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April 2017

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Musings on stress vs creativity. Skip this if philosophical brain-doodling bores you. :)

I get a bit exasperated whenever I read about some organization, often our government (which has all our tax dollars to play with), that spent a great deal of money on studies to prove something that everyone already knows to be true. Common sense is no substitute for science, but neither is science a substitute for common sense. Sometimes, however, finding such a study comes in useful. How? Some of you with common sense probably are ahead of me here. Scientific proof of the obvious is a handy thing to have when you're faced with people who don't believe what you say unless it's backed up with, well, proof. Proof other than your own observations, that is.

I found an article that I plan to quote often, about stress studies, studies which have been done over many years. Proven and tested fact, all you doubters!! (Present company is excepted - I know my friends are going to totally get this.) According to the summary in the article, the hormones created by stress prompt the body to go into "survival mode". This is one of the many things that we can thank evolution for. When you ponder it, our knowledge, technology, and pretty much all of civilization is a thick cover laid over our basic evolutionary instincts, and a lot of our mental issues are due to trying to reconcile the instinctive beast within us with what our brains insist is reality. Really, an amazing number of things that we do and feel are based on chemicals. (As my friend Dana says, we're just bags of chemicals.) But to drag myself away from exposition and parenthetical expression, let me get to the point. When the body is in survival mode, all of its functions are tuned to instant reaction, fight-or-flight. In the brain, this shuts down the higher cognitive functions, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the strength and duration of the stress.

Now, I would call creativity one of the higher cognitive functions. Not only does it require abstract thought, but it also involves the delicate operations of imagination and visualization. Even more, a high level of brain activity is required for the complex task of taking things from the imagination and converting them into physical reality. This is true of any kind of art. Add the effort needed to not only achieve a physical representation of imagination and abstract thought, but also to polish it and present it so that it makes sense and has beauty and meaning, and you have an amazing thing going on which has little to do with the survival instinct. Anyone disagree with me here?

So let's get personal. Where is the sore spot that made me want to get on my soapbox and tout the info from these studies? Simple. When I tell people who are not artistis that I can't write because I'm upset, or over-worked, or under too much pressure, or enduring constant interruptions, etc., those people hear "I won't write" instead of "I can't write", and they believe that all I have to do is sit down and put my fingers on the keyboard. They think I'm lazy or making excuses or just whining. Yeah, srsly. They don't say it, but I know they're thinking it. I'm no mind-reader; it's implicit in their attitudes and often their words. Like, "Oh, sorry, I'll go away and leave you to it, but first, can I ask one question?" or "Forget about those overdue bills for a while and just do your writing." Etc. Insisting that I am unable to engage my imagination and creative force doesn't make a dent in these people. They seem to equate artistic work with things like digging potatoes or washing the car, easy to put down and pick up.

God, I hate that. A sidebar to that is those people who think that creativity can be steered like a car. These are the people who suggest:
  • that I write something that will make me rich ("Why don't you write about vampires? They're really popular." or "Why don't you try writing screenplays?")

  • that I write in another genre ("I don't get fantasy - why can't you write about real life?")

  • that they have had such an interesting life that I might consider writing it for them (Sure, folks. Let's see, it takes approximately 180 hours to write and edit a short book, so at, say, a reasonable $20/hour, you'll owe me $3,600. That's assuming that I want to put aside all my own projects for 4-6 months. Riiiiight.)

I could go on for a while, but I think my ranting mood has passed. Now I'm tired. G'night!


I agree with you on all counts, speaking from personal experience. My personal creativity is really affected by my stress level, and I find that either I can't create, or if I do, the finished product is not up to my standards. And, I'll say a double "Yes, this!" to the idea that creativity can be steered ... although I'll also add an amendment to say that some of my best, along with some of my worst, pieces of writing have been written in response to a prompt.

What I wonder about, though, is those people (and I know many of them) who use their creativity to relieve stress. How does that work? I know people who craft, knit, sew, paint, quilt, etc., and lose themselves in it so fully that they emerge refreshed and ready to deal with their (sometimes unpleasant) lives. I have a friend who took care of a very unpleasant mother-in-law for years, and her only respite was to lock herself in her craft room and quilt. I know another who, when she had been relocated because her house was being threatened by wildfires, went and bought material and sewed all day long. And another, when faced with a threatening illness, turned to her beading. In each case, not only was their stress relieved, but the final products were excellent. So how does that work?

Perhaps it's the type of art involved? Or the personality of the creator?

I think it's the type of art involved. I find that almost any kind of purely physical labor helps stress. Crafting is not quite the same kind of creative process as writing, at least not in the execution of it - I would think that actually creating patterns would be hard - but I can easily see the actual sewing (or gluing or stringing or whatever) would be terrific for stress relief.

Honestly, I don't think it's the personality of the creator, or if it is, then that is rare. All of us have the same physiological reactions to stress; it's hard-wired. So I believe it is the type of art.
That makes perfect sense. :)

You said it.

The problem with being everyone's "go to" is that you don't have any "go" left to go to at the end of the day. Or the middle of the day. Or any time. The quiet places in your mind just shut down.

How did those people in caves ever have enough peace to tell stories around the fire? I guess they did, because here we are, still trying to do it.

I totally agree that working with your hands and body can be done just about any time, and doesn't require a quiet moment to get into character. But writing? Fuggeddaboudit.

I so miss those quiet times.