Creative Limbo

Trust Your Life            I look forward to bringing forth a new idea, making it real, capturing it on the page. But starting, I’m still often gripped by panic. Finally I discovered why: it’s the feeling of unknowing.

Whether I’ve scribbled a bunch of notes in a frenzy of inspiration, or actually made an outline, that same itchy, unsteady, slightly nauseous feeling overtakes me. Not exactly illness or a full-blown block, it’s more of a nervous disquiet I can only describe as “creative limbo.” No matter how many pieces I’ve started and completed, it returns. In self-defense, I began exploring works on creativity and anxiety and found answers that made sense in, of all things, “chaos theory.”


Chaos theory has been developed and applied in mathematics, physics, economics, engineering, psychology, philosophy, biology, management, and leadership, among other disciplines. The gist is that, as scientists have observed, elements of “wild disorder” appear within otherwise orderly systems. Conversely (or similarly), within apparently disorderly systems, elements appear of “unexpected order” (James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, 2008, pp. 56, 173).

Those wildly disorderly elements can dismayingly appear in our writing. We may proudly clutch a neat, symmetrical, comprehensive (we think) outline we’ve just created, an intricate but integrated map of subplots, or a ranked list of crucial points. As we get deeper into the work, though, paths and possibilities start multiplying like runaway cells, way beyond our plan. Random but related thoughts, questions, bits of essential information, and gorgeously apt phrases balloon in our heads and swirl in unruly combinations, paralyzing.

No wonder I feel immobilized and dizzy. But this state is necessary to creativeness, as many have acknowledged. The great early twentieth-century mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré knew that the answers we crave “never happen except after some days of voluntary effort . . . where the way taken seems totally astray.” He recognizes that such efforts haven’t been wasted: “they have set agoing the unconscious machine, and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing” (“Mathematical Creation,” 2012/09/ an-essay-on-mathematical-creation-by.html).

But to live in the “totally astray” limbo is not easy. We demand the answers now; just add water for instant solution. How to allow that limbo?

To tolerate creative limbo, especially in relation to chaos theory, we need to go to another concept, that of “open systems.”  An open system, applicable to science, technology, education, management, social sciences . . . and humans, constantly interacts with its environment, exchanging information, energy, materials. As writers, we are intensified, refined, and attuned open systems. We’re not only constantly interacting with but also observing, studying, analyzing, and recording our environments.

Leadership expert, management consultant, and visionary Margaret Wheatley explains that open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping the system off balance so that it can change and grow. They participate in an active exchange with their world, using what is there for their own renewal (Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, 2006, p. 78).

Don’t we do this, chaotic-like, all the time? We think a piece is finished and something hits us in the shower. We overhear a snip of conversation and know it’s perfect for our heroine’s sister. Someone passing on the street gets our attention, and we tear open our laptop to record that gait, twitching mouth, or stormy frown.

When scientists began to look at the ways systems grow and develop,

they found that a system, whether chemical or human, deals with stimuli or foreign substances that don’t fit by trying to subdue them. We can be tempted to the same in our writing projects: when those disturbing observations and ideas intrude, we often try to shut them down with all sorts of avoidance tricks.

If instead we allow those swarming thoughts their natural course, an unexpected thing happens. As Wheatley describes, “if the disturbance survives those first attempts at suppression and remains lodged within the system, an iterative process begins” (p. 96). When this process of repetition that seems to go nowhere continues, the system—miraculously—gradually finds its solutions.

A startling and beautiful illustration of chaos to resolution that parallels our writing experience can be seen in an illustration, the “Three-Winged Bird,” created to trace the journey of a system in chaos (see Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe, 2008). A simple nonlinear equation was entered into a computer and plotted as a point in three-dimensional computer space. As the equation went through millions of repetitions, lines representing it appeared on the computer screen, seemingly random and meaningless. Eventually, though, the system’s form became visible, like the “bird” below. (reproduced in Wheatley, p.79)

Artwork            The three-winged bird, that looks almost visionary art, embodies a basic principle of chaos theory. What appears as disorder in our usual, limited, daily perspective is only order in the making. Within the chaotic circumstances reside the very seeds and prototype of wholeness. There is no chaos.

So, in our writing (and lives) the apparently chaotic is often indispensable. Much as we wish our works to spring forth faultless and neatly packaged, they rarely are. We get an idea, and suddenly the ending pops into our minds. Or we hear a riveting first line, as if dictated, but have no idea what should follow.

As we recognize the principles of chaos and the open system that is ourselves, we will more easily tolerate the often unsettling process. In our iterative drafts, we discover what should be set down, what should be winnowed. Our questions come to be answered, our pieces fit, our doubts are assuaged. When we open to and allow our creative limbo, the disturbing elements always swirl into order and produce our writing, our three-winged bird.

Trust Your LifeAuthor, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Women on Writing, Funds for Writers, Children’s Book Insider, Transformation Magazine, and Unity Magazine. A story appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls (2013). With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, she is completing a handbook for doctoral students to aid them practically, psychologically, and spiritually. In her 2011 book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws on examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Her webinar about the book is on YouTube:  Website:


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