Sheer Mindlessness

Author Kate Atkinson was on the long-running British Radio Show Desert Island Discs this morning, and during her one-to-one interview (between playing her chosen recordings), the subject came up of her creative process. Before embarking on a new book, she is apparently in the habit of de-cluttering and tidying. “There’s something about mindlessness, as opposed to mindfulness, that I think is very creative,” she told the interviewer, “It allows your brain some space to start doing a lot of unconscious thinking, and then you have very tidy drawers at the end of it.”

Increasingly popular over the past decade or so in the west, mindfulness, a form of meditation (as I understand it), aims to get the mind fully focused on the present moment, observing one’s thoughts and feelings, but without criticism. This quieting the mind, we are told, can help one live in the present rather than ruminate on the past or worry about the future, and be a great stress reliever. Indeed, I have heard friends and colleagues report how helpful it has been to them. Personally, whilst past experience has indicated I am pretty hopeless at meditation, I keep meaning to try it. One day.

What inspiration may strike… During mundane household tasks?

In the meantime, I am attracted to the less demanding suggestion regarding the benefits of Mindlessness. After hearing Atkinson on the radio, I had the quickest consultation with Professor Google. Turns out Mindlessness is an actual ‘psychological’ concept. The idea is (again perhaps my feeble interpretation) that the unconscious human mind undertakes “mindless” or unconscious processing all the time, managing huge amounts of information, and that the power of this ability should not be underrated when it comes to decision-making and creativity.

I guess the notion of freeing the mind through engagement and absorption in simple, practical activities is nothing new. It’s a phenomenon familiar to many, I am sure, that when one is engaged in a basic hands-on task, ideas may come unbidden. Perhaps this is because, as with Mindfulness, the critic in the head is switched off, allowing for a flow of thoughts.

Previously, I have bragged (well, I didn’t mean to brag, perhaps it was simple relief) that I hadn’t experienced writer’s block before. That scourge of creativity where someone who writes, or creates anything, experiences a slow-down in their output. I had always found my adversary to have been time – many ideas but insufficient hours to work on them. Recently though, things have been different. It started with a problem at work that spilled over into my personal life – or I allowed to spill over, perhaps. In the wake of this, even those hours I can find to sit at my desk, to scribble in a notebook, are unproductive. The little I have written in the past month has been sterile and unsatisfying; ideas are not translating into text, even as a rough draft.

There appear to be, very broadly speaking, two commonly accepted approaches to dealing with creative blocks. One is to keep doing it anyway—press on, keep writing even if it’s not very good; don’t get out of the habit. The other is, putting it simply, to go away and do something else. It may be music, reading, physical exercise, but it’s something that shakes you up, changes the brain pattern in order to change your outlook. Taking Atkinson’s example, I guess it could, then, be tidying your drawers, or cleaning the bath…

That makes sense to me, because there is something about these tasks that helps one to feel back in command. For me, baking has that effect, restoring a sense of control. And in the perhaps contrary way the mind works, just as I am in the middle of something else, an idea might pop into my head.

The other day my kids were trying to figure out some of the words scrawled in chalk on the blackboard in the kitchen that we use as a memo pad: ‘Ben philosophy birch wood, don’t try to fight / go with it– What on earth does that mean?’ Well it was just a few impromptu notes. Part of the creative process—as I stood doing the ironing.

Desert Island Discs, Novelist Kate Atkinson is interviewed by Lauren Laverne,

18 thoughts on “Sheer Mindlessness

  1. Im voting for mindless 🙂 I see it as a helpful technique (most of the time, even on the daily basis)…and for writing works as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I second that vote. If you get the psychological benefits without necessarily the mental effort, let mindlessness rule.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating read librepaley8. Many of my blog ideas and themes have come to me when taking a long hot shower, I’ve both noticed and written about this and I have been known to jump out and write down a sentence or two………………. :/ I agree there has to be something about doing everyday tasks (or touching my body?) that frees up the mind.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah, you mention a couple of tried and tested methods at de-stressing there 🙂 The trick is to have a notepad and pen to hand. Even in the bathroom, I guess.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t have writer’s block either. So far! because I write the entire story in my head before sitting at a keyboard. Everything or almost everything. If it’s a long story or a novel, I just jot down the plan. Structure. Like a list of chapters but nothing more. Now, the “writing in my head” may take days, weeks or even years… And if the “headwriting” becomes “attacked” as it has by… tragedy, in the past 18 months, I just don’t write. Put it on hold.
    Have a lovely week.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a comforting notion, that ‘writing in the head’s counts as part of the creative process, a sort of gestation. I just fear forgetting something if it’s not scribbled down. So sorry you have known recent tragedy.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you. It… takes time to… get over. If one ever gets over it, that is. 🙂
        Writing inside my head works because of my particular memory. I don’t quite have total recall but close. Maybe 90 %?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Those who have an almost video-like sensory recall of events have a great advantage in writing.
          And coming up to the anniversary of a close bereavement, I think we learn to live with such things (the cliché is true), getting through them rather than over them.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Through rather than over? Hmmm. need to ponder that. 🙂
            Sometimes I wish I could erase some memories… The brain needs a better “editor”. 😉
            Be good. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

  4. I enjoy mindlessness. Like you, i work out a creative problem with baking, sometimes with cleaning, and lots of reading. It works magic for me, but still there are times i just sit and force myself to write. I guess depending on the time, all the above works for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get plenty of the former (housework); however helpful it may be, I am at the point where I need to enforce the discipline of the blank page on myself.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This gives clarity on why I come up with ideas while cleaning, ironing, showering. I’m glad to know mindlessness is a “thing.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Me too! Seems a lot less effort than Mindfulness.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Super interesting! The repetition of routine activities like exercise, cooking and cleaning takes the pressure off. This allows the natural flow of ideas to rise to the surface again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That makes sense. I read somewhere that Mindfulness is estimated as a $1 billion plus industry in the U.S. alone – perhaps we can package and sell Mindlessness as a concept.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Lovett mindlessness 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the idea of mindlessness and it stayed with me into today. I shared the idea with my friends on Facebook thanks for this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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