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The Mystery of Writer’s Block: A Problem of Happiness

The Mystery of Writer’s Block: A Problem of Happiness

doodle yourself to happiness

As anyone who’s written anything (a novel, a report, heck — this blog!) knows, writer’s block can be a mysterious and tenacious foe. Much thought has been given over to why the muse, often so gentle and helpful, sometimes says “See ya!” and strolls off into the distance without any warning, maybe to catch a movie, maybe never to return, leaving you high and dry and blinking at a blank PowerPoint screen at 2am.

Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker describes a history of writer’s block (a phenomenon only named in the 1940s, I was surprised to read), and some of the concerted efforts to find out exactly what the infernal thing is. In short, it seems to have something to do with our topic du jour here at DFC: happiness. Or, more accurately, lack thereof.

A study in the 1970s and 1980s led by Yale psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, discovered that self-reported and empirically confirmed blocked writers were, obviously, unhappy. What was interesting to them was the fact that, after giving their subjects a barrage of psychological tests, they found could divide the thwarted authors into four distinct categories of unhappiness:

“The first, more anxious group felt unmotivated because of excessive self-criticism—nothing they produced was good enough—even though their imaginative capacity remained relatively unimpaired. (That’s not to say that their imaginations were unaffected: although they could still generate images, they tended to ruminate, replaying scenes over and over, unable to move on to something new.)

The second, more socially hostile group was unmotivated because they didn’t want their work compared to the work of others. (Not everyone was afraid of criticism; some writers said that they didn’t want to be “object[s] of envy.”) […]

The third, apathetic group seemed the most creatively blocked. They couldn’t daydream; they lacked originality; and they felt that the ‘rules’ they were subjected to were too constrictive. Their motivation was also all but nonexistent.

Finally, the fourth, angry and disappointed group tended to look for external motivation; they were driven by the need for attention and extrinsic reward. They were, Barrios and Singer found, more narcissistic—and that narcissism shaped their work as writers.”

Singer and Barrios then embarked on an analysis of and intervention in their subjects’ mental imagery. Guiding the unfortunate authors through smaller, less emotionally fraught visualization exercises proved to the subjects that they still had imaginative ability. That success subsequently unleashed the writing ability of a solid majority of them.

This study ended up supporting the “folk remedies” for writer’s block that were long known: just put something, anything, on paper — even doodles or an account of last night’s dream — to keep the juices flowing. Pretty soon the muse will come waltzing back in from his or her vacation, bearing a conciliatory snow globe or set of souvenir spoons, and both of you can finally get back to business!