At A Loss for Words: Writer’s Block and the Brain

(Editor’s note: This article from James Sullivan is from the Summer 2016 issue of Brain World magazine.)

He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent. His talent was dead.” So opens “The Humbling,” one of the last novels by celebrated author Philip Roth. Although it tells the story of a washed up stage actor at the end of his career, these three short sentences sum up what every writer dreads the most — losing whatever it is that drives them to write every day, finding themselves unable to do the very thing that keeps them relevant.

Of course, writer’s block is a problem that every writer will inevitably fall to at least once in their lives. It’s hardly any surprise that Roth had it on his mind — that one day he too would wake up only to discover that he lost his magic, that the ideas that filled his pages would either stop coming to him, or that he would no longer be able to express them eloquently on paper. To the prolific novelist and the layperson alike, writer’s block seems every bit as much a mystery as it was when it afflicted poet Samuel Coleridge at the turn of the 19th century.

Coleridge grieved in a letter, around the time of his 32nd birthday: “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. O Sorrow and Shame. I have done nothing!” Although the poems he wrote in his mid-20s are the ones he’s best remembered for — bragging rights for any budding author today — his words were all too prophetic. Struggling with opium addiction throughout his remaining years, he could no longer bring himself to write poetry. He is among the first well-documented cases of writer’s block, living two centuries before we even had a word for the condition. Studies have shown that writer’s block doesn’t just happen with the English language — studies in Spanish and Chinese have also been dedicated to the subject, attributing writer’s block to habits like premature editing or a lack of strategies when writing. Our competence in spelling is also closely tied to our writing ability, with people less proficient in a given language experiencing more difficulty expressing their ideas with words.

It wasn’t until 1947 that psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler first described it as a “block” — total or partial — that begins with the writer’s doubts about their own creative ability. While Bergler attributed writer’s block to causes like oral masochism and the superego’s need for punishment, he may have been onto something when he described the writer realizing his or her own doubts (Bergler himself was considered a prolific writer on the topic of psychoanalysis, and had probably endured a few unproductive nights). Shortly after Bergler coined the term, Ralph Ellison published “Invisible Man” and J.D. Salinger published “The Catcher in the Rye,” two definitive works of the 20th century, written by men who were later convinced they couldn’t top their best work. Ellison would spend the next four decades trying to finish his next book, leaving over 2,000 pages of unpublished notes when he died. To some of you, this may all sound depressing. If the giants could get this lost, what does it say about me, still looking for a publisher, or having trouble coming up with a five-minute pitch for my book?

Perhaps a better way to say it is that even the best are not immune to writer’s block. The people most vulnerable are often college and postgraduate students, particularly when it comes to writing term papers or turning in final projects, when demands and expectations are at their peak. The end of the spring semester typically means studying-marathons for finals, along with a slew of research paper writing (on a wide range of subject matter, and whose success depends on one’s ability of using different skill sets) — with all that mental exercise at once, it would seem like spreading yourself thin is nearly inevitable, no matter how much caffeine you consume. Aptly, writer’s block has also been labeled with a more fitting name: creative inhibition — which would include the struggles for inspiration that most artists have from time to time. Maybe it’s also not the phantom malady that Roth dreaded, or even much of a condition at all, but something that’s just in our heads — a lofty way to describe some very common symptoms, particularly, the body’s response to stress. Stress can induce panic, enough that some scientists believe is capable of driving the reticular activating system in the brain stem to shift its focus from the cortex to the limbic system: The more the artist thinks that they’ve run out of inspiration, the harder they struggle to find it, the harder it is to follow up their last success, because the necessary regions of the brain won’t allow them to realize their full potential.

Not all experts, however, agree with this theory. Other scientists suspect that the limbic system is where the creative writing process begins, but it’s within the frontal cortex that technical writing is initiated. This could explain why Coleridge stagnated as a poet but went on to become a respected and prolific literary critic. However, for both theories to be true, all writing would stop completely as activity shifted along from each region of the brain. Something to also consider are the different forms that writer’s block can take.

