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Obliterating Writer’s Block

Lessons from the world of medicine

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 3 years ago 4 min read
Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

As a pediatric intern, the term “writer’s block” was missing from my lexicon…

The brick San Francisco hospital where I served my apprenticeship huddled in a swale. Down the street the old synagogue Jim Jones had rented as “Peoples’ Temple” before heading off to Guyana bellied up to the sidewalk. A few months after starting my internship in 1978, Jones would orchestrate the Jonestown Massacre. Distraught grandparents soon appeared at our clinic, seeking dental records for their lost kin. Nine days after the Jonestown mass suicide and murders, on November 27, San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated. Amid the chaos, medical care at the hospital soldiered on, following centuries-old patterns of care. Like our professional forebears, good medicine mandated written recounting of our patients’ medical history, descriptions of their condition, and plans for treatment. These handwritten records were the backbone of coordinating patients’ care, shared with professionals from nurses to respiratory therapists to social workers. My fellow physicians and I wrote them immediately and without fail.

Thirty years later I came to know writing skills as the “coin of the realm” in the world of public health leadership. Handouts for parents when viral meningitis circulated in the community had to be understandable but just as importantly, timely. Even the grade school principal would pitch in with other staff, photocopying them and racing to get them into the kids’ backpacks before bus time. Likewise, information about a bioterrorism threat needed for the Governor’s press conference would not wait on a muse to appear. Ever.

Now, I no longer practice medicine but, in a nod to my humanities college studies, have turned to writing. Although I might stumble along my prose path at times, I don’t get stymied. Here are ideas and information I’ve found helpful to keep the words flowing:

Set measurable goals

Figure out how much time you want to devote to writing. Full time? Or twenty hours a week? An hour a day? Whatever you choose, track your time honestly. I use the Pomodoro Technique to avoid frittering away time — only I use fifty- minute increments.

Define writing-related activities worthy of your time

Think broadly. Include research, ongoing skill acquisition, invoicing (if you are a professional). Develop a variety of writing projects — everything from that great novel to flash fiction to entries in competitions. Then, if you hit a stone wall writing, swing to your list of other activities and switch tasks. Creativity ebbs and flows — use the ebbs to work on the routine.

Develop a network of fellow writers

Writing may seem to be a solitary activity, but it flourishes with support. When you are running dry, have a colleague read your material and make suggestions. Even their bad ideas can spur you on to positive action. Read their work. Learn from their successes and failures.

Understand high performance requires sleep, exercise and healthy food

Athletes know this. Writers need to as well. Writing, after all, is a brain activity. It follows that if you take care of your brain, your brain will do right by you. Researchers have found creativity and problem solving are enhanced after a period of sleep, even a short nap in some cases. “Sleeping on it” creates the opportunity for our brains to sift through the detritus of the day, to organize and make new connections. Avoiding stimulants and depressants may also be helpful. It’s fine to write at Starbucks, but they do sell decaf.

Leverage science

Boston neurologist Alice Flaherty, MD, Ph. D., became mightily interested in the mental aspects of writing after suffering disabling postpartum bouts of hypergraphia (an overwhelming urge to write, the flipside of writer’s block). She wrote The Midnight Disease about this and continues to address the intersection of science and creativity in her work. In a 2004 interview, Dr. Flaherty discussed the seasonal dip in creativity and productivity, similar to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), some writers live through annually. A relatively low risk and low-cost treatment she has investigated is the use of the full-spectrum light boxes first used to treat SAD. Another ploy is to anticipate this dip and schedule work accordingly.

Circadian rhythm may also play a part in creativity. In 2011, the journal Thinking & Reasoning published a study which found a person’s “optimal or non-optimal time of day” affected problem solving ability. Their counterintuitive take-home message: “tasks involving creativity might benefit from non-optimal time of day.” In other words, night owls (those whose “optimal time of day” is at night) might find creative activities, such as writing, easier to do in their off-peak hours — daytime. Early birds could give night-time writing a try.

Science is teasing out the mysteries behind writer’s block, bit by bit. Writers can leverage this knowledge to help keep their writing on track, often at little to no cost. Even minor studies — such as one finding the aroma of peppermint spurred alertness — can be leveraged. When I lag at the computer, I chew peppermint gum.

Consider seeking professional help

Difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as writing may reflect important, treatable health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety. If you suddenly develop trouble with your creativity or if you have persistent difficulties, consider seeking input from your healthcare provider. Discussing difficulties in writing performance with your physician can reap benefits beyond improved writing.

And of course, always remember — maybe a writer’s block is your brain telling you you’re headed in the wrong direction. Just sayin’…


About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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