Writers Block is the Dark Matter of the Literary Universe

You wake up on a beautiful morning with moderate temperatures and light cloud cover. A contiguous block of four hours awaits to exercise your writing skills and hone your craft. However an unseen enemy lurks around the corner. You can’t see it or even prove it exists, yet soon you find yourself sitting there staring at the screen. Have no fear though, the simple cure of walking was identified for this very situation a long time ago.

Meanwhile, you sit down at your writing desk full of enthusiasm and ready to go. The first paragraph goes slowly, but that’s fine. The most challenging part is always getting started. After about 10 minutes, your conscious mind drifts to thoughts of snacks available in the pantry. Wait, did you move the laundry over to the dryer? Let’s go check quickly.

On your way to the laundry room, a glance out the window highlights the amazing scene outdoors. The cumulus clouds have entirely moved out and the sun is shining brightly. You could get out and take your walk now. Brilliant, yes, that’s a good idea. Pause there for a moment. Is a walk the right move here? You clearly have the time, energy, and commitment to writing today, yet it hasn’t gone the way you planned. Nothing is stopping you, or is it?

Any number of terms could be used to describe or explain this situation. It could be attributed to a short attention span, motivational shortage, or simply a momentary lack of ideas. Commonly we describe this scenario using the phrase “writer’s block.” But what exactly is this thing that blocks our productivity? We can’t see it, and we don’t know exactly why it occurs. Nonetheless we believe it is real and it is there.

This belief pattern is analogous to the inference in science made regarding dark matter. It is estimated that dark matter comprises as much as 85 percent of the known universe. Yet it cannot be easily detected from afar because as its name suggests, dark matter does not exhibit light. Dark matter is generally thought to exist based on the observations of some galaxies where there doesn’t appear to be enough matter to hold it all together. The gravitational calculations simply don’t work unless there exists dark matter. Gravity is such a well-understood concept, there must be matter present which cannot be seen.

Likewise, we note the existence of writer’s block despite the fact that it cannot be directly seen or easily root caused. I suppose an observation of the writer moving into the kitchen and snacking, as opposed to writing, might count as a data point. Nonetheless, we know this blocker to productive writing can happen for a multitude of reasons. Besides, it is such a widespread phenomenon, it must be real.

Your mileage may vary of course, but a simple cure dates as far back as 1889 when Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

“Only ideas won by walking have any value.”

Many other tips and techniques exist, and many strategies are based on altering the cadence of your writing sessions or changing your perspective. I personally like how Hillary Mantel says “If you get stuck, get away from your desk.”

A 2014 study by Oppezzo and Schwartz details evidence to support this claim finding that “walking boosts creative ideation.” My own experience validates this concept over and over again. I have been taking an hour-long walk recently during this pandemic and it typically becomes the most prolific writing time of the entire day. Now, it may seem counter-intuitive to make that claim since I am not writing while walking. However, that hour provides a burst of creativity that is essential to the day ahead. Ideas usually spring forth such that by the time I am halfway out on my loop, the anticipation is already building to return so I can put pen to paper.

Let’s breakdown the walk itself

  • Minutes 1–5: Letting go; not consciously thinking about anything.

  • Minutes 6–20: The mind wanders; ideas appear seemingly without concentrated effort.

  • Minutes 21–40: Elaborating on the ideas and sketching out more detail.

  • Minutes 41–60: Decreased mental focus and a renewed focus on physical activity as well as the surrounding environment.

The ideation portion of the walk is amazingly consistent for me in terms of producing fresh thoughts that were not present earlier. Many are related to writing, while others are completely different. As it turns out, for example, I remembered that I did indeed forget to switch the laundry. The key here though is to forget, distract yourself, and just walk.

So why does this technique work? It may be explained in part by the notion that your mind operates in two different modes, with the majority of the time spent in the default auto-pilot mode. Here you don’t need to consciously focus on each step. Using the walk itself as an example, muscle memory largely enables you to put one foot in front of the other. This allows you to enjoy nature, let your mind wander, and slowly forget about whatever troubles lay behind you.

My personal opinion is that auto-pilot can function in a manner analogous to sleep, allowing your subconscious brain time to process information and thoughts, organize them, and then magically output creative ideas. I visualize this using the notion of wandering through the dark matter of my writing universe such that I can escape into the world of tangible matter and great ideas. The conceptual dark matter is everywhere for writers. Distractions abound and focus is easily lost. So go regain it.

The logistical question then is, what do you do with all these ideas while you are walking? You don’t want to forget them, that’s for sure. You can use your phone to take notes as you go, or some people prefer a simple voice recorder. Sometimes I bring my phone but set the mental expectation I will not use it unless in case of an emergency. This resolution prevents me from putting unneeded pressure on myself. It solidifies the notion that there is no expectation that greatness will emerge during this walk. If it happens, great, but the goal is just to get out for a walk.

On one occasion, I simply forgot to bring my phone. Aside from any safety concerns of not having it, this mishap had the downside that it required me to spend the last 30 minutes memorizing acronyms as a shorthand to recall topics and detail I had crafted in my head. Anything to avoid losing that material and thus returning to the starting point empty-handed.

Now back to our original question

So is it then the right move to go for the walk, or should we try to power through and write our way out of this predicament? Well, we likely won’t understand why our writer’s block occurs on any given day, just like science can only tell us so much about dark matter. Nonetheless, we know that both are present and should be taken into account.

Dark matter is thought to be the additional energy needed to hold a galaxy together. Perhaps the unseen force that blocks our productivity serves a similar purpose. It causes us to step away from our desk and go on that walk, which many writers and philosophers before us believed was a fundamental part of the process. Recent research further substantiates this claim with evidence that it does in fact boost our creativity. So yes, it does seem like the right thing to do.

Just make sure to actually sit down and write when you get back.

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