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Allowing our writing creative limbo

Whenever I start a new piece of writing, despite many such starts, I’m often gripped by panic. I still look forward to capturing a new idea on the page, but I freeze. Thinking hard, I finally saw why: it’s the feeling of unknowing.

Whether I’ve scribbled a handful of notes in a frenzy of inspiration or actually made an outline, that same itchy, unsteady, slightly nauseous feeling pervades. Not exactly illness or a full-blown block, it’s more of a nervous disquiet I can only describe as “creative limbo.” Doesn’t matter how often I’ve felt it or many pieces I’ve started and completed. It rears up.

Searching for remedies, I began exploring works on creativity and anxiety. And I discovered answers that made sense, of all things, in “chaos theory.”

What’s Chaos Theory?

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

To our dismay, those wildly disorderly elements can appear in our writing. We may proudly hug a newly-created neat, symmetrical, comprehensive (we think) outline; or an intricate but integrated map of arguments; or a list of crucial points, defenses, dramatic revelations, or subplots. But as we get deeper into the work, paths and possibilities start proliferating like runaway cell division, way beyond our plan. Random thoughts, questions, bits of essential information, and voluptuous phrases that may have nothing to do with the current project pop into our heads and swirl in unruly combinations.

Nonremedial Remedies

When we’re besieged by such chaotic feelings, we tend to take refuge in any number of anxiety-battling behaviors. Some writers try to “force” the work and keep going, but every new attempt produces a dead end, or at least what they’re sure is trash. One writer I know gets a severe headache and must lie down in a shaded room with a cup of chamomile tea. Another goes straight to his garage, picks up his sanding tool, and attacks the cabinet he’s refinishing. A woman friend throws a blanket over her desk, drags out all her baking pans and makes eight dozen cookies—from scratch.

Another friend, an experienced writer, immediately reminds herself that she’s feeling “creative limbo.” This label helps her get through it more smoothly, but, she confesses, she still jumps on her stationary bike and frantically pedals fifteen miles.


As many creative people have acknowledged, the fearsome state my friend identified is necessary in any creative work. The great early twentieth-century mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré writes that the answers we crave “never happen except after some days of voluntary effort . . . where the way taken seems totally astray.” Such efforts, he assures us, haven’t been wasted: “they have set agoing the unconscious machine, and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing” (Poincaré, 2000/1910, p. 90).

More concisely, the poet Paul Valéry declares, “The fact is that disorder is the condition of the mind’s fertility” (1937/1952, p. 106). When we accept this truth in our chaotic moments, we can bear them a little better and know their inconclusiveness will eventually prove fruitful.

Allowing Our Chaos

But to live in that “totally astray” limbo isn’t easy. We demand the answers now—just add a cup of insight for instant solution.

How can we allow the essential limbo? Especially in relation to chaos theory, I found an answer in another concept, that of “open systems.”  An open system—applicable to science, technology, education, management, social sciences, and humans—constantly interacts with its environment and exchanges data, resources, and energy. As writers, we are intense, 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 (2006) 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. (p. 78)

Don’t we do this, chaotic-like, all the time? We think a piece is finished and, in the shower, a new insight or conclusion hits us. We realize we haven’t discussed a major limitation in our article. We overhear a snip of conversation between two women and know it’s perfect for our heroine and her sister. A man passing on the street gets our attention, and we dart into a café and 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 noticed that a system, whether chemical, organic, or human, deals with outwardly inapplicable stimuli or foreign substances by trying to subdue them. We can be tempted to the same action in our writing projects: when those disturbing observations and ideas intrude, we often try to shut them down with all sorts of avoidance tricks. In the process, though, we often block ourselves from writing and possibly inspired ideas.

Allowing Our Random Ideas

If instead we permit those swarming thoughts their natural course, an unexpected thing happens. As Wheatley (2006) 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 evolves toward its solutions.

Three Winged Bird, WheatleyA startling and beautiful illustration of chaos to resolution that parallels our writing experience can be seen in an illustration, the “Three-Winged Bird: A Chaotic Strange Attractor,” created to trace the journey of a system in chaos (reproduced in Wheatley, 2006, p. 79; see also Jantsch, 1980). 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, superficially random and meaningless. Eventually, the system’s form became visible, like the “bird” (see illustration to the right).

As if it could be visionary art, the three-winged bird 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 prototypes of wholeness. The conclusion: There is no chaos.

Resolution of Chaos

So, in our writing (and lives) the seemingly chaotic is often indispensable. Much as we wish our works to spring forth faultlessly and neatly packaged, they rarely do. We get an idea, and suddenly the ending pops into our minds. We hear an internal riveting first line, as if dictated, but are stymied as to what should follow. A question no one has asked in our field lights up our brain, and we know we’re onto something.

As we recognize the principles of chaos and the open system that are part of ourselves, we will more easily tolerate the unnerving process of limbo. In our iterative drafts, we learn what should be set down and what should be winnowed (or maybe tucked away for another piece). In following our leanings—with patience and trust—our questions come to be answered, our pieces begin to fit, our doubts dissolve. When we allow our creative limbo, the unsettling elements always swirl into order and produce our writing, our three-winged bird.


Gleick, J. (2008). Chaos: The making of a new science. Penguin.

Jantsch, E. (1980). The self-organizing universe: Scientific and human implications of
the emerging paradigm of evolution. Pergamon.

Poincaré, J. H. (2000/1910). Mathematical creation Resonance Reflection, pp. 85-94. (Original work published 1910)

Valéry, P. (1952). The course in poetics: First lesson (trans. J. Mathews). In B. Ghiselin (Ed). The creative process (pp. 92-106). Vintage Mentor. (Original work published 1937)

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). Berrett-Koehler.

© 2022 Noelle Sterne

Guide to Making Time to WriteNoelle is a contributor to TAA’s book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Available as a print and eBook.

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Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at