The Myth of Writer’s Block

You know what’s annoying? I can’t pick up a book devoted to writing craft or peruse an online literary forum without reading something about writer’s block: testimonies from those who suffer from it, a historic of famous writers who’ve lived with the condition, and tips on how it can be overcome.

So here I am, joining the fray. I’ve got an opinion on the matter, and it may alienate a number of you. At the expense of pissing off a lot of people, I think writer’s block — at least in the sense that we know it — is a myth.

Now hear me out: I’m not suggesting writers who allege to suffer from this malady are lying, or exaggerating, or concocting armchair justifications for any temporary lapses in production they may experience. I’m simply suggesting that writer’s block isn’t what most people think it is; it’s not some temporary mental wedging or a disorder that writers acquire, struggle through and somehow get over. Instead, this apocryphal condition is the result of a universal, ever-present hiccup in an otherwise complex piece of mental machinery. And you just have to get over it.

Here’s proof. Have you ever noticed that when you’re called to critique a friend or colleague’s work, you can have all the answers, a crystal-clear idea of how you’d do things differently? Most of us familiar with this activity regularly return manuscripts lashed with red ink, and Lord knows if someone writes something on the Internet we don’t like we can rise to the task of appending the offending article with paragraphs of critical response. However, have you similarly noticed that when you sit down to compose a work of fiction you’ve been mulling over for months, suddenly your brain slips off the rails and your creative output decelerates to a death rattle? And when you finally do begin writing, your mind picks these moments as an opportunity to spit out a laundry list of every nearby distraction possible?

You’re not alone. There’s a science behind this phenomenon, and it’s surprisingly simple to understand. The two aforementioned activities (critically processing information and producing our own creative ideas) involve two completely different cerebral processes, utilizing two different lobes of the brain. For most of us (the right-handed portion of the population, anyway) the left lobe is our logical side: it stores rule-abiding maxims and decodes patterns we gather empirically in the world around us. Because this side of the brain studies behaviors, it’s your most “responsible side”: it knows you’re supposed to be writing instead of obsessively cleaning the lint catcher or refilling the ice-cube trays. Then there’s the right side of the brain, which for the duration of your life has been taking personal experiences and turning them into creative works, often bubbling to the surface only when you dream. This is the celebrated part of your brain, the part that makes you uniquely “you.” It just so happens this is also the part of you that wants you to do anything but work. It doesn’t like the rules and it absolutely hates responsibilities, namely because it doesn’t know what responsibilities are. The good news here is that your creative speed-bumps aren't necessarily the result of garden-variety laziness, but are more likely due to an evolutionary flub in our collective intracranial physiology. The bad news is that the revered, creative side of your brain has the habit of acting like a petulant child — and right now it’s ruining your life.

I used to claim I suffered from writer’s block. I’d sit in front of the screen for hours without producing so much as a sentence. Nothing. Somewhere around the same time, I got a job writing for a daily newspaper. The gig required me to write two articles a day: one for the front page, another for inside filler. It didn’t matter if I was sleep-deprived, hung-over, grumpy, depressed, or just not feeling it: I had to produce. And for two very long years, I did. Needless to say, after drumming up 2,000 words of copy I was too fried to write fiction when I got home. But then it dawned on me: clearly, I can write every day if I have to, so why can’t I coach my brain to work on the stuff I actually want to write?

That’s the challenge. You’ve got to trick the childish right side of your brain to act like the mature, domineering left. You have to convince yourself that you can write under any circumstance. And this is an exceedingly difficult task to accomplish when you don’t have the carrot of a paycheck or the Pavlovian whip of an editor balancing the scales.

So, the first step in overcoming this behavior is you have to begin seeing writing as work — because that’s what it is. There’s no denying that you’re going to run out of creative ideas sometimes, but that’s not what writer’s block purports itself to be: the process of writing encompasses much, much more than inchoate creative expressions that occur in the right side of the brain. When you find yourself faced with a lower yield of creative ideas, it doesn’t mean you can’t re-write, edit, proof, or dig up old, half-baked concepts you’ve never put to paper. In other words, if you want to write, you need to evolve your understanding of what the process entails. When one aspect of the process doesn’t seem to be responsive, switch gears and work on another. As long as your fingers can move, you can write.

There are a few tricks you can use to juke the creative process, or at least keep damage at a minimum when the creative well appears dry. Try carrying a notebook around so you can jot down ideas when they come your way. Doing this ensures you have a supply of material to tide you over when faced with creative lulls. Here’s another good exercise: try re-reading something you’ve already written. When you’re forced to logically confront scraps of creative ideas you’ve already expressed, the left side of your brain kicks the right side and tells it that it’s time to go to work. The fact is — whether we realize it or not — we are using the creative side of the brain when we a critique a friend or colleague’s writing, albeit in a somewhat limited function. Repeating this process won’t necessarily guarantee an influx of more ideas, but over time it will help you manage the creative ebbs and tides we’re all forced to deal with.

