The Writer’s Laboratory Blog

Does Listening to Music Impair Your Writing?

Does Listening to Music Impair Your Writing?

A common technique writers use to boost their creativity is listening to music. For instance, when I first started writing novels, I created a musical playlist designed to provide inspiration while I wrote. It consisted of instrumental songs without lyrics (mostly movie soundtracks) that stirred the particular emotions I was hoping to capture in my writing.

Turns out I am not alone in this technique. Online polls show a majority of people listen to music while they write or work. The assumption is that music, especially classical, non-lyrical music (think Mozart or Beethoven) boosts creativity.

But is that actually true?

A study published earlier this year decided to put this assumption to the test. Here was the setup: People were separated into two groups—one that listened to a particular type of music while working on a creativity task and one that listened to silence. Three different experiments used this setup to test the impact of different types of music.

  • music with unfamiliar (Spanish language) lyrics vs silence
  • music with familiar (English) lyrics vs silence
  • instrumental music with no lyrics vs silence

Across all three studies, listening to music was found to significantly decrease performance on the creativity test. It didn’t matter if the music had lyrics or not. It didn’t matter if they music was in an understood language or not. What clearly emerged was a pattern suggesting that in all of these conditions, music resulted in worse performance.

Prior to this series of experiments, some studies had shown evidence that music boosts creativity, but those studies measured creativity by using something called the Alternatives Uses Task (asks people to list as many creative ways to use an object, like a brick or a paperclip). In recent years, scientists have moved away from this measure because it fails to capture “convergent thinking,” which refers to the process of making connections between seemingly distinct concepts to come up with a novel and creative solution. In the 2019 studies, the researchers instead used the Compound Remote Associate Task (CRAT), which is a better measure of insight-based and verbally-based creativity. In this measure, people are given three words (dial/dress/flower) and must generate a fourth word that connect the other three (sun). Thus, the CRAT is a better assessment of the creativity process that goes on in the brain of a writer.

In sum, the 2019 studies provide strong evidence that, contrary to popular belief, listening to music actually impairs the creative processing writers rely on to produce their craft. But what if you can’t stand the sound of silence when working? Not to worry, here’s a simple solution. In the third experiment, in addition to the music and silence group, they also included a third group that listened to ambient library noise (distant chatter, typing, rustling of papers) while working on the creativity task. The results showed that this ambient noise group performed equivalent to the silence group (and better than the music group). So if you currently listen to music while you write, consider switching to ambient background noise instead.

I actually came to this conclusion on my own a few years ago. Although I listened to instrumental music while writing my first novel, I’ve since then moved away from that approach. Nowadays I listen to nature sounds instead. If it’s warm outside, I sit on my deck and write while listening to the birds chirp and the wind traipse through the trees. But when cold weather drives me inside, I pull up YouTube and listen to videos of nature sounds— babbling streams, ocean waves, crickets around a campfire, whatever sounds best fit the location and mood I’m trying to capture in my scene. Plus, research shows being exposed to nature in any form is a natural creativity booster (see my article “Get Some Fresh Air” to Boost Your Creativity for more info).

My favorite author Stephen King once claimed he listened to Metallica and Anthrax to get his creative juices flowing while writing. But it seems he too has moved away from this approach. In a 2011 interview in the Atlantic, King stated, “I listen to music when I rewrite now. I don’t listen to music when I compose anymore. I can’t. I’ve lost the ability to multitask that way!” King attributes the change to age, but in truth music is distracting to your brain no matter what your age. As a result, listening to music while writing or working can impair your ability to make those all-important Aha! insights that are necessary for the creativity process. So the next time you are writing, shut off your music, remove those earbuds and go sit in a park, a coffee shop, or a library for a well-needed creativity boost.

5 Easy Ways to Boost Your Brain Power

5 Easy Ways to Boost Your Brain Power

brain-1845962_1920 pixabay TheDigitalArtist

Everyone could use a brain boost now and then, especially writers. So it's no wonder that brain supplements are such a big business. In 2015, the supplement market specifically targeted toward boosting brain health was worth an estimated 2.3 billion dollars. By 2024, that number is expected to increase 500%, reaching an estimated 11.6 billion dollars.

More and more, people are turning to supplements to enhance their memory, alleviate depression and anxiety, increase their attention and focus, support longevity, and prevent dementia. Among the most popular of these brain supplements are carnitine, ginkgo, ginseng, fish oil, turmeric, and most recent to enter the market, CBD oil.

But do any of these supplements actually work?

Unfortunately, supplements are loosely regulated and good-quality research studies on their effectiveness are hard to come by. But the studies that have been conducted continue to find no evidence in support of their effectiveness. For example, a study published in The Lancet Neurology examined ginkgo biloba use among 2,854 older adults with memory complaints over the course of five years. In the end, the group who took ginkgo twice a day had the same number of Alzheimer’s cases as the group who took a placebo.

So rather than wasting your hard-earned money on ineffective supplements, try these 5 tips for boosting your brain health. Not only are they backed by science, they’re also easy to do and cost way less than supplements (many are even free).

1. Think Fork, Not Pill

Supplements in pill form may be ineffective, but there are lots of benefits to adding them to your diet the natural way—through food. Research shows that better brain health is associated with a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, walnuts, berries, and fatty fish.

For instance, a 2012 study on thousands of adults found that those who took fish oil pills to get their omega-3s performed just as well on a short-term memory test and had just as many dementia diagnoses as those who took a placebo. But another study found that people who got their omega’s the natural way—by eating a diet rich in fatty fish like salmon—did have a lower risk of dementia.

So certain vitamins and minerals do seem to be effective in boosting brain health, but you have to take them via a fork, not a pill (btw, a great cookbook that includes recipes with brain boosting ingredients is Fat for Fuel).

2. Get Your Sweat On

We all know exercise is great for your body, but it’s just as good for your brain.

A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that a lack of exercise in older adults put their risk of developing dementia on par with adults who were genetically predisposed to the disease. So even if you are not genetically predisposed for dementia, you could be putting yourself at risk if you are leading a sedentary lifestyle.

But protecting against dementia isn’t the only benefit of exercise. Regular heart-increasing activity helps the brain work more efficiently, no matter your age or condition. And this doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym hard to boost your brain health. Less strenuous activities, like walking, yoga, tai chi, are also effective as long as they get your heart rate up. Skip counting steps and instead focus on getting a minimum of 150 minutes per week of elevated heart rate activity (this is where a fitness tracker like Fitbit comes in very handy).

3. Train Your Brain

Your brain is like a muscle, if you don’t use it, it’s strength will start to fade. Regularly exercising your brain—through the use of brain teasers, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or learning a new language—is a great way to keep your brain in shape.

