At A Loss for Words: Your Brain on Writer’s Block

“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.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating. Nicely done. What a gift from a Masterful Designer our Brain is, would you not agree?
    Thank you BrainWorld & uh…what was your name? Oh ya James?…writers block? Jk jk Much appreciation for your concentrated efforts 🙂 and informative work.

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