Jul 18, 2016
Welcome to another guest segment of ‘The Writer’s Brain’ where we pick the brain of a neuroscientist about the elements of great writing. This week’s show covers some possible origins and solutions to an ailment known only to writers.
Research scientist Michael Grybko, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, returned to help me pinpoint the mysteries of writer’s block from a scientific standpoint.
If you missed the first three installments of The Writer’s Brain — on How Neuroscience Defines Creativity, Empathy, and Storytelling — you can find all of them in the show notes and on writerfiles.fm.
Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews, and help other writers find us.
If you missed the first half you can find it right here.
In Part Two of the file Michael Grybko and I discuss:
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
Kelton Reid: The Writer Files is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state-of-the-art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, air tight security, instant updates, and much more. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 177,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress right now.
Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habit, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.
I’m your host Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll discover how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
Welcome back to another guest segment of The Writer’s Brain, where I pick the brain of a neuroscientist about the elements of great writing. This week’s show covers some possible origins and solutions to an ailment known only to writers. Research scientist Michael Grybko with the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington returned to help me pinpoint the mystery of writer’s block from a scientific standpoint.
If you missed any previous installments of The Writer’s Brain — on How Neuroscience Defines Creativity, Empathy, and Storytelling, or the first half of this show — you can find them all in the show notes, as well on WriterFiles.FM. Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please click ‘subscribe’ to automatically see new interviews and help other writers to find us.
In part two of the file, Michael and I discuss three symptoms of writer’s block and how to cure them, how your emotions have a profound effect on your creativity, why achieving small, attainable goals rewards your brain, how changing work venues can boost your productivity, Hemmingway’s personal tricks for getting words onto the page, and the importance of regular rituals for eliminating doubt.
Kelton Reid: Well, I think I found an early reference to the incubation phase in this four-stage model of creativity from the ’20s that this social psychologist, Wallas — he was a British guy — was studying inventors, and he came up with this four-stage model. The first stage was preparation. Second stage was incubation. Third stage was elimination. The fourth stage was verification. It confirms one piece of that puzzle.
Obviously, going back to how the research phase that all writers initially have to do to start putting information in there, but you talked about this before, actually. In our creativity session, you said, “The more information you put in there, the bigger pull of ideas you’ll have to pull from, and that means more opportunities to be creative” — kind of bringing it full circle to creativity.
And your original point, you can apply that knowledge in a situation that you might be unfamiliar with to kind of resolve an issue, and some of that is happening subconsciously.
Well, there was a couple things. I love the idea of remixed culture and a couple guys, Kirby Ferguson and Austin Kleon, talk about these basic elements of creativity. That ability — being able to copy, transform, and combine elements into something new — kind of fits into that same four phases or model of creativity. I want to pull out a clip from Austin Kleon’s interview about writer’s block, and I think I’ll have Toby drop that in right here.
Austin Kleon: I feel like writer’s block is just exhaustion, laziness, or fear, or some combination of them. I also think that a lot of times when I’m blocked, I don’t want to sit down and write. I just don’t want to because it’s not my favorite thing to do. I would rather read. Fran Lebowitz, she’s like, “If you ever feel like writing, just lay down on the couch and read a bit, it’ll pass.” That’s how I feel.
But I also think that people hit walls and I think a lot of times when I am just, “Nothing’s coming,” that means that, when the output doesn’t happen, that’s cause there’s problem of input. A lot of times, problems of output are problems of input. So if you don’t have anything coming out, that means there’s not good stuff going in.
That could be anything from you need to take a trip, you need to just walk away from your desk, or you need to stare at a wall for a while, or read. Just something to get something jump-started. So a lot of times with block, some people try to power through block, and I’m just like, “Eh, go walk away for a bit.” Everybody’s had that experience. You’re in the shower or you’re on a walk, and that’s when the juices start flowing. With that said, I think you need a time and place every day to do the work.
Kelton Reid: Creativity’s a messy process, I think. There’s this other book called Wired to Create, kind of examining the creative mind, talking a lot about how creatives are switching between these rapid thought processes and, to generate these new ideas, always working out an idea through critical reflection and considering the perspective of the artist and the audience. Anyway, there’s so much about input equals output that we could talk about in engaging our brains.
Michael Grybko: Well, I think there’s one more aspect, too, and it’s not just input and output, but there’s also recall. So even if we have the information, we have to be able to access it, and I think that has to do a lot with writer’s block. It’s not just if we have the information or not. Of course, like I said, we can’t access information if we don’t have it. But once we’ve developed a knowledge base, it’s how do we access it? And I think that’s a big issue in writer’s block, and that’s the one I was kind of interested in.
