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

As we move further away from simple brainstorming, simple tips and tricks for battling block may become less effective, but we come closer to understanding the root causes of writer's block. Mechanized thought is of the moment, whereas functional fixedness speaks to a writer's personal style. The big contributor in the realm of personal creative style is British psychologist Michael Kirton, whose Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) instrument is the standard for helping people figure out what kind of creative thinkers they are. Kirton's model is based on the theory that everything that human beings do is a form of problem solving, and that everything involves creativity. The question is one of approach.

We revere and mythologize our great authors, and we present the road to becoming a writer as a long, lonely journey of increasing knowledge and mastery, but what nobody tells you is that you already have all the tools you need.

Phil Samuel, a business consultant who has a PhD in mechanical engineering and in a previous life worked in R&D in the aerospace industry, is certified to give the KAI assessment, a thirty-three-part assessment that poses questions such as whether or not you're good at detail work, whether you're ever stuck for ideas, if you like to conform in a group setting, and if it's hard for you to get out of bed in the morning. This inventory is designed to ferret out adaptive versus innovative styles, which Samuel characterizes on a spectrum between Edison and Einstein.

"Edison is adaptive in style," says Samuel. "The more adaptive look at a problem within given limits. Their creativity comes from doing things better and more efficiently. They care about details. Thomas Edison took other people's ideas and meticulously performed experiment after experiment. He was creative in perfecting existing ideas. Contrast that with the innovative style of Einstein. He questioned the problems themselves. He may not have been good at the details, but he looked at the prevailing view of Newtonian physics and decided to come up with something different."

When Samuel consults with businesses, he will administer the KAI and then sort people into groups by type. He'll then give them a problem (you're a tea bag company and Starbucks is eating your profits) and ask the teams to solve the problem. The difference between adaptive thinkers and innovative thinkers is stark. "The more adaptive will want to improve the tea bags or do better marketing," Samuel says. "The innovative thinkers want to fill the tea bags with dry soup and sell it to airlines. They joke about attacking Colombia to influence the politics of coffee." Each approach has its pros and cons. Innovative thinkers come up with a higher volume of ideas and tolerate failure better, but they can also abandon good ideas too quickly. Adaptive thinkers have fewer, more conservative ideas, but they expect—and more often achieve—high success rates.

Samuel stresses that everybody is both innovative and adaptive, even if you have a "preferred style." Furthermore, if you're motivated enough, you can work in another style (Kirton calls it "coping"), although it might take you more time and burn more energy. The next time you're blocked, consider whether you might be forcing your preferred style on a task that requires a different approach. When I was first starting out, I used to think every transition had to be a work of art. The day I became a real writer was the day I just wrote, "Two weeks later..." and got on with it. Clifford the Big Red Dog is already a freakishly large dog. He doesn't need to be vermilion.

The adaptive-innovative spectrum gets more problematic at the project level. A dreamer who needs to get his facts straight and a meticulous thinker who needs to get her ya-yas out can work through a given moment using the other approach. But the innovator who tries to write an English Cozy because she thinks mysteries sell is setting herself up for misery, as is the adaptive writer who feels pressure to be experimental when he would be better off writing something more conventional. Saul Bellow said, "A writer is a reader moved to emulation." But we have to be careful. What we like to read may not be what we're meant to write.

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