Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Pill for Writer's Block

In last month’s issue of The Smithsonian Magazine, Robert Anthony Siegel told how he overcame his chronic writer’s block with a pill. Not just any pill, but a custom-designed placebo. A researcher prepared the medication for Siegel, who knew full well that the pill contained nothing more than cellulose.
He took the medication for two weeks before he noticed any change in his behavior. When he felt a strong urge to quit, he took a couple of extra pills instead. (“I was way, way over my dosage,” he confided.)
Gradually, his episodes of writer’s block became less frequent and debilitating. So did his panic attacks and insomnia. His experiment contributed to our knowledge of the placebo effect.
A few insights into the placebo effect may help you overcome writer’s block, even if you don’t use a placebo:
1. Your expectations shape your experience. Robert’s researcher did everything to make the prescription look like a real pharmaceutical: He gave Robert a written prescription for his druggist, who then gave him a labeled medicine bottle with the pills, a disclosure sheet about the medicine, and a hefty bill of $405. (“The price increases the sense of value,” the researcher told him. “It will make them work better.”)
You could do several things to heighten expectancy when you sit down to write. Draft a cover letter to accompany your submission to the editor or critique partner who’ll read it. If you’re going to meet that person to discuss your manuscript, make the appointment before you start to write. And so on. What if I don’t finish? you may be thinking. But if you anticipate failure, guess what happens.
2. Find an empathetic caregiver. The researcher filled that role in Robert’s case. He listened attentively to the consequences of writer’s block, helped Robert imagine how his life would change without it, and checked on his progress throughout the trial.
If you keep getting “stuck” with your writing, find a critique partner or mentor to help you. Your conversations with that person tell your subconscious mind: I am not well, but I’m taking steps to get well. This condition is not normal, but I have a capable friend who’ll help me return to normal.
3. Continue therapy when you see no results. At first, Siegel's writing remained “stuck” and his anxiety began to build. He emailed his lab worker one night to pour out his frustration, and got the reply: “As with any other medicine, it may take time to reach a therapeutic dose.” So he kept on taking the placebos as directed--and he began to write.

Joe Allison has been a member of the Indiana Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN. His non-fiction books include Setting Goals That Count and Swords and Whetstones.

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