The Psychology Behind Writer’s Block (and How to Overcome it)
Staring at a blank screen for several minutes. Procrastinating, then being forced to write frantically at 5 AM to meet a deadline. Writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over again. These are only some of the many scenarios that many writers are familiar with. The commonality between the aforementioned scenarios is that they are the result of a complete halt in the writing process, a seeming inability to productively express oneself, commonly referred to as “writer’s block.”
Writer’s block is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Supposedly, this inhibition manifests itself differently from writer to writer, but it often is perceived as a metaphorical blockage in the writer’s mind that prevents him or her from being productive regarding the writing task at hand. It is worth noting that there has been considerable discussion amongst scholars debating the existence of writer’s block as an actual psychological issue; there are many who claim that the term is nothing more than a romanticization of the many challenges intrinsic to writing. Regardless of the existence or non-existence of an actual “writer’s block” condition, the fact remains that the effects of this lack of productivity are highly detrimental to the lives of writers.
The question, then, becomes: why does it happen? And more importantly, how can you overcome it?
Psychologically speaking, writer’s block has many different causes. One of them is subconscious suggestion. Suggestion, according to Britannica, is the “process of leading a person to respond uncritically, as in belief or action.” The very act of categorizing one’s struggle with productivity as “writer’s block” is an act of subconscious suggestion that can lead to one’s struggle worsening. According to Paul Silvia, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, “Naming something gives it object power…People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer's block is a good example of that." Convincing yourself that your struggle is one of creative blockage can result is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, where you believe that you are incapable of writing, and because of that belief, you end up being unproductive.
The main source of blockage for most writers, however, is perfectionism. Perfectionism is the “disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable” according to Merriam-Webster, and it is often used as a defense mechanism against critique or failure. Writers who are perfectionists feel the need to write the perfect work, which often leads to them to refrain from writing a single word, as they keep delaying the actual writing until they have “the perfect beginning.” This completely stifles the writing process, which is based on drafting and then editing to fix whatever mistakes might have been made in that first draft.
What is the solution then? There are many different possible solutions that can help clear your mind and allow you to overcome the mental blockage preventing you from writing. Some are simpler than others. A simple solution might be a physical one. You could try changing your scenery, immersing yourself in a different environment, perhaps one creatively stimulating or maybe one with a more peaceful and quiet atmosphere, depending on your preference. Another possible solution is exercise, as it can help clear your mind and help with focus.
The most recommended solutions, however, are mental in nature. To overcome perfectionism, for example, it is imperative to remind yourself that what must be demanded from your writing is progress, not perfection. This can be done by reminding yourself that your current work is only the first draft and that whatever imperfections emerge during the process of writing it can be fixed later on. An imperfection can never be perfected unless it is first written down. The aim to improve as the writing process progresses will prove far more useful and productive than the aim to perfect writing from the onset. Additionally, changing your work habits can have a significantly positive effect on your productivity. Rather than writing a lot once every few weeks, you should aim to write a small amount every day. This habit, if put into practice, will allow you to be productive and to get used to simply writing things down without overthinking them beforehand, which is something crucial if one wishes to overcome writer’s block.
Ultimately, writer’s block is a concept that is both commonly experienced by many writers and deeply rooted in psychology. This being the case, a change in your mental paradigms is often required for you to overcome this inhibition in productivity. While this change can be very difficult, it is very much possible, and it will prove fundamental in allowing you to increase your productivity and efficiency.