The Neuroscience of Writers Block: Why Your Goals Are Hormonally Causing You To Fail
Ever wished your desire to write was as intense and persistent as a heroin addict’s desire to get high?
Goal setting is one of the most simple yet effective tools to becoming a prolific writer. Most writers have figured out that by setting goals, and physically writing them down they are 30% more likely to actually achieve them.
Recently, while working with one of my favorite TV writers, I realized the lack of translation happening between the conscious and unconscious minds. This is causing writers’ hormones to fight against the writing. It is causes them not only to fail to meet their goals but also to strengthen their resistance to writing.
UNPACKING THE PROBLEM
The conscious brain uses words, sentences, and dialogue to speak to the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind uses pictures to communicate. You can think of this like google image search. You type in “happy workers” and the image search gives you thousands of pictures that kind of match in one way or another. But anyone who has ever done a google image search knows that the image you want rarely pops up first. We need to scroll down until we spot the one that feels right, looks good, or just clicks and makes it easy for us to move forward with our work.
So, when your conscious mind sets a goal to “write three pages,” your unconscious mind might pull up the following image.
If you are planning to write in a lined journal with a yellow pen, this image might work. But, if you then sit down at work and type away at your computer. When you finish typing your three pages and say I am done. Your brain will scan the image – it won’t match and then your brain will register this session as a failure, it will release cortisol, the stress hormone. Our bodies do not want to be stressed.
So the next time you sit down to write, your brain will remember back to the last time you wrote. It will remember that you failed. Then, in hopes of avoiding another cortisol bath, it will perceive this as a threat and send you into fight or flight. (Writers’ fight = negative self-talk. Writers’ flight = getting up and doing ANYTHING other than writing. )
Similarly, if you are not setting specific, objective goals, or if you are just saying, “I’m going to go work on my screenplay,” and the image that pops up in your mind is this…
Even if you write 40 pages – and they are the best pages you have ever written – when you stop writing and your brain scans, the image of your 40 pages will not look anything like holding up an Academy Award. When that happens, your brain will categorize that writing session as a failure and release those stress hormones.
This is also why you cannot tell, most often, when you have produced quality pages right after you have written them.
So how do you avoid all this stress? How do you avoid the fight or flight reaction?
Remember to translate. Remember to consciously CHOOSE the image of what accomplishing your goal will look like. Don’t just go with the first image that pops into your head. See yourself in your coffee shop writing from page 55 to page 57. See those messy, unedited first-draft pages. See yourself being proud of having written with no attachment to the quality of the pages. You cannot immediately or objectively judge your own writing, especially if you are in a first draft. In a first draft you are aiming to get the story out on the page. You should NOT aim for the script to be finished and pretty. That’s a final draft. If you try to write the final draft, rather than the first draft, you will use your brain chemistry to guarantee failure for this project and possibly block yourself from ever writing again.
So, make sure you manage the hormones in your brain in order to help, rather than hurt, your writing.
When you set a goal, always translate the image to something that makes it easy for you to go write, just like a google image search. Then, once you are done, this will allow your brain to categorize that writing session as a success.
When your brain scans and categorizes your writing session as a success, dopamine releases in the brain. And we LOVE dopamine. It’s what gets people addicted to heroin. So, if you ever wished your urge to write was as powerful as a drug addict’s desire to get high, then set your damn goals. And make sure you choose the image of what accomplishing that goal looks like.
Wish there was a class that taught you this stuff? There is! Check out Meditative Writing!
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