For those professionals and freelancers that make their living slinging words, writer’s block can be a death sentence. Not much can be worse than a looming deadline and an empty screen or notebook, especially when the words don’t seem to come out easily. It’s like being trapped in your own mind and having no idea how to communicate the way to get out, and, even the best writer’s experience it.
The term “writer’s block” made its first appearance in academic writing in the 1940s. Coined by Dr. Edmund Bergler, a famous Austrian psychiatrist, who lamed writer’s block as on oral masochism and a milk-denying mother. He was also a follower of Freud, if that tells you anything.
But is writer’s block real, or just a myth? We take a look at what science says about the cause of the “syndrome,” and some steps on how to overcome it.
Neurologists believe there’s a link between that loathsome blank page and a shift in brain activity in the Broca’s area. This area plays a key role in speech production and story creation. Interestingly enough, while this area is active early in the process of forming sentences, it might end its job before you actually speak the word.
How does this tie into the writing process?
In a 2013 study, participants were asked to write a story while inside an fMRI scanner. They were given the first 30 words of a familiar text, asked to brainstorm a way to complete the test, then given two minutes to write the story. The stories were scored based on creativity and measured against the brain activity detected by the scanner.
The study found that participants experienced a surge in brain activity in the frontal lobe during the brainstorming and creative writing processes. The planning and control sub-regions of the brain took over during the brainstorming stage, while creative writing largely involved areas of the brain responsible for memory and the motor skills necessary to write.
It’s also said that creative writing involves the ability to form connections between seemingly unconnected concepts. So, writer’s block might be more of a creation block — being unable to plan and recall enough to get what you’re trying to say down on paper.
The kicker? The more pressure you put on yourself to get the words out, the worse your writer’s block can become. Anxiety stimulates your limbic system and causes your brain to produce stress hormones, preventing it from functioning properly. Your limbic system then stops communicating with the cerebral cortex, the part of your brain that’s responsible for creativity.
Step Away From The Computer. While some might suggest just toughing through writer’s block, try walking away from your work for a bit. Take a walk, meditate, listen to music or exercise instead — anything that will put your anxiety at ease and get your mind off your work. Yep, practicing good work-life balance helps, too.
Give Yourself Some Slack. If you’re a perfectionist, you might feel as if whatever you’re putting down on paper isn’t good enough. Try silencing your inner critic and realize that what you’re writing is probably fine. In any case, editing is an important part of the writing process. Just try and get something down, then go back and clean it up. It’s much easier than trying to perfect your sentence the first time around.
Read Other Writing. Sometimes, the easiest way to clear a mental block is to read the writing of an author that you love. Try looking for inspiration in a style of writing similar to what you’re working on, or pick up one of the best books about the topic you’re writing about for motivation. This might mean a favorite novelist if you are working on a short story, or a magazine like Fast Company if you’re trying to create a presentation.
Stop Burning The Midnight Oil. Many creative types swear they’re at their most productive when working late at night. However, making a habit of working well into the night can wreak havoc on your sleeping schedule. Sleep deprivation can negatively impact your cognitive ability, making it more difficult to concentrate. If possible, consider calling it a night and getting some shut-eye. You might find yourself feeling more creative in the morning.
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