As we come into the last days of NaNoWriMo, those brave souls among you attempting the challenge may be struggling a little. But fear not – here are some tips and explanations for dealing with the dreaded Writer’s Block…
Writer’s Block. Two words to strike terror into even the most dedicated of creatives. And yet it’s universal. At some point or another, every one of us has stared at a page in frustration, as their well of ideas has run dry.
Yes, it is sometimes used as an excuse – after all, it’s so easy to blame your lack of effort or motivation on a big bad scary monster called Writer’s Block. But in reality, Writer’s Block is far more complex than just a lack of ideas. And it isn’t something people can just magically ‘get over’, either. As a wise man once told me, ‘Sometimes the only way to get over Writer’s Block is to write through it’.
So, write through it I have – when I started this article I was burned out – physically and mentally. So, I sat down with Doctor Matthew Watson, the Head of Psychology at the University of Sunderland and Bec Evans, co-creator of tracking app Write-track, (the ‘FitBit for writing’ that is currently in closed beta) to try and find some of the causes of Writer’s Block and how to get over it.
So, what exactly does cause Writer’s Block, and what sort of routines, habits and tricks can we use to mitigate its effects?
Willpower is Key
“So, while the image of the tortured artist burning the midnight oil is a popular one, it’s also possibly the easiest way to end with a case of Writer’s block”
Willpower, or self-regulation as it’s known in the psychological world, plays a huge part of being creative and therefore on Writer’s Block. According to Doctor Watson, self-regulation is:
“all about how people manage their own emotions and resources – any time where you have to stop yourself doing something or force yourself to do something. So, that could be anything from doing some exercise, to not eating chocolate, to sitting down and forcing yourself to write.”
But other factors, like tiredness can play a key role in writer’s block, due to the impact that they have on self-regulation So how does tiredness affect that?
“Being creative is really difficult. When we talk about self-regulation, that seems to be a limited resource. If you are asked to exercise self-regulatory abilities, like forcing yourself to go out on a cold morning in December, that makes it harder to exercise self-regulation later in the day. There are some things that increase your chances [of self-regulation] and one of them is sleep.”
So, while the image of the tortured artist burning the midnight oil is a popular one, it’s also possibly the easiest way to end up with a case of Writer’s block.
The reason for this is that your brain has two broad systems. System One is a sort of autopilot, the thing that runs your conversations with baristas when buying your morning coffee, it’s what gets you from home to work, and it uses very little energy. But system two, as Doctor Watson elaborated, is a much more energy consuming part of your brain:
“True creativity requires System Two, it requires conscious thought, it requires effort and it wears you out, and it’s really hard. If you’re tired one of the first things to go is your ability to be creative. It’s very difficult to be creative when you are tired”
Bec also recognises the role that tiredness plays in Writer’s Block. And she offers a neat solution – rather than scheduling when you have time free to write, map out the times when you really can’t.
“There’s no point in looking at your diary and going ‘ooh, I’m free to write at 9:30 every single night, because you’re not going to be awake, it’s not a good time to write. When I tell people to look at scheduling, they should block out all the times they can’t write, and block out all the times when they know they’re unable to write, and then you’re left with these slots.”
And speaking of scheduling…
The Most Successful Writers Don’t Wait for Their Muse
Again, it’s a clichéd image – the poor lonely artist waiting for a bolt of inspiration, but actually it turns out that the most successful writers are those who schedule their time and write regardless of inspiration. Bec explained that:
“There’s some really great research by a guy called Robert Boice called Procrastination and Blocking and he studied academics, because academics have to write for their career. And he found that there are two different things, there is procrastination and there’s blocking.”
Both revolve around the halt in work, but while procrastination is “opting for short-term relief,” and avoiding the thought of your work, blocking is “getting stuck at a difficult transition point . . . usually because of paralysing anxiety and uncertainty,” (Boice). However, despite their differences, the solutions to both are pretty much the same.
“The solutions are really boring actually, it’s scheduling. So it’s not waiting for the muse, it’s blocking out time and doing it, and then, if people are really blocked he suggests free-writing.” said Bec.
Boice also suggests the following:
Find an appropriate location, free from interruptions, schedule writing time every day, of up to 90 minutes at a time, with regular breaks and a definite stopping point, sticking to a schedule with a reward if you meet the day’s goals, and turning self-defeating statements into positive statements to reduce anxiety.
“What’s so fascinating about the Robert Boice research was that, he got academics in three different types of writing: One wrote when they were scheduled, one only wrote when they felt like it and the other group only wrote when they felt truly inspired, and they looked at the productivity of all of them, and obviously those who scheduled wrote more, but what they also found was that they had more ideas. So the more you write, the more ideas you have.”
So scheduling is a big thing that Bec recommends, but as mentioned above, writing down when you’re free to write often isn’t all that helpful. Instead, she suggests that people block out what she calls red, amber and green times. Red times are obviously, those times when you can’t write, while green times, are “when you know you’re going to be top of your game, so for a lot of writers that’s in the morning.” as Bec put it. But she also introduced the rather neat idea of amber times:
“Where you might be in an office, or you might be in a library, and you’re going to be a bit distracted. But during amber times I would suggest doing another writing activity. So maybe editing, doing research, planning, structuring, that sort of stuff. So you can get something done, so that when you know you’ve got a green time you can sit down and actually do the work. There’s nothing worse than when you go ‘I’m amazing, I’m pumped, I’m all ready to go’ and then you sit down and you think ‘oh, but I haven’t planned out that chapter,’.”
You Can Think Yourself More Creative
So far, everything has been very basic, and possibly obvious. But there’s a little trick that Dr Watson shared that’s really intriguing, and that’s a technique called Priming. It sounds weird, but it turns out that by thinking about creative people, or being shown pictures of them, it actually has an impact on the creative parts of your brain. So, for instance, looking at pictures of Leonardo da Vinci or writing about him, can actually help wake up the representations of creativity that your mind has.
