Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Stalled and Driven

Most writers become acquainted one time or another with the creative mental brick wall called writer's block. Basically, those wonderful times when the words end up on one side while the writer beats his head against the other. I once thought writer's block was an avoidance mechanism, sort of like fainting spells were for Victorian women, but over the years I've seen too many friends suffer through it to doubt its authenticity or tenacity.

The alleged flip side of writer's block is a condition called hypergraphia, aka the uncontrollable urge to write or produce in other media. Van Gogh apparently suffered from it, as did Dostoevsky and Stevenson (although the latter may have induced it via cocaine abuse.) Not all prolific writers are hypergraphic, but we're usually accused of it at some point or another during our careers.

A few years back, neurologist and Harvard Medical School teacher Dr. Alice W. Flaherty made some minor ripples with her book about both conditions, The Midnight Disease, which examined the creative mind as it suffers through both disorders. Although any mention of writer's block garners instant empathy from colleagues, there wasn't a lot of weeping around the industry over the plight of the hypergraphic. Like being thin and rich, apparently there is no such thing as writing too much. Unless it's someone else who's doing it, and selling it.

The late Dr. Norman Geschwind, another Harvard notable who made a name for himself in behavioral neurology, cited hypergraphia as a symptom of epilepsy; one of eighteen special personality farts created by temporal lobe complex partial seizures. He labeled those afflicted as victims of interictal personality disorder. That most prolific writers and artists do not have epilepsy was merely one of those tiny insignificant details that must have escaped his notice.

I don't agree with the diagnosis of hypergraphia as being a catch-all explanation for the prolific. Nor do I think everyone with writer's block is suffering from PMS. Labels won't stick to everyone; there are some things that can't be mapped out by an EEG or shoved under the microscope of science and given a common diagnosis. To me, the creative mind and its ability to produce (or lack thereof) is as individual as a fingerprint.

Writers, when you find yourself stalled or driven with your work, what do you think is the main culprit? Or is it different every time?


  1. Anonymous6:24 AM

    First, I don't believe that I'm hypergraphic. While in the midst of the story I can churn out a lot of words - I love it when they just pour - but I'm never writing six novels, two screenplays, four poems and a nonfiction work about backyard birds.

    I am, however, hypercreative.

    I am, by nature, a creator and I always have been. I have a degree in art (and worked as a artist/designer for a very long time). I bake and cook - both creative endeavors, imho. I create, craft, and design quilts. I design houses (designed ours, actually). I do weaving, painting, all sorts of decorative crafts, crocheting... On average, I have about 10 different projects going at any one time. Definitely hyper creative, at least in the sense that I MUST create. Not so much that I'm innovative or groundbreaking, if that makes sense.

    And I get blocks in all the arenas. Sometimes it's burnout, fatigue and being overloaded (or over focused) for too long. Other times it's outside stressors (money problems and family dramas come to mind). Sometimes it's too much insomnia. It just sort of depends. Mostly, it's stress or fear.


  2. Anonymous6:25 AM


    I don't really experience hypergraphia . . I don't think. However, there are definite peaks and throughs to my output.

    Writer's block, which I am far more familiar with, is almost always directly caused by exhaustion. Anytime my life becomes very hectic my writing starts to suffer, and often it will take a couple of months after life has calmed down for me to get back in to the groove. The last couple of years have seen rather traumatic events in my life so hence the long recovery time.

    Currently I am coming out of a 'blocked period' and am slowly building up momentum. From past experience I know that in a prolific period I will write about 2000 wpd of 'fiction' on top of what I write in my diary. These spurts of activity are then interspersed with less productive periods of about 800 wpd (I don't know why 800 but according to the spreadsheet that's what I average out).

    I have yet to discover what would induce hypergraphia.


  3. Usually some as yet undiagnosed technical problem, or deficiency in my skill set.

    For example, I wasted several days (elapsed time) wrestling a chapter, only to realise that none of the action in it made tactical sense. The whole thing was one big plot hole papered over by pretty prose.

    Years ago, I used to have tremendous ideas, but get stuck a couple of chapters in. At the time, I thought it was writers block. However, I now realise that - though my description was fine - I simply had no idea how to build a story.

    Sometimes my writing just dries up for external reasons: when I was between jobs, when my grandpa died, when I'm ill...

  4. Anonymous7:09 AM

    Cool post, very interesting.

    I love creating; I draw, cook, bake, write pretty much everything (fiction, nonfic, poetry), would love to learn quilting from my MIL if I had the time, I used to knit but I have bad wrists and I just couldn't keep doing it (*sad*)... so hm. I always thought people like me were labelled "gifted" and told to do more homework.

