June 3, 2017
You sit down at your desk. You’ve adjusted the temperature, opened, closed, then re-opened the curtains. You have your mug of preferred hot beverage and you’re in your comfy pants. Everything is just right. But…the cursor just blinks at you.
For about an hour. You decide that the bright screen is the problem, so you pick up a pen and notepad, and…the pen hovers over the paper. You doodle in the corners until the not-exactly-award-winning flowering vines of ink take over the whole page.
You just might have writer’s block.
Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece,” writer’s block is frustrating, demoralizing, and it’s nothing new. Nor is it limited to amateurs or those just starting out.
Herman Melville, Charles M. Schulz, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all famously suffered with this issue. Writer’s block can manifest with many symptoms:
There are other symptoms, but most people dealing with writer’s block fall into four categories according to a 1970s-1980s study by Yale researchers Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios (Source: The New Yorker).
They studied a group of writers (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose, print, stage, and screen) for a month, observing their progress, interviewing them, and giving them nearly 60 psychological tests. The four categories of blocked writers they came up with were:
Singer and Barrios concluded that although all of the writers were unhappy, the different types had differing sources of the block. The self-critical group was too focused on producing perfection. The socially hostile group didn’t want their work compared with others, negatively or positively.
The apathetic group had a creativity problem and lacked original thinking. Finally, the narcissists were driven by the need for external attention and reward but were disappointed in not receiving praise.
It is! However, the writers that Singer and Barrios studied had all been struggling for at least three months. Sometimes writer’s block is a short-term issue, which is comforting, because none of those four categories are particularly flattering to people already struggling with creative insecurities.
Over-analyzing your own writer’s block can lead to a whole new cycle of rabbit holes and unproductive-paralysis. For some, the problem is simple: Ray Bradbury said “…if you’ve got writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.” Of course, not everyone has the luxury of changing their topic, but there is certainly something to be said for rethinking the impetus driving your problem-project.
Here is where the Yale study comes into play. If you boil the causes down to perfectionism, fixation on reception, lack of inspiration, and the need for validation, it’s easier to begin the search for a solution.
Barrios and Singer used group meetings (talking it out) and “directed mental imagery” in which the writers sat in a dim, quiet room and were asked to visualize different concepts based on a variety of prompts, eventually moving on to creating mental pictures of their own current projects. It didn’t instantaneously cure the writers’ problems, but it showed them they could still be creative, which boosted their motivation and self-confidence.
Now, if practicing directed mental imagery is not producing the results you hoped for, you have other options.
The tried-and-true solutions for writer’s block:
Some solutions for writer’s block deal primarily with routine changes:
And some are social:
Of course, the most widely accepted method is to Just Write, which is a mission that the developer of “The Most Dangerous Writing App” took to heart when he created an app that deletes all of your work if you stop writing for more than five seconds.
The website states, unapologetically, “Because ‘tis better to have written and lost, than never to have written at all.” It’s a fairly brutal exercise, but desperate times do call for such measures.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s situation is unique and what works for one person may not work for you. But don’t despair! You are not alone and this is not forever. Find what works for you and just keep writing!
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