Michael Grybko: And another important topic on that is emotional states. And this can influence, greatly I think, our ability to access information. We touched on this a little bit before, but emotional states have a profound effect on creativity and our productivity. Of course, there’s major bouts of depression and anxiety, even if you want to consider narcissism an emotional state, that can go on for a long time, and those are kind of hard to touch on. What I wanted to focus on are things we can do today. Maybe help writers today and help avoid writer’s block.
And there can also be kind of minor walls we hit; minor bouts of depression or anxiety that we can possibly control. I started thinking about that and this idea of motivation, motivational learning, and individuals being avoidance-motivated or approach-motivated — meaning that do you go into a task thinking you’re going to succeed, being optimistic, or do you approach life in fear while trying to avoid failure? “Oh, I can’t. That’s something I can’t accomplish. I’m not going to do that.”
And this has been shown — these behaviors, avoidance-motivated versus approach-motivated — to affect an individual’s productivity. Avoidance motivation tends to lead to depression, anxiety, and less productivity. And approach-motivated is generally beneficial, but there can be some downsides. You can be too optimistic. We’ve always referred to foolishly optimistic, and this almost narcissistic behavior. I was thinking about that, and what’s the neurological basis for this? And there’s quite a bit. This is a huge field of research.
A lot of it comes down to the neurotransmitter dopamine, and some work done in the late ’90s by Wolfram Schultz and colleagues showed that in animals models, dopamine neurons in the area of the brain known as the striatum, which is thought as a reward center of the brain, these neurons were found to burst fire in response to the rewards, and they would decrease their firing rate, or pause in firing, if there’s punishment — so if a reward wasn’t received or was less than expected.
Now, what’s really interesting is that after the animals were trained, they would begin to expect a reward. They started to see that the firing rate would change, so the animal’s neurons would start the burst fire before they received the reward, just if they expected to. And then the opposite was also seen, so they would start to perceive a punishment.
Now, why this is interesting is because now this is evidence that changes in neuronal activity may happen based on our perceived outcome of a situation. So before we even know what’s going to happen, we can almost affect how we proceed. This research is continuing. It’s still going on. So further research on this topic is showing that an individual’s perceived outcome of a situation can influence on how we perform on a task.
Michael Grybko: So there’s something said to being optimistic and pessimism, that you may actually be changing your performance on a task by thinking negatively, being avoidance-motivated versus approach-motivated. I think that, that can apply to writer’s block and can be something writers can work on, people can work on, to be more productive — is to try to be more approach-motivated and maybe some tangible things we can do to help facilitate this.
I think one of these is set some obtainable goals, even small stuff. As you go through a project, just, “All right, I want to get this much research done today,” and your brain’s going to reward you a little bit. Your brain’s going to, “Okay, here’s a little dopamine. Success. Way to go!” Getting in this pattern of positive thinking and accomplishment may help stave off writer’s block.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely, and I’ve heard writers talk about this before. It is sometimes a matter of and there were some example of this, but I’ve heard writers say, “I’ll just set a small goal for myself, like 500 words,” and it’s so obtainable that, often, I will get to the end of the 500 words very quickly and then just keep going.
Michael Grybko: Right.
Kelton Reid: I’ll write 1,000, 2,000, whatever that may be. But there is that negative death spiral of writer’s block that I can see happening. Because all of a sudden, once you’ve missed or you give yourself too big of a goal and you miss it, then you want to avoid it. That avoidance motivation I could see working against you.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, so one problem with writer’s block, it can really snowball. So this deadline all of a sudden, the anxiety builds. Anxiety makes it harder to work and be productive. Then there’s also the idea of the problem with being approach-motivated is you can set a goal that’s too lofty and convince yourself you’re going to be successful, and if we miss that goal, then it can be a very dramatic and negative process.
And also I think this is important for managers to realize, and supervisors, what kind of environment are they creating in their workplace and to think about some approach-motivated goals and things like that and be sure to reward people when they do a good job and not just hang deadlines over their heads. That’s really going to create an unhealthy environment.
Kelton Reid: There’s so much here. There’s so much to talk about.
Michael Grybko: I know.
Kelton Reid: Should we start to get into how do we resolve writer’s block once it’s actually set in?
Michael Grybko: Yeah, going over and thinking about what we just talked about and introducing some of these sort of behaviors back into your schedule help a lot. I think this incubation stage really comes up time and time again. We started this podcast off by talking about Maria Konnikova’s article in The New Yorker.
She went back and looked at some of this early research on emotional states of the writer and how they helped writers overcome writer’s block by using what they called ‘directed mental imagery.’ This is where the subjects would focus on a creative project that was unrelated to the one they were working on for a period and then go back to their original work. They found some success with this approach. I think the efficacy of this approach may be tied to that incubation period that we were discussing earlier.
Kelton Reid: For sure.
