On writer's block

There was a time in my early twenties when I found it excruciating to sit in front of the computer. As a teenager, I’d been excited to write, and stories had flowed from me freely.

Then this, from nowhere.

I’d already been published, but that made little difference. I knew I had something to say – coming up with ideas for stories and articles has never been one of my problems – but I found it impossible to drag myself to the study. What the hell was going on? American activist and writer Mary Heaton Vorse seemed to be talking about me when she said that ‘the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’ But even if I did sit myself down, I would struggle out a few hundred words and grind to a halt like some antique dot-matrix printer at the end of its life.

Because I had accepted a romantic notion of art, it all seemed a mystery to me. Art was meant to be unfathomable. To ask questions about the process, to break it down scientifically, would be to destroy it, I thought.

So I put the problem down to some mysterious personal weakness.

Only recently have I come to think of myself as suffering, back then, from writer’s block, that dreaded curse said to afflict writers at the strangest times, to leave them paralysed, staring at the proverbial ‘blank page’.

One of the reasons I hadn’t thought of my problem in those terms was because I never really believed in writer’s block. When people had mentioned it, I thought they were referring to a lack of ideas, with the blank page representing the blankness of their imagination.

This was not what I was suffering from. I was suffering from an unnecessary blockage, a self-undermining behaviour. My writer’s block was something much more functional: the writing-paralysis caused by anxiety, fear or a similar kind of discomfort.

Any attempt to deal with writer’s block, then, needs to begin with an understanding of what it is and how it functions.

Academic research suggests that writer’s block is composed of a series of related problems. In an article for the journal Written Communication, based on interviews with sixty subjects (forty of whom were ‘blockers’), cognitive researcher Robert Boice breaks negative self-talk into seven categories:

  • work-apprehension (work perceived as difficult)
  • procrastination
  • dysphoria (self-talk reflecting negative emotional states and groundless worries)
  • impatience (self-talk concerned with achieving more in less time)
  • perfectionism
  • evaluation anxiety (self-talk about evaluation by others)
  • rules (self-talk about the ‘correct’ form or nature of writing).

We might debate Boice’s taxonomy, but it’s a useful enough place to start.

Interestingly, he concludes that ‘work-apprehension’ is not a significant factor in writer’s block and that highly productive writers often engage in it – that is, they acknowledge how hard it is to write.

On the other hand, ‘impatience’ seems to be critical. Writers are blocked, Boice suggests, by ‘their over-eagerness to write quickly and to completion’. Their enthusiasm ‘conflicts with the realities or the slow and recursive demands of writing tasks’.

Mike Rose, in an article for College Composition and Communication, emphasises how ‘rules’ impact on writer’s block. In a sample of ten interviewees, he notes that ‘the five students who experienced blocking were all operating either with writing rules or with planning strategies that impeded rather than enhanced the composing process’.

He gives the example of Ruth, who spends hours rewriting her first sentence because it ‘must’ – or so she was taught at high school – ‘grab the reader’s attention’. She has no criteria, however, for determining whether her sentence succeeds in that or not. Another interviewee believes there needs to be three or more points to an essay; a third is an obsessive outliner whose plans became too complex to transform into essays.

For Rose, writing is a complex problem-solving process that requires a flexible, heuristic attitude. Productive writers have more flexible rules, Rose argues, which they’re prepared to jettison if the essay isn’t working. Their problem-solving methods are equally flexible: ‘students that offer the least precise rules and plans have the least trouble composing’.

He posits a difference between rules expressed as algorithms – mathematical laws – and those expressed in a mutable way.

In another study, psychologist Lawrence H Henning claims that ‘perfectionism’ is often the central dynamic for blocked writers. These writers, he suggests, have ‘difficulty allowing roughness into the rough draft … each sentence must be perfect.’ Perfectionism is linked to ‘a conditional self-esteem and … an intense fear of failure’.

It’s an argument that Matthew Cheney, in a piece in Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, also makes. He notes that the origins of writer’s block lie in expectations, ‘which can destroy artists of all kinds’:

[Our expectations] put the wrong kind of voices in our heads. The voices of ambition say, ‘Let’s try to be great!’ The voices of expectation say, ‘You must be great. Or else you are nothing.’

These expectations include the desire to be original or to produce work of extremely high quality. We might expect the book to measure up to a previous success, or to compete with someone else’s writing, whether a friend or a professional rival. Or we might be facing the pressure of a deadline.

