Some think it’s a myth, others know it to be the bane of their literary existence. To be sure, writer’s block is very real. Even one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, who is known for his legacy of staggering production and deeply involved works, suffered from the scorn of his own mind.
The story of Graham Greene offers some insight into the troubling phenomenon that continues to plague writers around the world, and it’s a story with the ending you’re probably hoping for. Writer’s block can be beat, but first you’ve got to understand where it’s coming from.
In the 1940s, the strange case of “neurotic inhibitions of productivity” was being investigated by psychiatrist Edmund Bergler for the first time. The scientist studied these ‘neurotic inhibitions’ for nearly two decades, finally concluding that a writer could be considered a kind of psychoanalyst. In the words of Bergler, “[a writer] unconsciously tries to solve his inner problems via the sublimatory medium of writing.” In a sense, writing is a form of self-therapy for the author.
Further studies by Yale psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios confirmed Bergler’s thinking. Writer’s block is the manifestation of psychological hurdles in the brain; hurdles so high they make it difficult to focus on the goal line. This mental frustration led Barrios and Singer to realize writers could fall into distinct categories that indicate the mental issues they may be suffering from.
The pair found their test group morphed into four kinds: anxious and stressed from extreme self-criticism; hostile aversion to having their work compared; apathetic and uninspired from ‘rules’ constricting their creative freedoms; and the fourth group of angry and disappointed narcissists who strived for attention and reward.
So how can you identify which form of writer’s block you have?
Singer and Barrios recommended therapy for all their study’s participants, but the story of Graham Greene once again offers a sure-fire way to deal with creative block.
Greene’s career as a novelist found itself high and dry decades into his life. He felt listless; pedestrian and alienated from the suspenseful spy thrillers and deeply serious Catholic novels he was known for. While it’s no question Greene’s history of depression contributed to the fact, it was his methods to deal with his struggles that earned him the moniker ‘the greatest novelist of the 20th century’.
Greene began keeping a dream journal as a way of circumventing his cognitive block. The pure freedom of his dreams allowed his mind fresh abstractions, inspiring his creative process and kickstarting productivity. Greene understood that to be creative is to make connections between unconnected ideas, and the dream world became his ultimate muse when all else failed.
Understanding where you writer’s block is coming from is the first step to alleviating symptoms, but not everyone is ready to be their own Freudian psychoanalyst. If you find yourself staring at a blank page and searching for the key to unlock your block, you’ve got to take a step back.
Try writing a paragraph or two of utter nonsense. Whatever comes to mind, just write it down without worrying about grammar, style or even legibility. The point is to start the think-tank with random ideas, then trust in your creative process to make the connections. Look at older pieces of your work that exemplify your creative control – it’s all still up there in your head! Use it to launch over your mental hurdles and go for the gold.