I was doing my usual thing yesterday, working my way through a virtual pile of emails, organizing my daily To Do list, and generally being a productive busy bee when I saw this tweet from fellow screenwriter Arash Amel:
Writing tip for the day: sometimes when you don’t feel like writing, just stop. Have a nap.
Have a nap. That jarred something in my memory, so I started digging into the archives of my blog and found a post I wrote over 5 years ago called “Naps: Key to Creativity?” The piece cited a New York Times article which examined scientific research between the connection of sleep and creativity:
“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.
Steven Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.
So some scientists and entrepreneurs think sleep is beneficial. But what about arty types? Again from the NYT article:
“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”
And how does that “reset work:
“Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.
Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.
“When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.
When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are. Like when you are dreaming:
Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.
My predominant instinct when writing a story is to immerse myself in it in the most comprehensive fashion possible. Oftentimes that involves endless hours devoted to research, character development, brainstorming and plotting. I know the value of a direct approach to the creative process, slogging into and through the story universe with lots of intentional effort and thought.
Yet I know that in some intangible way, writing a story involves a type of magic, a metaphorical way of referring to an indirect approach to the process.
And what could be more indirect than giving oneself over to a nap?
So the next time you are stuck or feeling uninspired, consider doing what Arash Amel suggests: Take a nap. The answers you seek may be lurking in your dreams.
Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.
[Originally posted October 31, 2013]