• Michael Sauls

Understanding where writer's block comes from

It may not be universally true, but for many writers the process is painful. I think that pain is at least one source of writer's block. In a way it kind of makes sense. Creativity is about thinking and thinking leads to introspection, feeling lonely, depression, hopelessness, and fear of failure. Pain can also come from past experiences. Many creative people have suffered from harsh life experiences. While those experiences give them fuel for their creative fire, they also dredge up those painful memories over and over. Pain can be from mental illness. Many artists suffer from depression or other mental illness.

Have you ever wondered why so many artists suffer from depression and/or have problems with substance abuse? Again this isn't true of all artists, but many very famous people have had these issues. Mark Twain, Stephen King, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe all struggled with depression, alcoholism and/or drug abuse. Substance abuse is pretty common with people who struggle with depression as they attempt to self medicate away their pain.

"I always take Scotch whiskey at night as a preventive of toothache. I have never had the toothache; and what is more, I never intend to have it."

Mark Twain


Before I dig into this I just want to state that I am not a trained mental health professional. I've taken a couple of psych classes because I thought that a better understanding of the human mind would help me with character development, but that does not claim to be any kind of an authority on the topic. I also find the human mind to be extremely interesting so I like reading about the topic, but beyond my research and some rudimentary knowledge, the rest of this is just a theory of mine.


It is my theory that many artists end up suffering from depression and using substances because they suffer from PTSD. I've never seen a study connecting PTSD with creative people, but the University of Virginia did a study about the connection between depression and creativity which I found very interesting. PTSD is fairly new in the list of recognized illnesses so it could be that no one has studied this connection yet because it is too new. I've noticed that often when I get to know very creative people they have some traumatic personal history. While this isn't always true if it is true of you, it could be a source of writer's block. The connection of personal history was also noted in the University of Virginia study, which I quote below.

"Depression's role with creative writing will also be a function of the individual writers, their personal history, their circumstances, and the nature of their depressions," said researcher J. Anderson Thomson Jr., MD, a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Student Health Services and the university's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.

Of course, there are many other reasons why artists can struggle with depression, but today I just want to talk about PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) It is a type of anxiety disorder that some people have because of an experience that they either had themselves or witnessed.


Symptoms of PTSD can be depression, insomnia, low self-esteem, memory loss, etc. So I think that one thing that can happen is that a writer begins using their past experience to fuel their story. The process becomes painful and stressful. Low self-esteem kicks in with the fear of failure and they begin to self sabotage their own story.


Even if you don't think that you have a traumatic event you could still have one. Memory loss is common with PTSD. The mind tries to deal with what you saw or experienced and if it was too painful it can simply block off the memory of it from your consciousness. The symptoms don't go away though. The subconscious still remembers and it is still trying to deal with it.


So I think that if you have this kind of writer's block it will manifest in a pattern. Maybe it might manifest at the same time frame in almost every story that you write or it could show up when you are trying to write the same kind of scene as a couple of examples.


So what can you do about PTSD block? Honestly, therapy is the best recommendation for anyone suffering from PTSD. Working with a trained health professional is the best solution to deal with the problem. Some doctors may prescribe medication to help with the issue or a combination of both medication and therapy. Your PTSD may be so severe that you need both therapy and medication to help you work through it.


What are some things that you can do on your own?


You can join a support group, you can educate yourself about PTSD, practice relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga, you can perform outdoor activities, spend time with positive uplifting people, you can spend time in nature, and you can speak with someone that you trust.


One symptom of PTSD is feeling helpless or powerless. You can challenge that feeling by empowering yourself. Learn new skills, volunteer time to help others, etc. Your creative you know what makes you feel powerful. Challenge that feeling and prove it wrong. It won't ever go away entirely but you don't have to let it control you.


Physical fitness is sometimes neglected by the very creative, but don't let that be your reality. Physical fitness is empowering, and having a healthy body goes a long way towards having a healthy mind.


Reach out to others. A support group is a great place to meet sympathetic people who can help you and give you someone to talk to. It is very important to connect to others in a meaningful way. Writers can be very solitary people sometimes so I understand that this can be hard, but if it helps you to get over that writer's block and improves your mental health it will be worth it.


Have an adventure. Sometimes the most empowering thing that you can do is to have an adventure. Go out there and see the world. Take a trip, go hiking, kayak down a wild river, ski down a mountain. Get in touch with nature and get that adrenaline pumping. You will find the experience bracing.


Do you need help finding support. Try the resources below.

In the U.S.: Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1); call the Veteran Center Call Center hotline to talk with another combat veteran at 1-877-927-8387; or use the PTSD Program Locator to find specialized VA PTSD treatment. Call the NAMI helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI to find a support group near you or search for Trauma Treatment Programs (PDF).

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