How to force inspiration, kind of. (And how I learned that my shower is NOT actually the Magic Idea Box)

writing in the shower, inspiration

My diving slates.

UPDATE, 2/27/13: I’ve gotten more comments about creativity from readers on my Facebook page, so I’ve added more comments to the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

A few years ago, Wally Lamb spoke at my MFA program. One of the things Lamb mentioned in his keynote was that he got the idea for She’s Come Undone in the shower. If I’m remembering this correctly, it wasn’t an everyday shower; one of his children had just been born and he’d run home to clean up. Shortly after getting into the shower, inspiration sent him running down the hall for pen and paper.

I was so excited to hear this; recently I’d been noticing that my best ideas were emerging in the shower, exactly the time when I was unable to grab a pen and paper to write them down. I’d thought that I was the only one. And so, weird and creepy as it may be to randomly go up to a guy who is a complete stranger and talk about your showering habits, I just couldn’t help myself. I walked up to Lamb after the reading and said “Ohmygod I get my ideas when I’m showering too!” And he gave me the uncomfortable look that pretty much anyone would in the circumstances.

I’ve been thinking of the shower as the Magic Idea Box for a few years now. I never get ideas during morning showers (all they do is wake me up) but I know that if I’m stuck on something, I can take a shower in the middle of the day and the solution will appear within 30 seconds of the water being turned on. I keep diving slates in there so I can scribble the ideas down. I always figured it was the water, or the drumming of the shower on my spine that drew the ideas out. And until Lamb spoke, I thought it was just me.

This is apparently a thing. After reading a recent blog post by another favorite author, Mary Doria Russell, and seeing that she also gets ideas in the shower, I did a quick search for “inspiration in the shower.” It’s more common than I thought it would be. In 2006, Time published an interview with psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Here’s a quote from that piece:

In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain.

The bathtub, the bed and the bus. That makes sense. Everyone knows the story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. The principle of the displacement of water came to him in the public bath and then went running out into the streets of Syracuse butt naked, screaming “Eureka!”
This blows a hole through my Magic Idea Box theory; Sawyer goes on to say that the “aha” moment is not a flash of inspiration. It is the end of a process that’s been happening for some time. Your brain has been working on the problem; the mental downtime of a shower or bath, or bus ride or the moments before sleep just kicks your brain into a different gear and that helps your mind solve the problem. But there are, apparently, other ways to force an “aha.”

Collaboration with people in or outside of your field is supposed to help. Here is Felicia Ryan, who commented on my Facebook page when I asked people how they get inspired:

My business partner (who is a visual artist by training) and myself (my training is in Communications) exchange ideas constantly, songs, artwork, books, resources….our exchange is a creative “call and response” conversation. Each of us adds to what the other has said and help to interpret it in a different way. We email, text and call each other and try to follow each creative thread to a conclusion or the next idea. It is like a on ongoing Ping-pong match.

Any kind of mental downtime. According to a recent NPR piece, people who can let their minds wander during breaks from a task are more likely to solve the problem when they return to that problem. As writer Tina DeMarco says, “Mostly [inspiration] comes when I’m busy doing something else!” Here is writer Krista Richards Mann:

I get inspired when it’s quiet. I like to go on a walk or a hike. But, inspiration has been known to nudge me while changing a load of laundry, baking a cake or sweeping the floor as well.

And here is writer Donna Orazio:

For me…it is when I silence the loop of conversation in my head and just listen to the sounds around me. What else is there to hear if I really listen? A new conversation often begins which leads me to unexpected places if I am open to it.

Writing in a blue room. I don’t get this one. Nor do I have a blue room, so I can’t test this theory. But NPR says it’s true, so like a good listener, I believe.

Speaking of NPR. Here’s social media marketer Kate Hutchinson’s strategy for getting ideas:

NPR. I love to listen to it in the car, and half the time I’ll listen to a story about communications between rebel groups in Syria and outside aid groups and suddenly I’ll realize there’s something I can apply to my social media strategy, so I’ll make a voice memo on my iPhone.

Driving/Walking to work. This falls, for me, into mental downtime (unless you’re driving in LA, across the George Washington Bridge or on I-95 in Connecticut) but enough people, like Hutchinson, mentioned getting ideas in the car that I felt it deserved its own category.

From Brian Hendrickson, creator of the web comic Call of Cthulu: The Musical:

From Karen P. Schuh:

I often get ideas when driving or when observing people interacting that causes my creative mind to react and imagine a story.

