Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fasting and Creativity

On Thursday, two days ago, I went the whole day without eating anything. I did it on a hunch that going without food would relieve the cough that had been keeping me awake at night. It worked, and after two nights of normal sleep I am well on my way to recovering from the cold I’ve had.

The interesting thing about this experience was not the thought that fasting might help cure an illness — that idea has been around forever — but the way my thinking patterns changed along the way.

I noticed the biggest change about 22 hours into my 34-hour fast — around suppertime after I had not eaten all day. Suddenly, I was thinking more creatively in a fanciful, flighty kind of way. I was thinking of connections between things that wouldn’t occur to me normally and drawing lines of comparison that didn’t appear on the surface to be of any practical value. Some of these new thoughts did end up providing a useful new perspective on the subjects I was addressing, though, and that is the nature of creative thought. It’s why businesses gather workers together in box-shaped conference rooms and then tell them to think outside the box to solve problems.

When I thought about it, this shift in thinking style made perfect sense. A person who is going without food because there is no food to be found needs to think outside the box. If you think you know all about where to find food, but the cupboard or apple tree is empty no matter how many times you look at it, then you are in need of new ideas about food and about places where food might be found.

It also sheds new light on the idea of a starving artist. Hemingway wrote about hunger making him more disciplined as a writer, yet the experiences he relates do not seem to bear this out. Instead, perhaps his days without food gave him a combination of desperation and creativity that was fruitful enough to look like discipline. Fasting for a day or two might be a way for artists and writers to get past some creative blocks, when their work is unproductive or their results are trite and stale. Going without food might seem like an extreme thing to do just to get past a case of writer’s block, but fasting is not so extreme when you compare it some of the other things writers have tried over the years.