Writer’s block: the two words responsible for triggering a collective shiver up and down the spines of content marketers, copywriters, journalists and authors across the land.
Studies have shown that up to 70 percent of people who regularly put pen to paper experience writer’s block occasionally and 24 percent experience it regularly.
Even great writers are said to have struggled with it – from F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer of The Great Gatsby, to Virginia Woolf, author of Mrs Dalloway.
The good news is that writer’s block is just like a roadblock. It usually clears up in time.
Not got time?
In this article we’ll briefly look at the causes of writer’s block and a couple of traditional ‘cures’ for it, before moving on to look at movies that can teach us a thing or two about the unblocking process.
Some background: common causes of writer’s block
In the 1970s and 80s two Yale psychologists, Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, carried out a major study into the causes of writer’s block, issuing study participants with more than 60 tests each.
They identified the following factors as causes:
Self-criticism: believing that nothing you produce is good enough.
Fear of being compared to other writers: this can work in two ways – fearing that you’re not as good as others or fear of others being jealous of you.
Feeling constrained by the rules of writing: from formal writing rules to deadlines.
A lack of external motivation: such as attention or rewards for work in progress.
Three traditional cures for writer’s block
Dream journaling: English novelist Graham Greene, who was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Fiction twice, credited the keeping of a dream journal with his recovery from a chronic bout of writer’s block in his 50s.
Go for a walk: research from Stamford University has found that a person’s creative output can increase by up to 60 per cent when they go for a walk. These results were not dependent on the environment the person was walking in either.
Have a nap: A research review called Frontiers of Human Neuroscience found that when we consciously take a break from a project, the brain still subconsciously ‘tinkers’ with that project and that sleeping can help consolidate ideas and associations gathered earlier in the day.
Hollywood as a reference point for writer’s block cures
Tried dream journaling? Walked more miles than in a Proclaimers song? Tried 40, 50, 500 winks?
Perhaps you need to take a different approach.
Here are five movies that could teach us a thing or two about overcoming ‘the block’.
5# Adaptation (2003)
“How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. But I should write something first then reward myself with coffee.”
These are the musings of Nicolas Cage’s protagonist in ‘Adaptation’ as he tries and fails to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel ‘The Orchid Thief’. They beautifully capture the internal machinations of the blocked writer.
Lesson to be learned: You’ll never overcome writer’s block by refusing to write until you have a coffee. American poet Maya Angelou is reported as having once said the following about overcoming writer’s block:
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat’. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’
4# Misery (1991)
Misery is an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 novel of the same name. In the film, James Caan plays a successful author who is held captive by a psychotic fan who forces him to write stories for her. Needless to say, he doesn’t produce his best work.
Lesson to be learned: Writing under pressure is always testing. While James Cann’s character had Annie Wilkes putting the pressure on by threatening to break his ankles, you might have a demanding client.
Psychologists suggest that the key to succeeding in writing under pressure is to plan. Princeton Professor and author John McPhee suggests that creating a structure for your writing process can ease the stress of writing itself, allowing you to be more creative.
3# Stranger than Fiction (2006)
In this movie, American IRS agent, Harold, played by Will Ferrell, begins to hear the voice of a woman narrating his life. The woman in question is author Karen Eiffel who is struggling from writer’s block and looking for inspiration in order to finish her next book.
Lesson to be learned: When you’ve been sat at a computer for hours, surrounded by the same four walls, it can be hard to find inspiration. Sometimes it can help to get into the head of another person or at least put yourself in their shoes.
British romance novelist Katie Fforde, author of 26 novelists, says that whenever she experiences writer’s block, she goes shopping, or for a drive, or spends time with friends and the scenery or a spot of people watching gets her ‘creative juices flowing’ again.
2# Barton Fink (1991)
According to movie folklore, The Coen Brothers’ 1991 movie was written while they were suffering from writer’s block during their 1990 film ‘Miller’s Crossing’. Whether that’s true or not, one thing’s for sure: Barton Fink places the theme of writer’s block on the big screen in big capital letters.
In the film New York intellectual playwright Barton Fink ventures to Hollywood in 1941 to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Staying in the eerie Hotel Earle, Barton develops writer’s block. His neighbour, jovial insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, tries to help, but Barton continues to struggle as a bizarre sequence of events distracts him even further from his task.
Lesson to be learned: In a paper entitled Resolving Writer’s Block, researcher Patricia Houston said:
“It is always good to assess your writing conditions to see whether they might be improved. Are you frequently interrupted? Do you work in a noisy, stuffy, or cold environment? These conditions are not conducive to productivity. Try to create a quiet and comfortable location for writing, ideally where you will do nothing but write.
1# The Shining (1980)
‘The Shining’, another classic King book to big screen adaptation, features Jack Nicholson as writer Jack Torrance. In the film, the writer secures a caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel in order to write in solitude. A month into his stay, the onset of writer’s block is a precursor to Jack’s increasing frustrations and a predilection for sharp objects.
Lesson to be learned: Writer’s block can escalate quickly. If you’re struggling with it, give yourself permission to indulge in techniques to conquer it. Don’t feel guilty about taking time away from your work for a walk or a coffee with a friend or colleague. Don’t feel like you’re wasting time planning and structuring when you’d usually bash out a 1,000 word blog in a morning. Give yourself and your team members the freedom to do what’s necessary to avoid your own ‘here’s Johnny’ moment.
Have you experienced writer’s block?
What are your favourite movies on the subject? What pro tips do you have to share with your fellow writers? Hit us up in the comments and on our social platforms.