Science can help you beat writer’s block

Does that cursor look judgmental to you?
Does that cursor look judgmental to you?
Image: Deena Shanker
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Lots of people want to write—but many find the process of actually getting words on the page to be pure torture. As an author, journalism professor and therapist who specializes in working with writers, I can attest to the fact that it’s perfectly normal to struggle with writing. However, there’s a big difference between everyday writer’s block and the soul-crushing torment suffered by people whose self-esteem is tied directly to their creative output.

Whether you fall into the former category or the latter, there are steps you can take to make words come a little more easily. I recommend a two-pronged approach: using science-based tips to stimulate creativity, and tackling the psychological issues that haunt us. (Please note that these general tips aren’t intended as a substitute for therapy.)

1. Outsmart your anxious brain

Neurologist Alice Flaherty, as well as other scientists, have theorized that writer’s block is likely related to a shift in brain activity. The more pressure you put on yourself to produce, the more your anxiety level rises, as explained by Susan Reynolds, author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. In this way, writing becomes associated with danger.

These feelings of anxiety stimulate your limbic system, causing your brain to release stress hormones. The limbic system stops communicating with the cerebral cortex, the part of your brain responsible for creativity. Your heart pounds, you stop being able to concentrate, and you’re locked out of your brain—creatively speaking.

If you find yourself in this state, your first move should be to step away from the laptop. Many of the behavioral strategies that ease depression and anxiety can also counteract writer’s block. Recommended activities include exercise, meditation, going for a walk and listening to music. Once your limbic system deescalates, it switches back to activating the creative part of your brain.

Light therapy, which is frequently used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, has also been observed to get creative juices flowing. And if you’re really struggling, researchers have found that a treatment called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation can help stimulate creativity. TMS is a noninvasive treatment that involves applying a magnetic wand over patients’ frontal lobes in order to delivers electromagnetic pulses to the brain.

2. Late nights are for sleeping—not writing

Many artists believe that they’re most productive and creative late at night. Alas, this schedule can wreck havoc on your sleeping. Insomnia can in turn hurt people’s cognitive abilities in the short-term—and may even cause irreversible damage to the brain cells necessary for alertness and peak cognition, according to a study of rodents conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

I often cite the example of a patient who was suffering from writer’s block. When she changed her schedule to work on fiction in the morning and go to sleep by 11 pm, she felt more rested—and stories began pouring out of her.

So even if you tend to think of yourself as a night owl, for maximum creativity, I recommend prioritizing sleep over late nights hunched over the laptop.

3. Edit your inner critic

Artists must learn to separate who they are from their work. A major source of writers’ unhappiness is that they personalize their pieces to the point of tying themselves into knots of self-loathing. In this mindset, writers beat themselves up over a clumsily written paragraph or standard rejection letter, as if these small setbacks mean they have no value as a human being.

But just as eating junk food pollutes your body, feeding yourself junk thoughts pollutes your mind. The solution: think healthier.

I ask patients to keep a journal for one day listing how often they criticize themselves with mantras like “I’m not a real writer”; “If what I write isn’t perfect, there’s no point in doing it”; and “Why would anyone want to read what I have to say anyway?”

Typically, patients come in the next session, shocked to realize they’re putting themselves down at least 50 times a day. (No wonder they feel like they’re not getting any work done.)

Here is one way to stop the chronic self-attacking: Put a rubber band on your wrist. When you start thinking that an editor’s rejection means that you have no worth as a human being, snap the rubber band. Then instantly counteract the negative thought with a positive one: “My writing, and how it is received in the marketplace, is not who I am as a person.”

Do this exercise each time you attack yourself. In the long run, course-correcting your thoughts is way easier than perpetuating the mind-numbing path of negativity.

4. Write like the wind

Lots of people labor under the mistaken impression that their writing isn’t good enough if it’s not absolutely 100% beyond criticism. This mindset may be rooted in childhood—perhaps your parents scolded you for bringing home anything less than an A+, or your art teacher demanded that you follow instructions to the letter. This kind of feedback robs us of the joy of creating without self-judgment. A patient put it this way, “I only felt loved if I did something perfectly, and that rarely happened.”

In her classic book on writing Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls perfectionism “the voice of the oppressor […] it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

To counteract your inner perfectionist, I suggest free writing for 20 minutes. Set a timer and write without stopping—and without regard for grammar, spelling, topic, or your inner critic. Writing this way helps us remember that there is no wrong thing to write. Tangents are welcome. In fact, they’re often where the meaty stuff lives. When participants in my workshops read back what they’ve free-written, many are shocked at the energy palpable on the page.

The point is to write so fast that your fear simply can’t keep up. What you write can be polished later or erased—no matter. 

5. Find a writing self-esteem buddy.

Writing is so solitary that it’s easy to get off track or stay mired in self-doubt. I recommend tracking down a fellow scribe through writing classes, conferences or online groups. Together, you can commit to checking in, say, once a week over coffee or via phone or Skype.

The purpose of this partnership is to set goals and critique one another’s work honestly but with care. It’s much easier to keep trudging ahead with writing if you have a partner with whom to celebrate acceptances, commiserate over rejections, and share encouragement and support.