Michael Grybko: So if individuals are feeling blocked, maybe hitting a pause button may be a good idea. Just take a step back. Give yourself a moment. And then as we were talking about earlier, it may be good to have another hobby, another task in your life, to kind of divert your attention away for awhile. So try focusing on something else for a little bit, and then go back to the project that you were working on.
Kelton Reid: One-hundred percent believe in that.
Michael Grybko: Back to the approach- and avoidance-motivated, I think if you are blocked, just go back to the basics. Just set some basic goals for yourself. Just easy stuff you can accomplish to get that ball rolling and get some confidence back, too. So that might be a good step to take if you’re beginning to have writer’s block set it.
Kelton Reid: I keep thinking that, I’m thinking about another piece in The New York Times, the title of it was The End of Reflection, this piece by Teddy Wayne where he talks about our compulsive obsession with checking social media and how we’re plugged in all the time to smartphones and the Internet and how our brains begin to just get engaged all the time.
With the speed of high-speed Internet and the ease of use of all these different tools that we’re using to constantly be plugged in, we’re not really giving ourselves the opportunity to have that incubation phase. So some of those neuronal connections aren’t being made. I don’t know.
I think it comes back to unplugging, and I was just thinking of a handful of things, myself — like writing longhand in a notebook or on note cards instead of using a computer, which actually has been proven to be more effective in learning. Reading a book, like a paper book, couldn’t hurt. You can use an e-reader that’s not connected to the Internet, obviously. That’s effective, too. Turning off your phone for a period or using apps that block the Internet, plenty of well-known writers do that. Taking a long walk, taking a long walk in nature.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, just get away for a bit. Just technology, Internet, and information technology is evolving so quickly. It’s really hard to predict what the outcome of this will be, but we know, as you said, we have so much information available just at our fingertips. We may not be giving ourselves the time we need to step away from these things and really give ourselves that incubation period. Maybe we might be missing some important neuronal activity or not giving our neuronal activity the time it needs to fully develop these ideas and be productive. Who knows?
Kelton Reid: So you talked about mixing things up?
Michael Grybko: Yeah, I think that’s another good way to get away, to give yourself an incubation period, to give yourself something else to do besides just this task. It’s very easy to get overrun on one task. Our brain likes activity. It likes things to do. It likes surprises, I guess, a little bit.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. A lot of writers also talk about the importance of changing venues or at least designating a special place or special computer for doing writing to increase their productivity. But it actually has been proven that changing your surroundings to a place where others are actually hard at work on their own projects has been proven to influence us and help us concentrate. It’s actually literally contagious.
Michael Grybko: Sure.
Kelton Reid: This study, which I’ll link to, talked about how seeing other people in postures of exertion or working hard at a task I don’t know if it’s their face or just being at a coffee shop. It’s also been proven that the ambient sounds of a coffee shop are helpful to writers, or at least to productivity. There’s something scientific about the accountability of having a pair of eyes on you.
Michael Grybko: I don’t know. Yeah, this could be interesting. I think there’s a lot of things to talk about here. One, we can link back to our discussion on empathy, and that could be part of it. Our behaviors can be somewhat contagious. We sort of mirror and mimic individuals around us, and they mimic us as well. So that may be an aspect to this.
I think that, again, speaking to supervisors, managers, this is something that they can think about. What kind of environment do they want to work in? What’s the good environment for their productivity and work, or people? Then, also, listening to the people they hire — what do they need to be productive? — and creating a culture that people can feed off each other.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely.
Michael Grybko: It’s not surprising. Venue is important.
Kelton Reid: Venue is important. Also very interesting is this idea of the solitude of the writer because writing is a very intimate, private thing. And that’s why a lot of writers cloister themselves off in a writer’s retreat or a cabin in the mountains. But that’s not always the best place to get writing.
Michael Grybko: Again, I’ll reference back to our talk about rhythms and how our brain activity changes over the course of a day. Yeah, certain aspects of the creative process or, probably, we’re more prone to a certain venue or more productive in a certain venue or task. Maybe we have to change venues — so doing research versus writing. They involve different environments.
Kelton Reid: I love that, and I also do love working in a coffee shop. But there are times where I just can’t work in a coffee shop when it’s too distracting or I really need flow — so I need quiet and no movement. They do actually have apps that have a coffee shop soundtrack, which I have used in the past and can attest to.
Michael Grybko: It made a little coffee odor, too?
Kelton Reid: No, but you can put a cup of coffee next to your desk and just waft it your way or drink it. Anyway, I think there’s so much here. Hopefully we’ve offered some ideas for writers. The importance of the incubation phase, which allows your brain to do some of those cool subconscious things — if you’ve had in an ah-ha moment in the shower or on a walk or on a bike ride when you’re not thinking about the work at hand, all of that kind of stuff.
