This month in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova revealed a psychological basis for beating writer's block in addition to exploring its sometimes-evasive roots. "How to Beat Writer's Block" offers a history of the phrase itself alongside several psychologists' attempts to figure out just what writer's block is, who suffers the most from it, and, most importantly, was to combat it. Konnikova writes:
There are some experiences that almost all blocked writers have in common. Almost all of them experience flagging motivation; they feel less ambitious and find less joy in writing. They’re also less creative. Barrios and Singer found that blocked individuals showed “low levels of positive and constructive mental imagery”: they were less able to form pictures in their minds, and the pictures they did form were less vivid. They were less likely to daydream in constructive fashion—or to dream, period.
Nick Carbone adds that, "For us, who teach or coach writing, lead faculty writing groups perhaps, dissertation book camps, and other efforts, the piece is a reminder that one way to help a stuck writer is to guide them to writing in nonlinear, creative ways. Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers famously got at this approach."
It may be that learning to do creative work of any kind—not just direct imagery exercises—may help combat writer’s block. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of “Wired to Create,” says, “When one feels writer’s block, it’s good to just keep putting things down on paper—ideas, knowledge, etc.” In 2009, Kaufman co-edited a volume called “The Psychology of Creative Writing”; during that process, he became convinced that allowing for error—and realizing how nonlinear a process creativity can be—was an essential step for overcoming blocks in writing. “I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations,” he says. “Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
Click here to read the full article by Konnikova, and be reminded to give yourself and your students space for trial and error where possible. As Carbone says, "Unless we make room enough for it, and students trust that room is there, that there really is room for play...then it will be hard to be creative in the kind of nonlinear and associative ways research says writers can benefit from when they are stuck."