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"What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks 'the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.' And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I'm writing, I write. And then it's as if the muse is convinced that I'm serious and says, 'Okay. Okay. I'll come.'"
~ Maya Angelou, Writers Dreaming
You cannot tame writer’s block if you don’t understand what it is or what is causing it. But while “writer’s block” is a common term, every writer’s experience is a little different, and there is no one agreed-upon definition.
The term “writer’s block” was introduced in 1949 by Dr. Edmund Bergler in his book, The Writer and Psychoanalysis. Bergler spent two decades studying writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity.”
Yep. Bergler considered writer’s block a neurotic disease.
In the early 198os, Yale University psychologists Michael Barrios and Jerome Singer conducted further research to understand what it meant for writers to be creatively blocked and how writers could overcome such blocks.
Writers who made no progress on their main project and felt unable to write for at least three months were categorized as blocked. Barrios and Singer followed their progress for a month, interviewing them and asking them to complete several psychological tests focused on waking imagery, hypnotic dreaming, and rational discussion.
They detailed their findings in “The Treatment of Cognitive Blocks,” published in the September 1, 1981 issue of Imagination, Cognition and Personality. Barrios and Singer found that blocked writers often reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, were more self-critical, and indulged in much more procrastination.
Like Bergler, Barrios and Singer approached writer’s block from a psychological perspective. As a result of their work, Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”
That’s a bit too heavy.
That type of writer’s block — a creative block that lasts for months — is relatively rare. And as someone who once made her living as a freelance writer, a deep and prolonged bout of writer’s block was a luxury I could not afford. And so I learned how to identify and stop it before it took root.
Identifying and combatting three types of writer’s block.
Every writer goes through periods when they feel deeply unsatisfied with the quality of their writing. And every writer has published something they wish they could have worked on just a little longer and polished just a little more. That’s just part of being a writer. But it becomes a lot more manageable if you understand the three types of writer’s block:
Each type of writer’s block has a slightly different treatment plan. But the best way to become a more resilient writer is to embrace a writing practice. The more you write, the easier it is to keep going, even when the writing doesn’t come easily.
Wrestling the writing dragon is part of being a writer. The only thing that can help with the writing dragon is setting a deadline, sticking to it, and reminding yourself that done is better than perfect.
Yes, you will publish some pieces before you think they’re finished. That’s part of being a writer too. When you finish a piece that requires you to wrestle the writing dragon and publish it even though you’re not completely happy with it, you free yourself up to work on something new.
When it comes to creative blocks, there’s no way out but through.