Is writer’s block a real psychological condition or just an excuse for not getting words down on the page?
“Usually a temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a novel, play, or other work.”
Is ‘writer’s block’ a real psychological condition or are ‘stuck’ days just a natural part of the writing process?
Through digging into psychological experiments, looking at its origins and speaking to writers of note, let’s take a look at how the landscape of this regularly debated topic is shaping up.
The history of writer’s block
If we read the work of some early 19th century writers, they frequently mention struggling with invisible influences that control their creativity or their inabilities to think of fresh ideas.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared: “Yesterday was my Birth Day. So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!”
Not only is Coleridge highly relatable, but he shines a light on the earliest mention of writer’s block… in 1804. When asked by his friends why he couldn’t simply snap out of it, he quipped “You bid me rouse myself. Go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, and that will cure him.”
“For me, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Because it’s always possible to write something – it’s just that it might be terrible. You can hold down the letter ‘o’ and watch it fill the page. Congratulations, you’ve written an awful poem.”Joe Dunthorne, Author of Submarine
Despite being a problem centuries earlier, the term ‘writer’s block’ wasn’t coined until 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. The first description in the Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis states “its earliest manifestation may be feelings of insecurity regarding one’s creativity, the development of a certain terseness of style, and looking to others for ideas for future projects.”
“When I get writer’s block, I first ask myself why. Sometimes I’m just creatively exhausted, because I have written everything out of my system; in that case, I just leave my desk, go out and meet new people and read new work, and replenish the well of ideas.
If I’m scared, then I write directly about the thing I am most afraid about, getting up early and typing straightaway so that my mind is uncluttered and free from doubt. So often, the key to my best writing is not certainty but vulnerability. The more open I am, the better the work, and the more freely it comes.”Musa Okwonga, poet, journalist and musician
A cognitive process which can’t be helped
The primary defence of writer’s block is that it’s not something you can control: it happens to you. You get no say. In this sense, it’s like the common cold – you just have to work through it. The counterargument to this is that you can defend yourself from germs with the right precautions… But then can you impact your susceptibility psychological conditions?
Notable authors who have suffered with it include Stephen King, Harper Lee and, of course, George R. R. Martin (yes, we are still waiting). If professional writers experience this phenomenon, does this add or detract weight from the argument that it exists? In one respect, they have a lot of experience so are more qualified to answer. However, they also have tremendous pressure to perform; often their fan bases demand sequels, not only quickly, but one’s that are bigger and better than the last.
“It must be a psychological process where your brain is processing it in the background. It’s also why sleep is so good for it, and a new morning especially productive. If under time pressure, I’ve developed this thing where I literally just put down the most basic way of writing. You then look at it and think “I can do better than that” and that gets your brain whirring. You at least won’t be offering the worst possible stuff, and that is mentally helpful.”Miguel Delaney, Chief Football Writer for The Independent
Backed up by science
There have been a few experiments which offer some insight into what writer’s block may be.
The ‘Thinking Can Cause Forgetting’ experiment:
- Though the experiment was conducted back in 2011, it explored the concept of mental fixation in relation to creative problem solving – one of the closest things to writer’s block.
- Participants were asked to solve Remote Association Tests e.g. they were given the words ‘square’, ‘cardboard’ and ‘open’ and had to find the word that links them – in this case ‘box’.
- As decoy words were introduced, they caused the mind to trip over itself.
- Those that were successful had the ability to block out the decoy words and background noise.
Key takeaway: They concluded that the ability to filter out ‘the noise’ – whether that’s literal or your own mind telling you what you’re writing is terrible – is imperative to overcoming creative obstacles.
The ‘Creative Constraints’ experiment:
- This study in 2017 conducted a similar test but this time used functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to see what physical neural activity was taking place.
- Researchers discovered that memory plays a big part in our ability to be creative suggesting creativity is based on the ability to draw upon previous ideas.
- But this also means memory hinders our creativity as we get stuck in old ideas easily which causes us to feel blocked from any form of inspiration.