Now, not all studies support the effectiveness of brain training, but there are enough out there that do to suggest this is a viable option (it also suggests we need a lot more studies conducted on this topic). For example, a 2018 study had healthy adults perform a training exercise that focused on attention, processing speed, visual memory, and executive functioning. One group performed this training exercise for 15 min per day, 7 days a week, for 3 weeks. The other group skipped the training altogether. In the end, the brain training group demonstrated significantly better attention and response times.

So instead of spending your free time mindlessly binging Netflix, consider doing tasks that give your brain a workout.

4. Get a Pet

There are lots of studies showing how having a pet provides mental benefits.

For example, a 2016 meta-analysis analyzed 17 academic studies and found that people with long-term mental health problems significantly benefited from owning a pet. As the researchers put it, “pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships.”

And another study conducted on children found that for children with a dog, 12% tested positive for anxiety, compared to 21% of children without a dog.

So the next time you need to boost your mood, spend some time with a furry friend.

5. Grab Some Zzzz’s

Sleep is arguably the most important and most underappreciated factor when it comes to brain health. We live in an age where CEO’s, TV show hosts, and presidents brag about being able to function on just a few hours of sleep, but the data suggests that skimping on sleep is akin to starving your brain.

Study after study shows that getting 7-8 hours of sleep is necessary for all aspects of proper brain functioning, including memory, attention, learning, and creativity. You would never starve yourself of food before going to the gym, so why would you starve your brain by skimping on sleep?

Getting more sleep is easy, free, and essential for mental as well as physical health. If you take away one piece of advice from this article, it’s that you need to make sleep a priority and try to get 7-8 hours each night. For an excellent read on why sleep is important and how to get more of it, check out Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep.

And what if you absolutely can’t squeeze in more zzz’s? Try taking a nap. One study found that an hour-long midday nap boosted cognitive performance better than 200 mg of caffeine (equal to two espressos).

How to Set Writing Goals You Are Sure to Achieve

How to Set Writing Goals You Are Sure to Achieve

checklist-2589418_1920 pixabay StockSnap

There are generally two times of the year that writers set goals: New Year’s and NaNoWriMo. But if you really want to be successful, you should be constantly setting new writing goals for yourself.

But when it comes to writing goals, not all are created equal. Certain goals are more likely to be achieved than others. Surely we’ve all had the experience of setting a writing goal (or even a non-writing goal) and failing to achieve it. So how can you make sure that the writing goals you set for yourself are ones that will ensure success?

The good news is that psychological scientists have done the hard work for you. Decades of research has uncovered a few simple secrets that if you follow, will guarantee that the goals you set are ones you’ll actually achieve.

Essentially, it all comes down to this: Smart people set S.M.A.R.T. goals.


First, your writing goal should be specific. A major reason people fail at their goals is that they define them too vaguely. For example, saying “I want to write a novel” is much vaguer than saying “I want to write a chapter for my novel every month.” And saying “I want to get my shorts stories published” is vaguer than saying “I want to write five short stories and submit them by the end of the summer.” Making your writing goal specific gives you greater clarity on exactly what you want and how to get it. Plus, specific goals are less overwhelming because they take a big, looming task like writing a novel or getting published and break it into small, more manageable parts.


Second, your writing goal should be measurable. This just means defining your goal in numerical terms. By doing this, you get two birds with one stone because not only does it make your goal measurable, it automatically makes it specific too!

You have several options when it comes to making your goal measurable. For example, you could define your goal in terms of number of pages, chapters or short stories (“I want to submit five of my short stories to top magazines”). Or instead, you could do what I do and define your goal by word count (“I want to write 1000 words a day for my novel”).

By quantifying your goal in this way, it becomes far easier to tell if you are succeeding at your goal or failing. Notice how hard it is to tell if you are currently failing at the goal to “write a novel,” but it is plainly obvious when you are failing at the goal to “write a chapter a week.” Quantifying your goal in this way helps you identify early on if you are falling short of your goal and then you can adjust your behavior accordingly. Plus, it gives you an accurate sense of how much effort and time is required to succeed at your goal.


Third, your writing goal should be accountable. It is one thing to set a goal for yourself; it is another to tell others about your goal. The stakes for failure aren’t very high when we are the only ones to know about our writing goal. But when we tell others about our goal and we fail, we often experience a windfall of shame and guilt. Tons of studies show that if you make your goal public in some form—this could be telling your loved ones, the members of your writer’s group, finding a writing buddy in your online community, or posting your goal on social media—you are more likely in the end to actually achieve your goal. So whatever your writing goal is, don’t keep it a secret.


Fourth, your writing goal should be realistic. Or to state it another way, your goal should be reasonably attainable given your level of experience and your talents. We all wish we could magically write 10,000 words a day (and there a few crazy writers out there who claim they can) but such a goal is completely unrealistic, especially if you have a full-time job, a family that actually wants to see you face-to-face, or any other number of obligations.

Overly enthusiastic writers (aka writing novices) often make this fatal mistake or starting out with unattainable goals. They leap out of the starting gate with an unrealistic idea of what they want to accomplish and as a result, practically guarantee that they will fall flat on their face.

So what is a realistic writing goal? It depends on who you ask.

Hemingway supposedly wrote 500-1000 words a day. Instead, Stephen King writes about 2000 words a day, every single day (even on his birthday and Christmas). But King recognizes that not everyone has the luxury to be a full-time writer like himself, so in his excellent book On Writing (a must-have for any writer) he suggests you aim for 1,000 words a day. Or if you a fan of Julia Cameron’s suggestion to do morning pages (based on her advice book The Artist’s Way), you can hit 750 words at the start of each day. The point is this: it is easy to identify an unrealistic goal, but only you can determine what an attainable goal is for you personally.

My advice: if you are a writer struggling to find time to write, start with a goal of 500 words a day (or if you prefer time, 30 minutes a day). Once you consistently hit that goal, ratchet it up to 750 or 1,000 words. And if you struggle to even hit 500 words, lower the bar a bit and strive for 200 words. It may take you longer to finish your novel but even with a small goal like that, you will eventually finish if you stick with it. Sometimes slow and steady is the only way you can finish the race, and that’s okay, so long as you actually finish.


Lastly, your writing goal should be time-bound. This means you should assign deadlines to your writing goal. You can (and should) do this in two ways. First, assign an overarching end-date to your overall goal. For example, if you want to write a novel, give yourself a reasonable deadline for when you want to have the first draft finished. Second, and perhaps more importantly, break up your goal into mini-goals and assign these deadlines along the way. So instead of saying, “I will work on my novel this week” you could say “I will write for an hour a day five days this week.” Or instead of saying, “I want to submit my short stories this year” you could say “Every Friday I will spend one hour on Duotrope identifying desirable markets for my stories and then submitting them.”


