Mind & Body

There Are 4 Types of Writer's Block, According to Yale Research

Writer's block isn't just for writers. Everyone has stared at a blank page (or email window, or text box) and felt that they had to say something, but they had nothing to say. Writer's block is more than a feeling, though. According to research from two Yale psychologists in the 1970s and '80s that was recently reviewed in the New Yorker, writer's block is also a concrete and treatable phenomenon.

Related Video: The Neuroscience of Creativity

A Taxonomy of Writer's Block

On their quest to understand writer's block, psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios studied a group of blocked and un-blocked writers in a variety of genres, from poetry to screenwriting. (They only studied professional writers, though — so if you're a dentist stuck on an email, we can't promise you'll actually write it. Ever.) The "blocked" writers had all demonstrated two symptoms for at least three months: On a concrete level, they weren't writing, and on a holistic level, they felt incapable of writing.

After a month of extensive interviews and testing, Singer and Barrios found that all blocked writers were unhappy. Many were highly self-critical and showed signs of anxiety and depression. However, the writers weren't all unhappy in the same way. Singer and Barrios found four basic root causes for their subjects' unhappiness:

1. Apathy: These people struggled to daydream or feel any creative spark. They often felt that their writing had to fit a stifling set of rules and regulations.

2. Anger: These people, who often had narcissistic tendencies, were actively upset during their bouts of writer's block. They didn't want to publish (or, perhaps, create) anything unless it would get them attention, money, or some other reward.

3. Anxiety: These people were paralyzingly worried that their writing wouldn't be good enough, and it sucked the joy out of the process.

4. Issues with other people: These people lashed out at the people around them during their stretches of writer's block. They didn't want their writing compared — negatively or favorably — with that of others.

Luckily, the researchers also found that regardless of the root cause, writer's block can be treated.

The Cure for Writer's Block?

Cure is a strong word, but writer's block can definitely be alleviated. Singer and Barrios found that blocked writers of every type benefited from therapy in which they did low-stakes creative exercises: things like visualization, freewriting, and other activities. These exercises were more for the writer than for any audience, and that privacy loosened all different types of blocks. In fact, the therapy seemed to treat the emotional root of the block, too, even without directly addressing it.

There's no unanimous scientific consensus on how best to alleviate writer's block, though. Some argue that your approach should vary depending on your type of block. (Anxiety? Relax your expectations. Apathy? Start a new project. Or maybe just chug some Red Bull.) Others argue it's most effective not to use the term "writer's block" at all because it gives the problem "object power." Really, you're just not writing, and you can always break the pattern by ... writing. We don't have to get so medical about it. There's actually a Paris Review-endorsed app that seems to buy into this latter approach; it deletes all your work if you stop writing for five seconds. The magazine accurately terms it "the nuclear option" — but hey, sometimes that's the kick in the pants you need.

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For a little extra help, check out "The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block" by Hillary Rettig. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice July 16, 2018

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