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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.

Writer’s Block and Medical Student Syndrome

39435264 - young female worried doctor looking at computer in clinicSecond-year medical school students are known to experience symptoms of many of the diseases they study, at least for the week they’re studying that particular ailment.

It’s the placebo effect in reverse – focusing so much attention on symptoms causes med students to think they have them.

“It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality,” Shawn Achor explains in his TEDTalk. In other words, you get what you pay attention to.

Shawn’s brother-in-law Bobo called from Yale Medical School to say, “Shawn, I have leprosy.”

Shawn wanted to reassure Bobo that leprosy was extremely unlikely, even at Yale. “But I had no idea how to console poor Bobo because he had just gotten over an entire week of menopause.” (Transcript)

A variation on medical student syndrome shows up in writer’s block, too.

fantasy writerIf your writing is “off” for a few days, you wonder if you might be blocked. This focuses your attention on all the ways your writing is anything less than the fantasy of a writer, wide-eyed with inspiration and fingers flying on the keyboard to produce 50,000 sparkling, brilliant words a day.

You start noticing the “symptoms” of writer’s block. Unfortunately, just noticing those symptoms makes them seem bigger and more dangerous.

Now you’re not just wondering, you’re scared because you must have writer’s block. What else could it be? Leprosy?

Anxiety is not only a key symptom of writer’s block; it’s the primary source of block. Worrying that you might be blocked will make you blocked.

So first of all: Relax. You probably don’t have writer’s block. Bobo probably didn’t go through menopause – poor man, he’ll still have to go through that later in life.

18160736 - escape key run away from a keyboard. 3d illustrationI’m a big fan of turning rhetorical questions into actual questions. So what else could it be when you think you should be writing, but you’re not?

When you freeze, can’t think of thing to write that isn’t profoundly stupid, and can’t stand watching the cursor blink tauntingly at you for another minute?

When you sit down, only to pop out of your chair?

When you procrastinate and postpone and promise yourself “someday”?

When you rewrite and edit and rewrite the same paragraph for hours?

When you despair of ever writing another worthwhile word?

I’m also a big fan of getting precise. True writer’s block is almost as rare as leprosy at Yale. Chances are you’re not blocked, you’re experiencing resistance.

You don’t need to be a writer who never experiences resistance (which is even rarer than a leper at Yale); you need to know how to respond to resistance so you can get through it and get back to writing.

Just calling your struggle “writing resistance” instead of “writer’s block” is a huge relief. Resistance is something you can work through. Writer’s block sounds so terminal. Like leprosy. So irreversible. Like menopause.

Plenty of other things are frequently mistaken for writer’s block. Find out what in next week’s post. Hey, if you’re not already a subscriber, why not sign up and get notified when the next post appears instead of having to remember?

Cuz, you know, both leprosy and menopause can affect your memory.

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2 Comments on “Writer’s Block and Medical Student Syndrome”

  1. Joel D Canfield August 2, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

    Ever since I first read The War of Art I’ve loved the semantic difference between “block” and “resistance.” One stops you until you remove it, go around it, over it, under it, but one way or another, you have to change direction.

    Resistance might slow you, but it doesn’t stop you going the direction you’ve already chosen.

    Best Beloved and I have a daughter who spends one week out of three (unfair as that is) in a state requiring lots and lots of chocolate. We think it only fair that we also eat all the chocolate we want during that week (and just to be safe, the one before it and the one after it.)

    It’s not menopause, but it works for us. And between caffeine and chocolate, I keep writing.


    • rosannebane August 5, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

      Thanks for the reminder, Joel. I love The War of Art, too. That and The Brain That Changes Itself were books that launched AWB.


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