing the page on the floor and removing all restraint, as with Pollock, you can still capture the process in your writing, revealing the activity of writing to your reader, and when you do, it’s beautiful. The methods of revealing the process in the writing are plentiful, but one strategy is to let the writer see the growth and pleasure of writing in the words you put to the page. Show them your discoveries. Revealing to the reader your discovery process, your joy in writing, and your pleasure in the moment of creation captures the essence of innovation, and the work remains living and vibrant on the page. This is how Pollock’s painting remains breathing as the years paths. If nothing else, record your sessions of flow in a journal so that you can reflect on them later when you are not feeling it.
- Writers innovate: The great writer’s are not bound by what has been done before or by what is traditional. Push the boundaries of form and content, creating your own aesthetic, finding your own authentic voice and style. More importantly, be innovative in avoiding the block. Try different creative strategies that stimulate inspiration in your brain. You might even find a creative activity like painting or drawing liberates your mind. I use several fun iPad apps to avoid the mess of real painting, and I find that my writing mind is liberated as I create.
- Language innovation: The mediums of writing and painting are distinct, but creativity is universal. With the tools you possess as a writer, find what is unique about your writing and exploit it. Some shy away from this because it is frightening and risky to try something unique and personal. However, innovation and personal voice are the keys to your success. Find yourself, and then be yourself.
- Maximizing Flow: While actively writing is always the solution to block, fleeting moments arrive when you are in the grip of flow, when you are truly inspired. Take full advantage of these serendipitous writing sessions by not interrupting them. When you are in the flow, don’t stop for anything.
- Emotion feeds creativity: We all hope to be happy, but oftentimes negative emotions feed our creativity even more. Anger, rage, disgust, anxiety, outrage, and even apathy can ignite creative energy. Pollock felt depressed and frustrated when his inspiration came. Avoid the tendency to only write when you are feeling well. Oftentimes, great creativity emerges from the depths of suffering. The point at which you nearly break from pressure can be the breaking of the dam, releasing the flow of creative water.
- Finding inspiration: Pollock inspired me to write, but rich material for ignition is all about us in this chaotic, beautiful world. Find inspiration in places that others may not see it at first. Then light that fire of passion in your reader. Read books, view art, listen to music. The most important activity, however, is to be mindful of everything around you. If you are actively looking for things to inspire, you will find them. When we are not in the present moment, the strange beauty of the world passes us by, and rich material to write about slips away.
You might enjoy these articles on writing:
- The only 2 tips you need to improve writing
- 10 Essential writing lessons from Albert Einstein quotes
- How to be mindful and conquer negative feedback
- The writing life: Passion for the pain of bloodletting on the page
- Top writing myths that motivate and sabotage
Now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts on writer’s block and flow? What inspires your writing flow?