When you feel your creativity isn't flowing easily, what do you do to get things moving again? Marc Graham shares tools and ideas for tapping into all your levels of consciousness to banish writers' block forever.
One minute you’re writing along, the Muse is singing, your characters are cooperating, and even the cat is giving you room to type your fast-flowing words.
The next moment, you’re stalled. You’ve written yourself into a corner, your characters have rebelled, and the Muse has ditched you for a bender in Vegas.
Been there? I sure have.
Writer’s block is something we’ll all encounter from time to time. But by understanding the psychology of the creative process, exploring the nature and source of Story, and adding a few tried-and-true tools to your writing kit, you can open the floodgates to your creativity and crush writer’s block.
Sound good? Let’s dive in.
The Psychology of Creativity
Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. Even before speech developed, people used drawings and gestures to communicate. At first, the stories were practical and cautionary.
Og forgot his spear and got trampled by a mastodon.
Don’t be like Og. —Anonymous
The experiences of others could be harnessed and added to one’s own knowledge without having to learn those (sometimes fatal) lessons herself. How to hunt and gather successfully. How to integrate within the tribe. What lay beyond the distant mountains.
And then something magical happened: Someone awoke with a dream. Suddenly, events that no one in the tribe had physically experienced—not even the dreamer—now entered their collective consciousness. A new story had arisen out of nowhere, and the first shaman entered the scene.
The human mind is hard-wired for storytelling. As a species, we have the capacity to ask What if? and to create myriad answers to that sublime question.
To understand how this works, we need to dig a bit into philosophy and psychology.
Fair warning: This is a highly subjective field, and I’m cherry-picking theories to match my personal outlook. I’m also distilling this broad topic down to a minimum of terms and considerations. I don’t claim any of the following as complete or absolute fact, but it works for me. Your mileage may vary.
Story engages the human mind at three primary levels:
- Ordinary Consciousness — This is where we spend most of our time, the normal, everyday, waking consciousness that helps us communicate and navigate the physical world. This is the seat of our intellect and emotions. I’ll also refer to this as simply the Intellect.
- Higher Consciousness — This is the realm of transcendence, of the ability to consider the immaterial and abstract. This level of mind defines us as humans, as homo sapiens sapiens: the human who knows that she knows. This is the seat of ideals, inspiration, and spirituality. I’ll also refer to this as the Superconscious.
- Lower Consciousness — This is our root operating system, consisting of base instincts, natural urges, and information storage and retrieval. It also serves as the filter that selects which of the millions of sensory inputs we receive each second get passed along to the Intellect. According to Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, this level of the individual mind also contacts a broader field of awareness that all human minds can access, the source of myths and symbols and archetypes. This is the seat of intuition and creativity. I’ll also refer to this as the Subconscious.
Creativity requires a solid connection between all three levels of consciousness. Without the ability of the Lower Consciousness to draw information from outside our regular awareness, our stories can only be about what we directly experience.
When we’re blocked, it’s the result of these interconnections being somehow disrupted, or possibly of receiving conflicting information from the various levels.
The solution, then, is to strengthen those connections, to find tools that quickly restore them when they are temporarily blocked, and to learn how each level of your mind communicates so that your ideas come through clearly.
The Source of Story
Now that we have a cursory understanding of how the mind works, let’s take a look at the nature and source of Story.
I contend that Story exists independently of the storyteller’s mind. This is not a new idea. Plato expressed something similar with his Realm of Ideals. It has echoes in Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, and in certain theories of quantum physics.
Rather than being a product of the Intellect, Story is an infinite natural resource that the other levels of consciousness can discover and harvest.
To be fair, Intellect plays a critical role in crafting and shaping the story, in turning abstract ideas into effective communication. But Intellect is no more responsible for the raw materials of Story than a blacksmith is for his iron ore.
Understanding this is valuable in a couple of ways.
First, it gets rid of pressure, self-doubt, and guilt. Intellect (that part of us we most often identify with) is solely responsible for crafting the story, for shaping the raw materials into a functional and pleasing end-product.
Second, the storyteller now has access to an inexhaustible supply of ideas, the raw material of Story. She doesn’t have to rely on her experience, to wait for inspiration, or to have a vision. At any time, she can send her Superconscious out to prospect, followed by the miners of the Subconscious to gather the ore.
So how do we ensure these other levels of consciousness do their jobs? How do we establish a steady, reliable flow of ideas?
For that, we need to turn back the clocks.
Shamanic Tools for Storytelling
Among the ancient tribal cultures—and even among indigenous peoples today—shamans were the storytellers, the keepers of the lore. They held responsibility for the health and well-being of the tribe, and they preserved the myths and history of their people.
While Western society has generally lost its connection to the mythic past, the role of the shaman has passed to you and me—to the storytellers.
Indigenous shamans journey in trance state to other dimensions, to Upper World and Lower World, to find whatever might be helpful to their tribe.
