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

What makes Guilford's model useful for combating writer's block is how it details the getting-it-all-out part. According to his model, divergent thinking comprises three elements: fluency (the volume of possibilities); flexibility (the variety); and originality (the uniqueness). If you're going to keep the pen moving, there's a more sophisticated way to do it.

When I teach, I use a divergent-thinking exercise that's a variant on Guilford's Unusual Uses Test. Breaking the class into small groups, I hold up a black Sharpie and ask my students to imagine different ways of using it. After a happy buzz, it's time to share. "Shoe polish!" "Make tattoos!" "Prop open a window!" Then I ask if others had the same or similar answer and up come the disappointed hands. What felt original and exciting turned out to be commonplace.

Mark Runco, Torrance professor and director of the creativity center at the University of Georgia, relates a similar experience. He'll go into a school and give a divergent-thinking assessment to two hundred kids, asking them to think up things that are round. "They'll say ‘basketball,' ‘Ping-Pong ball,' ‘tennis ball,' ‘baseball,' ‘soccer ball,'" says Runco. "That's fluency, but there isn't much flexibility. Then a kid will say ‘moon' and ‘eye.' She's being a little more flexible. That's one way we measure creativity. This kid is tapping three conceptual categories. That kid is tapping into nine." Originality is rarer still. "I guarantee that at least 60 percent of them will say ‘basketball,'" says Runco, "but only one will say ‘quark.'"

Part of our job as writers is to pinpoint where our divergent thinking is lacking and then take steps to enhance it. You might spend one writing session going for volume. ("Today I'll come up with fifty names for the gas station attendant in chapter 2.") The next time try being more flexible. (What other people—or objects or abstractions—can steer the protagonist to the haunted amusement park?) The worst thing you can do—and here is where block rears its ugly head—is to start by trying to be original. As a matter of practice, it's easier to be original if you're flexible, but you can't be flexible until you're fluent. Furthermore, originality is entirely contextual. Try the What can you think of that's round? question with a group of friends. The most original answer won't reveal itself until you've aired out the obvious.

So how can we be more flexible? How do we tap into more conceptual categories, like that kid who said "quark"? What if you're stuck drumming up a million types of balls? Now we're back to fixation.

According to Texas A&M's Smith, there are two basic types of fixation: mental set and functional fixedness. Both are pervasive, but the former is easier both to spot and to manage. A classic mental-set experiment involves giving people ten math problems. The first nine are all solved using the same method, but the tenth—which is far easier—requires a different approach. People get into a rhythm with the first nine, then hit a wall on the last. If you've ever been cruising along with a dramatic scene and then try changing gears and writing description, you've experienced mechanized thought. You might be better off simply continuing to write scenes for that session. Just because your audience reads your story from beginning to end doesn't mean you have to write it that way.

Functional fixedness is far more deadly. "Mental set comes from short-term knowledge," says Smith. "If you go into a lab and use pliers to loosen a nut, then you're going to be thinking of pliers as a nut loosener. Functional fixedness has to do with our long-term knowledge. Pliers grasp stuff. That's what pliers do."

Another way of thinking about functional fixedness is to consider that it's more natural for human beings to move from concept to example than it is from example to concept. Smith tells the story of asking subjects to imagine another planet, where, like Earth, life has evolved. "We ask people to create life-forms and label the parts," he says. "They draw a dog, but it has six legs and antennae. They don't think that life could be a cloud or a crystalline structure." Or that a pair of pliers could be a pendulum weight.

"One of the most insidious things about getting stuck," Smith adds, "is that it's often because you're making assumptions that you don't realize you've been making. You don't realize you have started at a certain conceptual level. You don't realize you put constraints on an idea that don't have to be there. It's only when you step back that you realize that, whether it has six legs or no legs, it's still basically a dog."

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. Some writers, such as Calvino and Borges, are naturally more flexible. For other writers, moving up and down the conceptual ladder may be more difficult. If this is one of your struggles, then you have to watch out for what Smith refers to as premature conceptualization, which is being convergent before you've been sufficiently divergent. The only answer is to experiment, even if you don't consider yourself an experimental writer. Try writing a short piece with the goal of attacking every assumption every step of the way. The final result may be a mess, but you'll gain a better understanding of your conceptual strengths and weaknesses, and going forward you'll start seeing the six-legged dogs that are holding you back.