For as long as I can remember I’ve been able to sit down and write on command. As young as five I would fill pages and pages of my dad’s old yellow legal pads with nonsensical stories about fairies, frogs and trees that could talk.
It’s a skill that’s served me well through the years, first as a journalist and now a writer of books. Except about six months ago it stopped coming so naturally. Perhaps it was the stress heaped on the world due to the coming election, an intense travel schedule or too many deadlines. Suddenly I found myself staring at a blank computer screen like it was my enemy.
I talked about this with my shrink, who told me we should probably talk about it some more. I talked about it with my general practitioner who asked me if I wanted to go back on Zoloft. Then I talked about it with Dr. Robin Berzin, my doctor at Parsley Health.
“Why not give meditation a shot,” she said to me. “Slow your mind.”
Parsley Health had been prescribing me meditation for a good long while, but I never thought I was any good at it. I’d go for four or five days, meditating a few minutes each day and then make up excuses about why I was too busy to sit still for ten minutes. But now that my inability to sit still and focus on one thing was becoming detrimental to my career I began to take it more seriously.
So I tried it. Dr. Berzin recommended a few different meditations. Some of them were simply five minute breathing exercises, while others involved more visualization techniques. She also suggested I download the Headspace app so I’d have something keeping me accountable for sitting every day. It would even send me text reminders to meditate.
It was those reminders that really did it for me. At heart I’m still a Catholic school girl who likes to be told what to do. And so I began meditating twice a day (morning and night) for about ten minutes.
What did it do for my writing?
The writer Hilary Mantel once described conquering her own writer’s block like this: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
That’s exactly what I was doing. By meditating I was opening a gap, I was making space. And the more I meditated, the more easily the words began to flow again.
From a purely scientific point of view it makes complete sense.
According to a study by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato and Dominique Lippelt at Leiden University meditation can promote both creativity and divergent thinking, two skills needed to write anything well. Other studies show that meditation can help reduce activities in the “me” part of the brain, that monkey mind that wants to rehash why you shouldn’t have cut your bangs over and over again instead of actually creating new thoughts.
My writer’s block often stems from an inability to properly concentrate on one thing. Writing an entire paragraph can seem daunting when there are so many cat videos to watch, tweets to read and Instagrams to like.
Brain scans have actually shown that meditation can help improve focus and help sustain attention.
Meditation did the trick for me. It helped me get the words on the page again. Whether it’s increasing my focus, suppressing my interest in cat videos or simply helping my brain to slow down enough to create something new, I’m not entirely sure. But it definitely gave me enough space to write this post, and finish a book.
Johanna Aster (née Jo Piazza) is the bestselling author of The Knockoff which has been published in more than 10 languages. Her new memoir, How to Be Married will be released in April.