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?


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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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