Writers Block and the Science of Productivity Immobilization
Few generalizations fit every possible scenario. People used to say only two things were inevitable: death and taxes. I can think of others, but then this essay is about writing, so I'll put shark attacks in the parking lot for now.
If you write for a living or pursue that end, then you will eventually hit a mental wall. I'm not addressing situations where you can't figure out what you want to write for a term-paper. This is about sitting in the middle of a novel with substantial work done on character development and plot structure. Think in terms of one to two hundred pages in.
Writers in the 1940's, like Patricia Highsmith, used to call it a snag. This term means an unexpected or hidden obstacle or drawback. Today, we lump everything together and call it writer's block.
Writers need not concern themselves with any mystical definitions of writer's block at this point. I've talked with too many good authors who have hit the wall. As I wrote above, Patricia Highsmith mentions it and the scribbler in Maine wrote about discipline or a walk around for the neighborhood for a couple of weeks until he got over it.
My experience of the great wall of writing reminds me of what people say about losing weight. We can't will our way to dropping all those pounds of fat, because powerful food addictions kick in.
Likewise, if we try to "will" our way through writer's block, then our perceived inadequacies or self-esteem addictions will get us. We've repressed ourselves too many times in this life.
Immobilization is the result of a perceived fear. Remember the times someone said, "Stop crying or I'll hit you again." Now, you’re on your own, but those memories remain. Someone once said that wherever we go, we take ourselves with us.
Call the memories your devils if you must. They kick-in when we are the most vulnerable. They gain strength when a story idea's initial euphoria subsides.
First, the questions about our work exist within us. It's as much a part of our imagination as our initial foray into a book. We get an idea for a great story, we jump in and knock out 30-70 pages and stop. We question our premise. We doubt if the idea was as good as we originally thought.
Welcome to the mind: A part of us that retrieves pictures and feelings of past times we had doubts. Even if you have field experience in counseling or psychology, few are prepared for this.
Self-doubt is insidious: It sneaks up in a slow and unapparent way. When it becomes more obvious, a defense mechanism becomes active to protect us from our imagined threats from the past. When this surfaces our doubts will seem rational and that lessens the emotional impact of our previous experiences. We don't feel so upset any more, but outside of our mental wall, we are disturbed.
How do people get through this?
If we cannot recognize the workings of productivity immobilization, then it's doubtful we can get through it. If you don't delete the file or throw your work in a drawer, then you might think that passing time will help. Time has never done that for me. I just start another book.
Psychologists see immobilization as a vicious cycle. In simple terms, a vicious cycle is a repeating of behavior reinforced by the first instance. For example, being depressed about being depressed is a vicious cycle.
My parents used to say, "Don't dwell on the past." A friend in a twelve-step program once said, "Look back if I must, but don't sit down and stare." Those are nice sayings, but they fail to come to mind even during the mildest charged emotional events.
Writer's block is the result of an onslaught of memories of failures. As I wrote above, we might not feel overwhelmed. Credit that to a psychological process called "denial". Its purpose is to protect us from feeling the brunt of the internal pain.
Fighting writer's block gives it more power - using immobilization to immobilize immobilization.
Many corporate productivity specialists hold introductory sessions in the initial stages of their engagements. They begin by explaining the psychological system that gives rise to immobilization. I call it the survival paradigm.
Back to writing
We each have our various reasons for writing. At first, we enjoy it. You may have gotten a high when you started. Some of us consider ourselves secretaries for an external being that inspires us, e.g., we're channeling creative energy or listening to our muse.
Ultimately, however, we write to survive. With me, I wrote for acceptance. (If you grew up in my house, then you would have to fight for acceptance.) I thought that once I became a published, highly regarded author, my life would change. It didn't.
I thought I could counter the rejection I felt by showing my doubters I could accomplish this incredible thing. Nothing changed. No matter how many radio shows or how much favorable media exposure I had, no one said a word. I received more attention when a Fortune 500 company bought my Investment Banking firm than when I published or after winning a readers' choice award.
The mind is a stimulus-response machine. Stimuli trigger protective mechanisms. The mind believes it must keep us safe from anything it considers a threat to survival - real or imagined. That's why I call it a survival paradigm.
Here we sit, writing and our survival mechanism kicks in. We have these thoughts about needing to excel, publish, make money, and impress our friends, potential lovers or family and so forth. This is where the mind will say, "This isn't good enough."
Remember, I wrote above that it isn't real. The mind reacts whether threats are "real or imagined". Regardless of whether they are imagined or not, the mind responds the same. Old pictures and tapes from the past overwhelm us and it immobilizes us.
The better productivity specialists initially work to change the context of your situation e.g., get out of the survival mode. With their coaching, they attempt to convince you that no threat exists. They will introduce exogenous factors - which means introducing factors from outside of the vicious cycle.
The theory is based on strategies used by athletes and musicians - practice and preparation. In some corporate environments, they will put you in a gym, hand you a basketball and ask you to practice free-throws. No game pressure, just practicing. Or, if so inclined, they'll have you run scales on a piano.
Writers don't practice writing. It's game day every time you sit down. That's a self-created start of a vicious cycle, fed by fantasy. We consider rejection a major event in our lives. We will do anything to keep from getting those rejection letters including hesitating or failing to submit our work. The logic is "if I don't send it in, I can't be rejected."
If you change the context in which you work from survival to practice, then failure has little chance of threatening us. Step up to the foul line and do what Larry Byrd did, shoot 500 free throws and go home.
I bought two old Smith Corona typewriters and use those instead of my laptop. I purchased a manual and an electric. Using them slows my mind. It changes the context and I wind up re-learning the typewriter. I have to practice to write anything. Do you remember the apostrophe requires a shift above the numeral 8. Can you remember where to find the quote key?
The introduction of something from outside stymies my cycle of mental questioning and allows me to focus on something unrelated to failure. You'll find many writers getting up and going for a walk. I used to do that, but I rarely returned to my work in a different frame of mind.
Let's summarize. Writer's block is a from of productivity immobilization. It rarely feels overwhelming because of mental defense mechanisms. The strongest of them is denial. Immobilization results from a vicious cycle of dwelling on previous failures. You can break the cycle using exogenous stimuli.
Sometimes an exogenous stimuli comes in the form of an event that reminds you to go back to work- like seeing Marilyn Monroe.