Okay, so let’s put it all together now. If your goal is to write a novel this year, try setting a goal like this: “I will write 1,000 words a day (specific/measurable/realistic) five days of the week (time-bound). I will tell my best friend about my goal and tell them to check in weekly and make sure I am sticking to it (accountable).” See how much harder it is to slack on this goal compared to the standard “I will write a novel this year”?

Before I leave you, here is one additional piece of advice: To make it even more likely that you will achieve your writing goal, take a moment to actually write down your goal on a Post-It or notecard and stick it in a location that you will see every day. For example, I write my goals on Post-Its and stick them on the bathroom mirror or on the corner of my TV, but you could also put them on the fridge, your laptop, or wherever they will serve as a constant reminder of what you want to achieve.

[For more excellent advice on setting goals and developing habits, I highly recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg]


Mindset Matters: Adopting the Right Mentality Can Help You Cope with Rejection

Mindset Matters: Adopting the Right Mentality Can Help You Cope with Rejection

Do you believe that good writers are born inherently talented? Or do you think that good writers are made and molded overtime?

How you answer this question doesn’t just affect your perspective of writers. It also impacts how you deal with that unavoidable bane of any writer’s existence: Rejection.

To understand why, let’s talk about rejection first. Rejection is an inescapable part of being a writer. Sure, you could just write your stories and hide them in a drawer never to be seen again—this is what J. D. Salinger did after his hit Catcher in the Rye left a bad taste in his mouth—but most writers are not content with this option. We write not just because we want to get the story down but because we want to share it with others (and let’s face it, some of us want to make some money while we do it). But sharing our writing inevitably opens us up to rejection. A lot of it.

Rejection stings, no matter where you are in your writing career. But it certainly stings more when you are just starting out as a writer. This is because novice writers are more likely to interpret rejection as a sign that they don’t have the skills and talent necessary to be successful at their craft. So it isn’t the rejection per say that hurts so bad. Rather it is our interpretation of the rejection. If a writer sees it as a sign that they are unskilled, it hurts like a stab to the heart.

Now, back to the opening question. The debate over whether good writers are born or made has raged for centuries, with nearly every literary figure weighing in on the issue. Jack Kerouac stated in his 1962 article entitled Are Writers Born or Made? that “Five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what [James] Joyce did with it: He was simply born to do it.” On the other hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “Every artist was first an amateur.”

Now if you tend to side with Keroauc and think great writers are born, you have what psychologists call a fixed mindset. You tend to assume that things like intelligence, athletic ability, and yes, writing talent, are fixed qualities that get hardwired into the brain at the factory. People are either born with an ability or they aren’t, and there isn’t much they can do to change it. From this perspective, success in writing should come fairly easily. If you have to work hard to succeed, then you probably aren’t that talented and should seek out another career path.

However, if you side with Emerson and think great writers are made through diligent effort and practice, you have a growth mindset. You see talent as something that is constantly being programmed and updated in the brain. As a result, abilities are malleable and can be improved upon. From this perspective, success in writing never comes easy and effort is always required.

So, which mindset is better?

If we take a look at the scientific literature on this topic, we see that tons of studies confirm people with a growth mindset are better able to cope with failure and rejection. This is because people with a fixed mindset interpret failure as a signal that they just don’t have the talent and skills necessary to be successful (and they never will). As a result, when fixed writers experience rejection, they become paralyzed by the failure and often give up.

People with a growth mindset interpret failure in a completely different way. To them, failure signals that they didn’t put in enough effort. So when growth writers experience rejection, instead of folding, they double down. They work even harder, which in turn increases their chances of future success. Growth writers see rejection and failure as not only a necessary part of the journey but a beneficial one. To them, rejection is the fire they use to forge their writing skills into hardened steel.

Because people with a growth mindset are less likely to give up after failure, they tend to be more successful. That’s good news if you already have a growth mindset; bad news if you don’t. But here’s some good news for everyone. Research shows you can change your mindset. Contrary to popular belief (and contrary to what those with a fixed mindset believe), the brain is constantly rewiring itself by shutting down defunct pathways and adding new ones (the technical term for this malleable quality is “neuroplasticity”). So according to brain science, we can all improve our skills just as long as we are willing to put in the work.

So let’s review. If you want to stop being paralyzed by rejection, it helps to adopt a growth mindset. But how? Lucky for you, I have a few scientifically-backed suggestions.

1. Become Mindful of Your Self-Talk and Argue Back

The first step in addressing any problem is identifying it. So the first thing you need to do to change your mindset is to identify when you are slipping into a fixed mentality. For example, a middle-aged writer (such as myself) might get a rejection for the umpteenth time and think, “Maybe I’m too old to start a writing career.” But if I remind myself that this is my fixed mindset talking, I could argue back by stating, “Then again, you’re never too old to learn a new skill,” or “Lots of successful writers started their career at my age or even later.”

2. Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome

I am the first to admit that when I get rejected, I just want to throw my hands up and say, “I just wasted all of that time for nothing. What’s the point!” But then I remind myself that “failure” is just another word for “learning.” Even though the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, I still benefited from the process. Author Kristin Hannah summarized this principle best when she said, “it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult. There are always going to be naysayers, and it’s always going to be easier to either give up or follow the path of least resistance or write what appears to be the easy answer for success at that moment. Those skills that you develop as an unpublished writer—your discipline, your dedication—I think all of that holds you in really good stead as you continue forward and transition from a beginning writer to a working writer to a career novelist.” So remember this: every single thing you do helps you build your writing career, regardless of whether it results in a publication.

Constructive criticism (which is rare these days) helps you identify aspects of your writing that need improvement. But even a form-letter rejection with little feedback can help you hone your coping skills and thicken your skin. This means that someday in the future when you finally do break in, you’ll be bringing with you an arsenal of skills to help you navigate your new writing career.

3. Discover the Power of Yet

To help students adopt a growth mindset, a high school in Chicago made a radical move. They did away with failure in their grading system. When a student didn’t pass a class, instead of an F they received a Not Yet. So the next time your work is rejected, don’t interpret it as evidence that you are not a skilled writer. Instead, remind yourself that what it really means is you are not a skilled writer yet. Notice how just the addition of that one word changes the meaning and conveys a sense of hope.

