I seem to have lost the ability to think

I’m trying to very gently trick myself back into writing. It’s not because I don’t want to write–I do, very much–but more that there are so many other feelings swoop in when I sit down to write, that I need to trick myself into getting something, anything, done.

Earlier in lockdown I was very good at doing my morning pages, as advised by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. She says you should write three pages or thereabouts as the first thing you do when you wake up. It’s about letting off steam, so she says – letting yourself get all the other things out on the page, the daily frustrations, the self-flagellation, the to-do lists. I think it’s meant to be a written version of that grandiose film trope of dramatically sweeping everything off your desk, so that you have space for a new idea. Julia Cameron says morning pages are a good way to get to know yourself better.

As I mentioned earlier, I was very good at doing the morning pages; the operative word being ‘was’. When I did them, I did get to know myself better. But now I know myself better, I actually think I’m boring. I used to write every day and produce variations on the same theme every day, the same day in, day out. Every day I would wake up and say that I was tired and couldn’t think. It was true. I still am tired every day. And I still can’t think.

When I say ‘I can’t think’, I am not being negative, and stopping myself before I get started. In fact, I spent–and still spend–a lot of time encouraging myself. I tell myself it’s ok to be a bit tired, and that I don’t need to wait for a blinding flash of inspiration to write, and that it’s ok not to be good on the first try, and that it’s ok to feel a bit rusty at first. All of these things are true! I only need to write one sentence! That’s all! But truly, I couldn’t think. Whenever I would try to do so, I would circle back to the same point: what is the point of all this, anyway? What am I doing trying to be creative when the world’s on fire? If I did write anything at all, I’d manage a creaking sentence that had no joy in it whatsoever. And afterwards, I’d think, ‘Thank god, I don’t have to do another one of those until tomorrow.’ I’m sure I don’t need to explain how this is not how I want to feel about writing.

For some time now, my imagination hasn’t been filling in the gaps like it used to. My brain remembers what it needs to do; complete this task at work, remember to set off on time if I need to meet someone, put my laundry in the washing machine and take it out again when it’s done. That bit I have down pat. I can think strategically about what I need to do and in what order. What my brain isn’t doing is coming up with anything on its own. Conversations are hard, because I haven’t had any thoughts apart from ‘I recently did the washing up,’ or ‘I folded my clothes neatly,’ in a while. I don’t know what to say to people when they ask me what I’ve been up to recently. The only answer I have is: living. Which is, yes, fine – an admirable thing to do. It’s something that many people struggle with, and it’s something I have struggled with, before. I really must commend myself for managing to take care of myself despite not really caring at all.

Worse than not having anything interesting to report, I can’t even think of a way to describe being bored in an entertaining way. Most people don’t live wildly exciting lives, but they usually have something to say for themselves. I try to encourage myself by pointing out that everyone else is also living boring lives now, because of lockdown. But I think other people still have imagination. What has happened to mine?

I thought about people who might be doing even more banal or repetitive jobs than me. I thought about parents having to entertain young children, or cleaners who mop the same floors in the same order. I wouldn’t say they were boring – people still have interests, and thoughts about life, no matter what they spend their days doing.
People still have vivacious personalities without wild adventures: one need not have exciting source material to make wry observations, dramatic sagas or imaginative retellings.

What makes all of this even more dire is that I used to have funny thoughts. I used to have an entertaining time in my head, telling myself stories about things as I was doing them, or thinking about things I’d been reading or songs to which I’d been listening. I’d try different outfits on and feel like I was becoming a different character depending on whether I put on a checked tea dress, or black jeans and Doc Martens. That feeling of ‘inner life’ isn’t there anymore. I do what I need to and there is no director’s commentary.

I know I used to have imagination – I used to write a lot. I’d be struck by poignant thoughts all the time and have to write them in my Notes app. Writing used to come easily to me. I used to arrive at the proverbial page and they’d just come forth like a… See what I mean? I used to be able to just produce a metaphor, whenever I wanted! I will be trying to write a sentence and get to a point where a metaphor is meant to go, but it doesn’t come. It’s like I’m turning a tap on and waiting expectantly for the gushing flow I’m used to, but instead there’s nothing. Not even a rumbling in the pipes. Oh, that’s a metaphor. Why couldn’t it come when I wanted it to?

I have to wonder whether I’m actually doing this to myself. What if somehow I killed my imagination? What if I’m preventing it from coming back? This is simultaneously alarming and comforting. Alarming, because I’m doing harm to myself. Comforting, because (theoretically) I should be able to stop. I ask myself what the purpose of not imagining might be. Does not imagining actually have some benefits?
While in an imagination-free state, I do get what I need to do done. I’m still functional. Highly functional! It occurred to me think I may have subconsciously switched off my own imagination to cope with life last year. There’s no time or energy for imagination when you have to spend so much of it continuing to exist. I don’t think I noticed my imagination had gone until the volume of everything else had reduced. I may have been living without imagination for longer than I had previously thought. What if it doesn’t come back? It will come back, it has to. Right?

So what can you do to let imagination come back again? Clear away some of the dead wood that might be stifling its green shoots? While it always grew so easily before, without need for special attention, maybe it would be wise to just keep turning up to do it, and soon I’ll just find myself doing it.
What I came to realise through doing the morning pages is that this hasn’t worked for me. I may have all the intention to write, and I may remove as many barriers to entry as possible (by encouraging myself, actually sitting down at the table to do it, creating a reward system and trying to keep a run streak) but these aren’t much help when your brain won’t play ball.
Writing feels like having I have lost my keys, and keep re-checking the pockets I’ve already looked in, even though I know they aren’t there. I feel like I have been doing that days upon days, weeks upon weeks, looking for my inspiration in the place where it used to be and where it isn’t any more.

So at the moment, I’m trying to trick myself into writing. My gut feeling is that trying to force an idea out through rigorous discipline is like trying to herd cats (another metaphor; not particularly original, but it will do). Imagination doesn’t work like a machine. And neither do words.

I’m trying to trick myself by finding the delicate balance between trying to let my mind be free enough to write, but not too free, or it might decide not to write. I know that setting myself to write for anything longer than ten minutes is likely to see ‘instant gratification’ me give up (even if ‘strategic’ me doesn’t want to), so I make any writing tasks as easy and low-commitment as possible. I’m doing some radical noticing: it hasn’t helped yet but I’m prepared to keep going anyway.

It’s a delicate balance, because with each initiative I take for coaxing my brain into writing, its antithesis appears to scare the tiny hope back into its inertia. I know that if I just do a little bit of writing every day, then it will add up, and soon I’ll have something. But as soon as I remember that, I feel like the creative vivacity has been snuffed out, and writing becomes another chore, like laundry or exercise or turning up to work.

I try to let my mind be free and go where it needs to, but then I watch it toddle determinedly down the path marked ‘self-loathing’. I try to head it off at the pass, with gentle encouragement, but my brain isn’t sure how to take that encouragement either: one part wants to luxuriate in the comfort so that it never has to do anything hard again, the other path is deeply suspicious of this kindness and thinks it’s being patronised. Then I need to tell my brain to just accept the compliments I give it, and move on. And after all of this, I’m tired, and I can’t think.

I marvel at my brain’s ability to be non-compliant. I wish I could shake it into submission, but that doesn’t feel like a very kind thing to do. My brain is testing my patience. This is the most I have written in weeks, and it feels like one long complaint. I don’t particularly want to have produced this, but I have, so I suppose that’s something! That’s something, right?

Leave a Reply