Author Kate Atkinson was on the long-running British Radio Show Desert Island Discs this morning, and during her one-to-one interview (between playing her chosen recordings), the subject came up of her creative process. Before embarking on a new book, she is apparently in the habit of de-cluttering and tidying. “There’s something about mindlessness, as opposed to mindfulness, that I think is very creative,” she told the interviewer, “It allows your brain some space to start doing a lot of unconscious thinking, and then you have very tidy drawers at the end of it.”
Increasingly popular over the past decade or so in the west, mindfulness, a form of meditation (as I understand it), aims to get the mind fully focused on the present moment, observing one’s thoughts and feelings, but without criticism. This quieting the mind, we are told, can help one live in the present rather than ruminate on the past or worry about the future, and be a great stress reliever. Indeed, I have heard friends and colleagues report how helpful it has been to them. Personally, whilst past experience has indicated I am pretty hopeless at meditation, I keep meaning to try it. One day.
In the meantime, I am attracted to the less demanding suggestion regarding the benefits of Mindlessness. After hearing Atkinson on the radio, I had the quickest consultation with Professor Google. Turns out Mindlessness is an actual ‘psychological’ concept. The idea is (again perhaps my feeble interpretation) that the unconscious human mind undertakes “mindless” or unconscious processing all the time, managing huge amounts of information, and that the power of this ability should not be underrated when it comes to decision-making and creativity.
I guess the notion of freeing the mind through engagement and absorption in simple, practical activities is nothing new. It’s a phenomenon familiar to many, I am sure, that when one is engaged in a basic hands-on task, ideas may come unbidden. Perhaps this is because, as with Mindfulness, the critic in the head is switched off, allowing for a flow of thoughts.
Previously, I have bragged (well, I didn’t mean to brag, perhaps it was simple relief) that I hadn’t experienced writer’s block before. That scourge of creativity where someone who writes, or creates anything, experiences a slow-down in their output. I had always found my adversary to have been time – many ideas but insufficient hours to work on them. Recently though, things have been different. It started with a problem at work that spilled over into my personal life – or I allowed to spill over, perhaps. In the wake of this, even those hours I can find to sit at my desk, to scribble in a notebook, are unproductive. The little I have written in the past month has been sterile and unsatisfying; ideas are not translating into text, even as a rough draft.
There appear to be, very broadly speaking, two commonly accepted approaches to dealing with creative blocks. One is to keep doing it anyway—press on, keep writing even if it’s not very good; don’t get out of the habit. The other is, putting it simply, to go away and do something else. It may be music, reading, physical exercise, but it’s something that shakes you up, changes the brain pattern in order to change your outlook. Taking Atkinson’s example, I guess it could, then, be tidying your drawers, or cleaning the bath…
That makes sense to me, because there is something about these tasks that helps one to feel back in command. For me, baking has that effect, restoring a sense of control. And in the perhaps contrary way the mind works, just as I am in the middle of something else, an idea might pop into my head.
The other day my kids were trying to figure out some of the words scrawled in chalk on the blackboard in the kitchen that we use as a memo pad: ‘Ben philosophy birch wood, don’t try to fight / go with it– What on earth does that mean?’ Well it was just a few impromptu notes. Part of the creative process—as I stood doing the ironing.
Desert Island Discs, Novelist Kate Atkinson is interviewed by Lauren Laverne, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000198c