4. Expand Your Mind

Just learning that your brain can change is enough to rewire your mindset. One study found that teaching children about the brain’s malleable quality led them to adopt a growth mindset in school, boosted their motivation, and made them more resilient to failure. You can do the same thing by googling the term neuroplasticity. Or better yet, check out the TED Talk by my fellow colleague and growth mindset expert, Carol Dweck. And you can also look for evidence of neuroplasticity in your own life by reflecting on a skill or hobby that you once were not very good at and now are.

5. Focus on the Internal Reasons Why You Write

People with a fixed mindset hunger for others’ approval because that’s the only way they can validate their talent. They want to prove their talent, not improve it. But if the main reason for writing is to get others’ approval (or to become rich, which also requires others’ approval), you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. So when the inevitable sting of rejection strikes, remind yourself that you write, first and foremost, because you are compelled to do it. A true writer writes, regardless of whether they get approval for it.

6. Praise Others for their Effort

In addition to changing your own mindset, consider paying it forward and changing the mindset of those around you. When a child brings home straight A’s and their parents say, “Wow, you must be a genius,” they are unknowingly encouraging their child to adopt a fixed mindset. Instead, if the parents were to say, “Wow, you must have worked really hard in your classes,” they would be encouraging a growth mindset. Research shows that praising children for their effort (not their inherent talent) helps them cope with failure and improves their performance. So the next time you praise someone for their success—be it a child or adult—highlight their effort, not their talent.

Adopting a growth mindset takes practice. But if you follow these tips, you can release yourself from the fear of criticism and rejection. Now that doesn’t mean that the next rejection you receive won’t hurt—even highly successful writers still get irked when they get a bad review—but it does mean that the rejection will probably hurt less. And more importantly, it means that the rejection won’t serve as a roadblock to your success.

Remember that you are not limited by what you can do. You are only limited by what you think you can do (or can’t do). It is your mindset that truly matters.

This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 008

Finding Your Hidden Muse: 7 Tips for Unlocking your Unconscious Writer

Finding Your Hidden Muse: 7 Tips for Unlocking your Unconscious Writer

Novice authors often assume that writing occurs solely in their conscious mind. They toil over the perfect opening sentence. They twist words to the breaking point trying to create vivid prose and immersive scenes and fanciful metaphors.

But experienced writers know better. They know that the true writer resides in their unconscious mind. In Bag of Bones, Stephen King describes the writing process as analogous to having a bunch of guys with a truck pull up and unload furniture into your basement. Furniture you can’t see because it’s all wrapped in padded quilts, but you don’t need to see because you know it’s everything you need to write your story. All the writer has to do is unwrap each piece, carry it up the stairs, and set up in the correct rooms.

In King’s analogy, the “boys in the basement” are his unconscious mind. His muse. He is suggesting that as a writer he doesn’t create the story elements; they already exist within his unconscious. His job is to merely pull each story element from his unconscious and arrange it so as to make the best story.

What is the Unconscious Mind?

Psychologists have long held that the mind has two major systems: conscious and unconscious. The conscious system is the part of the mind we are aware of. It’s the part of us that debates options and makes decisions. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact, they are really only aware of this conscious aspect.

The unconscious system occurs outside of our awareness or control. It is the part of the mind that handles all the heavy lifting so we can live our lives more easily. It is always running in the background, scanning all the millions of pieces of information that bombard our brains and determining what gets passed to our consciousness and what gets buried. Our unconscious mind is a treasure trove of forgotten experiences, emotions, ideas and memories. Unlike its conscious sibling, the unconscious mind is able to process this wealth of data very quickly and efficiently. And allowed to, it can make novel connections between all this seemingly unrelated information, which is essentially what creativity is all about. Amazingly, it does this all without us even being aware of it chugging away in the basement.

The unconscious mind is often thought of as a dumb creature, only able to deliver basic “tip of the tongue” facts or give us strange dreams about talking Rhinoceroses. But a great deal of research suggests it is actually our unconscious mind who is responsible for most of our decisions and innovations. Our conscious mind just takes the credit after the fact. For example, one study by John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues found that brain activity increased several seconds before participants made a conscious decision to move their finger. That means that their unconscious mind had decided to move their finger well before their conscious mind had.

Recognizing that ideas don’t just get consciously invented out of thin air may shake your sense of free will, but it is also incredibly freeing. It means you don’t create good story ideas; you unearth them from your unconscious. It means that you already have the idea for your next great story lurking down deep inside of you, you just have to help it find its way out. But here is the rub: the unconscious mind is a shy creature. It only comes out to play when there are few distractions or noises to scare it off. As a result, it is very hard to just force yourself to be creative. You can’t just tug at the leash and expect your inner muse to come running (do this and all you’ll get is a bad case of writer’s block). Instead, you need to coax it out of its den by dialing down anything that would activate your conscious mind.

Lucky for us, writers far more successful than us have found ways to accomplish this. Through trial and error, they have discovered ways to unlock their inner muse. Let’s explore a few such tips, ones that are not only used by esteemed writers but also backed up by science.

Seven Tips for Unlocking Your Unconscious Writer:

1. Sleep On It

John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” Research backs this one up. A study published in Nature found that people who were given a creative task to solve and then allowed to sleep on it were more successful than those who remained awake to solve it. Sleep allows your unconscious mind to restructure information, resulting in new and insightful responses. Just make sure to keep a notepad by the bed for when inspiration strikes.

2. Give Yourself Permission to Daydream

“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him where he got his ideas. “You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” In support of Gaimen’s assertion, a 2013 review of mind-wandering studies found that when people had a task and were given a break in which their mind could wander, their responses were more creative. So rather than avoiding moments of boredom with your smartphone or social media, relish in the boredom. Use those moments of riding on the subway or sitting in the waiting room to daydream, just like you used to do as a kid.

3. Drink Up (Within Reason)

For as long as writers have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Poe and Hemingway to Faulkner and King—the list goes on and on (and on). As any drinker can tell you, alcohol weakens the unconscious mind. But a word of warning. It is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity; it is another to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? One study found that a blood content level of just .075 was enough to improve people’s creativity (that’s roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine or two beers).

4. Keep Your Hands Busy

Something that uses your hands but allows your mind to be free to wander. Stephen King wrote in Bag of Bones, “I made no effort to think—an old trick from my writing days. Work your body, rest your mind, let the boys in the basement do their jobs.” Research supports this argument that busy hands results in daydreaming minds. Good options are household chores like dusting and vacuuming, physical hobbies like knitting or woodworking, or just doodling or using a “fidget widget” (e.g., Slinky, Fidget Spinner, smooth stone). Anything that busies your hands and focuses your conscious mind, allowing your unconscious muse to freely roam. This is probably why many writers, including J. K. Rowling, Joe Hill, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaimen, Danielle Steel, and Clive Barker, prefer to write their stories longhand.