The second step involves understanding that writing is an exercise in trust. Some think writer’s block is an affliction of luxury, an indisposition reserved for those who have the time to spare. I disagree. Writer’s block is the side effect of a preconception many writers have that everything that comes off their pens should be earth-shatteringly brilliant. This is a grossly unreasonable expectation to set for yourself, and the result of a loophole concocted by right-lobe bureaucracy to prevent you from working. You’ve essentially accepted that you temporarily don’t possess the wherewithal to produce any new creative ideas, so once again you’ve given yourself permission to get up from that chair. You’ve got to reconcile with yourself that everything gets better with time. And the only way to get past those rocky beginnings and develop and improve upon your ideas is through work, work, work.

One book that discusses the right/left cranial conundrum and how it affects writer’s block (albeit from a more scientific angle than what’s offered here) is Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writers Block. Period by psychologist Karen E. Peterson, Ph.D. This is a very insightful book that sheds light on how our creative faculties work, and offers a few exercises you can perform to get out of a creative rut. Check it out!

Image of Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writer's Block. Period.
Author: Karen E. Peterson
Price: $12.31
Publisher: Adams Media (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages
Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

Bill Tucker's picture
Bill Tucker from Austin, Texas is reading Child of God February 9, 2012 - 7:39pm

Excellent article!  Among the many things I learned at the one writers workshop I've attended in my life was that, "There's always more".  The second you feel like you have nothing to say, just put pen to paper and start scribbling.  Don't stop and if you have nothing to say, write that over and over again.  Eventually, stuff starts coming out and boom, there's something to write about.  Oh and the second thing I learned, which you perfectly illustrated in this piece?

"Do the work".

Thanks very much for putting some science on something that often seems mysterious and elusive.  We like to think that our creativity is a lightning strike when it's really a cloud of positively charged ions that constantly burns inside us.  All we need to do is use it.  Thanks again for the article.  Made my day!

TwistedPaper's picture
TwistedPaper from Poland is reading "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe & "Seven Wonders" by Adam Christopher February 10, 2012 - 7:22am

Thanks for the great article. "Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writers Block. Period" is one of the best books about creativity I've read so far. 

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 10, 2012 - 8:19pm

Excellent article - only exception I have is with the title - great analysis and great prescription to combat "writer's block." It is so damn frustrating - and your two steps are a practical one-two punch I'll use this weekend...this and Ed Sikov's articles are a godsend this week....

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 11, 2012 - 6:46pm

Hey Jon - any advice on grammar errors?

 

michaeldevault's picture
michaeldevault February 12, 2012 - 12:03am

Ayn Rand called it "the squirms"--and she, too, agreed 'writer's block' was a myth. Barbara Branden (a friend of hers) put it another way--though she was probably not the first to do so. If you're 'blocked' in your writing, it's because you've made an error of some type, your subconscious is not letting you proceed, and you must find the error and correct it before you move on. 

I've found this to be the case many, many times.

joenelms's picture
joenelms from New York City February 12, 2012 - 10:13pm

Great article. I learned the same lesson the hard way. The good news: it only took twenty years. My take the issue... http://bit.ly/FindYourPesci

Tai Ramos's picture
Tai Ramos from Brazil March 19, 2012 - 6:17pm

I'll look for the book tomorrow. I swear I'm not procrastinating. Thanks for the tips!

Glenn Anderson's picture
Glenn Anderson November 16, 2012 - 5:08am

I like this very much! It is not just some tips on getting over writer’s block. It is really about understanding it. However, I think you do not have to spin it that it is myth. It is real, and it is exactly as you describe it, the creative activities of writing (creative side of the brain) at some point not being subject to the rules and pressure of the analytical side of the brain. BUT! I think though, doing strategies like this: http://blog.printplace.com/5-strategies-for-getting-past-writers-block/ , still has merit. There are some people who just need new inspiration and ideas to write, and for them it would not be forced on them as work.

Seb's picture
Seb from Kent, UK November 16, 2012 - 7:41am

Everyone knows that the whole left/right side of the brain theory is a myth, right? Like the 'we only use 10% of our brain' myth. Or did you all actually believe Limitless "could really happen"?

http://www.kurzweilai.net/creative-right-brain-myth-debunked

http://news.usc.edu/#!/article/29056/Scientists-Search-for-Source-of-Creativity

WriteGuy's picture
WriteGuy February 8, 2013 - 10:10pm

Writer's block is NOT a myth. It's a real thing. But you're right, the problem is that it's a misnomer.

Writer's block is nothing more than the writer's inner critic judging the work (or ideas) prematurely. It can happen at any stage in the writing process, and there's a simple (INSTANT) cure, as outlined in this video: