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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.

Is Writer’s Block a Confabulation of Your Imagination?

storytelling7The left hemisphere of the cortex, where your language centers reside, is a fabulous storyteller. You make up more stories than you know. Unfortunately, some of the stories you make up can get in the way of doing the writing you want to do.

When the cortex doesn’t know why you did something – and let’s face it, at least 90% the brain’s activity is below or beyond our conscious awareness, so most of the time your cortex doesn’t have a clue why you’re doing what you’re doing – it makes up a plausible story to explain the behavior.

Scientists call this confabulating. Your cortex calls it reality.

Liar, Liar, How Can You Not Know Your Pants Are on Fire?

liar-liar-pants-on-fireLying is intentionally saying something you know is not true. Confabulating is to say something you believe is true, but in fact is not true.

Confabulating is a symptom of several different neurological disorders. The stories a diseased brain invents are obviously untrue to others. But healthy brains also confabulate, and they do it so subtly that most people can’t see it.

We make up stories to make sense of the world. Human beings are meaning makers. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga observes that there is “a human tendency to generate explanations for events.”

Our brains interpret the steady stream of sensory input so we can function in the world. Most of the time the stories are useful, accurate representations of reality. But not all the time. The big problem is that we can’t tell which stories are which.

In a study on “choice blindness” at the University of Lund in Sweden, researchers showed their test subjects – both men and women – photos of young women and asked the subjects to select the most attractive photo. When the researchers secretly switched the photos, one third of the subjects noticed. The other 66% invented reasonable explanations for why the woman in the photo that they did not select was the most attractive.

Filling the Explanation Vacuum

correctionsResistance to writing is often triggered by memories we’re not consciously aware of: big, red marks your third-grade teacher left on your homework, or the TA who ridiculed your writing in Freshman Comp, or the time your sister read your journal without permission, or…

Our cortex can’t tolerate an explanation vacuum, so we make up stories about why we aren’t writing: I don’t have time, or I need to clean my office before I start, or I can only write in this particular coffee shop, or…

The “reasons” we aren’t writing might be on par with explanations for why the photo we didn’t pick is the most attractive. But we believe them anyway.

Stop doing that. Stop believing the stories you’ve made up about why you can’t or don’t write.

Instead tell yourself there is no reason to avoid writing and let the explanation vacuum suck you into writing: there’s no reason not to write, so I guess I go write…

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5 Comments on “Is Writer’s Block a Confabulation of Your Imagination?”

  1. redfruit2038.Jimdo.com July 14, 2014 at 3:46 am #

    C’est un vrai plaisir de lire ce site


  2. Anya Achtenberg April 6, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Re: an earlier post, on “rewards” for writing — I had commented that I had criticisms of external rewards. Just wanted to mention that there was an interesting Ted talk on NPR today which looked at the negative effects of contingent, “if/then” rewards…

    They never worked for me. They always feel controlling, punitive, small…!

    A useful discussion.
    Best, Anya


    • rosannebane April 7, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

      Thanks Anya. Yes, the distinction between contingent rewards and rewards after the fact is intriguing — but I thought I’d gone on long enough in this series, so I didn’t raise that in the blog (it is in AWB book). I’ll check out the TED talk.


  3. Anya Achtenberg February 26, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    Dear Roseanne,

    Good post, thank you! Anya Achtenberg



  1. Ways to Boost Your Imagination  – guitrasher - April 22, 2017

    […] Another way to boost your imagination is by having stimulating conversations. The wider the variety of people you engage in conversation with, the easier it will be for you to push your mind to delve deeper into your conscious and subconscious psyches. With time, you will learn how to think fast, effectively, and communicate understandably – a couple of the banes of imagination. […]


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