And from Talking to Walls frontman Brian Kelly:

I find that I write most of my songs at the least convenient times. The best happen when I’m driving or in the shower. If I “sit down to write” it almost never happens. But usually when I can’t get to a guitar or, in the case of a shower, paper, that’s when the muse hits. (I think she just likes watching me in the shower. Kinda creepy…)

Which brings us back to the shower. Here’s a comment from Stephen Schmidt, who has the same problem as Brian:

In the shower of all places – I guess the hot water gets my brain going. A whole new meaning for “go soak your head”. It’s hard to write stuff down though.

Diving slates, Stephen and Brian. Trust me.

How do you get your ideas? Does the blue room thing even work? Comment here or on my Facebook page and I may update with your input.

As for me, I’m headed over to the Magic Idea Box to see if I can harvest some ideas for the next chapter I have to write. Apparently I’m over the weirdness of publicly discussing showers, although I don’t think I’m quite at the Archimedes level of weirdness quite yet.*

*Archimedes was a bit on the odd side. He was killed during the invasion of Syracuse. He was working on an equation at the time. A Roman soldier came to take him prisoner and Archimedes was all “no thank you, kinda busy right now,” and the soldier got mad and killed him. (I imagine things didn’t end all that well for that centurion when his general realized that the greatest genius of their time was murdered in the middle of something brilliant by some kid with an anger management problem.)

Me and My Panic Attack: What Fresh Hell is This?

This afternoon, I think I had a mild panic attack.

I don’t know for sure if it was a panic attack because I’ve never had one before and I sure didn’t think I’d be getting one any time soon. My breath became short, my heart pounded, my hands shook and I started to stutter. I was able to quickly dispel it, but I was shaken, and disgusted with myself.  Stuttering, A.J., really? What is that?  The last time I stuttered, I was in high school.

So what was I doing that caused such fear? Making a phone call. That’s it. That’s all. I was calling someone for work.

I never have liked making calls. In college I always hoped that someone else would call for the pizza, but I never had any huge problems with dialing the phone. Like just about everyone in the first world, I have made millions of phone calls for work and never had a panic attack. In fact, I spent a decade making hundreds of phone calls a week, sometimes dozens a day, when I worked as a reporter. I knew, when I was making those calls, that a lot of those people didn’t want to talk to me. In fact, some of them were downright hostile, but my attitude at the time was much more “game on” than “freak out.”

Today, the shadow of the phone calls I had to make – a task that should take less than three minutes – hung over me from the moment I woke up. I actually slept in a little to avoid them. I dreaded them. I did everything else on my to-do list first. I sent emails. I did research. I paced the floor. I went on Facebook. I emptied the dishwasher. Finally I decided to just do it. I wrote out all the things I had to talk about in each call, something I’ve never done before and picked up the phone.

The first went off without a hitch. The second triggered the attack, if that’s what it was. I forgot my name. I forgot my phone number. I forgot my business. Then I was angry with myself, which made it all much, much worse. It took me a half an hour to make myself confront the fear and make the third call.

Now the callbacks are giving me trouble. Though I know I can now go about the rest of my day knowing the calls are over with, and though any callers could leave me a message, I feel compelled to linger over the phone, doing nothing,  just in case someone calls me back.

I have no idea why the phone calls would cause me such anxiety. They weren’t particularly difficult calls.  But all of a sudden it feels like I have a sudden phone phobia, and it’s hard not to judge myself here. Phonephobia sounds like a disorder for weirdos. And since when do people suddenly sprout phobias? Since when do I sprout phobias?

One of my resolutions for 2012 has been to work on my anxiety, which has been growing, inexplicably, over the last few years. In the days since I made my resolution, I’ve been doing some research on ways of handling anxiety, reading books about it, practicing yoga daily to control my breathing, looking for my triggers, all that good self-help stuff that one is supposed to do. Then today happened.

I don’t normally share my struggle with anxiety, which quite frankly embarrasses me, because – as someone once asked me –  what have I to be anxious about?  But I’m beginning to think that keeping quiet about anxiety might be contributing to the problem, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll jump into the conversation. At least I can get it out there. Maybe it will be one less thing to worry about.

The sneak synesthete

I feel kind of like my brain gave me a present this week. On Tuesday, I learned that I’m a synesthete.

One of my friends shared this article, “Your name tastes like purple” on Facebook. “Uck,” I thought. “I really hope my name doesn’t taste like purple.” That should have been a sign.

Synesthesia, I learned, by reading the article, is a harmless perceptual condition in which one sense is directly related to another. Some people see colors when they hear sounds. Some people associate tastes with colors. The synesthete who penned the piece wrote about her ability to see letters in color and visualize the year. As I read, I thought “So? Who doesn’t do that? Everyone associates the letter A with red, right?” By the end of the article, I realized that everyone does not. Continue reading