Writer’s Block: Understanding the Problem and Moving Forward

writer's block

You know how it goes…

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.

But what is it? And why?!

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:

  • You simply can’t come up with any new ideas.
  • You’re swimming in ideas but nothing is jumping out at you.
  • You can’t find the words for one sentence or paragraph, and it’s halted your progress completely.
  • You’re stuck in the middle of a scene or transition, and you don’t know where to go from there.
  • Your piece has gone in a direction you don’t like, but you don’t know how to get back on track.
  • You don’t like or relate to your characters, or they all seem flat.
  • The story idea was great in your head, but reads horribly on the page.
  • You’re trying to revise, but it’s too overwhelming to process what to change and where to begin.

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:

  • The anxious, stressed, self-critical writer
  • The irritable, angry, socially hostile writer
  • The unmotivated, disengaged, apathetic writer
  • The disappointed, attention-seeking, narcissistic writer

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.

That sounds serious…

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.

So how can you break through writer’s block?

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:

  • Go for a walk and clear your head.
  • Remove distractions from your writing space.
  • Exercise to get your blood pumping.
  • Change your writing environment.
  • Free-write whatever comes into your mind.
  • Look through your old notes for inspiration.

Some solutions deal primarily with routine changes:

  • Brainstorm ahead of time – know how you’re going to cross the bridge before you get to it.
  • Don’t finish anything in one sitting – leave something to jump straight into the next day to eliminate the hemming and hawing period.
  • Write just before bed and think about it as you fall asleep, then write as soon as you wake up.
  • Do your research offline – visit your setting location, read up in libraries.

And some are social:

  • Interview someone about his or her views on your topic. It will get you out of your own head and may spark a new perspective.
  • Call a friend and talk through why you are writing this piece.
  • Get out and about with someone and reset your frame of mind.
  • Play! Do something fun and engrossing to relieve stress.

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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