    For me, I distract too easily (I'm by no means ADD, though). I'm constantly trying to discipline myself to write, but with so many things garnering my attention (school, housework, church), it's very hard. So usually when I face a "writer's block" it's just me procrastinating and making up excuses.

    That said, when I'm stressed, it goes two ways. I'll get tons of ideas as my mind avoids my problems by thinking creatively, but I either doubt they're good ones, or I can't get them down coherently. I write less when I'm stressed because I'm usually too busy dealing with life but I find it kind of wierd that I churn out ideas most often when I'm overworked or know I should be doing something else... when I sit down and say "okay! time to write a poem!" ... it never works. Go figure.

    So there's my long and random input for you, PBW.

  5. Anonymous7:27 AM

    On getting stalled I have two hypotheses (for me anyhow)


    Cold, grab-your-heart-with-stainless-steel-talons-dipped-in-liquid-nitrogen FEAR - usually fear of success or failure . . .

    The other - Maybe you are not really a writer at heart after all.

    Oh sure you "want" to be a writer, you "strive" to be a writer - but maybe inside, under the flesh you, well, you know you really - just want to sing!

    So, driving yourself to do something you "think" you want to do instead of doing something you "know passionately" you want to do can lead to stalls.

    Those are my two hypotheses. Penny a piece if you will.

  6. Anonymous7:38 AM

    Paul, I believe that second one would be "doubt" and man, you're right. It's a killer for me. (Particularly because it's silly - I "know passionately" how much I love writing, but I still "think" that I can't do it.

    And PBW - I know this isn't a taking-questions post, but I had one anyway.

    Do you find a huge difference in what you read and what you write? Everybody says writers need to read, and I'm not disputing that... but say that you love reading mysteries, but whenever you come up with an idea you'd love to write, it's for a fantasy (which you enjoy reading, but it's not your favorite). Does that seem odd to you? Cuz that's the situation I find myself in. I mean, I do love a good fantasy, but I'm leery of them because I'm really picky about fantasy I like, where as I can devour a mystery no question. Just general wierdness for you. *g*


  7. Usually when something is stalled, it's because there is a problem with the story. Which means major backtracking, a lot of deleting. Accompanied by much grumbling. Two months before deadline last year on a paranormal romance, it still wasn't going the way i wanted. It was more than half way done, close to 200 pages. I trashed everything but the first 30 or 40. Finished it up in like 6 weeks flat.

    Other times I get stalled, it's because i'm upset or depressed about something. just lose interest in writing. There was a period of a couple of years where I didn't write anything at all. But I just didn't want to.

    Too much writing?? I've been writing like a fiend the past two or three years. It's made my brain very tired.

  8. I get blocked every other scene. When working on a book I hit so many walls along the way my head hurts. But it's all just part of the process for me. I'm a seat of the pants writer, no outline.

    But I've never been blocked in a way that keeps me from writing SOMETHING. My philosophy has always been Ass In Chair, no matter what. If I'm truly stuck in a story, I adhere to the old Raymond Chandler advice: bring in a man with a gun.

    I wouldn't mind, however, being hypergraphic -- a term I had not heard until your wonderful post. I truly envy people who can, for lack of a better expression, really crank it out, especially when cranking it out (as in your case) means quality, engaging work.

    Please let some of that rub off on me.

  9. Well, PBW, right now it's my house. I'm living with my ex in the house until I get my settlement and the tension of being in the house with him is WAY too distracting.

    Even when he isn't in the house. Now the house represents a place of pain and anger instead of the calm, peaceful place of security it was for me before, when I was able to write whenever I wanted to.

    This might be in no small part have to do with him blaming the writing as one of the reasons he had girlfriends. I didn't pay enough attention to him because I was "always writing". Which is hore shit anyway. I always made time for him.

    Now I have to get out of the house to write. So for me, it's the place.

  10. Not to wander into the TMI zone, but I will confess that I find my productivity comes and goes dependent on the time of the month. There are certain days and weeks when I'm borderline hypergraphic - just too much to get out that I'm almost paralyzed by it. Other times of the month, it's all I can do to force myself to write a sentence or two. It's not that ideas have gone away, more so the urge to do anything about them. I truly believe my creative urges are affected by hormones.

    Not that this offers an excuse, mind you. More that I've come to take advantage of the upswings and prepare for the downswings. When I hit a slow week, I turn my attention to getting RL things accomplished and out of the way, or I engage in a different creative activity to give my writer's brain a break.

  11. Most of the time, I run into writer's block when I'm trying to force a scene, the characters or the entire story in the wrong direction. It's like my subconscious recognize what I'm missing and puts on the brakes. When whatever needs to happen in the process to correct the problem then happens, the wall goes away and the writing proceeds.

