Overthinking and the Creative Process

Overthinking and the Creative Process
December 19, 2016 No Comments » For Authors, Writing Advice Nancy E Miller

We have all seen athletes who have proved their physical abilities time after time. Then when they reach the pinnacle of their career say…the Olympics…they choke.  A whole branch of sports medicine is dedicated to the psychological underpinnings of ‘psyching out’ during a performance.

So what about writers?  Are we similar to athletes?  Do we run sprints or marathons?  Yes.  Do we study and practice to perfect our abilities? Yes.  Do we face criticism and disillusionment? Yep.  And do we sometimes choke just as we hold the possibility of achieving our goal?  You betcha.

I can’t tell you how many times I have on the brink of publishing a work and choked. I now have a publisher who is intent on pushing me or should I say keeping me on deadline. Maybe I am just feeling stronger knowing I am accepted as a writer.

In the Psychology Today article, “Why Does Overthinking Sabotage the Creative Process?” Christopher Bergland states his belief that both the left and right brain are required for creation.  I can see it. The right brain creates but the left has to do the grunt work.  In other words, right creates the story but the left does the typing, the editing, and the publishing process.

“I created a new split-brain model that emphasizes the importance of optimizing the structure, function, and interconnectivity of all four brain hemispheres. This includes both hemispheres of the cerebrum and both hemispheres of the cerebellum. (Latin for little brain). 

Interestingly, when you go back and look at the writings of William James—who is considered by many to be the “father of American psychology”—he identified the brain mechanics of why overthinking sabotages creativity over a century ago.

In 1911, William James advised in On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation, “When you are making your general [creative] resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign, keep them out of the details. When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.” 

James’ words are prophetic in identifying the importance of ‘unclamping’ the explicit memory and executive function of the prefrontal cortex to break the cycle of ‘paralysis by analysis’ and achieving a state of superfluid creative thinking.”

Creation requires the entire network of the brain to bring about the final result. So what does this have to do with ‘choking’ or ‘paralysis by analysis’ as Arthur Ashe put it.  The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is the executive director dealing with coordinating, planning, and short-term memory. It can override even the creativity functions.

“Creativity is the ability to bring together disparate ideas in new and useful combinations. What is happening to the electrical, chemical, and architectural environment of our brains that stimulates our imagination and makes us more creative? A 2015 study from Stanford University suggests that “overthinking” (relying exclusively on the brains higher-level, executive-control centers held in the cerebrum) actually impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.”

In short, like we try to drum into new authors, JUST WRITE.  The first draft is where you do a complete mind dump of ideas.  Worry about how it all goes together in the next draft.  Don’t even worry about grammar until at least the third draft. DON’T OVERTHINK IT. Be open to detours, plot holes, and speed bumps in the process.

The last thing you want is performance paralysis.  Find what motivates you, breaks through the wall, and then put it in action. I suffer from performance paralysis. For me, having deadlines established by an outside authority helps me every time. That might just cause you anxiety. Find a peaceful, encouraging environment to create, whatever it may be.



Nancy E Miller Nancy E. Miller, romantic suspense author of Shark Bait and Crystal Unicorns, lives near St. Louis with her husband and three dogs, pygmy goats, chickens and a cranky rooster named Ketchup. Her degree is in Psychology and Sociology. She has worked in education and mental health as a case manager and crisis counselor.

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