Anxiety and creativity

As a psy­cho­lo­gist, I should prob­ably have some­thing sens­ible to say about the rela­tion­ship between anxi­ety and cre­ativ­ity.

*whistles tune­lessly*

Oh, wait, here’s a graph:


This n-curve is a plot of the Yerkes-Dodson law. In short, it sug­gests that per­form­ance on a task var­ies as a func­tion of arous­al, i.e. alert­ness. Performance is optim­al when arous­al is mod­er­ate. Too little, and per­form­ance suf­fers — per­haps because of the ori­ent­a­tion­al and atten­tion­al aspects of arous­al. Too much, and the neg­at­ive effects of arous­al begin to kick in: stress, neg­at­ive ideation, and so on.

As an old psy­cho­logy lec­turer of mine, Brian Young, used to say: “Typical psy­cho­lo­gist. Stating the fuck­ing obvi­ous.”

Take a look at these excel­lent posts on the rela­tion­ship between anxi­ety and writ­ing: first off, Roger Morris’s take on silen­cing the inner twat (in my humble opin­ion, Roger, you can tell him to take a run­ning jump); then David Isaak’s fol­low-up; and this inter­est­ing meta-fol­low-up by Jenn Ashworth.

I think there is some­thing use­ful in the anxi­ety that vis­its dur­ing the writ­ing pro­cess. The hom­un­cu­lus does have a neg­at­ive tone, and can be vicious, but he/she knows the dis­tance that a piece of prose has to travel before it can wind up on the page of a book. In my pre­vi­ous post, I spoke about the dif­fi­culty of research­ing ad nauseam or just crack­ing on with the nov­el, fac­tu­al accur­acy b’damned (nat­ur­ally, I’ll sort it out later). That means that my writ­ing will be unusu­ally dis­tant from the fin­ished product, and there is a very good chance that I’ll need to change more than 80% of the words — i.e. just throw them out. The hom­un­cu­lus knows this, and does make life hard. But he’s just apply­ing a pro­fes­sion­al stand­ard. Plus, I’m not the kind of writer who likes to sub­mit some­thing that is nearly fin­ished; I want it to be per­fect (or as per­fect as I can get it). So most of the time I agree with the hom­un­cu­lus. Only later, once the book is in its final drafts, do I actu­ally worry if the hom­un­cu­lus still has bitchy com­ments.

One of things I do, when the hom­un­cu­lus is so clam­our­ous that I can barely write, is to draw people from my books. It’s a way of spend­ing time in my fic­tion world without actu­ally writ­ing. Here are a couple of pics of a char­ac­ter in my third book. Can you tell who it is yet?


Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “Anxiety and creativity”

  1. Funnily enough, I drew a pic­ture (not as good as yours!)of a char­ac­ter in the cur­rent waffle I’m scrib­bling and then decided I didn’t like them and kicked them out!
    How do you cope while you’re wait­ing for a decision? That’s what I can’t cope with. High arous­al? hmmmm.

  2. hey, really nice work. My day-job is draw­ing. at

    You’re very good. I like the dir­ec­tion­al shad­ing a lot.


  3. Great art­icles, Helen. I like the one about neg­at­ive spaces. If that’s the one thing I could tell people to learn to aid their draw­ing, I would tell them that…

  4. Not really, but he seems to be pro­du­cing doc­u­ment­ar­ies, books on poetry, nov­els, and doing inter­views where he talks about quantum the­ory, Wagner and Interesting Animal Facts. Generally a very pro­duct­ive (and anxious, I think) guy.

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