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

Let's assume that we've now mastered divergent thinking. We have churned out the volume, we have spiced it up with variety, and we've done our best to be conceptually (and stylistically) nimble. Now what? How do you then make sense of all the possibilities? If it's time to make the hard choices, how can we make the best ones?

The conventional wisdom on creativity and choice is that first you need the volume, and only then can you start making selections. But Roy Chua, a creativity researcher at the Harvard Business School, isn't so sure. In his paper "Creativity as a Matter of Choice: Prior Experience and Task Instruction as Boundary Conditions for the Positive Effect of Choice on Creativity" (laugh all you want: it's brilliant) he explores the idea that more is better only if you're at a point in your career when you're capable of handling it.

"I argued and found that when given too many options, you can easily be overwhelmed by the number of possibilities," Chua writes in an e-mail. "That can be paralyzing, especially if you don't have the relevant experience to sift through the maze of options. If you're not experienced enough to discern and choose among the vast possibilities conferred by a large choice set of initial materials, it might actually be better to start small, i.e., with a smaller and more manageable set of materials. I think the key lesson for writers is that we're often thinking of so-called writer's block as the lack of ideas—but my research suggests that too many ideas could also stop a writer dead in his or her tracks."

One of Chua's experiments was based on something that you would think would be easy: wrapping presents. Indeed, subjects who were the wrappers in their families, or who had retail experience, loved having all the options and created better results. But when Chua gave people who were inexperienced or uncomfortable wrapping gifts all kinds of papers, ribbons, and gewgaws, they not only froze up, they even produced less creative presents than did the control group. In other words, too many choices doesn't just inhibit performance but can decrease it, especially if you're expected to be creative.

Chua says that one cue to finding out if you're suffering from this kind of block is to see if you keep comparing options and still have no idea what is better. In that case you may need to try some convergent thinking techniques, such as progressive elimination. Chua says that if you suspect you are blocked because you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas for writing a story, try dropping the least promising options to narrow down your choices. You may have to do this several times, depending on how extensive the initial choice set is. "Another strategy is progressive expansion. Select a small number of key ideas that jump out at you and use those as the starting point to construct your writing. Go back to the larger pool of ideas now and then to pick up additional information as you go along. Both approaches aim at limiting the number of creative choices one has to deal with at a given time."

How you set limits is also important, because convergent thinking can bring you perilously close to being overly self-critical. What writer hasn't looked at his mountain of research notes, character sketches, outlines, and drafts and wanted to simply shove the whole stupid-idiot worthless-moron pile into the trash? There is also something dangerous in limiting choices arbitrarily. As writers we still need to feel in control of our work. Convergent-thinking techniques that limit options in a mechanistic way will rob us of the joy of creation.

Mary Murdock, associate professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at the University at Buffalo in New York has some insight. She says that a lot of people are familiar with staying positive in the generative stage, but not as many know the power of being positive in the cutting stage. "Even people who think of themselves as open and creative still have to come back to their ideas and remember that new and different things can be scary." Murdock suggests being very deliberate in your mind-set when you make choices about your work. "How we manage judgment is about how we manage our state of mind," she says. "It's called affirmative judgment. It's a cognitive strategy, but it's also an affective state. It's about finding the good. Here's what I like. Here's what's interesting."

What Murdock is saying about cognitive strategies and affective states is important, because at its heart, the writing process is about metacognition, a psychological term that means "thinking about thinking." It's about being aware not of who you are in terms of overall identity, but who you are in this very moment. Where's your head at? Where's your heart?

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. You're capable of divergence and convergence, of moving up and down conceptual ladders, of being adaptive and innovative, of growing into an area of expertise. At the individual-tools level, you're probably a better writer than you realize. The real question is, How good are you at metacognition? Are you aware of all the cognitive strategies at your disposal? Do you know what part of your mind your work most needs right now? Can you diagnose why the strategy you're using isn't working and are you open to switching on the fly? Are you strong enough to stick with an approach that might not be a natural fit? Finally, are you willing to let go of whatever assumptions and beliefs you have about literature and art in order to do what's best for your work?

As Murdock notes, "I think people get concerned that if they become too aware then the magic goes away. I disagree. Why not take advantage of all your mind? If you say, ‘It's magic, I don't want to think about it,' that leaves you helpless in front of the page. Nobody wants that."

Dennis Cass has written for the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and Slate. He is the author of Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007). He offers writing advice on his Web site, Dennis Cass Wants You to Be More Awesome.