The Trouble with Brains — by Dana Shavin

This month I am teaching a workshop at Keystone College in Pennsylvania called “The Trouble With Brains.” I took the title from an old Tom Tomorrow cartoon whose basic gist is that while we profess to be in complete control of our brain at all times, the truth is that it functions without conscious input from us much of the time. As evidence, the cartoon depicts people suffering from the earworm “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” but in an attempt to appear in command, insisting they find it “…poignant, yet uplifting.”


The aim of my workshop is to help creatives (mainly writers, but other, less miserable people as well) move past distraction and/or stuckness in their work. To that end I came up with a list of things to discuss—events, circumstances, ways of thinking–that hamper us in our chosen work.


It was frighteningly easy for me to come up with 20 serious distractions and obstacles right off the top of my head, from the fundamental (“you have too few ideas”) to the medically indicated (“you are depressed and need treatment”). It was a list my writers group found alarmingly robust, and warned me against presenting in full, lest people leave with a sense of doom. It’s possible they’re right. Just as a hypochondriac studying a medical journal thinks herself suddenly riddled with disease, my own workshop notes left me feeling so hopelessly frustrated and stuck, I had trouble completing it.


The late writer David Foster Wallace warned about the importance of learning to manage our thoughts. “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” he said. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”


My workshop is trying to be about exactly this: learning to exercise control over how we think. Many of my “solutions” to distraction and stuckness are about changing perspective, examining priorities, and recommitting to what we value in our creative work. All of the solutions have merit, in my estimation, but all require perseverance. I worry that people won’t like this, that what I need to deliver is a quick fix for the problem of a stuck or distracted brain.


Which is a problem with my own thinking. Because when I look back over workshops I have taken in the past, I see a variable landscape of things that helped (Joyce Maynard’s incredibly generous and detailed outline showing how she created one of her essays), things that didn’t help (one workshop presenter spent his entire session trashing another writer), and everything in-between. But mostly what I see is a collection of experiences that, taken together, grew my craft, taught me resilience, and ushered me into the very human world of writers.


I came across great advice while researching the wisdom of creative people. There was Wallace’s counsel, about learning to manage our thoughts. And there was Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, who tackled the “problem” of frustration. “Frustration,” she says, “is not an interruption in the [creative] process—frustration is the process.”

She goes on to say, “I’ve watched so many talented, creative, and inventive people rage against their work, or even worse, stop doing their work because of the frustration that they encountered. And they speak of this frustration as though it is this obstacle from outer space that is ruining everything.”

She adds, “…the thing that you’re in love with…is that moment in your creative process when everything is working — all the cylinders are firing at full speed, and the inspiration is flowing, and it feels really easy… That moment of smooth, easy grace where everything is going great.” But that feeling is not the norm, she says. That feeling is “the miracle that happens every once in a while if you’re very lucky. The frustration, the hard part, the obstacle, the insecurities, the difficulty… that’s the creative process. And if you want to do it without encountering frustration and difficulty, then you’re not made for that line of work.”

And that, in a nutshell, is what I want to get across in my workshop. Not that there are endless ways to be stuck and distracted. Not that each of those ways has a name and a tributary system that leads to other ways to be stuck and distracted. Not even that each of those ways to be stuck and distracted has solutions, if you are committed enough to enact them.

What I want to get across is that pursuing anything you love—including love itself—will inevitably have unlovable moments: of distraction, of frustration, of difficulty. It’s just the nature of the beast, in all its testy—and devoted—collusion with the brain.

And it just might be how you know you’re on the right path.