5. Write During Your “Off Time”

People have what scientists call a circadian preference, which essentially means they are either morning people or evening people. You probably assume it is best to write during your most optimal time (morning people writing in the morning, evening people in the evening), but that’s not true. Although analytical thinking—the kind you use to solve math problems—is better during people’s optimal times, a 2011 study found that creativity was actually better during people’s non-optimal times. Because our conscious mind is groggy during our non-optimal time, it relaxes the reigns on our unconscious mind and gives it more freedom to wander.

6. Take a Shower

A survey conducted by creativity expert Scott Kaufman found that 72% of people report having a creative breakthrough in the shower. This is a secret writers have known for a long time. Agatha Christie, Edmond Rostand, and Dalton Trumbo all wrote while soaking in their tubs. And Woody Allen once stated in an Esquire interview that he frequently uses long showers to break through writer’s block. So why is a shower so good for creativity? It is an activity that is relaxing, done in isolation, and lacks other distractions—all essential components for unlocking your inner muse. To best optimize your shower, consider buying bathtub markers or a waterproof notepad like AquaNotes so you can immediately jot down all your amazing ideas.

7. Get Outside

Nature is one of the best places to reacquaint yourself with your unconscious mind. Lots of writers go for walks or run outside to get their creative juices flowing. Stephen King walked four miles every day (until a freak accident stopped him). Joyce Carol Oates is an avid runner who stated, “The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.” Research backs up this tip too. Study after study has shown that walking in nature (or even just viewing images of nature) boosts creativity by as much as 50%. Plus, as an added bonus, getting outside has been shown to reduce stress, increase happiness and boost physical health!

Writing Requires Both Unconscious and Conscious Minds

Once the “boys in the basement” send up a good idea, you still have to work hard to unearth it and get the words down on the page. Usually that means allowing your unconscious mind to drive the story during the initial writing phase and making sure your conscious mind isn’t getting in the way. As author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”

But once the initial draft is written, that’s when you want to invite your conscious mind to the party. Your inner muse may design the first draft, but it is up to your inner editor to perfect the story and get it to the finish line.

This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 006.

Do you have other advice for unlocking your hidden muse? If so, I’d love to hear it! Tell me in a comment.

A One-Minute Motivation Hack to Overcome Procrastination

A One-Minute Motivation Hack to Overcome Procrastination

Goals cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency” – Denzel Washington

What are your writing goals? To finally write your first novel? Put together a collection of short stories? Submit your query letter to agents? Pen that memoir you’ve always wanted to get around to but never did?

We all have goals. Goals about our writing career, but also goals about our health, our hobbies, and our lives. And yet, it seems we are always failing at our goals. But why?

One of the main reasons people fail at their goals is that they don’t have a good goal plan. On Sunday night they think, “tomorrow I’m going to wake up an hour early and finally start writing that novel.” They set their alarm for 5:30 am but don’t plan any further than that. Come Monday morning, they roll over, hit the snooze button, and dredge through another week without a single change to their lives.

Sound familiar?

No shame here—we all do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can achieve our goals whatever they are, you just need to know the right way to go about it. As Denzel Washington pointed out in his 2015 commencement speech at Dillard University, to achieve your goals you need discipline and consistency (the guy is worth over $150 million so he must know something about achieving goals). But that’s easier said than done.

For this post, let’s just focus on the consistency part. To be consistent, you need a good plan. One that will ensure that no matter what your day is like, you will still get off your butt and work on your goal no matter what. Lucky for us, psychologists have figured out exactly how to develop such a plan. Even better, you can do it in under 60 seconds. Here’s how.

A good plan should specify five things:

  1. when you are going to work on your goal,
  2. where you are going to do it,
  3. how you are going do it,
  4. how long you will do it, and
  5. your backup plan in case any of these components fall apart.

For instance, if you are trying to stick to a writing routine, it’s not enough to just want to write every day. It’s not even enough to set your alarm for 5:30 am. You need to develop a plan that states exactly

  1. when you are going to write (“I will write at 6 am Monday thru Friday”),
  2. where you are going to write (“I will write in my chair on the back porch”),
  3. how you are going to write (“I will grab a cup of coffee and then write my novel on my laptop”),
  4. how long (“I will write for one hour” or “I will write until I get 1,500 words down”), and
  5. your backup plan in case something interferes with your above plan (“If I don’t have enough time for a full writing session that day, I will spend just 15 min outlining my next scene”).

Psychologists call this type of goal plan an implementation intention. Implementation intentions refer to an if-then statement that specifies the exact behavior you will perform in a particular situation. Implementation intentions are referred to as if-then statements because they typically take the form of “IF situation Y occurs, THEN I will engage in behavior X.” So IF it is 6 am on Monday morning, THEN I will go on the porch and write. And IF my schedule gets too hectic and I don’t have enough time for a full writing session, THEN I will outline my next scene.

A number of research studies have shown how beneficial implementation intentions are. For example, one study by Orbell and colleagues had women set the goal of conducting a monthly breast examination to check for potential tumors. For women who just intended to complete this goal, only 53% actually completed the exam during the next month. But when the women wrote down exactly when and where and how they would conduct the monthly exam, 100% completed the exam during the next month. Other studies have found similar effects using different goals, such as taking vitamins, exercising, eating a low-fat diet, or recycling.

So why are these nifty little plans so effective?

One reason is that, because of how specific they are, they are easy to follow. This ensures that your goal-directed behavior is the same every time. There’s that consistency Denzel was talking about.

A second reason is that because of their specificity, it is really easy to see when you’re falling behind. If your goal is just to “write more,” that goal is so abstract it’s hard to tell when you’re succeeding at it and when you’re failing. But if your goal is to “write at 6 am on Mon-Fri for 1 hour” then it is really easy to see when you are hitting your mark and when you are falling short.

A third reason is that implementation intentions make our goal-behaviors automatic. Anyone who has tried to kick a bad habit knows that the beauty of habits is you don’t have to think about them or will yourself to do it. You just do it without even thinking about it. For example, if every day at 4 pm you grab a Snickers bar out of the vending machine, chances are when the time rolls around you will find yourself mindless standing in front of the machine and wondering “how did I get here?” That’s because overtime, your repeated behavior caused your brain to create a connection between the behavior (eat a candy bar) and an environmental cue (4 pm). Now here’s the cool thing—implementation intentions harness this automatic power for good. For example, if you form the implementation intention, “IF I enter a building and see an elevator, THEN I will take the stairs instead,” you’ve linked the exercise goal (taking the stairs) with an environmental cue (seeing an elevator). By routinely linking your writing to a time (6 am), a place (on the porch), or an already formed habit (the smell of coffee), those cues become unconscious reminders to your brain that it’s time to start writing. Do this a few times and you’ll find yourself automatically grabbing your laptop and heading to your designated writing area without having to think about it.

