Letting Go Of Censoring Yourself

I think the best way to perform is when your unconscious is fully available to you, but you’re still a little conscious too. – Yo-Yo Ma

I have taught the creative writing process for more than twenty years, working in part with a technique known as “freewriting” where I encourage participants to “just let it rip”. We don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar or whether it is good. We suspend the censor and let our first thoughts spill out onto the page. People new to the class are always nervous about this kind of letting go. Since I write and share my own raw writing with the group I was rather nervous when I first started teaching the classes but found that by maintaining a safe and sacred atmosphere of unconditional acceptance for whatever wanted to come forth it really calmed the fear for everyone.

We learn quite early to fear making mistakes. We all have a well developed censor that confines us within the limiting parameters of being socially acceptable. Neuroscientists have identified a part of the brain, the dorso lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) that is closely associated with impulse control. It keeps us from embarrassing ourselves or saying the wrong thing to our boss or spouse.

Young children create so naturally because their censors don’t yet exist. The DLPFC is the last part of the brain to fully develop. Around 4th grade it engages and children lose interest in making art in the classroom. If we are worried about making a mistake, saying the wrong thing or doing something poorly we often end up doing nothing at all. The censor has us holding back our latent talent.

In a study by a neuroscientist looking at brain activity in jazz musicians engaged in improvisation, research subjects showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with self expression, while at the same time the DLPFC or censor appeared to deactivate. At this point there is a surge of raw material coming forth but rather than being random or chaotic it is organized or structured by the rules of the form. In the case of jazz musicians they naturally improvised in the right key and tempo.

I have noticed this tendency in my freewriting workshops. Students bypass the censor yet they also naturally wrote in the form that seemed to most call or appeal to them. Individuals drawn to poetry and who read a lot of poetry had the raw writing take on a poetic quality. The same was true with fiction, memoir or non-fiction. It’s why I always tell people that reading the kind of writing you want to do is one of the best things you can do to improve your work because when you let go and let the creativity flow, your brain then has a sense of how to organize it. When we let go we have access to the vast storehouse of the unconscious mind.

I really encourage creative play and practice, free from the expectation that we have to produce something, as a way to opening up to our creative gifts and talents. Learning to let go and create an atmosphere of inner permission, acceptance and allowance can really help us more fully express ourselves creatively.

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