November 17 post: The psychology of writer’s block (¿and bodybuilding?)

“The treatment of writing problems offers a special challenge for clinical psychologists. In few other domains do patients pressure themselves to be so spontaneous, original and perfect.”

Those are the first two sentences from a psychology paper on writer’s block and the generation of creative ideas, by Robert Boice, published in 1983 [1] If I were to write a paper on those subjects, I’d probably start like Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit, with something like:

One of the most salient features of the writer’s subculture is that there is so much bullshit.

This is uniquely relevant to the problem of writer’s block too, of course.

First I’ll start with the obvious: for some reason, writers are one of the few professions out there with a specific and distinct word for their inability to do their jobs. And a word that actually doesn’t explain anything.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t see painters talking about painter’s block, or weight-lifters talking about… lifting block? They just state that they can’t, or won’t, do what they should be doing and then they state (or hide) the cause: because they are lazy, because they have better things to do, because they simply don’t care anymore, because they are sick, etc. But writers… they just suffer from writer’s block, a causeless condition, a unique and strange sickness that seems to only affect them.

This fixation with the term may be counterproductive because it hides the possibility that writer’s block may a composite made of many different issues. For example, this pretty bad Wikipedia article describes as writer’s block (or its causes) these varied things: running out of inspiration, being distracted, not being good enough to actually write, being physically ill, breaking up with your spouse, lack of money, literary success (and failure,) and brain disruption.

So… it means basically everything and anything that may stop you from writing.

So what it is? Who cares, honestly. It’s just a modern term. The cause may be important — but even more important is to get rid of it (even if you don’t know or care about what causes it.)

However, I believe that what the majority of people experience (especially novice writers) is just anticipatory anxiety. It’s not a unique response to writing, it’s a general human response that occurs in many domains, but writing may be uniquely prone to it because of how irrational (and hard) the act of writing is.

Yes, I said irrational. And to explain why I’ll give a counterintuitive example of what this “blocking” actually is. It happens in bodybuilding too. Or weightlifting or any other similar sport, if not all sports.

Now, what does trying to become The Hulk and writing have in common? Both are activities with a hard-to-grasp, especially for your reptilian brain, distance between execution and reward, between daily routine and your goal, whether it’s looking like an ancient Greek statue or writing a novel. In fact, both may take the same amount of time: months and probably years. It takes months for the body to create new muscles and tissue, mass that you can properly show, and it may take months to write something that you can properly show to the world. It is not really such a mystery why every fiber of your brain may fight against your desire to do those things.

We are pretty much programmed to go hand-to-mouth, and we love immediate rewards. But what obvious, immediate rewards do you get from writing or going to the gym to lift pieces of iron? None… at least, not for a while, until it becomes a pleasurable habit, and this may take a lot of time, and it’s a habit that may be easily broken or forgotten.

Frustration therefore appears. And burnout, and soreness, literally and metaphorically. The first encounters people have with lifting weights or going to the gym are usually quite bad. And they may overtrain, like people who write like maniacs for a day and then feel sick of it and don’t type anything else for an entire month. And your body will remember those things.

Both activities also go against most of your instincts. At least your lazy instincts. Lifting stuff from the ground for no apparent reason just because I believe I will become huge someday? Yeah, no way. Consciously forcing your mind to come up with stories and sentences that nobody may even end up reading when you could be doing anything else? Ha!

And with both activities, people develop very similar procrastinating strategies to rationalize or hide their blocks. Most notably, overanalyzing. Instead of, you know, just pick up the closest potato sack and start by doing a few squats, some people will spend hours, days even, designing their training program, watching training videos, “form” videos, talking and writing on-line with other “lifters”, obsessing and splitting hairs over this and that method of training, diet, and whatnot and… they forget to actually lift. Same with writing. Instead of just starting to write something, people will come up with new and ingenious ways to not write. Talking about doing something instead of doing it, mostly. Unlike actually writing, talking about it does have immediate rewards (a like or +1 on social media for example.)

And in both cases, a feeling of “protective” anxiety arises. When the time to start doing the activity approaches, the person will start feeling uneasy, as if he suffered from some malaise, with knots in the stomach included. And he or she will become very adept at finding new things to do. And, also in both activities, if someone manages to push through the anxious fog and actually go to the gym or start typing, that person will usually find that his previous apprehension was unfounded: he wasn’t really as tired as he had thought, or he hadn’t actually run out of ideas to write, and writing isn’t that bad or difficult…

So my hypothesis is that writer’s block, if it has any meaning at all and ignoring the more extreme examples, is simply… old-fashioned anxiety. Anxiety caused by an activity that has no immediate easy reward, that takes time to accomplish, is quite/very hard, and is very unforgiving for beginners. Basically, your brain would rather you spend your time doing anything else, and it will “block” you and make you feel like crap to accomplish that.

The good news is that anxiety, whether it’s fear of speaking in public or of not being good enough to do X, is usually baseless. Even if you end up discovering that you are not cut out to do those things, there’s no reason to feel blocked and anxious, which only makes things worse.

Those feelings of dread and incompetence are your brain screwing with you, extrapolating from past or even imagined experiences. Which means that they aren’t really, well, real. As I mentioned, people who manage to pull through those blocks quickly realize their fears were mostly unfounded.

And that’s good news because it means you may not need esoteric therapies or unique tricks to combat it — generic techniques against anxiety, procrastination, or other maladaptive learned behaviors may work quite well.

And that will be tomorrow’s post, when I will describe some psychological experiments (not this one though) done in the 80s that approached “writer’s block” like any other psychological condition. And they were quite successful at curing it. Of course, always keep in mind the quote with which I started this post:

“In few other domains do patients pressure themselves to be so spontaneous, original and perfect.”

[1] Robert Boice, Contingency Management in writing and the appearance of creative ideas: implications for the treatment of writing blocks, in Behavioral Research Theory, Vol 21, No. 5. pp. 537-543, 1983 [Note that the author of the paper doesn’t describe it as “writer’s block” but uses the more meaningful “writing blocks”, like obstacles to be overcome]

 

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