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How to Beat Writer’s Block

16 March 2016

From The New Yorker:

In 1920, a sixteen-year-old Graham Greene decided that, after “104 weeks of monotony, humiliation, and mental pain,” he could no longer remain at Berkhamsted, the prep school where he was enrolled. He fled, leaving behind a note of resignation for his parents—his father was the school’s headmaster—, and was discovered on the heath soon after. The escape proved so troubling to his family that it led to a six-month stint in psychotherapy. It was a fortuitous turn in Greene’s life. He got a break from the school he dreaded and acquired a habit that would prove crucial to his life as a writer: Greene began keeping a dream journal, to help him channel his mental distress in a more productive direction.

For anyone familiar with Greene’s prolific output, it’s hard to believe that he could ever suffer from writer’s block. But, in his fifties, that’s precisely what happened—he faced a creative “blockage,” as he called it, that prevented him from seeing the development of a story or even, at times, its start. The dream journal proved to be his savior. Dream journaling was a very special type of writing, Greene believed. No one but you sees your dreams. No one can sue you for libel for writing them down. No one can fact-check you or object to a fanciful turn of events. In the foreword to “A World of My Own,” a selection of dream-journal entries that Greene selected, Yvonne Cloetta, Greene’s mistress of many years, quotes Greene telling a friend, “If one can remember an entire dream, the result is a sense of entertainment sufficiently marked to give one the illusion of being catapulted into a different world . . . . One finds oneself remote from one’s conscious preoccupations.” In that freedom from conscious anxiety, Greene found the freedom to do what he otherwise couldn’t: write.

Writer’s block has probably existed since the invention of writing, but the term itself was first introduced into the academic literature in the nineteen-forties, by a psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler. For two decades, Bergler studied writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity,” in an attempt to determine why they were unable to create—and what, if anything, could be done about it. After conducting multiple interviews and spending years with writers suffering from creative problems, he discarded some of the theories that were popular at the time. Blocked writers didn’t “drain themselves dry” by exhausting their supply of inspiration. Nor did they suffer from a lack of external motivation (the “landlord” theory, according to which writing stops the moment the rent is paid). They didn’t lack talent, they weren’t “plain lazy,” and they weren’t simply bored. So what were they?

Bergler was trained in the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, and that background informed his approach to the problem. In a 1950 paper called “Does Writer’s Block Exist?,” published in American Imago, a journal founded by Freud in 1939, Bergler argued that a writer is like a psychoanalyst. He “unconsciously tries to solve his inner problems via the sublimatory medium of writing.” A blocked writer is actually blocked psychologically—and the way to “unblock” that writer is through therapy. Solve the personal psychological problem and you remove the blockage. This line of thinking is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s frustratingly vague and full of assumptions. How do you know that writers are using their writing as a means of sublimation? How do you know that all problems stem from a blocked psyche? And what is a blocked psyche, anyway?

. . . .

 There are some experiences that almost all blocked writers have in common. Almost all of them experience flagging motivation; they feel less ambitious and find less joy in writing. They’re also less creative. Barrios and Singer found that blocked individuals showed “low levels of positive and constructive mental imagery”: they were less able to form pictures in their minds, and the pictures they did form were less vivid. They were less likely to daydream in constructive fashion—or to dream, period.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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2 Comments to “How to Beat Writer’s Block”

  1. IMHO, it’s depression, pure and simple. Beat that, and you’re in business again.

    • Much of the time, possibly, but I think too much happiness/contentment can have the same effect as well – such as being in a new relationship, when you feel nothing but heady bliss, and can’t get the other person out of your mind. It’s basically when emotion consumes us to the point of interrupting our ability to function normally, whether fear, depression, loneliness, boredom, or happiness. As is often said, too much of any one thing is a bad thing.

      That said, I’ve often considered writing a dream journal, as many of my dreams are lucid. Would probably be very helpful to me, just as it apparently was for Mr. Greene.

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