Key takeaway: The findings determined that the mind gets stuck in a place where memory recall inhibits the creative process.
An excuse for sub-par writing
“Writers’ block is really a writer’s unwillingness to accept the terribleness of their writing. My solution, therefore, is to lower one’s expectations. I think you have to write through the terribleness. I think of writing like digging for treasure and so a lot of time is spent shovelling dirt. If you think of your terrible writing as part of the process that leads you to eventually digging up something beautiful, then you are never blocked. You are just working and digging and waiting to hit gold.”Joe Dunthorne, Author of Submarine
There’s an argument to be made for writer’s block being a collection of factors that impact creativity. For example, fatigue, loss of interest, lack of inspiration and too high expectations often collide, making it hard for even the best writers to produce a masterpiece. But there’s a difference between struggling in an overwhelming way to write and suffering from a psychological condition which physically stops you from writing.
For Polly Courtney, it’s about knowing the bigger picture:
“Working out right at the start what this book (or script) is about, it’s big theme, the main arc, the depth of the character(s)… and then when you know all that, when it comes to writing a chapter (/scene), it just flows, like real life, because you know exactly what that sort of a person would do or say, and where you need them to get to in that part of the story.
I have actually never had writer’s block… I definitely have bad writing days, when a scene just doesn’t feel right… but invariably that’s when (I later realise) one of the big-picture pieces isn’t right – like a character’s motivation doesn’t ring true, or I’ve put her/him on an unrealistic trajectory.”Polly Courtney, Author of “Golden Handcuffs” & “An Unsuitable Game”
Alternatively, while some people believe writer’s block does exist, they don’t necessarily think it’s a psychological condition. Whatever its cause, it is not unexplained or uncontrollable – it’s just inconvenient.
The lines between writer’s block and other mental issues such as depression and anxiety may also become blurred.
Both types of condition share similar symptoms:
- Feeling shame, guilt, worthlessness, or powerlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies
- Short term memory loss
If this is the case, then ‘writer’s block’ is part of a bigger problem. Worse still, the treatments are not the same so it’s important to be able to make the distinction. Treating your depression like writer’s block isn’t going to do you any favours.
Whilst people don’t explicitly say writer’s block is depression, this argument does open up the possibility that in some cases it is a psychological condition – just not under the name ‘writer’s block’ – and that in others it’s just a stemmed flow of creativity.
How to overcome writer’s block
Amongst the debate, there are voices offering helpful tips on how to overcome the problem, whether it is labelled as ‘writer’s block’ or not.
The most popular one is to take a break from technology. After all, there’s a lot to be said about how technology impacts the imagination.
“I find a shower really helps, or a walk with no phone or other devices, maybe because it lets you think”Abi Wilkinson, Freelance Journalist based in Washington DC
“One productivity booster that seems to be working is deleting Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone, and trying to stick to a short time only per day for browsing those sites.”Peter Murphy, AFP Journalist
For some, “writing through it” works. Just get anything out on the page. Put that inner critic that pipes up after every word telling you it’s crap in the corner for a while. Tell yourself that no one on the planet is going to read it, so it doesn’t matter.
“I think the most important thing is to force yourself just to write something. So if you’re in the middle of trying to write a novel, then write an article, write a diary entry, write anything. But there should always be something you can write – just keep writing and write through it.”Darren Richman, Journalist for The Independent
“If I am faced with a problematic piece or encounter writers’ block I tend to stand up and walk away from the computer, whether that is at work or at home. It could be just to go away and make a cup of tea, or if that is not enough, then go outside for a walk.
I don’t really think about the piece then but for some reason an intro or a headline often pops into my head. Thankfully for me I don’t write longer pieces any more so I rarely have a problem with the structure, it is normally about getting the intro and the pay off right.”Marcus Christenson, Football Editor of the Guardian
A favourite phrase of mine is: “you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Because it’s true: if you have something to work with, you can start to shape it into something better. If your page is a barren wasteland, you’ve got no hope really. At least if you produce a turd you can roll it in glitter.