Laura Miller’s superb back-page essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Dubbed “the Pauline Kael of the book scene,” she’s rumored to be the heiress-apparent to Charles McGrath, the outgoing editor of the section, perhaps the most powerful post in the publishing/book world. Currently she writes for Salon.
Her piece was about writer’s block. Excerpts:
- Writer’s block, like insomnia, is a subject of keen interest to those who have it and great tedium to those who do not.
Alice W. Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, wouldn’t go so far as to label writer’s block an illness, but she’s interested in what causes it. She is intrigued because she has gone through episodes of its opposite: hypergraphia, or compulsive writing.
She has twice found herself scribbling obsessively, and explains, “my writing felt like a disease: I could not stop, and it sucked me away from my family and friends.”
Flaherty believes “there are perhaps only two types of writer’s block, high energy and low energy.” The low energy type may be a symptom of treatable depression; high energy block comes from an excess of anxiety, thereby demonstrating something called the Yerkes-Dodson law, which Flaherty describes as “venerable,” although it was a small revelation to me.
In a 1908 study, Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, found that “both very low and very high levels of arousal interfere with performance.” In other words, too much motivation, as well as too little, can trigger writer’s block, and this explains why “the bigger the project, the bigger the block.”
A friend of mine once invented a “cure” for minor blocks that unwittingly jibed with Yerkes and Dodson’s findings: to counteract a procrastination, create a bigger one. Think up a grand, long-term, world-changing project, like The Great American Novel, and in your mind invest it with such life-defining importance that everything you do that doesn’t contribute to realizing it becomes a waste of time.
As long as meeting this week’s deadline is a way of avoiding the really big thing that you ought to be doing instead, it becomes much easier. A pretty feeble ruse, perhaps, but it works.
I like the idea of creating a big diversion of sorts to get moving with smaller stuff. I’m gonna try it tomorrow, with a legal file I’ve been avoiding reviewing all week. I’ll make the alternative beginning my psycho-medical thriller.