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?