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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Can a Deadline Cure Writer’s Block?

Yes. And no.

There’s no doubt that a deadline creates urgency. Sometimes the urgency generates enough energy to propel a blocked writer out of paralysis and into action. Sometimes that action is writing.

But breaking out of paralysis doesn’t necessarily mean all resistance is gone. A paralyzed writer may move into action, but that action is more likely to be another form of resistance than actual writing.

You move from complete aphasia of staring at the blinking cursor by distracting yourself, popping out of the chair, remembering ten other things you need to do first, or getting perfectionistic and reworking the same section over and over, or becoming hyper-critical of yourself and others.

Even if the action is writing, it is extremely unlikely to be your best work. Urgency rarely crosses the chasm between being able to write something and being able to write effectively and creatively.

Better Under Pressure? Not Likely!

Many writers, especially undergrad and grad students, believe that they write best under pressure. Pressure does give them energy to get out of the initial inertia and get something on the page. But what they produce under pressure is not their best work, just the best they can do with the limited tools they have.

These students acknowledge that their “wait until the last minute approach” does not give them time to do more than proofread, if that. Relying on the last minute means there’s no time to revise and rewrite. Unless you’re Isaac Asimov, your first draft is never your best work.

Waiting until the last minute denies a writer the time needed to move through all stages of the creative process. You can write without moving through all the stages, but you can’t create truly original material. You just end up repeating and rephrasing what you’ve written before (or in the case of some undergrads, rearranging what other people have said without adding your own perspective and insight).

What pressure-driven writers typically have is not an effective writing method, but a coping mechanism based on incomplete understanding of the writing process and how their brains respond to stress.

Urgency Triggers the Limbic System

Urgency moves the writer into action via the limbic system, the mammal brain that relies on the fight-or-flight instinct. The limbic system doesn’t care about creativity; it cares only about keeping you alive and safe.

The cortex – the creative brain that recognizes new associations and makes new connections (along with analyzing the situation, predicting future outcomes from present actions, and other executive functions) – is simply not accessible when the limbic system in driving the bus.

When the limbic system is engaged, you can still walk, talk, write, etc., so you don’t always know immediately that your cortex has been preempted. But all your choices are instinctual and focused on survival. All your actions arise from behaviors you have practiced so much, you can do them on “auto-pilot.

Even when you can write with your limbic system engaged, you will write in your habitual manner and without the benefit of new ideas, connections or associations. In other words, your writing cannot be creative, only derivative what you’ve done before.

Even Mastery Can’t Trump the Limbic System

Many of the claims that a deadline is the best cure for writer’s block come from seasoned journalists. They and other writers with years of experience, and hence mastery of their craft, can rely on their habitual writing patterns. But only IF they are writing about topics they’ve addressed before and only IF they don’t need a new perspective or new ideas, associations and connections.

Deadlines may cure writer’s block, but they rarely eliminate all resistance. A deadline without experience and appreciation for how to use the time you have to move through the stages of the creative process may be a cure for absolute writer’s block, but is a cure that is little better than the disease.

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8 Comments on “Can a Deadline Cure Writer’s Block?”

  1. mkelberer September 1, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    And it’s always a pleasure to read someone who can artfully and accurately toss in an Isaac Asimov reference. 🙂


  2. Joel D Canfield August 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    I continue to be astonished how little thought people give to the difference between “work” and “good work” and “great work.” Thanks for making it brain-friendly, Rosanne.

    Love your Asimov reference 😉


  3. John McMullen August 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    I was just listening to an old podcast by Dr. Ari Tuckman where he points out that folks with ADHD often require some kind of external stimulus to get them moving, such as a deadline. (Now, at no point does he suggest it will be good work, merely work.) The connection between ADHD (poor executive functioning), urgency and impulsivity strikes me as potentially fruitful. Do you know any work on it that I can look into?

    I love the book, by the way.




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