The theorists mentioned above mostly work within the framework of cognitive behavioural psychology, a tradition that focuses on the intellectual and language components of ‘blocking’ – that is, on what we say to ourselves. It’s an approach dominated by an obsession with definition and taxonomy.

It also underplays a critical component of the problem: namely, that writer’s block has an emotional aspect. What we say to ourselves (including the rules we’ve set up, or the pictures or images created in the mind) are the triggers for a negative emotion. Once that emotion – anxiety, fear, stress – kicks in, we seek to avoid it at much as possible. If we conclude that facing the blank page is the cause of our distress, we’re pretty likely to leap from the computer and find other things to do instead.

The more recent neuropsychological approach to writer’s block recognises the emotional component but casts it into the realm of neurology.

In Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, Rosanne Bane claims that ‘writer’s block is about neurology and psychology’. Specifically, it is a disruption of certain parts of the brain. According to Bane, the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain, takes over and sidelines the cortex, responsible for conscious thought, imagination and creativity:

When we perceive a potential threat, the RAS [the reticular activation system, which is responsible for filtering and focusing] flips control to the limbic system and we rely on our instinctual fight-or-flight response. The amygdala is engaged and triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Heart rate increases, vision tunnels, the palms sweat, the hair on the back of the neck stands up, blood moves from the torso to the large muscles in the extremities to allow fast movement. … [C]reativity is dismissed as trivial compared to the need to take immediate action to stay alive and safe.

As a solution, Bane offers various writing exercises and practices, most of which could have come from psychological-based responses to writer’s block. That begs the question: why mention the neuropsychology at all?

For there is another response implied by the neuropsychological emphasis: chemical intervention. In her book The Midnight Disease, Alice Flaherty points out that many writers already adopt this approach:

In practice, if perhaps not in theory, psychiatrists and internists already do – when they give out the antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and other psychoactive pills currently prescribed to people who say they are blocked or without motivation.

Hemingway famously gave the advice ‘write drunk; edit sober’ – and there is a long line of substance-abusing writers. Flaherty notes that ‘of the seven US Nobel laureates in literature, five have been diagnosed as alcoholics’. Philip K Dick wrote a great deal of his work on various drugs (amphetamines not the least important of them) and later claimed that he got to the stage where he felt he couldn’t write without them.

Because Flaherty focuses on the neurochemistry of the blocker, she tends towards justifying the medical approach:

Sometimes what people fear about drugs is that drugs are the easy way out, that the pills will do for them what they should do for themselves. Yet if a person has enough willpower to overcome a problem such as creative block, depression, or obesity, then he or she doesn’t truly have a problem. There is scientific evidence that willpower and the process of making a decision are brain states.

So one of the recommendations Flaherty makes is ‘self-experimentation’ with drugs (though she doesn’t rule out therapy), which is, of course, consistent with the method she uses:

Therefore, overcoming a creative problem, whether it is low-energy block, perfectionism, or having too many too disorganized ideas, often requires what in the Introduction I gave the inflammatory name of self-experimentation. Although I could have called it something blander, the fact is that self-experimentation, although it is essential, can occasionally be dangerous. You should proceed cautiously, and of course with supervision when medication is involved.

What are we to make of all this?

The neuropsychological description may well provide an accurate picture of events in your brain, but unless you’re happy to resort to chemical intervention, it doesn’t help much. What is more, there is a great deal of evidence that the psychological precedes the chemical, even if a feedback loop develops between them.

We have writer’s block in particular contexts and under certain pressures; writer’s block is one of our responses to these pressures, albeit not a useful one. Perhaps we do need to change the chemicals in our mind, but we might just as well do this through non-chemical means, through changing the triggers and the emotions they spark.

When thinking about writer’s block, it’s useful to know what it is to write in the first place. Like all creative endeavours – and many others besides – to write fluently is to enter the state of ‘flow’, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

For Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the ideal state of mind for creative activity. It is the ‘state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter’. He describes flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake’:

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

This state of complete immersion in an activity involves a number of essential components. A state of flow can only be entered when the practitioner has a roughly equivalent level of skill to match the level of challenge. Too much skill for the task at hand will result in boredom; too little skill will result in anxiety.