Maybe you’re not Salinger, contemplating how you can possibly top your last work — perhaps you’re blazing through your research paper and have a ton of citations and concluding arguments to bring up, but for some reason you’re stuck around page 3. Before you realize it, weeks go by. The word that might come to mind here is procrastination; which seems like a problem on its own, explaining why you’d rather pack up your dorm, or do laundry and clean the floor three times over, before getting back to that paper. But procrastination is actually a learned behavior that can be unlearned. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, and the cure can sometimes be as easy as engaging in personal reflection — making a list of the numerous distractions in your life that keep you procrastinating, and then working to change them.

A great deal of procrastination is due to the brain’s reward circuitry: We gravitate toward the things that have the quickest payoff, despite whatever guilt it may mean for us later. That much-needed cup of coffee in the afternoon seems more promising than finishing your chapter, or even starting that outline. A 2013 study by Timothy Pychyl and his colleagues suggests that it isn’t necessarily the task itself that you’re afraid of — it’s the unpleasant feelings that may come into play once you get started. Without realizing it, your subconscious could be shifting back to the day you got your first rejection slip (which arguably is something to be proud of — it means at least someone took a look at your work). Rather than procrastinating, dive in — going after the long-term goal — and you’ll feel better when you do. While clearing off your desk may seem like an easy way to procrastinate, perhaps you can break down the entire creative task into simpler jobs, so that by doing a gradual outline each day the overall project will become more and more detailed, and a month’s worth of writing several chapters will end up being reduced to the work of a few days.

Mood may be something worth paying attention to when dealing with writer’s block, as a decade-long case study by Yale University psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios suggests. For years, they followed several writers who had burned out, and found three different moods prevalent among the group: One reported feelings of anxiety and stress, another feelings of anger and hostility about being unable to write, and the third reported feeling indifference and apathy. All of them had more difficulty than their peers when it came to visualizing and describing new imagery, and also reported having fewer dreams. It soon became clear that each writer abstained from writing for different reasons — that perhaps the craft itself was responsible for their frustration. Turning to writing full time, after all, requires writers to spend long periods of time alone with their thoughts, and with few other people to help work them out — an environment where it’s easier to second-guess yourself.

Extended isolation can have its own negative effects on your psychological well-being — leading to various forms of depression, with creative block being just one of its symptoms. On the other hand, as humans are social beings by nature, a network of either supportive friends or fellow writers can often be the cure for any prolonged bouts of creative inhibition. Sometimes it’s only when you hear your work read aloud, or have someone else critique it, do you begin to realize how it needs to be changed. If you’re as self-conscious as some of the writers followed by Barrios and Singer, all you need to do is listen and take in the work of other people. Having sat in on a number of writers’ group meetings without sharing work, I can say firsthand that you’ll hear at least a dozen different ideas that you may be tempted to try on your own — and that’s one of the main reasons to write in the first place: To discover and try new things. It’s also beneficial for the brain, as interacting with new people and hearing new ideas forges new connections between neurons that weren’t there before.

Graham Greene, another famous 20th century writer, was also prone to bouts of writer’s block, which he warded off by keeping a dream diary — a way that let him voluntarily write each day and examine the things that were on his mind. Regardless of his novel’s deadline, he got to write for himself on a regular basis, producing material that only he would read. It was a way of writing for himself, jotting down stray ideas, and, at the same time, staying free of the inner critic that drives so many people to abandon their projects prematurely. He needed a place to create freely, to convince himself that he was still capable of creating, regardless of what obstacles he faced daily. It also provided some distance between his work and his own thoughts — which is crucial in the creation of any work of art. Most importantly, he knew that he could stave off creative block if he just kept going. The magic may be lost, but never gone forever — it’s just waiting to be rediscovered and used for creating something that can be shared with the world.

(Editor’s note: This article from James Sullivan is from the Summer 2016 issue of Brain World magazine.)

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