By Kate Fleming
Writer’s block is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been trying to overcome this Achilles heel for centuries, looking for quick fixes and remedies to fill the vast emptiness that keeps us up at night. It’s a familiar nemesis of mine, and it never runs out of creative ways to appear; sometimes it slaps me in the face, or sometimes it sneaks up on me, seemingly out of nowhere. You can’t run from it, though – trust me, I’ve tried. It’s like a shadow that follows you wherever you go.
Psychiatrist and Freud protégé Edmond Bergler coined the term ‘writer’s block’ in the 1940s. He spent two decades studying writers who experienced ‘neurotic inhibitions of productivity’. He dispelled a number of popular theories from the time: that writers were lazy, bored, simply exhausted or had drained themselves of their own creative capacity (though I’ll admit that it can sometimes feel like this is the case). Instead, he found that even the most active, motivated and energetic of writers still experienced this ‘neurotic inhibition’. He concluded that writer’s block was in fact a psychological block, and therefore had to be treated as a psychological condition.
In the 1980s, Yale University psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, expanded Bergler’s research and found links between writer’s block and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Essentially, they found that unhappy writers were more likely to be ‘blocked’. But how do we explain the prolific handiwork of notoriously tormented writers such as Woolf, Plath, Dickens, Bronte and Kafka (to name a few)? The answer lies in nuance – as is often the case.
Singer and Barrios found that psychological experiences presented differently across the sample of writers from their research; for example, some were frustrated and angry, while others were doubtful and self-conscious. This seems obvious to us now – of course mental health is nuanced and individual – but they went a step further than Bergler. They found a simple and reliable remedy that worked consistently: creative exercises.
The research to date still suggests that creative exercises are the best cure for writer’s block, as long as the treatment is based on the cause. For example, drawing a mind map may not be useful if you’re lacking ideas in the first place. But if you’ll take the advice of one writer to another, these creative exercises don’t just have to be of the writerly variety. As Coco Chanel once said, ‘Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.’ The same is true for writing. There are countless exercises and tips for tackling writer’s block online, but these are some of my own hacks for cracking the code of writer’s block.
1. Treat writing like work.
‘It’s not about waiting for hours for this moment where inspiration strikes. It’s just about showing up and getting started.’Christoph Niemann, illustrator
Sometimes the pressure of writing something good stops us from writing anything at all. But if you think of it like work and just show up, you give yourself the opportunity to write something. It might be horrible or amazing – but you’ll never know if you cut the opportunity to create it in the first place
2. Think of writing as practising, and then think of practising as playing.
‘If you’re going to write a good book, you have to make mistakes and you have to not be so cautious all the time.’Zadie Smith
Did you ever learn an instrument during your school years and ‘forget’ to practise every week? I certainly did. But when I took the advice of my music teacher and assigned my mixolydian scale some dirty lyrics, practising became far easier. If you’re losing the passion, try writing something fun: a limerick; an anecdote worthy of The Day My Bum Went Psycho; anything that makes you giggle and reminds you why words are fun. Throw caution to the wind and remind yourself why you got into writing in the first place.
3. Write about someone who inspires you.
‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’Henry Ford
During a particularly lengthy spot of writer’s block, I put pencil to paper and started to write whatever came into my head about the feeling of writer’s block. It turned into an ode to Virginia Woolf and – after a bit of editing – I got the piece published. Finding inspiration in other people’s work can be a powerful thing. Start with someone you admire and list the things you admire about them and why. See where it takes you!
4. Try my photo album exercise.
‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’Wayne Gretzky
Photos are one of my favourite sources of inspiration, and they’re a great antidote to writer’s block. For this exercise, take a look at a photo album and choose three random photos. Pick out one feature from each of them – it could be a colour, a location, a time of day or an object like sunglasses or a window. Write those three things at the top of your page. Then, set a timer for three minutes and write a paragraph that includes all three things. You might surprise yourself with what you come up with!
These exercises may or may not work for you, but give them a go next time you find yourself staring helplessly at a blank screen. These exercises might just be the plunger you need to unclog that writer’s blockage of yours (and excuse the pun – I was just having fun with it).
Kate Fleming is a writer and editor from Melbourne with a penchant for house plants and buying more books than she can read. She is the founder of The Mindful Materialist Blog and a soon-to-be-graduate of the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.