Importantly, flow requires the absence of reflective self-consciousness. That is, the ego disappears and the practitioner – the writer, in this case – becomes, in some sense, one with the task. Judgement is suspended and so are expectations:

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.

The state of flow is thus ‘autotelic’. It is self-justifying – you do it for the sake of it:

The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself … The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.

Csikszentmihalyi may make the mistake of elevating his concept into the secret of happiness, but it seems a useful enough tool for coming to grips with writer’s block. The problem for people with writer’s block is that they can’t enter this state of flow. They are constantly interrupted by inner dialogue, self-judgement and mental images. Flow requires a state of relaxation, not anxiety.

Part of the catch here is that much of this psychological activity happens unconsciously, on the edges of our awareness, and almost instantly. We might only write for a short amount of time before a thought or image arises and disrupts our flow.

Like almost all psychological concepts, the notion of the unconscious is contested. In Freud’s famous theory, the unconscious is the domain of repressed ideas, memories and emotions, which often erupt through various symptoms. It’s a notion that, through his various descendants, still retains some currency.

A more recent view sees the unconscious as a functional mechanism – a kind of ‘instant thinking’ – that takes care of many of our activities while our conscious mind focuses on one or other specific task. From this perspective, the unconscious is more of a neutral machine, humming away in the background.

In a recent issue of Scientific American, John A Bargh explains that ‘contemporary cognitive psychologists have recast the Freudian worldview into a less polarised psychological dynamic’. This can be seen in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, in which Kahneman describes the opposition between conscious and unconscious as that between ‘controlled’ and ‘automatic’. (Another popular book on the subject is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.)

According to Bargh, ‘people often make decisions without having given them much thought – or, more precisely, before they have thought about them consciously.’ As in Freud, the two systems can come into conflict:

The stronger the unconscious influence, the harder we have to work to overcome it. In particular, this holds true for habitual behaviours. An alcoholic might come home in the evening and pour a drink; a person with a weight problem might reach for the potato chips – both easily casting aside the countervailing urge toward restraint.

The unconscious mind can thus learn problematic behaviours – phobias, for example – or absorb a virulent ideology (Bargh gives the example of the Implicit Association Test where participants are, roughly speaking, asked to associate good or bad with black or white).

From Bargh’s point of view, writer’s block is reminiscent of a phobia. The act of unconsciously entering a state of anxiety or fear – driven by the things we say to ourselves and by the pictures we imagine – prevents us from entering a state of flow.

Thus, to enter a state of flow, we need to transform what is happening at an unconscious level. How do we do this?

The writing world is full of advice. The single biggest particular pitfall I’ve discovered is this: people tell you what works for them. In other words, they will tell you about themselves. In doing so, they fail to realise that the two of you are, in fact, not the same person. This is apparent when people dismiss the very idea of writer’s block because they themselves have never suffered from it.

Terry Pratchett provides a good example: ‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’ Warren Ellis takes a similar stance: ‘Writer’s block? I’ve heard of this. This is when a writer cannot write, yes? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing for a living.’

Both Pratchett and Ellis are suffering from a kind of category error: namely, they assume that we all have the same psychological makeup as them. They don’t suffer from writers’ block and so therefore it does not exist.

Because of said psychological differences, we each block ourselves in our own specific way. The proportions of perfectionism, or work-apprehension, or impatience; the things we say to ourselves; the meaning those words have for us; the quality of the emotion (agitation, lassitude, etc.) – these things differ from person to person.

As a result, each of us has to learn to write in our own way. Some write to strict hours, others write in great bursts, others write in snatches here and there.

We all need to disengage from our particular kind of negative self-talk, from the unhelpful pictures we might imagine; we all need to unplug our negative emotional states. But because these are unconsciously and individually set, doing something about them requires time, effort and self-knowledge.

Developing a set routine helps, because the unconscious mind learns by repetition: writing at the same time, in the same place, each day allows writing to become a ‘habit’. Because there is an interaction between mind and body, emotional and physical states can also be altered directly. Some people find that exercise or meditation helps. Some people go running. Others practice yoga or head to the gym.

Raymond Chandler followed a particular practice that is also useful: you sit down to write for a specific time, but you don’t have to write. The catch: you’re not allowed to do anything else. This takes a great deal of the pressure off the writer, and also tends to quieten the inner-dialogue and calm down the anxiety. After a short period of time, the brain begins to search for something to do – and you find yourself writing.