Working with other creative people can also help, as Dr Watson said:
“You can definitely see where being in a situation with other creative people could lead to greater creativity. And you can also imagine a situation where people are outside of their normal environment and they become creative. And in actual fact this is one of things that might influence writer’s block and that might influence people to become more creative.”
Creativity Is Not Conscious Thought
The next point is probably a more familiar one: That one of the keys to creativity is not conscious thought. You might think you’re doing a good thing by sitting down and telling yourself: “Right I want you to write something now, brilliantly, something really good”,
Or if you’re Lin Manuel Miranda…
But even a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner can have bad writing habits, because actually you’re not likely to come up with something very creative if you force yourself to think about what you’re going to write. But on the plus side, watching Vines (RIP) like Miranda’s, or doing a basic task, can actually help your creativity thanks to what psychologists call an incubation period. As Dr Watson explained:
“If you give somebody a task where you want to be creative, rather than make them think about it, if you make people think about that task consciously, they’re actually worse at it than if you were to say, give them a completely different task, like mental arithmetic for a bit, something completely mundane, which stops them thinking about the actual task, you find that they are then more creative”
If you try and force yourself to think when you have writer’s block, that can lead to anxiety
So the incubation period means that by making it impossible for your brain to consciously focus on a task, it can help lead to creativity, while conscious thought can stifle your creativity. And thanks to the wonderful thing that is the human brain, if you try and force yourself to think when you have writer’s block, that can lead to anxiety, because you can’t think of anything, which, as Dr Watson says “leads to this vicious cycle of ‘I’ve got to think very hard, but actually, that’s a worse thing to do because you’re encouraging that conscious thought.” Fun times.
Isolation Doesn’t Help
And we’re back at the image of the tortured artist, alone in their garret. (If you’re wondering, Oxford dictionaries defines a garret as: “A top-floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one”. Nice.)
But just as Dr Watson thinks that working with other creative people can help feed your own creativity, Bec thinks feedback is an especially important part of the creative process, at least once you get past the initial ideas phase. But rather than just getting the average Joe Bloggs out there to read your work and give feedback, Bec referenced both K. Anders Ericsson and media strategist Ryan Holiday. Where K. Anders Ericsson, wrote about deliberate practice (the 10, 000 hours’ rule) and the idea that you have to work with people who are better than yourself to get feedback. Holiday, on the other hand, favours something he calls the ‘plus minus equals’ method, as Bec explains:
“you want to get feedback from people who are better than you, so you learn from them, people who are the same as you, your equals, and then people who aren’t as good as you, so you’re working with them, and what you’re all doing is helping each other, so with [publishing online], you need to be really careful, that it’s not always people who don’t know as much as you, cause it’s not going to help you improve your practice. you need to have some really harsh critics, and some who kind of go ‘I love everything you do, it’s brilliant’ and it’s like, ‘yeah that’s great, it’s going to keep me going,’ but that’s not actually helping you improve.”
Plus, with feedback, the more you get, the more you can learn to accept what’s useful and reject what’s not – which again goes back to that plus minus equals.
“Some feedback can be good as in useful, but you still need to filter what works. And online, with trolling and that kind of feedback it could put you off, but I think it was Stephen King who said ‘write with the door closed, edit with door open.’”
Basically, when you’re writing your initial ideas, it’s ok not to have feedback, since you actually have to write first, but then when it comes to rewrites, you have to open the metaphorical door, and allow the feedback in. But remember, you’re still the one who controls what gets in and what doesn’t.
You Just Have to Write – And Get Your Writing Out There
So you’ve scheduled, you’ve got your first bits of feedback, but now what? This is where it starts to get scary again, I’m afraid. You have to get your work out there, even if you don’t feel like it’s anywhere near ready. Austin Cleon, an artist that Bec mentioned, has written a book called Show Your Work, and he’s of the opinion that you need to, ‘work every single day, just do it and get it out there’, regardless of quality, but you can’t judge yourself. Remember, you are your harshest critic, and, as Bec points out:
“Until you finish something and you’ve got it out in front of an audience, you just don’t know if they’re going to like it, and they often like the things that you hate the most.”
Bec also thinks that for most writers, perfectionism is their worst enemy, as you often won’t be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t until you have an audience:
“In the start-up world they have this phrase ‘ship before you’re ready’, and it’s the same with creative work. It’s why I think the writing platforms like Wattpad and Movellas are so fascinating, particularly with things like fanfiction, because people just get their work out there, engage with their readers and then improve.”
Those are the main solutions around overcoming Writer’s Block – it’s to not think about the writer’s block and to not think about the ideas, it’s to just turn up and do the work.”
And that’s the crux, it turns out – you have to write through writer’s block to get over it. It might sound mad – after all, how could you possibly write when you have writer’s block? But it doesn’t matter what you write – flash fiction, writing activities, these are all things that you can try to get you into ‘the zone’ or, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high CHICK-sent-my-high-ee) calls it, ‘flow’, as Bec elaborates;
“It’s about that sense of just getting into it and when you are in flow state, you’ve got no idea, you’re not conscious of time, you’re not conscious of anything. And it’s so rare and so precious, most people aren’t in the state of flow most of the time, they have to force themselves into it so to just be scheduled is the best way to do that.”
So if you wanted a magic technique to help you write again, sorry. The keys to overcoming Writer’s block are willpower, preparation and scheduling. All very unglamorous, I’m afraid. But remember, you’re not alone, and that working with other creatives could even help push you further. Or, you could follow a certain celebrity’s advice and just do it.
Write-Track is now called Prolifiko – and you can try the app’s 30-day free trial here