Writing To Think

How I powered through “writer’s block”

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Frozen In Thought

There is this fog that obfuscates the simplest of things from my view. Idea creation comes to a stop. Connecting thoughts slow to a crawl. And when I sit with a pen in hand or fingertips hovering above my keyboard I become frustrated because the wheels don’t turn and sentences aren’t written.

I’ve lost the ability to think, and I’ve turned into a monster of consumption binging hours of YouTube and Netflix.

Is This Writer’s Block?

More and more I’ve subscribed to the idea that “writer’s block” doesn’t exist. Primarily, because it makes it seem as if that is it. That there is nothing more than one can do but wait for the block to clear.

Instead, I view it as a series of things that impedes one’s ability to write:

  • If fictional, progression is halted because I subconsciously know the direction I’m going isn’t right,
  • I am thinking too much about what to write,
  • I’m not consuming any writing to spur ideas.

My favorite seems to be that I think too much about what I write. An over-thinker.

This is not to say that these are all encompassing, but they are things that I have found to be applicable to myself. If nothing else, it is what I need to tell myself to feel there is something I can do about it.

What was most interesting about this slump I was in, was that in a recent journal entry I approached this as a matter of not being able to think. Here is an excerpt:

As far as writing, I am feeling a loss of thought. I can’t think as I normally can, and it is because I am not writing. I don’t know why. What is different? Is it the time of year? Am I going through something?

I hope that I can increase my creative output. I hope that I can think again. I miss connecting ideas and writing quotes and ruminating on all the things that life can offer.

Yes, I really wrote that in my journal.

After forcing myself to return to the journal, the above is what poured out on the page. And with that, I began to think again.

While my writing projects did not progress in word count, I returned to my journal the next night to confess my feelings again. And by the third night my mind was racing. Like a freed drain, I began connecting the unconnected and raising even more questions to ponder throughout the workday. I resumed my evening reading and began my copywork practice; questioning and analyzing the writing of my favorite authors. Soon, word counts increased on my projects and new ones were born.

So, how did I get here? How did I think again?

Writing Is Thinking

The only way out of the fog is through. And when I forced myself to put pen to paper and express my feelings about the matter, it was thought in action. At least according to Professor Richard Menary who argues that the act of writing is more than just a storage device to offload memories and that with the external tools such as pen and paper, or word processor, we are allowed greater ways to transform our thinking and that the entire act from cognitive function to external coordination is the act of thinking.

Associate Professor Neil Haave agrees as he references Menary when contemplating the complaints from his students about writing. In his posting he writes:

In past years I read their complaints about the writing portfolio assignment being too difficult as complaints about the amount of writing they had to do. This time, however, I realized that what they were really complaining about was the difficulty they were having in cognitively processing the assigned readings in the history and philosophy of biology. If writing is thinking and the writing is difficult, then that means that they are being cognitively challenged.

Surely, we’ve all been there. A school assignment in which you groan about having to churn out two pages, or an article that is on your mind, but you’re unable to start. All of this, as Haave puts it, is you being cognitively challenged.

I was cognitively challenged.

How To Think Again

With the projects on my plate, I had reached a point where I did not know how to proceed. Each project I bounced to I hit a block. I began to overanalyze the quality at which I was writing and things spiraled from there.

If you find yourself in a place where the ideas have all halted, you’re unable to focus, and it feels as if you can’t “cognitively function”, then write.

Here is what I did:

Step 1: Write Down Your Problems

Writing down our issue helps give it focus and attention, but as it is the act of writing, we are recording our thoughts which gives us the ability to interact and restructure them.

We’ve named the issue, and described what problems we are facing. Now we enter scatterfocus mode.

Step 2: Scatterfocus

Scatterfocus, as author Chris Bailey puts it in his book Hyperfocus, is the intentional act of letting your mind wander.

Our brain doesn’t like leaving things unfinished. As such, that problem weighs on you and is easily recalled. This is called the Zeigarnik effect.

To take advantage of this, we must let our subconscious do the work by embarking on scatterfocus.

To let your mind wander, you have to think about nothing in particular. That means you are actively breaking from whatever task you are doing and instead switch to less intensive tasks such as; grabbing a cup of coffee, going for a walk, reading, or meditating.

Bailey notes that each experience we have after identifying the problem or stepping away from it, our brain is trying to link that experience to our problem for a resolution.

Eventually, as we are showering, meditating, or taking a walk around the neighborhood, we may experience that “eureka moment”. An answer. A resolution. A grand revelation is given to us and the problem is no more.

Step 3: Keep Writing

Last, but not least is to write. Duh.

You can continue to write in your journal by recording what new problem you are facing, as I did night after night, and you’ll find yourself interacting with your thoughts which beget new ideas.

If you’re a writer, you can also do some Copywork which is the art of copying the text of your favorite writers. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction. This will prompt you to engage with the text, and you’ll naturally begin to ask yourself questions. And if you’re like me, you may even be prompted to start writing yourself as your mind is brimming with ideas.

In Thought

Brevity doesn’t seem to be something I am familiar with, else this piece would have been 300 words. But, given that I had a lot to think about, I had a lot to say. The quality of what I had to say will depend on you.

Sometimes naming the thing that’s bothering us gives it less power. I can now better understand all the advice from writers I’ve read who say to just keep on writing. Ever was I ready to argue with them, I now join their chorus.

So, keep writing. And have fun thinking.