Another article on that cursed condition we call “writer’s block” has come across my desk. Upon reading it, I realized that we have been using the wrong metaphor for this malady. In fact, it’s not even a malady. Writing is a journey—as anyone who has written the first and final sentences of a story or poem will attest. And on any journey you will undoubtedly encounter obstructions along the way. Writing is unique in that regard—working through, around, over, or even under obstructions is at the core of the writing process.
To sit down and write is like beginning a journey across an uncharted frontier in a Conestoga wagon. There is no road map on the seat beside you, no signs giving directions or warnings of closures or blockages (or Indian attacks) that you might or be likely to encounter along the way. In fact, writing is the process of working your way through uncharted territory full of obstructions seeking to block your progress. The obstruction most feared by writers is the one called “writers’ block.” You’re moving ahead at deliberate speed, come round a corner, and your bumper smashes into it, sitting there with arrogant persistence in the middle of and totally blocking your intended route.
In real travels, you could consult your trip guide or call AAA for assistance. As a writer, there you sit, stalled. The flow of words stops and the creativity machine freezes up. Panic sets in. And like a windup toy that goes in circles and bumps into walls, you might spend three months trapped inside the fog-clouded blockage before finding a way out.
The problem has likely existed since man—or woman—first sought to put down stories on cave walls or on clay tablets or parchment for others, immediately disconnected by space and/or time, to later share.
A psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler has invested a chunk of his career studying the condition that has alternatively been described as the “neurotic inhibitions of productivity.” With a handle like that, you would think it would be covered under your medical disability policy, but, alas, it’s not. And to continue stretching the metaphors, no one has yet developed a mental enema to loosen and remove such blockages. Oh, the mess!
Gratefully, New York psychology and science writer Maria Konnikova has addressed the issue and in a recent contribution to “The New Yorker” magazine provides some reasonably fresh insight into the condition. She quickly debunks traditional (historical) explanations such as the afflicted writer having “drained themselves dry,” or suffered from loss of motivation, a sudden evaporation of talent, or just plain being lazy.
She writes about Yale University psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barios, who, in their efforts to find the root of the problem, uncovered three groups (types?) of blocked writers, all three of which shared common symptoms. They were unhappy, displayed elements of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and, strangely enough, had developed an aversion to solitude (the antitheses of privacy most writers seek). Another group expressed anger and irritation at others. The third group was apathetic and disengaged, and the forth angry, hostile, and disappointed.
On any given day, you could probably pour all these adjectives into a bowl and ladle them onto yourself and pick out the ones that don’t apply and, I guess, feel sorry for yourself to have to deal with the leftovers. Or you could jump into one of these groups and declare yourself classified. There are nuanced differences. Barrios and Singer found that different kinds of unhappy writers are blocked in different ways, thus extending and expanding the levels of classification. But for our purposes, the general common symptoms will suffice: flagging motivation, feeling less ambitious, and finding less joy from writing. The afflicted also displayed “low levels of positive and constructive mental imagery,” i.e., they were unable to create images in their minds and unable to daydream or even just plain dream.
Running the risk of slight over simplification, Singer and Barrios, employed what Konnikova refers to as a “simple” intervention: exercises in “directed mental imagery.”
“While some of the blocked writers met in groups to discuss their difficulties, . . . others (participated) in a systematic protocol designed to walk them through the production of colorful mental images. These writers would sit in a dim, quiet room and contemplate a series of ten prompts asking them to produce and then describe dream-like creations. They might, for example, ‘visualize’ a piece of music, or a specific setting in nature. Afterward, they would visualize something from their current projects, and then generate a ‘dreamlike experience’ based on that project.”
Piece of cake!
Sorry, but to me, the process smacks a little bit of Professor Harold Hill’s theory of “thinkology” in “The Music Man,” but, like the magical sounding instant marching band from that movie, the results apparently proved reasonably successful. Writes Ms. Konnikova: “The exercise didn’t cure writer’s block across the board, but it did seem to demonstrate to the creatively stymied that they were still capable of creativity, (and led), over time, to the alleviation of writer’s block—even in the absence of therapy.”
That last phrase may be of importance. It hints that self-help efforts might be a good place to start when one bumps up against a “blockage.” One of those efforts might include what Graham Greene did, according to Konnikova. He kept a “dream journal” in which he wrote detailed accounts of his dreams. About the exercise, he wrote: “If one can remember an entire dream, the result is a sense of entertainment sufficiently marked to give one the illusion of being catapulted into a different world . . . One finds oneself remote from one’s conscious preoccupations.” Apparently, it was there—freed of conscious anxieties and pressures—that Greene regained his freedom to write unobstructed.
I’m not convinced that the technique would work for everybody. As Konnikova points out, creativity is a very nonlinear and individualized process. She quotes the insight of Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania: “I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations. Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
So, for all those feelings of frustration and downright disassociation that you encounter during your writing efforts . . . not to fret. They’re normal! You’re not stopped. You’re temporarily slowed. And as the Brits would say: Carry on!
Although you could spend a great deal of time and effort studying the issue and finding into just which classification—on a given day or when in a given mood—you fit, it appears that the medicine is the same. If you are having trouble with your writing, write and continue writing until your writing gets better again.
My father put it another way: “Quit your bellyaching.”
Or, as the music man sang: “Just blow in here and the music goes round and round, oh–oh-oh, and comes out here.” Be ready to do a lot blowing before music comes out.