    This time around, I've been in writers block for a LONGGG time. To the point where I've put aside the book on which I was working and am tackling something different. I don't know whether the book I thought I wanted to write was too much for me at this time, whether it's a confidence thing, third book syndrome or whatever, but I was stalled to a dead stop.

    I can't go on without writing -- not unless I want my fledgling career to crash after two books. So, for now, it's onto another story and, hopefully, better progress.

  12. Anonymous10:33 AM

    When I'm going, I'm pretty profilic, but I get times that I'm, well, not going.

    My main blocks tend to be worrying about real life and/or when real life going through changes. I just quit my old company, and start the new one in a week and a half. I'm moving sometime in early May--not far, but moving is moving. Even though I know the worries are unfounded or unchangeable at this point, even though I *know* I'm recycling the same worries over and over, they intrude on everything, and keep me from ever getting into my writing zone. I'm not thinking about my characters, I'm thinking about what to get rid of before I start packing. I'm hoping that I can handle the new job and that quitting my old one for it wasn't a mistake.

    I'm not very good at shutting out those thoughts. Forcing myself to think about my characters, which is normally a natural phenomena that doesn't need any forcing, comes out stale and unimaginative.

    My other main blocker tends to be a form of burn-out. If I've zipped through a big project (the lastest being a 78k novel I wrote in 5 weeks, in addition to a 40-hour a week day job), and try to start into another writing project immediately, I can't keep my mind on it.

    Right now I've got a little of both going, and it's been a pain.

    Still, I will persevere. I usually do.

  13. Writer's block - I am definitely in the depths of discovering this fascinating yet rather frustrating phenomenon. I just left a full time job (during which time I wrote prolifically) and since leaving these are about the first words I have written other than e-mails and messenger, which are more distractions than writing.

    I am in a similar place to Ann - when it's flowing I can write a short screenplay in a few hours, but when I'm fretting about something in my life or am at a point of flux I tend to dry up completely. Or like Mallory I will wake up at anytime of the night and will have a poem fully formed, demanding to be written down, and it tends to be a resolution to a worry I might have had or create an ending to a period of stress/distress even if the subject matter is entirely unrelated.

    Cures for writer's block? Doing other things, forcing yourself to take your mind off the writing you feel you should be doing. Automatic writing to get the words flowing again (then again this can lead to further distress when the words come out and you don't even recognise having written them). But then again I'm in the midst of a block myself, so I'm not one to offer advice on it, I just know what it's like to be here, so anyone with a sure-fire solution let me know :)

  14. The one time I had a hard time being able to concentrate to write, it turned out I had a thryoid condition. Once that was treated, the writing came back.

    I'm someone who needs to let things percolate in my backbrain for a while, mostly, and then when critical mass is reached, I write. I'm mostly a burst writer, I guess.

    I know of artists who get artist's block. There are probably as many reasons for creative blocks as there are creative people.

  15. Anonymous11:59 AM


    I wrote a post in my journal yesterday (linked from my name) about the very subject of "I wrote lots when I worked full-time, and now that I have all day, I don't get squat done" that you might find interesting. Hope no one minds the extraneous post, but I thought it might be relevant to at least one person :)

  16. Anonymous12:13 PM

    For me - right now - I think it's an identity crisis. I suppose I'm same person I was a month or a week ago, but somehow I feel different. I feel I have no direction. I read my writing, and I think "No one will want to read this. This is mindless, boring drek." Who am I anyway? All my opportunities to do what I loved doing are gone - sure, being a stay-at-home-mom is important; but what if I want more - and what about when the kids are gone? And now, with all my skills deteriorated - and my meager experience 10 to 20 years behind me - what could I do anyway. I feel stuck and trapped, and thus my writing is stuck and trapped.

    Mostly, yeah, it's my own mental state. During National Novel Writing Month, I balanced the house, an external personal crisis, three kids, and still managed to write 58,000 words. I was, for some reason, in the zone.

    But today - today is different. Everyone says "Just figure out what you'd like to do and go for it. I'm sure you can do whatever you set your mind to." But it isn't that easy, is it? There are trade-off's and compromises and fear - fear of failing, of exposing yourself and being told you're not good enough - or worse, being laughed at.

    And so, until I win some ground with my internal struggle, I fear my writing is truly blocked. At least I haven't given up fighting yet.

  17. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Interesting topic!

    My worst writer's block ever came when I attempted to write a screenplay based on one of my short stories. I collaborated with an experienced screenwriter who was, unfortunately, a control freak. This ended badly, and I couldn't write a word for a month. I don't know if this has permanently put me off screenplays, but the desire is not there. Shame, because I love movies so much.