Storytellers, too, travel to other planes of reality to discover our stories and bring them back to our tribes of readers. So, how do we do this even more effectively?
Shamans and latter-day mystics developed a number of practices and tools to empower their Higher and Lower Minds, and to more readily travel between the worlds.
One outgrowth of this practice is the Tarot, as described by Corrine Kenner in Tarot for Writers.
[Note from Joanna: You can listen to Caroline Donahue discuss using the tarot for writing on this episode of The Creative Penn podcast.]
Far more ancient are the Norse Runes. Both tools rely on the interplay of the three levels of consciousness to draw from the wellspring of Story to craft an individual story.
So, how exactly do these tools work?
In addition to filing away your mother’s birthday, your childhood address, your telephone number, and where you left your keys, part of your Subconscious is constantly swimming in the Collective Unconscious, the sea of creativity that is the Source of Story.
Just as failed communication between parts of your mind can have you turning the house upside-down to find your keys, a similar failure to communicate is the main cause of writer’s block.
What’s the usual first step when we’ve misplaced our keys? I generally start retracing my steps, using my short-term memory and Intellect (both housed in the Ordinary Consciousness) to solve the problem.
The trouble is, it wasn’t Intellect who decided to leave the keys in the freezer, something that makes no sense and of which we have no memory. We’re using the wrong tool for the job, and the typical result is failure.
It’s only after we’ve given up the hunt or passed out from the exertion, only after Intellect has given up and moved on to some other task, that the solution comes through another level of consciousness.
Sometimes it comes as a burst of inspiration from the Superconscious: Oh yeah, they’re in the freezer. Sometimes, more subtly through the Subconscious: I could really do with a bowl of ice cream. Either way, once the Ordinary Consciousness is out of the way, the other levels are empowered to speak up.
Tools like Tarot and the Runes work on this principle. They engage the Intellect by inviting it to classify a Tarot card or a particular Rune by shape, number, meaning, etc. While the Ordinary Consciousness is thus distracted, the Superconscious and Subconscious are free to locate and collect an abundance of raw materials from which you can craft your story.
Putting It into Practice
Now that we understand how the mind works to put a story together, how can we use this to enrich our storytelling?
1) Empower All Levels of Consciousness
An active intellectual and emotional life are crucial to navigating the day-to-day world of work, relationships, and surviving in physical form. It’s also important to exercise the Higher Consciousness through art, inspirational reading, and other uplifting activities. Equally important is strengthening the connection to the Lower Consciousness through meditation, free writing, etc.
2) Reduce Your Stress
Stress triggers the Ordinary Consciousness, which works in real time to craft solutions to keep us alive, to the exclusion of all other aspects of our mind. We live in a world shaped to place us in a constant state of stress and lock us into our intellect and emotions (the manipulation of which is the bread and butter of ad agencies and cable news outlets). Removing or reducing stress allows the Intellect to take a breather and gives the Superconscious and Subconscious more freedom to engage with you.
3) Stay Healthy
This is a corollary to item (2). The healthier you are, the less stress is on the physical mechanism of your body, and the more the Intellect can relax. Get plenty of rest, fresh air, and natural light. Exercise and eat wholesome foods. Play with your pet and spend time with loved ones. All these things will improve your general health and just make you happier. Who doesn’t want that?
4) Develop a Mindfulness Practice
As with the shamanic practices of old, storytelling is a sacred art. Taking time out from busy-ness to sit, reflect, meditate, or simply listen to your heartbeat and your breath—any practice that connects you to your inner self and that helps you center on your place in the world will be time well spent.
5) Build Your Shamanic Toolkit
While strengthening the connections between the three aspects of your mind will help proof you against writer’s block, your stories will still not simply write themselves. There will still come times when you hit an impasse, when your characters are being stubborn, or when you’re just not sure what should happen next.
Grab a set of Tarot cards—there are dozens of options available, with themes to match whatever genre you like.
Or find a set of Rune cards, tiles, and/or dice. The instructions and suggested layouts that come with sets like these—if they’re not already geared specifically toward writers—can be easily adapted to the storytelling process.
Tools like these are fun to use and can give great results right out of the box. As you build your rapport with the tools—perhaps even create a little ritual around their use—your Superconscious and Subconscious will quickly learn that you’re serious about connecting with them, and those lines of creative communication will gain strength.
6) Give Your Gift to the World
Story has the power to transform lives and shape our world. The world needs your story and your unique way of presenting it. The more you give of that gift, the more the Muse will see you as a vital partner in breathing life into Story, and the more ideas and inspiration she’ll send your way.
Like a pyramid scheme, but not gross.
What tools to you use when your writing is feeling blocked or stuck? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Marc Graham is a novelist, speaker, story coach, and the developer of the Runes for Writers creativity system. His debut novel, Of Ashes and Dust, is available from Five Star publishing. A second book, Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, will be released by Blank Slate Press in April 2019. A third novel and a companion book to the Runes for Writers system will be published later in 2019