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

Dennis Cass
From the January/February 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.