“Before this class, I thought there was something wrong with me – that I must not really want to be a writer since I wasn’t writing. Now I know there’s neurological and psychological reasons for it and, even better, there are solutions! I’ve written more in the past few weeks than I did in the six months prior to taking this class.”
Student evaluation from the Around the Writer’s Block class.
If you’ve ever wondered if there’s something wrong with you because it’s so hard to write sometimes, if you’ve ever wondered why you can come up with so many excuses not to write, if you ever thought you didn’t want it enough or that you didn’t have enough discipline, will power, ambition or talent, let me assure you: Writing resistance is normal. Resistance is caused by the way the human brain works, not because you’re flawed.
The human brain is actually three brains in one: the brain stem (aka the reptile or lizard brain), the limbic system (aka the mammal or leopard brain) and the cerebral cortex (aka the human or learning brain). Your desire, commitment and ability to write all reside in your cerebral cortex. As long as your cortex is in charge, you’re good to go as a writer.
But, when you’re threatened or stressed, a structure in the brain stem called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) shifts control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system, effectively shutting off the cortex’s ability for nuanced, innovative thinking and sophisticated analysis. You’re still conscious, you can still speak and calculate, so you usually don’t know that the cortex is offline, but what you say and how you act is based on the fight-or-flight instinct and previous training.
This limbic system takeover cancels the urge and intention to write. Even if you can force some words onto the page while your limbic system is in charge, you can’t write as creatively and effectively as you can when your cerebral cortex is in charge. And if that’s not bad enough, the cortex does a very poor job of recognizing when it’s not in charge, which leaves you feeling confused, embarrassed and guilty about your resistance.
The many forms of resistance are all behaviors caused by the limbic system’s instinct to first freeze (writer’s block, initial inertia), and then choose to fight (self-criticism, sabotage) or flee (procrastination, distractions, looking for answers in the fridge, etc.).
There are, as the opening quote promised, solutions. In the next post, I’ll tell you how to get your RAS to switch your cerebral cortex back online so you can write again.