The Human Beast

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Finally, a Cure for Writer's Block!

How to overcome procrastination, and perfectionsm

Writer’s block is another way of saying that the author prefers the ideal work still locked in the imagination than what they see coming from their keyboard. It is just one case of the more general malady of having great ambitions stand in the way of concrete achievements. Fortunately both can be cured.

One of the most celebrated cases of writer’s block was Charles Darwin’s unwillingness to commit his theory of evolution by natural selection to paper for about 20 years. Even then, he was spurred into action only by the discovery that another researcher (Alfred Russell Wallace) had stumbled upon his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin may have had good reasons for sitting on the idea. After all he knew that it contradicted key religious ideas about creation and might land him in a lot of trouble. He also wanted to collect more information that could bolster his intuitions giving him a respectable reason for his procrastination..

For most of us, though, the stakes involved in typing the first line of that project, whether poem or prose, fiction, or non fiction, are not nearly so high. If we spend a year or more contemplating that initial face off with the blank screen, the chances are that we are in love with the infinite potential of what might be written at a future time as opposed to what might be achieved on the project today.

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Procrastination

Here we get to the heart of the problem in writer’s block. It is essentially a problem of procrastination, of putting off until tomorrow what might be done today. Most writers do not have rigid external deadlines to galvanize them, such as a publishing contract or a due date for a student paper.

Self-imposed deadlines do not work. The procrastinator feels that the time is not yet ripe, that the project is likely to go much better at a future time. The problem, of course is that those perfect conditions for getting started are elusive. Perfect conditions are not worth waiting for because they do not exist.

From that perspective, there is a clear case for beginning right away. Knowing that what emerges may not be perfect, it is nevertheless worth filling some of that blank screen with words. The rough approximation can later be refined and improved.

So the interaction between a writer and the fruit of the endeavor is a bit like training a dog to do a trick. You know that the dog cannot do the trick to begin with. So you start with something resembling the trick that the animal is capable of achieving and build from there using reinforcement.

Translated into a writing problem, this means that the author does not know what the first sentence of the novel is but types something like what it might be and then imagines what might come next. Creative writing teachers often solve this problem by giving students a prompt that begins their story: “Dawn was creeping over the golf course: she had lost her car keys.”

Apart from breaking through the writer’s block, jumping in with an approximation has other merits. One advantage is that you really do not know what is lurking in the imagination until you look inside.

Another is that writing for an audience is a performance with some similarities to playing an instrument. It is true that everyone does their share of talking but speech is essentially a different instrument and talking about your novel in the pub will not help you to write it. A musician cannot be very good on an instrument without plenty of practice and the same is true of a writer practicing their craft.

So the cure for writer’s block is also the solution for procrastination – and perfectionism. There really is no good reason for postponing the start of your magnum opus. There is every reason for beginning right away.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the solution to writer’s block leads to graphmania, or writing all the time.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for graphomania. Or if there is, I have never heard of it.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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