Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Conquering Writer's Block I: Know Thy Enemy.

Here we go! This post will be the first in a series on conquering writer's block.

I need you guys to understand one thing right off the bat: This is not going to be a bunch of tips.

I have nothing against tips. Really. But understand something about how I work as a psychologist: I don't treat problems. I treat the causes of problems. And that is because most problems of the human kind have multiple causes, and depending on which one (or ones) it is, the intervention might be different. I do things this way because it is more efficient and effective than using a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.

So in these posts, I'm not going to be giving tips, really, at least not until we go over the causes of this frustrating condition, because the "tips" you choose should be tailored to the "flavor" of writer's block. That should make it easier for YOU to solve the problem of writer's block by selecting strategies that are more likely to work for you.

I hope that makes some sense.

Onward! First things first. Here's how things are not:



In other words, whatever drives your feelings--depression, anxiety, frustration, restlessness--doesn't come directly from an event (like rejection, or a negative review, or the fact that you've been trying to write the same scene for the past four weeks). Feelings come from that black box above. See it? Your thoughts. How you interpret the event.

And of course, it's not a linear process, right? Feelings aren't just an end result. Feelings drive behavior, and behavior leads to more events, and more thoughts. Like this:


Notice all those double-headed arrows? That's because each of these things affects the other stuff. This is the basic set-up for a model that we use to understand all sorts of problems. It's the foundation for a kind of treatment (cognitive-behavioral therapy) that's been proven effective in reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even medication-resistant schizophrenia.

If you understand this model, you'll understand yourself better, and you'll understand writer's block better. In fact, you'll be able to deal better with a host of other obstacles to your writing or life success. So ... ponder it for a bit.

I'll be back on Monday with the results of an informal poll I took here on the blog and at the AbsoluteWrite forums about what goes through writers' heads as they experience writer's block. Basically, we're going to dissect that black box up there to start to get to the CAUSES of writer's block, so that you can determined what particular flavor you've got, and then we'll discuss what to do with each variation. Sound reasonable?

I hope so! Now--if you have questions about this model, please ask, because it's the basis for what I'll be posting on next week! I'll be answering questions in the comments so that everyone can see them.

14 comments:

  1. It makes sense to me. I think a lot of the problem (not with writer's block, but with feelings) is that society tells us it's not okay to have feelings. To be angry, or sad, or basically anything that gets in the way with being a productive consumer. I think people often forget it's the behaviors that are the problem, not the feelings.

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    1. This is absolutely true. And avoiding feelings or ignoring them doesn't actually make them go away. [There's a little teaser for the meaning of "feel the ICK."]

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  2. Interesting. Does that same model hold true for procrastinating?

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    1. Well, one of the causes of writer's block is avoidance, and procrastination is pure avoidance, so yes! We'll be talking about that next week :)

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  3. As always, Sarah, you've take a topic we've seen a million times and offered a new view. I quit labeling my "hiatus from writing" episodes as writer's block because somewhere along the way I figured out that for me it is a conscious decision controlled by determination and willpower, kind of like staying on my diet and getting up at 4:30 in the morning to exercise. I might blame things (events) but what it really boils down to is that I make the decision to do other things. I'm great at making excuses for myself, but when I take a break (as I did recently after the death of my father-in-law) it is because I need to refuel. Question - if you strip away all the details, doesn't it come down to that for everyone? A conscious (or unconscious) decision to do other things?

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    1. Well ... not always. A lot of our feelings and behaviors are driven by something called "automatic thoughts," which are basically like a reflex--we often don't even know we have them! You can MAKE them conscious, but for many of us who aren't trying, we aren't aware of them, so what we do as a result isn't so much a decision driven by determination and willpower as much as it is a reflexive reaction to a thought we don't know is there. It's possible to manage those thoughts, but not to get rid of them. But ONLY if you are aware of them will you make a controlled decision (in other words, yes, you'll make a decision either way, but only if you are aware of and analyzing those thoughts will you make the most informed, adaptive decision).

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  4. Fortunately I've figured out how to get around writer's block but maybe - and reading your post made me think this - that's because I finally figured out a lot of stuff that made me behave in certain ways. Knowing and understanding the cause of these behaviors has made it easier for me to notice and remind myself why which then makes it easier to stop - if that makes sense (I didn't want to get into specifics for obvious reasons). Nevertheless, I'll be back on Monday to learn more :)

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  5. This is SO TRUE for me. As long as I interpret my failure to make progress as a failure, I won't be able to beat it. (Especially since my writer's block is often caused by being burned out and is cured by taking a break!)

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  6. oooh! interesting...
    *tunes in for next time*

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  7. I look forward to Monday's post, and to the results and analysis of your survey. Great stuff. (I'm impressed by mshatch who was able to do an effective self-analysis to overcome the problem. My avoidance/denial abilities are, unfortunately, really good, so I often miss the chance to see why I'm behaving in a way I'd rather not. It's much easier to analyze someone ELSE's problem!)

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  8. This is bringing back memories of my psych lectures. :) Love the charts. Looking forward to the rest of this series!

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  9. Yay! Looking forward to the rest of the analysis. Love the diagrams. They really help keep things understandable.

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  10. ooo wee, I am sure looking forward to your next post! This one's very interesting, too. I can see how those thoughts and interpretations can play into feeelings.

    I haven't ever suffered from writers' block *knocks wood madly*, but I think that has to do w/my work background, you know? I've been writing to deadlines so long so I can eat (journalist), my brain doesn't have time to let my feeelings get in the way of words on paper.

    Now as to the quality of the words on paper, well, that's up for judgment. :D <3

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  11. Where's the box that says "Surfing the Internet"?

    But really, I like your philosophy on getting to the causes, and not just covering up the symptoms.

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