So, enough talking, let’s start doing. Once you finish reading this post, take just one minute of your day and write out your implementation intention on a piece of paper. Then post it somewhere where you will see it every day. Do this one simple step and you will double your odds of achieving your writing goal (or any goal for that matter)!

And as a bonus, here is another one-minute motivation hack to really sky-rocket your success. Get a calendar (or print one out for free here) and mark a big X on every day that you actually fulfill your implementation intention. Once you see those X’s all lined up in a row, you aren’t going to want to spoil your winning streak. But if you do, no biggie. Treat it like a game. Maybe this time you got through five days in a row until you fell off the wagon. Start again and see if you can’t go for six! Or start a competition with a friend and post your streaks on social media.

If you try this technique and have success, I would love to hear about it! Shoot me an email or note it in a comment.

Now get going!

[This post includes excerpts from my Pearson textbook, Motivation Science].

The #1 Place to Boost Your Creativity (Hint: You’ll be Naked!)

The #1 Place to Boost Your Creativity (Hint: You’ll be Naked!)

Has this ever happened to you? You’re taking a shower, mindlessly scrubbing away and then—BAM!—you suddenly get struck with creative insight. Maybe you got an idea for a novel. Or maybe you figured out how to best start your blog post. Or maybe you just finally figured out who Jon Snow’s real parents are in Game of Thrones.

Whatever the breakthrough, if you had it in the shower then you are not alone. A survey conducted by creativity expert Scott Kaufman examined people from eight countries and found that 72% reported having creative breakthroughs in the shower. Interestingly, that number was higher than those reporting creative breakthroughs at work.

So what’s happening here? Why are showers so good for creativity?

To understand the “power of the shower,” you first need to recognize where creativity comes from. Unlike other cognitive tasks that rely on analytical strategies housed in our conscious mind, creativity and insight come largely from our unconscious mind (to learn more about the role of the unconscious in creativity, see my earlier post). Successful artists know this fact and amass all sorts of simple, easy tricks that allow them to tap into their unconscious well of creativity. For example, in prior posts I’ve discussed how artists ignite their creative muse through sleep, mind wandering, nature, and asking “what if”.

In this post, we’ll discuss why taking a shower may be the easiest (and definitely the cleanest) creativity hack of all. And what’s particularly great about this trick is that you shower every day anyway—but chances are you’re not be doing it the right way.

The Power of the Shower

Have you ever ha the answer to some question on the tip of your tongue but couldn’t retrieve it? Maybe you’re trying to remember something you read earlier in the day or maybe you just can’t identify the first movie you saw with Nicolas Cage. The point is, the harder you press your brain to come up with the solution, the more stubbornly resistant it gets. But then you finally give up, switch to another task, and—Aha!—there’s the solution. That “Aha! moment” is called insight and it has been studied by psychologists and neuroscientists for decades.

What the research shows is that when it comes to Aha! moments, our brains are a bit like a temperamental dog. The harder you tug at the leash, the more resistant your brain becomes. But loosen the leash and allow your brain to scamper about freely and suddenly the solution will pop into your head. The reason for this has to do with differences between our mind’s conscious and unconscious processes. Most people assume that our brain works hardest when we are consciously concentrating on a task (like the tip of the tongue example), but that’s not true. In these situations, your brain’s command center (the prefrontal cortex) is focusing all its resources on a single task, but it has to shut down other areas and ideas to do so. Concentration makes our brains censor themselves, and as a result, most of the new and creative solutions are tossed away before we even realize we had them.

But when we relax, our command center relaxes too, and our brain enters its unconscious mode, what psychologists call the “default network.” When the default network comes online, it opens up pathways in the brain that allow for new connections to form. It is in these connections that creative genius is born. Gutenberg combined the screw press (used to press fruits in his day) with paper printing. Einstein uniquely combined energy, mass, and the speed of light in his famous equation, E=mc2. Steve Jobs, who intuitively stated, “creativity is just connecting things,” combined technology with artistic aesthetic.

But here’s the rub, the default network is a shy creature. It only comes out to play when there are few distractions or noises to scare it off. As a result, it is very hard to just force yourself to be creative. You can’t just tug at the leash and expect your creative mind to come running. Instead, you need to coax it out of its den by dialing down anything that would activate the brain’s command center and scare off your default network.

Now back to the shower. Showers are very good at coaxing your default network to come out and play. Let’s explore a few reasons why:

1. Showering is relaxing (for body and mind)

We all know a shower soothes our sore muscles and relaxes our weary body, but it relaxes our mind as well. As mentioned above, when we relax, our default network becomes active and when it does, it acts like an airport hub, connecting random thoughts and forgotten memories together to create unique ideas. When we relax, we also produce more alpha waves in our brains. Alpha waves occur whenever we meditate or daydream and they often serve as a key to unlocking deeper states of consciousness and creativity.

The opposite happens when we are not relaxed and over-worked. Our brain dulls and our creativity recedes into the background.

2. Showering is a solitary act (well, usually)

To be creative, we have to forge a close, intimate bond with ourselves. And as anyone in a relationship knows, it’s hard to juggle multiple relationships at once. That is why solitude is so important to the creative process. By being alone, we are able to turn our attention inward and reacquaint ourselves with our own mind.

Artists have long recognized the power of solitude. In fact, it is so common that the image of the “reclusive artist” has become a stereotype. You can see this reclusive behavior in famous musicians (Michael Jackson, Syd Barrett, Sly Stone), film directors (Howard Hughes, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick), and writers (Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, J. D. Salinger, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee). Solitude is often seen as a negative behavior but it helps artists forge “constructive internal reflection,” a vital component in any creative endeavor.

Artists have long valued solitude but it has taken science a bit longer to warm up to the idea. Most psychological studies focus on the negative aspect of solitude: loneliness. But these are not one and the same. Most notably is the fact that solitude is chosen whereas loneliness is imposed on us. And this is not to say that the presence of others doesn’t facilitate the creative process. Collaboration is a key element to many artists’ and scientists’ creative success. But such collaboration is usually effective during the idea refinement phase, not the initial idea generation phase.

3. Showering is boring (but in a good way)

Albert Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” Assuming Einstein is right (and he usually is), this means that we actually have to “waste time” if we want to be more creative. But when was the last time you wasted time? When was the last time you felt bored? When I was a kid, I remember being bored A LOT. The Saturday morning cartoons would stop around 9am and I was bored. Sitting around in the dentist’s waiting room and I was bored. Seated in class, staring out the window and I was bored. But I can’t tell you the last time I felt truly bored. Can you? The invention of the smartphone has nearly eradicated boredom from our lives, but doing so may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Because the truth is, we could all use a little more boredom in our lives nowadays.

