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In my experience, there are two kinds of writing days: The one where you’re in it before you even realize you’re in it, prosing out swiftly to an idea you’ve already mastered, or just relishing the limpid gurgle from the lyrical fountains of your fingertips. And then there’s the kind where you are stacking words together, brick by brick, in a way that is, technically, language—but unilluminated, procedural and vacant.
Some of this has to do with what permissions you give yourself. A professor in college told me I had the strongest self-censor of anyone he’d taught. I had trouble understanding that, and to this day I can only reverse-engineer his meaning—because I’m not conscious of holding back. I’m more conscious of the effort to bring words out, to articulate them. That is to say, the censor operates silently and unseen, with the presumption of power, like gravity; I am conscious of it only in the work I must do to push back, which feels playful, because it’s a form of escape.
Fluid writing happens when the censor is less active. This writing is lighter on cliches and rote formulations; it makes inventive, nimble use of an expanded pool of words; it pulses with emotion. For research on a magazine essay about athletes and drinking, I’m reading a book about the interplay of human history and alcohol consumption, which the book argues is highly determined: We are the species we are because we developed a reliable means of loosening up. Humans are logical, planning, self-interested creatures, and, the argument goes, this is key to our success; but equally key is our ability to revert to the states of play and invention and communality that characterized our long childhoods. Fluid creativity is a function of those states.
But the censor has a role to play, too. It lives with the logic and the planning, the parts of being that an organized life hangs on. It’s not really just a censor but also an editor and a critic; its targets are error, incoherence, imprecision, exposure, risk. However fluid the writing may feel in the moment, it creates a task for the censor: to go back over, to review and strengthen and resolve.
The problem, then, is when the balance swings too hard the other way, and nothing can get past the censor to begin with—unless it’s forced past, as on those brick-by-brick days, in which case it’s going to be stilted and airless. The way I’m calibrated, I have to spend a ton of energy to push back against the censor. No coincidence for me that athletics is another way humans have historically subdued the prefrontal cortex, exhausting it with hours of resource-intensive motor cognizing so we can live outside its dominion for even a few minutes.
A delightful truth is that none of this is predictable, and so it’s possible to wake up one day, sober and static, and find that the censor has not risen with you—that you can dance as you please. Only under certain conditions, such as trying to create, would you even notice this, and that’s pretty much the whole point of creative habits: to be there not so much when the lightning of inspiration strikes as when the censor is sleeping, and your genesis unchecked.
Thank you for your donations to Achilles International. My fundraising requirement is satisfied, and I’ll be running the New York City Marathon on November 5.
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