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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Writers Must Surrender Certainty

face uncertaintyCreativity is born of inefficiency and uncertainty.

Unfortunately, your brain does not welcome uncertainty. Because the human brain, which makes up only 3% of the body’s mass, uses 20 to 30% of the body’s oxygen and glucose, it evolved to be as energy-efficient as possible.

Uncertainty is simply not efficient. Why question what you already know? Why keep looking for more solutions when the one you have is good enough?

The first solution you find may not be the best, but once you make a decision, your brain sticks with it. Second-guessing takes energy and time away from other vital brain functions.

The brain also tends to interpret new information to fit decisions you’ve already made. It’s more efficient than identifying and comparing a multitude of new decision possibilities. 

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior highlights the dangers of “diagnosis bias,” the tendency to ignore information that doesn’t fit your initial categorization or to manipulate that information until it does fit.

Diagnosis Bias at Work

sheep-on-hillsideTo illustrate diagnosis bias, imagine two urbanites on a day trip to the country, looking over a green hill dotted with white shapes.

“Are you sure those are all sheep?”

“Yep. No horns, not a goat among them.”

“But that one looks different.”

“You get individual differences even with sheep. It’s white and fluffy in a flock of white and fluffy animals grazing, it’s a sheep.”

“But it’s barking.”

“Sheep don’t bark. It’s coughing.”

Bedlington adult“It’s leaving the flock.”

“So it’s an independent sheep.”

“It’s chasing something.”

“Don’t be silly. Sheep don’t chase things. It’s just frolicking.”

“That’s not a sheep.”

“So you’re a sheep expert now?”

“It doesn’t have hooves.”

“Like you can tell from this distance. All sheep have hooves. It’s probably a sheep with a hoof disorder that’s causing the coughing and the aberrant running.”

“It’s a dog!”

Note: The Bedlington Terrier was bred to look like the sheep it guards from predators. The fact that it gives shepherds so many opportunities to laugh at city slickers is just a bonus.

Curious Counter-balance

RosanneBane_Brain_RGB-03The brain’s preference for certainty aligns with the myth that knowledge is power. That might be true for diplomats and CEOs, but for creatives, curiosity is power.

The myth equates not knowing with stupid. When we have to admit we don’t know something, we believe we are diminished. On the contrary, not knowing is a creative opportunity!

Fortunately, the brain has evolved to be curious as well as energy-efficient. When we learn or experience something new, the brain gives itself a squirt of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.

We seek novelty. Hence the addictive qualities of Facebook, Twitter, video games, etc. – every new status update, every tweet, every shift in the game gives us a shot of “I feel good!”

Beyond Efficient to Effective

uncertaintyWe are wired for both creativity and efficiency, but for most of us, efficiency-seeking is the default. That’s why we need to consciously remind ourselves to question our own certainty, to throw ourselves off-balance, and to expose ourselves to foreign ideas from time to time.

As writers, as creative people, we need to push ourselves beyond our brain’s efficient but limiting default patterns. We need to intentionally adopt the curiosity that comes so naturally to children, question our assumptions, and revel in the creative possibilities only uncertainty can offer. We need to put ourselves in places to be pushed beyond certainty.

Who or what challenges your worldview, your beliefs about writing, your writing skills?

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2 Comments on “Writers Must Surrender Certainty”

  1. readerchick6751 September 3, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    Will admit that I fall into default certainty mode more often than I’d like to admit…. so much early conditioning that consisted of messages like artists/writers, creative careers pay so little that you’ll starve, only really talented writers make it/are successful etc implying you don’t have a chance. So it’s hardly any wonder I head right for certainty! But I know there is creativity within, it does surface from time to time:)


    • rosannebane September 20, 2016 at 10:36 am #

      Thanks Readerchick6751 for your comment and for sharing your creativity with the world, for adding your voice to the choir. You’re right on target about so much early conditioning. And then there’s the brain’s tendency to seek certainty, which is why being mindful and remembering to celebrate uncertainty is so valuable.


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