Creativity and Productivity, Resources and Events for Writers

The science behind writer’s block


We’ve all experienced it, that feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach when you sit down to write. When all the negative feedback you’ve ever gotten and the prospect of the hard work ahead of you is overwhelming to the point that you’d rather do anything — vacuum, alphabetize your book collection, clean out the garage — than write.

There is frustration inherent in any artistic pursuit, but it seems to be especially pronounced in writers. Hundreds of books and articles are written about writer’s block, but you don’t see the same attention paid to painter’s or sculptor’s or basket weaver’s block.

I suspect it has something to do with the verbal nature of our work. (And maybe writers are a little more neurotic than other artists, but that’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.) I recently found myself having a harder time than usual sitting down to write, so I picked up “Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance” by Rosanne Bane looking for some useful strategies. Bane has a wealth of them, and I was fascinated by her explanation of how our brains work.

She says resistance is part of the writing life, and it reveals itself as:

  • Freezing — the most obvious form of writer’s block, when our minds go blank and we start to panic.
  • Fighting — including self-criticism and refusing to hear others’ suggestions for revision (who hasn’t been there?).
  • Fleeing — giving in to distractions, overscheduling or overcommitting to other priorities, procrastination in all its forms.

When you’re writing, you rely on your cerebral cortex, which handles problem-solving, language and numbers. It’s what allows you to create and motivate yourself. In other words, it’s the part of your brain that cares about writing and has the tools necessary to do it.

You have to be relaxed for the cerebral cortex to be in charge. As soon as you feel that first prickle of anxiety about writing, the limbic system (your fight-or-flight response) takes over and engages the amygdala, which releases stress hormones. The limbic system is solely focused on the need to stay alive and safe, so it naturally sees creativity as a waste of time and energy.

Unfortunately, the cortex is not good at knowing when the limbic system has taken control — and the latter system lacks speech. Think about that: The part of the brain that’s in charge is incapable of putting anything into words. It’s the worst possible situation for a writer.

In its frustration, the cortex tries to explain your inability to write in those circumstances, and it comes up with: “I’m lazy. I’m undisciplined. I’m afraid of failure (or success). I don’t really want to write.” Sound familiar?

The good news is that you can overcome writer’s block. Bane offers lots of concrete techniques and strategies for outwitting resistance, some of which I have already put to good use. More on that next time.

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