What is Writer’s Block?
Let’s turn to Maria Konnikova first. She is a contributing writer for the New Yorker who writes about psychology and science. She did a wonderful piece about writer’s block that breaks down the history of the term and ideas on how to beat it. She tells us:
Writer’s block has probably existed since the invention of writing, but the term itself was first introduced into the academic literature in the nineteen-forties, by a psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler.
Bergler came to the conclusion that writers suffering from the inability to write were actually suffering from psychological blockages. He thought that if the psychological issue could be addressed, writer’s block could be cured. A couple of psychologists from Yale, Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, decided to approach this idea more scientifically a few decades later.
They found that Berger wasn’t wrong. Emotional blockages certainly existed for writers who couldn’t write, but curing the emotional block wasn’t the cure. It seemed to work the other way around. Creativity cured the emotional blocks. Konnikova writes:
Addressing the creative elements alone appeared to translate into an alleviation of the emotional symptoms that were thought to have caused the block in the first place, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-confidence and motivation. Therapy didn’t unblock creativity; creative training worked as a form of therapy.
I’m not a psychologist or any kind of scientist, but I found this to be incredibly interesting because… I talk about not using writer’s block as an excuse to stop writing in 3 Tricks that Help Me Write Faster. I make the point that writing something (I like to write synopses for upcoming chapters) actually makes me feel better emotionally:
Not only does this allow me to continue working on my novel, it removes some anxiety for me. I get to play with ideas without worrying about how good my writing is. I get to move forward in the plot without feeling committed. I get to work instead of staring at a blank page.
But that doesn’t really answer the question: what is writer’s block? Well, here’s what I think.
Writer’s block is just the staggering feeling of being unable to create. But it’s not really a big deal. If you’re stuck in your writing, you might feel like punching me for saying that. Stay with with me, though. It gets better.
Why Writer’s Block Happens
The reason you have writer’s block is because you are standing in your own way. Whether you’re staring at a blank page or succumbing to Netflix, you have put yourself in the way of your creative process in some way. You are the block.
Writer’s block happens when you don’t write, and it perpetuates with feelings of anxiety, laziness, inadequacy, etc. that build up when you aren’t doing what you love. Your brain is fooling itself, though. You aren’t inadequate, you aren’t lazy, you aren’t unimaginative.
When you give into the feeling of being unable to write for whatever reason, you prolong your block. The cure is to give into the creative process instead.
How to Overcome Writer’s Block
Michael Goldman wrote in a poem, “When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write;/ She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.” What made me look up at that roadside tree?
If you’re suffering from writer’s block, I would say to you: stop trying for a minute. Step away from your computer and go observe, read a book, or take a walk. Take the time to let inspiration happen. Because if it’s not happening on your blank page, it’s probably going to happen elsewhere.
But don’t get distracted. Don’t procrastinate. Take the time to get inspired but commit to putting words on the page as well. The creative process might seem airy, but having the discipline to write is essential to curing writer’s block. You have to sit down and do it every single day.
That doesn’t mean you have to be good every single day. It just means you need to show up. Even if you’re just writing nonsense for a few paragraphs, even if you’re just writing a blog post, even if you’re just writing a few lines in a journal–write something down. By writing every day, you will make the act of writing easier, and you will experience writer’s block less.