Intuitively, we understand that perfection isn't reality, and we still expect black and white answers. While that's a very common mindset, nuance is still subject to ridicule.
The same is still the case with writer's block. I mentioned in an earlier post that there are people who operate under the pretense that writer's block doesn't exist. That can make sense for some writers who know, more than most, the power of words. What, then, do we do for those who want to use those words?
A writer's obstacles are always a vehicle for growth if they allow the space for it, and research wants to catch up. Mike Rose describes his contributions to that conversation in "Complexity, Rigor, Evolving Method, and the Puzzle of Writer's Block: Thoughts on Composing Process Research". Many of his colleagues saw a study of the block as too broad, as something that can't be contained or fully defined.
Rose begins by expressing that they were correct, but the study was worth it because he was able to determine his limits. Limits to a study usually dictate a lack of information of some kind, and that can be a useful action item. In the case of this study, all of the limits were action items.
The study had several parts. The first was a questionnaire, similar to the writing apprehension test, that determined candidacy. Those who participated (undergraduates from the same university) had varying majors and reported different experiences with blocking. Rose offered each students a writing prompt to respond to in a "stimulated recall" setting. The student was recorded during this portion, and then watched and reviewed that recording with Rose. Then, their work was evaluated by readers.
In the end, the study was deemed successful, and the results yielded practical applications for writers. It did not address much outside of the cognitive aspects of blocking.
When an individual agrees to participate in a study like this, social and environmental factors are regulated in a certain way that doesn't always reflect the consistent reality of the writer. Responses from other people to communication as a developing writer will shape their skills in mechanics and their style. In addition, writing for someone or something attaches expectations to it. I'm going to address a couple of the limits that Rose poses in his study and write fictional scenarios posing situations in which researchers might be able to accommodate certain limits and take them into account when forming their discussions.
Consistency matters, but writers do adapt. The result is that they will write differently in different physical and mental spaces. It doesn't make the idea of studying blocks impossible. A researcher can determine that a blocked writer might be able to put forth their best work in crowded spaces saturated with mindless chatter, but the blocks manifest in a different way in that space than it does in a quieter space where a writer is more tentative.
This phenomena would warrant a different kind of study entirely and would change the bounds, the results, and the goals of the test to some degree. On the other hand, information about the spaces that the candidates occupy and how their blocks affect them in different spaces can aid studies like this and can serve as an interesting discussion point.
Writer Y writes best with white noise or ASMR in the background, but they usually begin to experience blocks when they're needing to focus their writing on one thing in particular. Their tendency is to try and fulfill more objectives than can sustain their passage. When they try and talk about one thing by itself, they run out of things to talk about very quickly. Their test environment is aware of the conditions in which Writer Y feels they writes best and are aware of the conditions in which they experience their blocks. They inform Writer Y that the test environment, for the sake of consistency, will be silent and makes sure that they still consent to this test.
In sixty minutes, researchers did observe that Writer Y struggled with keeping a focused work, but that their monitor was very strong. Researchers determined that the writing habits and obstacles that Writer Y experienced were elevated in a silent environment. As a result of this change in environment, the writer and the researchers were able to identify individualized strategies that they can use such as establishing a set time to self-edit.
Another limit is the emotional limit. The emotions of a writer can be lauded in a literature review for a novel, especially a classic novel, but it can break the next writer's credibility. A person's mental health affects how they process and interpret the world around them, and even if that isn't made explicit in their work, it is still a work influenced by a specific mindset.
Writer X is very enthusiastic about the topic that was given to them for a particular text, and could write about anything or everything having to do with it. At the same time, they're also very apprehensive. They have to be able to adequately do this topic justice, but they're experiencing some imposter syndrome. All of those other published works on the same topic was what motivated the interests of Writer X in the first place. Writer X has been informed by researchers that they are allowed to leave the room in which they are writing to stop the clock at any time to get a drink of water and collect their thoughts.
After a combined sixty minutes of writing, researchers noticed that when Writer X started to give their opinion, they immediately held back. So, researchers gave Writer X some strategies that can help them integrate their contributions into a larger conversation.
Every study needs to have their limits, and there are instances where a researcher can integrate different elements to their study that allows for further conversation. In writing, specifically, that can strengthen a study and can yield more practical information. There are some subjects in which the limits of an experiment are the solution. In writing, the limits can be the solution and there can be no wrong answer.
Thank you to everyone who has participated in Purposeful Prose thus far!
This is not the end of our conversation on writer's block and other obstacles that people might find in writing. When we make these obstacles our friends or collaborators, some new and interesting tools can be made!
There are some brand new projects moving forward, so look forward to that! If you are interested in reading further and participating in any conversation I open up, you can become a Purposeful Prose member and "like", comment, post on my forum, and more. You can also join me on the Purposeful Prose LinkedIn page for tips, picks, and further content outside of the blog.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Rose, M. (1985). Complexity, rigor, evolving method, and the puzzle of writer’s block: Thoughts on composing-process research. When a writer can’t write, 227-260.