    I have never been hypergraphic. On my very best day ever, I wrote about 3000 words; usually, 1500 to 2000 is a great day.

  18. Anonymous3:51 PM

    To me, stalled = scared.

  19. Doug, so that's what happened to the screenplay project. I always wondered though it isn't a surprise a cooperation with him didn't work. ;)

    For me, writer's block is part of my depression. If it's bad, I can't write much. But I refuse to take pills, they completely dry up my creativity, and I don't trust anyone enough to speak about myself, which makes visiting a shrink useless. I try to manage, and in better periods, I'm even quite happy with my writing (not so much the amount of words, but the quality).

  20. It really and truly varies for me. However, I think two major things affect me.

    The first is life itself. When life is going well and I'm not stressed over things, I can write a lot. I was my most prolific a few years ago when all was going well. 5k word days were rather normal and 10k wasn't unknown. Right now I'm in a rather up-and-down spot emotionally. I lost my job awhile ago (you'll remember this, S-lady) then decided to go back to school. When I graduated, the job market was depressed so I had a hard time finding a job. Moved to house-sit my wife's grandparents' house. That eliminated the worry of rent, etc., but I was still stressing over the no job issue. Then I got a hip operation, which was a good thing health-wise but a bad thing in the "that hole in the resume is getting bigger" sense. The house-sitting gig ended so we moved out. I got a part time job so that helped, but then I needed my other hip operated on. So now I've recovered from the hip issues and am searching for a job full-time again. During all that time, it's been a struggle to even get 1k a day. I resort to all kinds of things to force myself to get that 1k a day. But a lot of times I have to admit that the words are rubbish that I spewed out just to get the 1k a day. I am willing to bet that once I get a job again and things are back in emotional equilibrium, my wpd rate will pick up.

    The other major thing is the story itself. When the plot is smooth (writing-wise), then I can roll right along. (That's extremely relative right now, but...) If there is a hole or a kink in the plot, then I can stall. For me, that's a big clue that something's wrong with the story, especially if I was rolling right along before I hit the wall.

    I think I am similar to tambo in that I am hyper-creative. I always have many projects going. Her list reminds me of myself, really. Take one or two things out and add one or two other things in, but other than that, that could be my list. Switch the degree in art for a degree in English, for example. I've babbled on long enough, however, so I'll end now.

  21. While there are certainly things I can point to at different points in time as causes of my creative blocks or creative gushes (such as big life changes), for the most part I find that my creative starts and stops come in cycles. Some of these cycles move with the planets, and others I really can’t put my finger on at all.

    Usually when I’m at the bottom of a non-creative cycle, I can be temporarily entrapped by that feeling that I’m no-good... but then I look around me and really see these periods instead as opportunities to do different things, absorb new experiences, and step back from my favorite creative mediums so that when I return to them in force, I have a whole new wealth of perspectives and memories to draw from.

  22. I have never, luckily, suffered from writer's block - characters, scenery and plots are always with me - but I have come down with a severe case of excuses, which is equally devastating, and sometimes difficult to overcome. Once I've kicked it to the curb, I sit down deliberately block out the rest of the world with headphones and write. I also use this method to get rid of the excuses, too. Once I'm in the groove of writing, I'm much happier and wonder why I ever let the excuses take over.

    As for the hypergraphia, can it be organised? I don't plan to write 180k for NaNo, it just happens. But I know from the beginning what the book will be about, who the characters are, everything; it's simply a matter of pounding away at my poor keyboard. Words flow and word counts rise. Never during the rest of the year am I so prolific.

    Although I have to admit I once wrote a 300 page book in sixteen days. My focus was on the story and nothing else mattered, not the 14-18 hour days, the skipped meals, wearing the same clothes for days, the increased stomach acid from too much coffee, too often. When I was done, I felt like I'd just conquered a mountain, I was dizzy with success - or maybe that was lack of food and sleep? It wasn't anything special, this book, but, hey, it was done, and I was proud of it. Still am since it was the first book I ever finished.

    I can still get quite manic when I'm 'onto a good thing', but I learn to control it or the people around me suffer for it. When it happens, I make myself get up and walk away, from people, from writing.

    By pigeon-holing being overly creative, or not creative at all, Dr Geschwind has found a medical label to explain a theory. One that is offensive. Is there a label for talented football players (apart from thugs, I mean)? For race car drivers (yes, yes, we agree they're maniacs)? For gardeners or architects or bricklayers, garbage collectors? Everyone has days where they are productive, or not.

