Dear Dr. Donna,

My problem isn’t a new one but it’s new to me. In fact, when others said they had this problem I just thought they were making excuses and procrastinating. But now karma has struck for all those times I criticized others and I have been inflicted with writer’s block myself.

I’ve been writing since grade school. I’ve had articles and stories published in a variety of literary magazines. I’ve even won a couple of writing contests. Most recently, I’ve finally found a publisher for my novel. I’ve been playing around with this plotline for years, but suddenly, now that I have a deadline, I can’t write. Not. One. Sentence. Or at least not one good one. And the more I panic the worse it gets. Now I am losing sleep over it and that is making me exhausted at work leaving me with no energy for writing when I get home.

I can’t believe I have writer’s block! How annoyingly cliché.

Annoyed in Anaheim


Dr. Donna Says…

Dear Annoyed,

It’s certainly true that this is not a new or unique problem. Virtually all creative types experience an ebb and flow to their artistic process. Sometimes imagination abounds and vision flows freely. Other times, not so much. Some consider creative blocks to be based in fear, analogous to an actor’s stage fright. Others consider it the writerly form of burn-out. In any case, when it strikes, it certainly can drain one’s motivation and confidence.

For centuries creativity and the creative process has been studied by philosophers, artists and psychologists and yet its intricacies largely remain an enigma. Anyone who has ever endeavored to harness the creative process knows that inspiration, in whatever form it takes, can be an elusive and fickle character. It’s typically difficult to summon on demand. In short, the muse will not be rushed. Add a dose of stress and she will just not appear.

It sounds like writing has usually come naturally to you in the past. This is most likely because it was something you just let happen in its own time. But now you have changed the game. You’ve added a structure and a schedule to the mix.

In 1926 social psychologist Graham Wallas theorized that the creative process could be broken down into four distinct stages—preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification—which involved the interaction of both conscious and unconscious processes. Later, novelist and poet Malcolm Cowley more specifically applied these phases to the process of writing.

Since you’ve been working your story over some time, you probably have the preparation stage down. It is the second stage that could hold the key to busting through your block.

Incubation is the process whereby the unconscious mind goes to work on all the various pieces of information that was gathered and experienced in conscious thought, making connections and forging associations until these somewhat disjointed elements come together in new ways that represent innovative ideas and insights. It is fundamentally “down time” when one is purposely not focused on the specifics of a problem and is characterized by a feeling of the solution appearing “out of the blue.”

Research conducted at Michigan State University uncovered patterns referred to as counterintuitive circadian rhythms with regard to creative processes. Circadian rhythms represent the natural body clock cycles that govern physical and mental alertness in a 24 hour period. These researchers found that “morning people” who excel at analytical problem solving in the early daytime are actually more creative and insightful in the evening. The opposite also held true. “Night owls” were more cognitively alert in the evening hours, but more creative in the morning.  Additionally, other researchers have discovered a potential link between meditation and increased creativity.

All of these theories seem to point to the general notion that the time when the brain is not focused specifically on the task of creating a story allows for an opening up of the mind and the possibility for fresh, creative thinking to occur—a loosening of the block that stands between you and your best writing.

So, write, write, write. Write anything. Write everything. Even the bad sentences. Then, try setting aside some of your “writing time” for incubation time. Your brain (and your muse) will do the rest, in their own time of course.

Someone Once Said . . .

“You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of her.”

―Lili St. Crow (Author of Strange Angels)


Recommended Reading

For more info on the topics of Creativity and Writer’s Block take a look at these titles (synopses from

On Being Stuck: Tapping Into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block by Laraine Herring—An empowering guide to working with your blocks and finding the friend within the beast. Using deep inquiry, writing prompts, body and breath exercises, and a range of interdisciplinary approaches, On Being Stuck will help you uncover the gifts hidden within your creative blocks, while also deepening your relationship to your work and reawakening your creative process.

Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Rosanne Bane—This creativity coach and writing teacher for more than 20 years uses the most recent breakthroughs in brain science to help us understand, in simple, clear language, where writing resistance comes from: a fight-or-flight response hard-wired into our brain, which can make us desperate to flee the sources of our anxieties by any means possible.

Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity by K.M. Weiland—Award-winning author K.M. Weiland shows you how to nurture creativity and put it at your summons, rather than the other way around.

Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire—Offers a glimpse inside the “messy minds” of highly creative people. Revealing the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, along with engaging examples of artists and innovators throughout history, the book shines a light on the practices and habits of mind that promote creative thinking

Questions for Dr. Donna? Send them to Dear Dr. Donna.


Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.