Chandler’s advice is an example of the useful tips you can get from the many books on overcoming writer’s block. But they all should be approached with a caveat: most titles on ‘writer’s block’ use the same concepts and tools as personal development books. In fact, mostly they are self-help books, taking their place in the vast array of similar tones available online or in bookstores – a damning indictment of capitalist alienation.

Progressives have traditionally been suspicious of this industry, not only because it purports to offer happiness by a series of simple rules, but also because its radical existentialism ends up philosophically idealist – you ‘create’ your own reality – and merges with far-Right individualism. The world is filled with CEOs spouting half-baked Buddhism, applying the seven habits of highly effective people and quoting Laozi. It is a discourse of deadly functionality, where productivity is increasingly reified – it’s the end goal and the very meaning of life. Such ideas are bound closely to the mechanisms of capitalist production, which values above all the relentless manufacture of commodities for consumption: cars, bars of soap, online essays.

The romantic notion of art, once a fixture of the elite cultures preceding the Second World War, has been increasingly transformed by a mass cultural concept of writer-as-producer. On the one hand, writers are encouraged to think of themselves as struggling for ‘transcendent art’; on the other, they are pushed to reach ever-greater word counts, as if they were some kind of Taylorist or Fordist creative factory. Quality is replaced by quantity. We’re all constantly reminded of this by the incessant tweets (#amwriting) and Facebook updates about the number of words our friends have churned out that day. It’s reflected in the phenomenon of NaNoWriMo, in which people are meant to write a novel during the month of November. Notably absent from these discussions is the notion that we might actually need to have something to say.

As a concept, writer’s block functions as the Jungian shadow to this idea of the prolific writer. To have writer’s block is to be excluded from the system of production, to fail to measure up against those peers. If modern capitalism is interested in competition, this is reflected within the culture of writing itself. The productive writer versus the blocked writer are the two halves of a broken and unhealthy whole.

Western society is facing a social epidemic of anxiety: ‘trickle-down distress’ Maura Kelly calls it in a recent Atlantic article. She notes that ‘nearly one in five’ American adults – some 40 million people – ‘suffer from anxiety disorders, the most common class of psychiatric ailment we have’. Many of the same concerns affecting blocked writers – perfectionism, impatience and so on – affect the population in general.

Neoliberal capitalism is no place for the sensitive.

Our individual psychologies are thus also expressions of social problems, and understanding this allows us to understand the space we have to resolve them as individuals. We cannot step out of this culture, but we can critique it and, ultimately, do our best to build something different.

I think it’s important that writers don’t go down the track of seeing themselves as entrepreneurs or competitors, as alone in the world. If we can reject the superficiality of celebrity, we can help to undermine perfectionism, which is a very individualistic attitude. Thinking of writing as part of a greater collective dialogue also helps to de-individualise the process.

For myself, I slowly overcame my writer’s block by developing a routine, by achieving a certain amount of success (‘positive referent experiences’) and by practising Chandler’s method. It was important for me to see writing as a contribution, a part of a community so to speak, as something greater than my own individual ambition. Being a progressive person here helped me, for it gave me reasons to write.

I came to understand better my internal dialogues and to recognise the state of anxiety – and developed ways to overcome both of these. Interestingly, I only ever experienced writer’s block when writing fiction. I could happily tap out a thousand or more words of nonfiction any given day.

I’ve often thought of this difference: when it came to fiction, I found it much harder to think my way through a problem. A story doesn’t work like an argument. It isn’t linear or structured in the same way. As a result, I felt much more confident writing nonfiction. I tended to put myself under much more pressure as a fiction writer, hence I felt much more anxiety when I wrote. I wanted to escape the chair much more. But perhaps the most important difference was precisely that fiction seemed a much more individualist pursuit, whereas nonfiction seemed to me (at the time at least) a much clearer social contribution.

In any case, I began to notice parallels between the writer’s block and other areas of my life. For instance, I found it hard to get to the gym. Once there, I’d be fine for a while, until the idea of leaving popped mysteriously into my head. That was the moment when I lost my ‘flow’ – at which point I’d often abandon the session. The pattern was similar – and so were the solutions.

Now, some years later, I occasionally suffer from resistance to writing but often I also look forward to it with curiosity and excitement. It is easier to enter the state of flow. Writing is certainly challenging, but, as Csikszentmihalyi notes, it is also highly rewarding:

[T]he best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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