What causes writer's block? You might say fear of failure, lack of dedication, or simple exhaustion, but apparently science has a different answer to this question.

In the New Yorker recently Maria Konnikova delved into the research on the subject, coming up with an answer that is simultaneously simple and complex. The short version of why writer's sometimes face creative blockages is completely straightforward -- they've unhappy -- but the details get fascinating.

The four types of unhappy writers

Outlining classic research from the 1970s and 80s done by a team out of Yale on the subject, Konnikova explains that after months of interviews and a barrage of psychological tests, the researchers "found, unsurprisingly, that blocked writers were unhappy." Writer's block, the studies revealed, is a cocktail of depression, anxiety, and paralyzing self-doubt.

But while the explanation that unhappiness and non-existent creative output go hand in hand is unlikely to bowl anyone over with shock, the details of the findings are more interesting. Apparently, unhappy writers come in four distinct sub-types:

  1. The anxious miserable writer: "The first, more anxious group felt unmotivated because of excessive self-criticism--nothing they produced was good enough--even though their imaginative capacity remained relatively unimpaired."
  2. The angry miserable writer: "The second, more socially hostile group was unmotivated because they didn't want their work compared to the work of others. (Not everyone was afraid of criticism; some writers said that they didn't want to be 'object[s] of envy.')"
  3. The apathetic miserable writer: "The third, apathetic group seemed the most creatively blocked. They couldn't daydream; they lacked originality; and they felt that the 'rules' they were subjected to were too constrictive. Their motivation was also all but nonexistent."
  4. The narcissistic miserable writer: "Finally, the fourth, angry and disappointed group tended to look for external motivation; they were driven by the need for attention and extrinsic reward. They were... more narcissistic."

One intervention to cure them all

While Konnikova's deep dive into subtypes of writer's block is likely to be morbidly fascinating for anyone who has experienced the phenomenon, perhaps the most obviously useful aspect of her article is the section on how to fight the problem. Apparently, the prescription for all subtypes is pretty much the same -- directed mental imagery.

To recover their creative abilities, the research team walked writers through exercises designed to spur their imagination without triggering their anxieties. "Writers would sit in a dim, quiet room and contemplate a series of ten prompts asking them to produce and then describe dream-like creations. They might, for example, 'visualize' a piece of music, or a specific setting in nature," explains Konnikova.

While you or I don't have a team of psychologists to gently lead us back to our imaginative faculties, that doesn't mean the creatively stymied can't make use of this insight. "When one feels writer's block, it's good to just keep putting things down on paper--ideas, knowledge, etc.'" Konnikova reports author Scott Barry Kaufman as recommending.

In essence, the key to overcoming writer's block is to keep writing, but in a low-stakes way such as a journal or private idea-spurring exercise. "Such escapes allow writers to find comfort in the face of uncertainty; they give writers' minds the freedom to imagine, even if the things they imagine seem ludicrous, unimportant, and unrelated to any writing project," concludes Konnikova.

Next time you find yourself creatively blocked, letting your imagination play in a consequence-free way, might just be the answer.