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Writer Ernest Hemingway dodged bullets as a war correspondent, fought bulls in Spain, and hunted big game in Africa-but when asked to name the scariest thing he ever encountered, he answered, "A blank sheet of paper."
For many of us, the symptoms of writer's block-staring at a blank computer screen or page with no clue how to begin, stomach clenching, throat tightening,-are all too familiar. But is our suffering a real syndrome or simply an excuse for being unproductive?
"Sure, writer's block is real," says poet and essayist Julia Spicher Kasdorf, director of Penn State's Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. "It's as real as any kind of anxiety."
Writer's block, defined as a temporary inability to begin or continue a writing project due to fear, anxiety or lack of inspiration-strikes professional and non-professional writers alike. It is not a clinical psychological diagnosis and you won't find the causes and cures for it on WebMD, yet the creative paralysis can last a few minutes or up to decades in extreme cases.
For instance, thirty depression-filled years passed for American novelist and short story writer Henry Roth between publication of his first and second novels. And The Metamorphosis is believed to be the only novel Czech writer Franz Kafka finished in his lifetime. (Most of his work was incomplete and published posthumously.)
The anxiety of writer's block can be particularly potent when there is pressure to produce. Explains Kasdorf, "When being a writer is entangled with your personal identity or when your product is going to get you tenure or not, that raises the stakes."
During her graduate studies at New York University, Kasdorf worked in the Writing Center and often coached other students struggling to finish their dissertations.
"An enormous resistance gets built up within the person, a resistance I would characterize as intense fear," says Kasdorf. "So people would come and meet with me every week for an hour and they would just want to talk."
She or the student would write down ideas or tape record their conversation, creating what could later serve as a springboard. A 20-minute "free write" session where the writer's pen keeps moving, even if it means writing the same word repeatedly, also helped the students bust through their blocks.
"It took some pushing," recalls Kasdorf, "and I had to be a little bit of a bully to get past their resistance."
So where does that fear-based resistance come from?
While some researchers have suggested a neurological basis, most experts agree with Kasdorf that writer's block has more to do with your first grade teacher than your frontal lobe.
Writer's block is rooted in elementary school, she says, when writing is taught as a type of performance, rather than a process. "From the very beginning in first grade, you sit down and you're told to trace the shapes and letters and then you take spelling tests and then you produce sentences or paragraphs."
From there, the societal pressure to produce only intensifies. Quiet periods when the creative juices are re-energizing are just as important as periods of production, explains Kasdorf. "We are not machines," she says, adding, "Right now, just because there aren't leaves on the trees doesn't mean the trees are dead or broken."
Ironically, literary success can often intensify the fears that stifle creative output. Even the prolific J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies, faced a bout of writer's block during her work on Chamber of Secrets. "I had my first burst of publicity about the first book and it paralyzed me," Rowling has commented. "I was scared the second book wouldn't measure up, but I got through it!"
Kasdorf calls the blockages she encounters in her own work "garden variety" anxiety rather than writer's block. Talking, sleeping on the problem and exercise all help her to knock down those walls.
Pre-writing techniques like "clustering"-drawing a map of your topic's central ideas and related points-can also be useful tools to get ideas flowing.
"The secret of getting ahead," commented Mark Twain, "is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."
Julia Spicher Kasdorf, is associate professor of English and Women's Studies and Director of Penn State's Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. She is a poet, essayist, and writer of non-fiction biography. Her email is email@example.com.
The setting is your office. You’re bathed in the dull glow of your computer screen, staring at a blank page in Word, trying to write a paper.
The cursor is watching you, mocking you, laughing at your inability to get words out.
Your mind locks up as you wonder “what do I have to say?” The more you try to force out words, the harder it becomes, and eventually the frustration leads to you sitting there, at your desk with your head in your hands, wondering how you’ll ever finish.
You then Google “how to overcome writers block” and end up on this post.
Writer’s block is a tough thing to deal with, but one we’ll all have to tackle at some point – either at the start of our training while we’re writing outlines and proposals, at the end when we’re writing up manuscripts and theses, or afterwards, as we’re working on papers and other documents. As science communicators, the toughest part is often figuring out exactly how to begin, and how to frame the core message that we want to get across – a process that can be incredibly frustrating. So the question becomes, how do you deal with it?
Now, I’m going to state the obvious here, but it’s a necessary point: The hardest part of writing is starting to write. Once you start though, it becomes infinitely easier to get content out onto the page. To help you kick start your writing process, I’m going to give you a few tips, and as always, I’d love to hear what you do to overcome writers block when it hits in the comments.
1) Isolate yourself. Remove all distractions – phone, coworkers, cats, get rid of it all. You want to be able to focus exclusively on writing. The fact is that if you have an easy out, you’re more likely to take it, i.e. “I’m stuck, I wonder if anything has changed on Facebook in the past 3 minutes? And this Buzzfeed article seems great, and look at what this cat is doing…” It’s tough to start writing, and removing distractions means you’ll struggle through those tough parts rather than put it off and do something else. You need to power through this part.
2) Talk it out. This one sounds strange, but is one of my favourites and has been hugely effective for me. Occasionally, I’ll close my office door, stand up, and pretend I’m giving a talk about whatever it is I’m writing about. Now only does this get you thinking about the topic at hand, but without the intimidation of the cursor and blank word document staring at you, it is easier to just get your ideas out. Be organic: stand up, pace back and forth, talk like you normally would, and don’t focus on the minutia of your project. Talk about the broad strokes and the flow of your arguments, and see if they helps you over the initial hurdle.
Alternative: Grab a coworker, go for coffee, and outline your paper/idea to them. Tell them their job is not to have a conversation with you – their job is to ask questions and prod you when you get stuck, and help you jump start your writing. Obviously, you owe them coffee/donut(s) for listening to you 🙂
3) Write an outline. For those who don’t like talking things out, this is an effective alternative. Sketch down the key points you want to make in each paragraph, and write as much information about each paragraph as you can without losing momentum. Even if you do talk it out, this is a good way to conceptualize your work. By the end, you should have something like this:
Paragraph 1: Open with a scene about writers block
Paragraph 2: Describe writers block, transition into list
Paragraph 3: Start outlining key points
4) Start writing. Don’t think about grammar, phrasing, punctuation or language rules. Just get words out. Ignore word choices, ignore making things sound “professional.” Just get those ideas out and onto the page. At this point you want to have something out there to look at and critique, and hopefully, if you followed steps 1 through 3, you’ve got a few ideas up your sleeve now. Remember: the ideas don’t have to flow. You can write two distinct paragraphs, making two very different points, and that’s fine. You can go back later and fine tune things. Again, all you’re trying to do here is get something out onto the page that you can work with.
5) Do something else. Up until this point, I’ve talked about isolating yourself and focusing on writing. Here, I’m going to suggest leaving it, but with one caveat. Go and do something else that gets you moving, but not something that engages you entirely – something like cooking, cleaning, going for a run, lifting weights etc. Something that allows you to get yourself up, but without taking your full attention. There’s a reason why we have our best ideas in the shower, and turns out it’s because of the combination of 1) the release of dopamine, 2) being relaxed, and 3) being distracted enough that your subconscious can engage and work on a problem, results in you being more creative (science here)
Before you know it, you’ve got an outline, some body text and a fleshed out idea of what you want to say, and that’s half the battle right there. After you’ve got a skeleton to work with, it becomes a lot easier to start writing, and begin building your arguments.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
This post originally appeared on MrEpidemiology.com