    All I know is that I'm a little crazy when I'm writing, and there ain't nuthin' wrong with being "creatively focused".

  23. Anonymous8:09 PM

    Very thought-provoking comments, folks. Thanks to all for posting them.

    Jess wrote: Do you find a huge difference in what you read and what you write?

    Depends on the type of reading. I read for market analysis, I read for pleasure, and I read for research, and (for me, anyway) all three experiences are different.

    Everybody says writers need to read, and I'm not disputing that... but say that you love reading mysteries, but whenever you come up with an idea you'd love to write, it's for a fantasy (which you enjoy reading, but it's not your favorite). Does that seem odd to you?

    Not in the least. I mainly read nonfiction, medical journals, and antique surgical manuals because they interest me the most. I doubt I'll ever write in any of those categories.

    Cuz that's the situation I find myself in. I mean, I do love a good fantasy, but I'm leery of them because I'm really picky about fantasy I like, where as I can devour a mystery no question.

    I don't think this is weird. When you write in a particular genre or sub-genre, you may need to cut yourself off from other writers in the same category for a couple of reasons. Your reason is a good one -- when you write in a genre, you become selective about what you want to read by another writer. Another reason may be that you don't want to subconsciously pick up anything the other writer is doing (I never read in a genre I'm actively writing in.)

    There's also brain-saturation from working in a particular genre. Right now the last thing I want to read vampire fiction, for example, because I've been researching, market-analyszing and writing it steadily for two years. It's my job, and when I want to take a break for pleasure reading, I don't want to pick up what I've been doing on the clock all day.

  24. Anonymous8:17 PM

    Lynn M wrote: When I hit a slow week, I turn my attention to getting RL things accomplished and out of the way, or I engage in a different creative activity to give my writer's brain a break.

    I'd like to second this approach as a block-buster. I've gotten into the habit of cleaning or tidying up one or two rooms in the house every day. I do it a little at a time when I take my breaks or after I walk the pup. I always feel guilty if I'm writing while the house is a mess, so that daily upkeep keeps the house neat and the guilt trips to a minimum. What's cool is that the family has gotten into the habit of helping me without me asking, so they shoulder some of the burden.

  25. Anonymous8:20 PM

    Ann wrote: Hope no one minds the extraneous post, but I thought it might be relevant to at least one person

    No problem at all, Ann. We're pretty informal here, and exchanges of information or pertinent links are always welcome.

  26. The book I'm working on now is hitting roadblocks. I think it's because I started it a year ago and I'm just now getting around to finishing the book. I've lost the fire for it and I can tell. Tomorrow, I'm going to start jumping around to the chapters I see clearly in my head and write those. Maybe they'll ignite the other chapters.

  27. Lynn I have the same problem and I usually either catch up on reading or work around the house and out in the yard!


    I have a friend who probably has this or something close to it. She'll write till she literally drops and her fingers are numb, sleep, eat, get up and write some more until she drops again until taht first draft is done. She's also dyslexic =)

  28. Oh God, all of the above. I get stuck when I pay too much attention to the market and what people are saying on the internet. I get stuck when I write something that doesn't fit the story but I can't let it go. I get stuck when I'm full of doubt about my skills. I get stuck when I forget to take evening primrose oil and slump into peri menopausal depression. I get stuck when I don't take time out to dream or notice the physical world around me.

  29. Anonymous8:22 AM

    When I get stalled, I look at/blame one of two things: environment or the dreaded what-in-the-freaking-world-were-you-thinking attack. A high stress environment immediately cuts off all creativity; when I was having issues with my upstairs neighbors and losing sleep, I couldn't get a single word written. I need to be at my normal (or below) stress level in order to write. As to the second attack...that's brought on when I'm trying to enforce order on my book, when I truly know better. If my characters wanted to do that, they would. I forget that they are in control, and I end up creating a gigantic knot that's difficult to get untied. If I don't trust myself (and my characters), the writing stops.

    As to what fuels the bursts of creativity...haven't a clue. They just grip me, and I'm usually so delighted with their arrival that I've never bothered to analyze them. *-*

  30. I'm manic-depressive (yeah, I know, real romantic writer's condition. blah), so I go through long periods where I write very little, or nothing at all. It used to bother me intensely. Now I just accept the dry spell, because I know it'll eventually go away.

    When I am writing, it's not unusual for me to crank out entire chapters at a sitting, one after the other, all those scenes and characters and dialogues that have been churning inside me during the down times finally and suddenly spurting forth in a frenzy of creativity.

    Interestingly, it's the stuff I write during my stable periods that always seem to need the most editing. The frenzied passages usually end up as-is. . . .


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