When taking a shower, our biggest task is soaping our body and shampooing our hair. It is probably the most boring ten minutes we spend each day, and yet…we all look forward to a nice, long shower. One reason why boredom is beneficial is because it’s just another way for our brain to relax. But boredom also accomplishes another important task: it allows our ideas to incubate.

Multiples studies have shown that the quality of an idea or solution increases if you allow it to incubate—which means occupying your mind with another task while mulling over the problem. Switching your brain from the problem to another mindless task distracts your conscious brain, allowing your unconscious brain to generate creative solutions. For instance, one study had people invent new names for pasta shapes. After assigning this task, some participants immediately generated answers, whereas others worked on a boring task for three minutes (i.e., tracking a circle on the computer with their mouse) before generating their answers. The results showed that those who were given an incubation period (i.e., those who worked on the boring task first) produced more creative responses than those without the incubation period.

We all have an intuitive sense of how important this incubation concept is. This is why we often say, “I’ll sleep on it” when making an important decision, but you could just as easily say, “I’ll shower on it.”

4. Showering blocks out distractions

In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to find a place free of distraction. Our smartphones are constantly beeping and alerting us to emails and texts and tweets and Facebook updates, not to mention their million apps that taunt us to crush candies or hunt Pokemon. And even if we shut down our phones, there’s streaming TV, 24-hour news feeds, traffic, drones buzzing overhead, and…well, you get the point. It’s all too much for our archaic brains to handle.

That’s why a shower is so beneficial. For ten minutes each day, your brain gets a break from all those distractions. No phones. No television. No other people demanding your attention. When we turn the faucet on, nearly all sound is blocked out. And when our skin gets wet and pruney, it dulls our sense of touch. Truth is, taking a shower is the closest thing we get to being in one of those big, expensive sensory deprivation chambers (which have been shown to boost creativity).

Why is sensory deprivation so important? Our brains know that the more sensory information it receives, the more it has to attend to it and the less it can attend to being creative. Shutting down sensory input allows our brains to turn away from the outside world and focus their attention inward. It gives our brains free reign to roam our internal landscape and think about whatever it wants.

Sensory deprivation is so important that your brain actually shuts down sensory input when it is trying to be creative. One really cool brain scan study found that just before people have an Aha! moment of creative insight, the activity in their visual cortex drops off temporarily. Essentially, the mind is closing its eyes to avoid distractions so it can generate more creative solutions. This tells us that anything you can do to make it easier for your brain to shut out distractions will greatly improve your creative thinking.

Shielding yourself from distraction is especially important for people naturally high in creativity. This is because creative brains are spongy brains (or what researchers call “leaky sensory gating”). Creative brains soak up everything around them. This is a good thing, because it leads to more creative innovations and connections, but it’s a double-edged sword because it means creative people can easily sidetracked. That’s why sensory depriving environments (like a shower) are especially helpful in getting creative people to focus.

Put It All Together—The Perfect (Shower) Storm

When you combine these four qualities of a shower, it creates the perfect storm for creativity. As Kaufman stated,

“The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”

For this reason, writers, innovators and scientists alike have all relied on the shower to get their creative juices flowing. Most famous is the story of Archimedes, a Greek mathematician who discovered he could use volume displacement to measure gold when he noticed how the water level rose when he got into his bath. But there are lots of other examples.

In 1990, NASA engineer Jim Crocker realized how to fix the distorted lenses of the Hubble telescope when he noticed the European-style showerhead mounting while showering in his hotel room.

Writers are notorious for doing their best work in the bathroom. Agatha Christie, Edmond Rostand, and Dalton Trumbo all wrote while soaking in their tubs. And Woody Allen once stated in an Esquire interview,

“In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.”

Creativity is Like a Living Thing

One important thing to keep in mind. Creativity is like a living thing that grows and thrives in the space between our external and internal worlds. But just like any living thing, you have to cultivate this growth. When apple farmers want to produce the best fruit, they prune back new shoots (sometimes called “suckers”) that compete with the more fruit-bearing branches for light and water. They essentially create a space for the fruit to grow into.

Creativity is the same way. You can’t just expect it to be there when you need it. You need to cultivate it. You need to prune back external distractions and create a space for it to grow into. You can do this in a lot of ways, including meditation, daydreaming, and walking in nature, but the problem is that in this day and age of go-go-go, such things are seen as a luxury and so we are less likely to do them. Showering, on the other hand, is a necessity. No matter how busy you are, you still have to set aside a few minutes each day to shower. So for people who are just beginning to cultivate their creative roots, the shower is a great starting place.

Tips on How to Optimize Your Shower

Here are some simple ways to optimize your shower for maximum creativity benefits:

1. Shower alone. This means not only keeping your significant other out of the shower stall itself but also the entire bathroom. No showering while your husband is shaving or your wife is blow-drying her hair. Remember, isolation is key to developing creative ideas.

2. Keep all distractions out of the bathroom while you shower—this includes your phone, playing music, listening to the news, a television, ANYTHING!

3. Do some prep work—think about your problem or do a bit of research on it just before you take a shower, then allow your conscious mind to relax while you bathe. That way, your shower time allows your creative thoughts to enter the all-important incubation period.

4. Shower in the morning or evening, when your brain’s command center is groggy and your unconscious brain is free to roam. Research shows that creativity peaks when your mind is the least alert.

5. Have a way to record your brilliant ideas in the shower. You could keep a notebook just outside the shower, but this can get messy, so here are two better solutions. One option is to buy a set of “bathtub markers” (Crayola makes some) or dry erase markers (if you have tile) to scribble your creative ideas on the shower stall. If you prefer a more organized approach, get a waterproof notepad like the one made by AquaNotes.

So next time you are having a creative block, take a shower and try out these tips. Not only will your body feel fresh afterwards, but your mind will too!

The Four Strains of Writer’s Block and How to Treat Them

The Four Strains of Writer’s Block and How to Treat Them

Writer’s block. We’ve all experienced the dreaded symptoms. Your hand frozen over the page. The blank screen staring back at you like an unblinking eyeball. The fear rising, whispering “you’ll never be able to write anything good, ever again.”

Writer’s block is one of the few things that nearly all writers share, no matter where they are in their careers. The beginning writer working on their first book. The bestselling debut novelist trudging through the sophomore slump. The prolific author who fears the well has finally run dry. Esteemed authors from Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck to Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have all lamented their woeful run-ins with this dreaded disease.

