Mary Ann wrote about her emotional journey as she worked on her MBN (My Big Novel), and how a devastating writer’s block stopped its progress for ten years. I’m still reeling from her honesty about her struggles.
The term “writer’s block” was coined by psychiatrist Edmund Bergler in the 1940s. He studied writers for two decades, trying to understand why they suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity.” There were several popular theories at the time. Some thought the writers simply used up all their inspirations and was dry of further creative thought. The landlord theory supported the notion that the writing stopped as soon as the rent was paid, implying that it was the struggle itself that fed the creative juices. In 1950, Bergler published his findings in his article, Does Writer’s Block Exist? His conclusions were that a writer was like a psychoanalyst. And a blocked writer was, in essence, blocked psychologically.
There have been other studies since Bergler, all trying to understand this creative “block-ness.” (See Maria Konnikova, How to Beat Writer’s Block, The New Yorker: March 11, 2016) Despite the many, many reasons why one suffers from creative block, everyone has in common certain experiences: their motivation has wavered, they felt less joy in the process, and they had “low levels of positive and constructive mental imagery.”
Writer’s block doesn’t only happen to writers, despite the term. Anyone who creates anything in any format can find herself in a position of “block-ness.” You have an idea, or you have a thousand ideas all at once, but either way, you don’t know where to begin. Or you’re rolling along on your MBN when suddenly, life happens. When you finally return to your MBN, you’re stuck and have no idea how to get unstuck. You’ve fallen and can’t get up. Or worse, not only did you hit a dead end, you’ve come to believe you are not good enough, and no amount of revision is going to improve the MBN, or you. During these times, you may give up completely, and abandon your dreams. When this happens, the block-ness monster wins.
There are many popular strategies you can use to overcome creative block. Keep a journal. Take a break. Take a walk, or a run. Take a nap. Find a guru. Talk to a friend, or a therapist, or both. In the end, I think it’s also about rediscovering your purpose. To illustrate what I mean, I offer the following story, written by Marc and Angel Chernoff. (This is my revamped synopsis, shortened significantly to fit our TA format. For the full text and discussion, see Marc & Angel, An Open Letter to Those Who Have Lost Their Motivation)
Once there was a young girl who dreamed of traveling the world. But as she grew up, she found many reasons why she couldn’t go. She was always busy building a good life for herself.
When the young girl turned 65, and was now an old woman, she decided it was time to finally travel the world. She sold all of her possessions, keeping only those precious essentials she could carry in a backpack.
And then, finally, finally, she set out to have the adventure of a lifetime. At first, she was amazed at everything she saw. She was filled with awe at every turn. She kept walking, even when it rained. When there was no road, she walked across fields. She slept outside so she could see the stars.
A few weeks into her journey, however, she began to feel her age. Her feet were sore, and every bone in her body ached. She was tired of the rain, and the hills. She was tired of sleeping on rocks. She began to miss the comforts and routines of her old life. She wondered what her friends were doing. Every day, she grew more tired until finally, she couldn’t take another step.
She sat down, on the side of the road, looking ahead. There was no end in sight. It seemed an impossible task. She began to cry, and with every tear, her despair grew.
“I have nothing left!” she shouted. “I’ve sold everything to do this, and now I can’t go another step! This was such a stupid idea!”
It just so happens, a Master Guru lived in the woods, and he listened to the old woman wail. He decided to help her, because that’s what Master Gurus do. He waited until she slept. And then, ever so quiet, he took her backpack, and disappeared back into the woods.
When the old woman finally woke, she discovered her backpack – all that she had left in this world – was missing. Now she felt really lost. Now she really did have nothing. She cried until she had no tears left. She sat there, for a long long time, wondering what to do. Finally, she gathered herself together and started walking. Her feet still hurt, and her bones ached. Her back didn’t feel very good after a night on the rocky road. But she kept going, one step at a time. And with every step, her strength returned.
Miles later down the road, lo and behold, there lay her backpack, filled with her most precious items. She smiled, ear to ear, and said, “At least now I can keep going…”
One small step at a time." -- Marc and Angel Chernoff
(PS all photos are courtesy of morguefile.com. I thought the cat was particularly charming.)