Writer’s block is something a great many of writers out there have experienced at at least some point in their lives. In fact, it’s such a common ailment faced by writers that the quintessential “writer’s writer” is nearly always seen as a someone plagued by times of frustrated inactivity where the words just don’t seem to come, until suddenly the dam breaks and words flow effortlessly, nearly too fast for the writer to catch them and bring them onto the page.
Truthfully, writing is often not like that for writers, nor is “writer’s block.”
The Blocked Writer Stereotype
Such notions about the nature of writer’s block, and of writers could actually stem from the work of psychiatrist Edmund Bergler who posited the theory way back in 1947 that writing was a sort of personal exorcism and that doing the work of writing expelled the demons. When you were out of demons, you were out of work as a writer. While this might sound like some kind of supernatural/psuedo-scientific gobbledygook to many of us nowadays, the stereotype of the “writer exorcising their demons” is alive and well. So even though we may be tortured and we may be blocked, fight the urge to think that’s just the fate of us poor writers–it isn’t and such thinking just isn’t productive.
The “Just Do it Anyway” Argument
In the late 70s, early 80s Yale University psychologists Michael Barrios and Jerome Singer conducted their own survey andfound that most blocked writers were unhappy. They split the writers into four groups based on their dominant emotions. Group 1 was Anxiety and Stress, Group 2, Anger and Irritation, Group 3 Apathetic, and finally Group 4 Hostile and Disappointed. Their summary was that all of these negative emotions prevented the writers from their by zapping the joy they had once felt during the act. In short, is was proposed that negative emotions thwarted creative writers’ abilities to create and further prevented them from moving into more a productive modes of creating. Perhaps surprisingly, what Barrios and Singer eventually discovered was that the writers they studied did not need to go to talk therapy to deal with their issues; what solved their problems or enabled them to process through them was the act of writing itself. If that sounds like “just push through it” yeah, that’s basically what it boils down to. That being said, pushing through does work sometimes now doesn’t it?
According to a recent article published in, The New Yorker the prolific writer Graham Greene found treatment from a long bout of writer’s block when he started keeping a journal about his dreams. He exhaustively wrote down every detail he could remember from his dreams and is said to have believed that, if recalled in their entirety, dreams would give the sensation “of being catapulted into a different world.” One theory as to why dream journaling has been said to work for many a writer since Greene’s time is that it greases the wheels. Another reason it might work is that dreams are the one space in which we feel we genuinely have no control nor culpability. Thus simply reporting what we’ve experienced while in a dream state we’re free to write while liberated from any sense of blame or responsibility. As the article in the New Yorker surmises, “In that freedom from conscious anxiety, Greene found the freedom to do what he otherwise couldn’t: write.”
Another possible theory about writer’s block stems from neuroscientific study of the area responsible for language creation in the brain. Located in the frontal lobe, “Broca’s area” is the region thought to factor into story creation. It’s this region and areas located in the right prefrontal cortext that light up on an fMRI when subjects are asked to write or brainstorm possible stories. Also located in this vicinity is the “anterior cingulate cortex” an area said to enable us to make associations between unrelated concepts, a quintessential skill for writers to have. As to what might trigger this regions to work well or not well, the science is still out on that. Nevertheless, the findings show that the brain areas involved in writing are many of the same ones involved in speaking, physically writing things down, and remembering the past. This suggests that it can be advantageous to doodle, tell stories, and even talk our troubles away. But suppose we were to try to trigger those same areas in slightly more creative ways, ones that force us out of the norm? How about reading poetry aloud, doodling with one’s less dominant hand, or forcing oneself to speak in a foreign language for a certain amount of time? Might that brain get a few good jolts to kickstart it into optimum story creation mode?
As a writer it’s your job to figure out how to best manage your own needs as a member of the profession. While many of us are similar, no two are the same. So get curious about what works for you. When you’re at your most productive what are the activities you’re doing? What are you eating? How are you sleeping? And who are you communicating with? What are you doing and who are you in contact with during the periods when you feel stuck, listless, or uninspired? Are your thoughts negative? If so, is there a constant refrain? What does it say? Is that something you can write about? Try!
Next time you’re stuck with a bout of writer’s block, play around with putting pen to paper and free-associating or writing with zero expectation of the outcome. Over time you may be able to differentiate between simply needing to warm up or having a block that’s the result of something deeper, perhaps and underlying fear or even a story problem your brain is still subconciously trying to solve.
If you find you’re stuck right now, try writing about your sorry state of being stuck. Don’t edit or judge, just write. You can always toss or burn it when you’re done. Complain about it all at length. Feel free to tell yourself all the reasons you don’t need to write—ever. Let the fear, phobias, and feelings flow.
Ultimately, you know that it all stops and starts with you anyway. Take that truth in and process it. Try not to let it make you feel nervous or even excited. It simply is. Operate from that place of strength. No one is going to finish your film, your book, your manuscript the way only you can. No one can tell the story you have to tell.
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