Remember, Free Willy, the 1993 feel-good movie about a boy’s efforts to free “a beloved killer whale” named Willy? Whether or not you do, you’ve probably experienced the basic gist of the movie in your own life, even if you don’t have a killer whale in your gold fish tank. We all have situations or attitudes or habits that keep us trapped inside the walls of a self-imposed aquarium floating in the middle of the infinite sea we call FreedomWill is the boy who is going to help us out. If he exerts himself enough, he can help us break through the glass, leap over the top, or find an underwater escape hatch.

The problem is Will often seems more like a Janus. When it comes to problems that need analyzed and categorized (like how to lose weight or train for a marathon), Will looks to the future and works like an acrobatic-kung fu-ninja warrior-comic book hero, helping us overcome obstacles (like chocolate buffets) and achieve our goals. But when it comes to creative endeavors, Will leaves us staring at a blank canvas or empty screen. Why can’t Will help us create?

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly working my way through a book  by Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Notice I said months. It’s a rather dense book that pulls together research about the brain in an attempt to show that “the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human” (back cover). I’m only about half way through the 462-page book so I won’t offer an overall review at this point, but in Chapter 5, I found some interesting insights on why the brain may contribute to Will’s inconsistency.

In very broad terms, McGilchrist paints the right brain as seeing the world experientially and holistically, whereas the left brain divides and categorizes experience. He also says the left brain is the seat of self-awareness and writes:

Too much self-awareness destroys not just spontaneity, but the quality that makes things live; the performance of music or dance, of courtship, love and sexual behavior, humour, artistic creation and religious devotion become mechanical, lifeless, and may grind to a halt if we are too self-aware. Those things that cannot sustain the focus of conscious attention are often the same things which cannot be willed…. They shrink from the glare of the left hemisphere’s world. Some things, like sleep cannot be willed. The frame of mind required to strive for them is incompatible with the frame of mind that permits them to be experienced (p. 180).

If you’re like me, you remember long, long nights when you needed sleep, but the more you tried to force it, the more wide awake you became. And then, there are those times when you turned out the light, rested your head on the pillow, and did not consciously think about sleep. The next thing you knew, it was morning. At some point, Will established the routine that helps you slip into the experience of sleep, but don’t ask him to tuck you in at night because he can’t tell a good bedtime story or sing a lullaby to save his life.

Fortunately, Will hasn’t been keeping me up at night (lately), and he has helped me become more disciplined in the areas of diet and exercise over the past couple of years (though I sometimes ignore his advice). But I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve been relying on him too much when it comes to artistic creation, and since this is not his strength, he has managed to sabotage me on a daily basis.

  • He cracks the whip and says, “Create!” I stare at the computer screen or type gobbledygook that is as useless to you as it is to me.
  • He sets up schedules and goals only to have me do everything I can to avoid meeting them.

All of these tactics make me want to rebel rather than work. When I sit down, I try to think my way through the story or article or blog post instead of experiencing my way through it, right-brain style, and I’m frustrated every time. Instead of writing, I’m starting with the editing process. It’s a bit like drying the dirty dishes before they’ve been washed. It doesn’t achieve desirable results.

I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of using Will to free ourselves, perhaps we need to free Will of some of his responsibilities and controls, allowing our right brain a bit more free will to experience and ultimately create new ways to overcome the obstacles in our lives.

With that in mind, maybe we can come up with a fresh approach to the original problem–freeing the killer whale so he can return to the high seas. Do you think we could turn that aquarium into a pirate ship?

Better ideas? Let’s not ask Will.