David Burns wrote a self-help best seller, Feeling Good, based on principles of cognitive therapy, a psychotherapy modality pioneered by Aaron Beck and others. Much of the advice in this book is applicable to writers who are struggling.
Cognitive therapy addresses human problems by helping people with identifying and then shifting unhelpful patterns of thinking. Blocked writers tend to have plenty of these unhelpful thoughts. Burns’ book addresses thought patterns connected with perfectionism, catastrophizing, hopelessness, procrastination, anxiety and depression. These patterns may sound familiar, and they routinely occur in blocked writers. He emphasizes that people can learn to recognize their negative thought patterns, and develop strategies for moving their thinking into a more positive direction.
In his article Cognitive Components of Blocking (Written Communication 1985 2: 91)
psychologist and researcher Robert Boice shows links between writing blocks and styles of thinking. He focused on negative thinking in these categories (from most common to least): work apprehension, procrastination, negative moods, impatience, perfectionism, evaluation anxiety and rules about writing. Mike Rose also wrote a book addressing these issues, Writer’s Block, The Cognitive Dimension.
My experience is that not all blocked writers take to this approach, but that those who do really benefit. It’s one tool that seems to appeal to people who are naturally introspective and curious about the workings of their minds. Once you develop some skill at noticing the thoughts that create barriers and come to view them as recurring, conditioned, mental habits rather than truths about you or your writing, you feel less controlled or bullied by them and develop more freedom to write as you wish to.
After all, they’re just thoughts.
It’s worth noting that when you are trying to learn new cognitive therapy strategies, you may discover that you procrastinate about doing the homework involved. Oy Vey.