Kelton Reid: I just wanted to touch on in some tips from Ernest Hemmingway, just to go back to a seminal writer and some of his advice that were collected in a book called Ernest Hemmingway and Writing, where he just dropped some wisdom. They were, obviously, not all in one place, but were collected from his letters.
First one that he said was, “To get started, write one true sentence.” I think that kind of goes back to the setting obtainable goals. Because, hey look, you wrote one great sentence, and everything kind of goes from there.
Michael Grybko: So you have a taste of success.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, and he was saying I’ll go back to just general advice for writers, which going all the way full circle to the idea that the writer’s brain can be compared to a pro athlete’s brain — where does that come from? So much of that is from practice and repetition.
Michael Grybko: Right, repetitive.
Kelton Reid: And there’s another great book called Around the Writer’s Block by an author, Roseanne Belle, where she discusses that whole thing. She really gets into it, digs into it, but just to bring it back to Hemmingway. She’s kind of drilling into the idea that you’re training your brain through repetition and practice, and in order to write well, you have to write, period. And to write, you’ve got to write badly.
You’re always going to start writing something crappy, so Hemmingway’s famous quote, of course, is, “I write one page of masterpiece for ninety one pages of sh*t. And I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.” And that’s where the editing process comes in, right? That verification process. I love that.
Anyway, a couple others from Hemmingway, really quick. “Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.” Of course, that’s a fiction thing, but kind of keeping that interest alive. The incubation thing he touches on, “Never think about a story when you’re not working on it.”
Michael Grybko: Sure, incubation.
Kelton Reid: Hemmingway was there. Then, “When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far.” So you’re kind of firing up those neuronal pathways again.
Michael Grybko: Accessing the information again, recall.
Kelton Reid: And he swore by using a pencil when he wasn’t at the typewriter. Again, that hand writing to start out.
Michael Grybko: Yeah. It may help with acquiring knowledge. It may be a useful tool for memory formation.
Kelton Reid: It works your brain a different way.
Michael Grybko: Right.
Kelton Reid: Okay, well to kind of wrap up here, I think that writers need to find rituals and routines. I know this is a question I ask writers on the podcast quite often — do they have some psyche-up rituals to get them in the mood. Everyone is different. Everyone has different stuff. Some have none at all. I know in Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, she talks a lot about how rituals eliminate doubt. And of course, I think that’s probably part of what you touch on as well.
Michael Grybko: Right. And I think like we were saying, there’s going to be a lot of individual differences based on people’s history. Find out what works best for you as a writer.
Kelton Reid: For sure.
Michael Grybko: Just because one writer defines writer’s block as a certain thing and you don’t agree with that, that’s fine.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. I wrote a piece for Copyblogger called 8 Strange Rituals of Productive Writers, and again, like pro athletes, these rituals, they don’t have to be orthodox, which I’ll get to. They just have to be regular. And you just have to build those muscles. Anyway, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill — all famous for writing while they were lying down.
Michael Grybko: Okay, I’ve never tried it.
Kelton Reid: You know, why not? Of course, Charles Dickens and Henry Miller both used to wander around Europe actually trying to get lost and, again, trying to foster creativity by changing their mindset. A lot of writers will write with music on. This is something I touch on actually in a podcast.
Every writer has kind of a different music. I know that Stephen King likes to listen to rock music. Same with Austin Kleon. I prefer, actually, ambient music. The productivity thing again, touching back on circadian rhythms, Balzac would get up at midnight and drink black coffee well into the next day. Flannery O’Connor only wrote for two hours a day, and that seems like a pretty obtainable goal.
Michael Grybko: That’s a goal, yeah.
Kelton Reid: She was very prolific. Finally, I think I’ll wrap up with this one. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Cheever wrote mostly in his underwear.
Michael Grybko: Okay, I’m not sure the neurological basis for that one. I’m going to leave that one untouched.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, we don’t really know why.
Michael Grybko: Yeah I don’t know the neuro-mechanism on that.
Kelton Reid: Hey, he’s just trying to relax, be groovy, man.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, we have to leave on a cliffhanger, right?
Kelton Reid: Okay. Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of good stuff. I think we’ve offered a lot of good insights of what’s happening at least inside the writer’s brain, as we try to do. And I really appreciate you taking the time to enlighten us, man.
Michael Grybko: This was fun. These are interesting questions that I get to think about, and I love it when you throw these my way. It gets me thinking about things, so I enjoy it. Thank you.
Kelton Reid: Fantastic. Well, come back and see us soon. We’ll have another brain question for you.
Michael Grybko: Great. Looking forward to it.
Kelton Reid: All right, thanks, Michael.
Michael Grybko: All right, thank you.
Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining us for a glimpse into the workings of the writer’s brain. For more episodes of The Writer Files, or to simply leave us a comment or question, drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.