Stuck: OCD and Writer's Block

How to deal when your brain gets stuck from a guy with a chronically stuck brain

Posted Apr 29, 2014

When you tell someone you’re a writer, they usually respond with one of a few predictable questions.  “What do you write about,” usually comes up straight off, and my honest answer (“a nakedly confessional dark comedy about soul-ravaging mental illness”) creates mutual discomfort and has led to the immediate termination of several promising first dates.  When I address a group at a reading or conference on the other hand, most in the audience already know what’s up with my brain, and they want to know if I have any hints or tips about my recovery from the disorder that could aid them or their loved ones.  I have not yet been asked if I would allow my blood to be drawn in hopes of developing an OCD vaccination, but people have come pretty close.

One question I don’t get nearly often enough is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”  That’s a problem I struggled with for a long time, and it’s one I’m pleasantly surprised to say that I think I’ve got figured out.

When I’m fighting writer’s block – just like with most people, I suspect – my mind is spinning in circles, flailing at something beautiful and meaningful that somehow remains just out of reach.  It’s enormously frustrating, because nothing you write seems good enough, and the process doesn’t have any natural conclusion – you may spin your wheels for ten minutes or ten hours - maybe inspiration will strike without warning, maybe you’ll give up entirely. 

But what struck me a few years back in college, when I was wrestling with a particularly tough assignment, was that the process of struggling through writer’s block wasn’t totally unfamiliar to me.  There was a repetitive component.  There was the compulsion to produce perfection.  There was the irrational repetition of some circular and almost-totally-arbitrary task (in this case, compulsively scribbling things down and reading and scratching out and re-scribbling) that kicked up a whole lotta dust but didn’t actually accomplish much of what I was trying to do.

And all at once I understood:  for me, at least, writer’s block is obsessive-compulsive.

OCD is a circular process that, once you learn to recognize it, is almost impossible to miss.  Obsession begins with doubt – how do I know this is true?  How do I know that won’t happen?  Then, to try to resolve that doubt, the sufferer invents a ritual:  I’ll check the news, I’ll call my kids, I’ll clean my hands, I’ll do all of those things and I’ll do them over and over again.  But because the obsessive-compulsive cycle was born in doubt and uncertainty, eliminating that doubt by seeking evidence will always be a doomed effort.

Instead, you need to accept the doubt.  You need to embrace the imperfection, pick a direction and charge boldly forward.  You’ll be taking a risk, sure, but it’s better than being paralyzed by indecision and repetition.

So:  how to apply that to writer’s block?

Well, if my theory is right, writer’s block is kicked off by a doubt (how do I know this writing is good enough?) and sustained by a compulsion (I have to make sure this page/paragraph/sentence is perfect before I continue!).  And like most obsessive-compulsive behaviors, it seems sound in theory – but as anyone who’s tried to produce a PERFECT rough draft can tell you, it’s a lot harder in practice.

So what I’ve found works better – and what I suspect a lot of writers would recommend to you – is just to KEEP PUTTING WORDS ON THE PAGE.  Don’t worry about perfection!  It’s always better to put out six pages of trash – trash that might include strong phrases or intriguing characters or snappy dialogue, that you can sift out from the debris and repurpose in a later draft – than to produce one overworked, suffocating paragraph of purple prose.

Creativity requires risk.  Trying to lock down every single aspect of a piece on your first go-around is just going to produce strangled, incoherent work.  Write now, revise later!  Let your work get messy.  That’s why they call it a rough draft, isn’t it?

That’s how it works for me, at least, and for my warranty-violating brain.  But it might be worth a shot for you too.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2014.

Author of Triggered:  A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012.”

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