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Comparison and Contrast Essay: Block Method

Not all unhappy writers were created equal, however. They fell, Barrios and Singer discovered, into four general types. In one group, anxiety and stress dominated; to them, the main impediment to writing was a deep emotional distress that sapped the joy out of writing. In another group, unhappiness expressed itself interpersonally, through anger and irritation at others. A third group was apathetic and disengaged, while a fourth tended to be angry, hostile, and disappointed—their emotions were strongly negative, as opposed to merely sad. These differences would turn out to be consequential. Different kinds of unhappy writers, Barrios and Singer discovered, are blocked differently.

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Barrios and Singer followed the writers’ progress for a month, interviewing them and asking them to complete close to sixty different psychological tests. They found, unsurprisingly, that blocked writers were unhappy. Symptoms of depression and anxiety, including increased self-criticism and reduced excitement and pride at work, were elevated in the blocked group; symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as repetition, self-doubt, procrastination, and perfectionism, also appeared, as did feelings of helplessness and “aversion to solitude”—a major problem, since writing usually requires time alone.

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That, in the end, seems to be the main message of research into writer’s block: It’s useful to escape from external and internal judgment—by writing, for instance, in a dream diary, which you know will never be read—even if it’s only for a brief period. Such escapes allow writers to find comfort in the face of uncertainty; they give writers’ minds the freedom to imagine, even if the things they imagine seem ludicrous, unimportant, and unrelated to any writing project. Greene once had the following dream:

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As it turns out, though, Bergler’s thinking wasn’t far off the mark. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the Yale University psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios tried to gain a more empirically grounded understanding of what it meant to be creatively blocked. They recruited a diverse group of writers—fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, print, stage, and screen—some of whom were blocked and some of whom were fine. The blocked writers had to fit a set of pre-determined criteria: they had to present objective proof of their lack of writing progress (affirming, for example, that they had made no progress on their main project) and attest to a subjective feeling of being unable to write. The symptoms had to have lasted for at least three months.

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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.