How to Get Unstuck: The Psychology of Writer’s Block

An experiment: You enter a large room that’s empty except for two pieces of string dangling from different points on the ceiling. Your instructions are to get hold of a piece of string in each hand, but after grabbing the first string you quickly learn that the other is too far away. A scientist comes into the room and hands you a pair of pliers. You try using the pliers to seize the second string, but as much as you lean and stretch, it remains just out of reach. The scientist tells you there's a simple solution and then leaves. What do you do?

If you’re experiencing mechanized thought, then the answer might be as simple as going for a walk or reading some poetry. If you’re struggling with functional fixedness, the answer might not be so clear.

Subjects who do this experiment in real life are a sight to behold. They twist and contort and lunge and jump. In the hopes of gaining even a millimeter of extra reach, they hold the pliers every which way, as if trying to figure out some secret handshake. Of course the pliers are the key, but not if used in the usual way. You must think instead about weight, motion, momentum. The solution is to tie the pliers to one of the pieces of string and give a gentle shove. Then walk calmly over to the other piece of string, turn around, and wait for the unreachable to come to you.

This experiment, which was created by industrial psychologist Norman R. F. Maier, is designed to study what psychologists call fixation. Typically, fixation is studied in the context of engineering and industrial design. The tricky thought experiments in Texas A&M University psychology professor Steven Smith's paper "Design Fixation," for example, challenge subjects to invent a spillproof coffee cup or make a bike rack using limited materials. But while the problems may be different, the underlying struggle will be familiar to writers of all genres and levels of experience. Fixation, after all, is just a fancy way of saying writer's block.

I initially became interested in the psychology of writer’s block while working on my first book, Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), which has as one of its many themes the notion that—wonders of the human brain notwithstanding—people generally don't know what the hell they're doing even while they're in the middle of doing it. I became further interested in the phenomenon when, three years ago, I started teaching and discovered that the advice we give young writers for conquering writer's block was either dismissive or thin. "Don’t write, just get it written," said James Thurber, which deservedly gets him into Bartlett’s but offers cold comfort for the rest of us. Then there is Julia Cameron’s "morning pages" approach: Suspend judgment and keep the pen moving. Free writing is fine, but it's a blunt instrument, and, in the context of the aforementioned experiment, a bit like telling the person stuck in the string room to "just keep reaching." Surely we can do better.

The answer lies in the academic research into creativity, a treasure trove of ideas that hides in plain sight for several perhaps obvious reasons. First of all, creativity as a subject of serious study only got its start in the 1950s and, as a relatively new and small field, lacks the gravitas of more established intellectual pursuits. Much of the research into creativity has been in the realm of education, often involving the testing of gifted children, which doesn't come up very often on Book TV. The research that isn't related to education is related to business, which for many writers and artists creates distasteful, if not hostile, associations. And, finally, dissecting creativity runs counter to the cultural belief that writing can't be taught, that the artistic process can never truly be understood—and even if it could, that would spoil all the fun.

If we can get past these barriers—not to mention fussy terms like fixation—then we can mine academia for all it has to offer, and we should start with a seemingly familiar but more nuanced definition of creativity itself. In the early 1950s, psychologist and pioneering creativity researcher J. P. Guilford came up with a model for creativity that was revolutionary at the time, but will be recognizable to anyone who has ever taken a writing workshop. He loosely divided the creative process into two parts. Divergent thinking is coming up with options, free-associating, filling the pot. (Around the same time, advertising executive Alex Osborn championed brainstorming in his book Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking, published by Scribner in 1953.) Convergent thinking is narrowing options, making choices, and driving toward meaning. In other words, the psychology of drafting and editing.