Safety and Creativity

Having named this blog “place of safety”, I began to wonder if some people might question the role of safety in creativity. Surely “being safe” implies a static state – comfort, complacency, well-being. That sounds kind of bourgeois and dull. How could art – edgy, exciting, interesting, meaningful art – be produced from such a boring place?

I’m thinking of that line that’s always quoted as a “Chinese curse”, whatever its true provenance: “May you live in interesting times”. The flipside – the blessing – would be “May you live in boring times – and have nothing whatever to write about!”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not very creative when I don’t feel safe. My energies go into being vigilant, managing risks, securing the perimeter. Under threat, I become  conservative. Once I’m in a safe place again I can relax, look back, and then use the dangerous time and its potent emotions as raw material for creating a song or story. But I need that distance, that remove, the freeing-up of my cognitive and emotional capacities from the tasks of self-preservation.

Does it matter whether the danger is “physical” or “psychological”? I’m not sure it’s a useful distinction. Perceiving “physical” danger is a psychological process. Psychological damage is physical; we know this from the trauma literature. The amygdala, that little almond-shaped body deep in the brain that triggers the flight-or-fight response, doesn’t differentiate between physical and psychological threats – it responds the same way to an insult as it does to a raised fist.

From a physiological perspective, the flight-or-fight response is more likely to stymie creativity than stimulate it. A person under threat experiences a change in blood flow within the body – blood flows to the heart, lungs and limbs, and away from organs not needed for running or fighting such as the digestive system, reproductive system and neocortext. While experiencing the flight-or-fight response, people have a narrowed visual field and a reduced capacity for linguistic processing. As a clinical psychologist learning to de-escalate a crisis, I was taught to speak to the distressed person in sentences no longer than five words. The ability to think creatively in a crisis would presumably be adaptive – but typically people describe being unable to think clearly, or even take a course of action that later seems “logical” and “obvious”, when the flight-or-fight response is in full swing.

There’s an argument that people use writing as a way to reclaim a sense of safety. Someone who’s feeling anxious, overwhelmed, upset, under threat, might conceivably write as a way to express their feelings, regain some sense of control, establish a containment field around the negative emotions. I’ve done that, but only after the danger is past. It’s a way of processing something that’s already happened, not something I do while still feeling actively threatened.

For me to write, I need uninterrupted time to think my way into the work. I need to feel calm, relaxed, playful. I need to believe it’s safe to experiment and try things, laugh at myself, let something get to me, be transported into imaginary realms. It has to be okay to forget about time and my surroundings. For all these reasons, for me, writing requires a place of safety.

How about you?


About andreabaldwin

I'm a freelance writer, publishing travel articles and features. I also write short fiction and novels for adults, young adults and children. I've been a registered psychologist for 20 years, and my past careers have included clinical psychology, organisational psychology, and management. I'm interested in the interactions between people and places, particularly how the natural environment supports the health of individuals and communities, and the importance of caring for our environment. I'm also interested in the ways people use writing to better understand their own thoughts and feelings, and to connect with others.
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5 Responses to Safety and Creativity

  1. helena says:

    Hello Andrea,
    I have a daily journal-writing practice, which I especially need to do when I don’t feel safe or am stressed from life / events occurring around me. That means I always write, regardless of my emotional state, and I suppose it helps me regain a place of safety in my life. But to craft and make something special out of the writing – to process it – that’s different. When my marriage ended a year ago, I lost my ‘creative urge’, and, as you know, have only just managed to get back into my memoir in recent weeks. I guess I do feel ‘safer’ now. And stronger. Artmaking, writing and other creative endeavours that tap into the emotional state are helpful, even if they can’t be ‘polished’ while you’re still feeling fragile. For me, watching romantic comedies also helped build up my strength so that I was able to return to the work and, yes, have fun.
    Happy writing!

  2. Some great points here, Helena. I (erratically) do “Morning Pages” as recommended by Julia Cameron, and this is a very grounding practice (like yoga). But I rarely re-read what I’ve written as Morning Pages. If there’s an issue, idea or emotion taking up enough of my brainspace to journal about it, the creative hook will usually emerge directly from the thinking rather than from the journalling.

    What I have been doing with my first novel is journalling the process as I go along, in a series of big blue spiral-bound notebooks. That’s been part of both the “generating” and the “polishing” processes.

    I smiled at the strength you gain from romantic comedies – I regularly rebuild my energies and recover my sense of fun through Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and Dr Who!

  3. Elisabeth says:

    I often write when I’m distressed Andrea, as a means of getting a grip on my anxiety, though I doubt I could write much were I in fear for my life.

    I write morning pages of sorts but only on the weekends and holidays because I start work early during the week and cannot otherwise find my way into the best time for writing, which for me is first thing in the day.

    I’m interested in creativity and also in so-called negative emotions and desires that can also trigger writing, not just as catharsis but as a creative gesture.

    Thanks for a fascinating post.

  4. That’s really interesting, Elisabeth. I think you, Helena and I have all made a comment now about writing when distressed as a way to “get a grip” on things. And you’ve made the additional point that the emotions sometimes described as “negative” – anger, fear, sadness and so on – are often the very ones that interest us most as readers, and perhaps motivate us most as writers. I’m going to put up a new post on “happy endings”, to stimulate more discussion along this line. Thanks for this post – sorry it took so long to get back to you!

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