Given the ubiquity of this scourge, you’d think there would be clear advice on how to treat it. There is not. In fact, the most common advice is contradictory. Some insist writer’s block can only be cured by more writing, suggesting daily scheduled writing periods or writing prompts to get the creative juices flowing. But another camp argues the last thing blocked writers should do is force themselves to write. Instead, they advise taking a break, reading a book, doing laundry—anything that will temporarily distract you from the blocked project.

So which is it?

Not only am I a writer but I’m also a research psychologist, so whenever I see contradictory information, I look to the data. And the data suggests that the solution depends on the type of writer’s block you have.

That’s right, contrary to popular belief, there is more than one kind. There are in fact four, according to Yale researchers Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios. Using their work as a template, I will help you to identify your particular strain of writer’s block and point you toward the best treatment.

1. The Fear-of-Failure Block

The fear-of-failure block is driven by perfectionism and excessive self-criticism. These writers can feel their imaginative juices bubbling under the surface, but they are crippled by the sense that nothing they produce is ever good enough.

One way you can treat this strain of writer’s block is to relax your expectations. As Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Accept that writing is a messy process. Your story isn’t going to be perfect the first time you write it (nor the second or third). But that’s okay. You must give yourself permission to not be perfect, to not even be good, during your initial attempt. As writer Jacques Barzun suggests, “Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze. Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes.”

A second way treat this strain of writer’s block is to change your view of failure. Failure is an inherent part of any endeavor, especially a creative one. Novices often view failure as an indication that they don’t have what it takes to become a good writer. But experienced writers know failure is part of the process and that it simply indicates they need to try harder.

Because this block is driven by anxiety, a third treatment it is to engage in calming activities. This is where the “take a break” advice for writer’s block is appropriate and actually works. Go outside and get some fresh air. Spend some quality time with friends and family. Better yet, try meditation (which not only reduces anxiety but boosts creativity). Give yourself a few hours or even a few days off and chances are, when you come back to your writing you will feel less anxious.

2. The Fear-of-Rejection Block

Rather than self-criticism, the fear-of-rejection block is driven by a concern for others’ criticism. “Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged,” Erica Jong states in The New Writer’s Handbook. “If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.” This strain of writer’s block can produce fear (the writer is afraid she will never achieve others’ lofty standards) or hostility (the writer is angry because she believes she is talented but feels that others are not recognizing her talent). Both emotions occur because the writer feels they are falling short of others’ expectations.

One treatment for this strain is to write without concern for others’ opinions. Easier said than done. Barbara Kingsolver offers this advice: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.” Similarly, Stephen King says that writers should work in a room with a closed door—both literally (to block out distractions) and metaphorically (to block out concerns about others’ opinions). Now this doesn’t mean you should never care about what others will think, only that you shouldn’t care during the initial writing phase (save that worry for the rewrites).

But what if you’re the type of person who needs others’ opinions to motivate you? If that is the case, then pick just one person to metaphorically allow into your writing room. John Steinbeck once told a friend suffering from writer’s block, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother.”

3. The Fear-of-Success Block

The fear-of-success block is driven by a writer’s worry that her success will negatively impact those close to her. Writers who suffer from this block tend to put others’ needs ahead of their own, so the thought of success leads to guilt, fear of change, and worry that their loved ones will become envious or resentful. Now you may be thinking, “Who the hell is afraid of success?” but the truth is people are often unconsciously afraid of success and (more importantly) the changes it brings. Success alters the status quo and produces new experiences some writers may feel unprepared to deal with (e.g., dealing with publishers, lawyers, reporters, internet trolls, stalkers).

To treat this strain of writer’s block, you must learn to prioritize your needs equally with those around you. Also remind yourself that just as you learned how to become an effective writer, you will also learn how to overcome the obstacles that may result from your success. And keep in mind that when you succeed, you will not be alone. There will be agents and publishers and editors to hold your hand and help you navigate your new surroundings.

4. The Lack-of-Motivation Block

The lack-of-motivation block is driven by a sense that your creative well has run dry. You find yourself unable to daydream, to stitch together a coherent sentence, or even find the right words. There are generally two reasons why you might experience this block. Either you’ve fallen out of love with writing itself or you’ve fallen out of love with your current project.

If you feel you’ve fallen out of love with writing, remind yourself this is probably just temporary. Everyone feels burned out from time to time. You just need to take a short break from writing so you can rediscover your love for it. Try sleeping, join a writer’s group, watch a movie, or read a book to remind you why you wanted to write in the first place. And if you adhere to a daily writing schedule, give yourself permission to take a “you” day when you’re feeling blocked. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Burnout also tends to occur when writers replace their intrinsic reasons for writing (your love of it) with extrinsic reasons (desire for critical acclaim, money, fame). If this is the case, it’s time for you to reassess your priorities and remind yourself why you started writing in the first place.

If instead the problem is that you’ve fallen out of love with your current project, then you may need to shake things up. According to Ray Bradbury, “If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.” Now it’s possible the entire project needs to be amputated, but more likely it’s that you need to make a few strategic, surgical cuts. Maybe the scene you’re working on is unnecessary. Maybe you thought you were writing a horror novel when it really wants to be a mystery novel. Maybe you need to completely remove one of your characters (Stephen King killed off half his characters when he got bogged down in the middle of writing The Stand). Whatever the reason, you need to take a good, long look at your work and be ready to hit the delete button.

But deleting alone is not enough. You also have to fill in those missing spaces with new ideas. This is where free-writing and creative writing prompts can actually be effective. Those tasks help you get reacquainted with your muse and introduce new scenes or storylines or characters that you hadn’t yet considered.

Lastly, because this block is caused by low energy, writers can temporarily treat it by engaging in activities that boost energy. Drink some coffee, go exercise, get some fresh air—whatever works to reinvigorate your sluggish brain.


Writer’s block is often viewed as a disease to be cured. But the truth is, you will never fully get rid of it. If you are lucky enough to have a long writing career, writer’s block is something that will inevitable pop up again and again.

Instead of seeing writer’s block as a disease, think of it like physical pain. Your body uses pain to warn you that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. It is a necessary and beneficial system because it helps identify exactly where the problem resides. Writer’s block is the same way; a little bit can be good for you. It can force you to take your work in new and exciting directions. It can tell you when you are working on the wrong project. And it can tell you when you are writing for the wrong reasons.

When you have writer’s block, your mind is trying to warn you that something is off, so listen to it. What is it telling you? Then treat the block in the ways I’ve described and get back to doing what you love.

This article initially appeared in Hinnom Magazine 005.

I’d love to hear your favorite advice for overcoming writer’s block–tell me in a comment.