Creative Depletion: The Recuperation From
So, I had a breakdown. It happens… I’m horrible at taking care of myself, I eat like I’m still in my twenties, and I’m constantly trying to produce material for one or more RPG product lines; constantly like it’s an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Add to that a schedule of playing and running RPGs to playtest material and keep my skills up, and, well, every so often, I break down.
According to the people close to me who monitor these things, this most recent breakdown wasn’t one of my worst. Being the most recent, however, it seemed like the worst; the last one always does. Still, I managed to get a little something produced and on the shelf, so no, not the worst.
Back in the mid 90’s, I was really, really trying to get a degree in psychology. I was struggling through the requirements for a general transfer degree from Santa Monica City college, which would not only be an Associate of the Arts in Psych but would transfer directly to a higher degree program at just about any University of California or California State University. I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t work out – maybe it was the Political Science requirement (because a class with material that is both Draconian AND Machiavellian should probably be taught by people who aren’t the human equivalent of a bottle of sleeping pills), maybe it was the fact that I still struggled with higher mathematics, maybe it was even the fact that the admin office constantly read the form where I said Psychology was my major and substituted Cosmetology instead. Still, I learned some stuff.
Say what you want to about the creative process, it all still boils down to neurology. I understand the physiological process of creative depletion pretty well, actually. The brain is made up of cell assemblies; circuits of neurons, if you will, that accomplish different mental tasks. These assemblies are in turn made out of individual neurons connected in networks. The cell assemblies, which can be responsible for anything from the recognition of the color “blue” to the proper pen position for cursive writing or even the creation of gaming material, operate when the neurons are triggered to release neurochemicals. These chemicals bridge the gaps between neurons, or “synapses,” causing other neurons in the network to fire or stop firing. So, to engage the creative processes, one has to go to the stimuli that cause the proper cell assemblies to operate.
There is a problem in this process, though; while each neuron generates its own stores of neurochemicals, this chemical production can be out-stripped by constant neural activity. Fire off a neuron too often, and it has to take time to build up a fresh store of neurochemicals. If you deplete a neuron (or set of neurons), and keep trying to fire it off, you’ll only expend what little neurochemical has been generated to little or no effect. No, you have to rest up the neurons every so often, and allow them to replenish themselves.
So, I fired off my neurons way, way too often, for too long, without giving them a chance to rest up. That’s never a good thing, and it leads to a person reaching for a mental skill or ability only to find that it isn’t currently available. It’s kind of like over-using a muscle, except unlike an over-worked muscle, neurons give you no indication that they’re about to fail. If I do too many push-ups (which isn’t that many, for me, because I take horrible care of myself), my muscles will start to hurt, letting me know that I’m approaching a limit. If I write too many RPG supplements, there’s no pain (except a slight headache which is indistinguishable from simple stress). There’s only a day where I sit at my computer, boot up InDesign, and slam my forehead into the keyboard for an hour because there are no words in my head.
One of the best things I’ve ever done, when I was at complete creative depletion, was to go to a week-long intensive class that taught me the California Life Insurance Code. Using other, little-used areas of the brain encourages the production of neurochemicals, and gives the depleted areas of the brain a much-needed rest at the same time.
This time? A week in Vegas, completely away from computer and creative tools. I didn’t even do any gambling, so I wasn’t running statistics and probabilities in my head. Well, I did go for a few rounds of roulette, but I let other people give me the numbers to play.
End result? I think I’m ready to go again, freshly charged-up and full of creative potential once more. That, and a determination to take better care of myself, because a healthy body better supports an active mind.
I keep forgetting, you see, to refill my stores of expended creativity. Comes along with the obsessive personality. I need to take time to read, to watch the occasional movie, to game other people’s games, and to sit back and relax a little.
Because there might be twenty-seven books that need my attention… but twenty minutes in the hot tub will make them, and me, a higher quality.