A cure for writer’s block

The smart drug in "Limitless" is strictly fictional, so what's a stymied scribe to do?

Topics: Writers and Writing, Limitless, Books,

A cure for writer's blockBradley Cooper in "Limitless"

“Limitless,” a deeply stupid Bradley Cooper vehicle about a frustrated novelist who gets his hands on an experimental drug that kicks his IQ up to the “four digit” range, is only the latest example of Hollywood’s long fascination with writer’s block. From “Barton Fink” to “Adaptation,” the tortured spectacle of a writer who cannot write has proven much more fun to watch than one who can.

Blocked writers tear out their hair, turn to drink and go noisily mad, all of which are dramatic; the image of someone busily tapping on a keyboard is not. Furthermore, blocked writers always want to go off to a secluded cabin or beach house or snowed-in hotel, where something terrible will inevitably happen (“Secret Window,” “Bag of Bones” and, of course, “The Shining” — all based on works by Stephen King, who seems way too prolific to have ever wrestled with block himself).

However, the hero of “Limitless,” Eddie Morra, is the only cinematic writer I’m aware of who cures his block pharmaceutically — the booze that so many of the others resort to is more along the lines of drown-your-sorrows self-medication. Essentially, the drug turns Eddie into what a person suffering from a manic episode only thinks he is: a self-confident superman who picks up a new language in an afternoon and finishes a brilliant novel in four days. (See also: cocaine.) It does this by activating the fabled nine-tenths of the brain that the rest of us purportedly don’t use.

What’s especially bizarre about this premise is the notion that writer’s block can be overcome by an increase in intelligence. (More plausibly, Eddie, once he gets really, really smart, decides to bail on writing books entirely.) It would be hard to find a blocked writer who thought that brains were exactly what he or she lacked. In her fascinating 2004 book, “The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain,” neurologist Alice Weaver Flaherty explains that the impulse to create is rooted in the limbic brain, the seat of instinct, not in the cerebral cortex, which performs the analytical activities enhanced by Eddie’s pills.



Yet, like Eddie, Flaherty found that medication played a role in her own struggles with writing. She suffered two separate incidents of postpartum mood disorder, not just a crushing period of writer’s block but, before that, a more exotic condition called hypergraphia: writing too much. In the grips of this compulsion, she wrote constantly, to the point that it “felt like a disease: I could not stop and it sucked me away from family and friends.” She wrote when she should have been working and responded to the sight of a keyboard or blank page like a crackhead laying eyes on a pipe. The mood stabilizer she took to correct the hypergraphia was what gave her the writer’s block.

Throughout, Flaherty was dismayed to find that what seemed to her “one of the most refined, even transcendent talents, should be so influenced by biology.” Seven years after the publication of “The Midnight Disease” this hardly seems worth remarking on; many patients on antidepressants report a decrease in creative drive as a side effect.

Most cases of writer’s block are not, however, the result of a biochemical imbalance. Those not caused by being, as Eddie puts it, “depressed off my ass,” are more likely to be rooted in fear. It’s here that something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law applies. First proposed by two psychologists in 1908, this principle holds that the more “aroused” (i.e., engaged and challenged) a person is by a task, the better he or she performs, up to the point that the arousal becomes anxiety or worry, at which point performance declines.

In other words, beyond a certain point, the more difficult a writing task, and the more you think it matters, the more likely you are to become blocked. This may explain why journalists with, say, two deadlines per week almost never get blocked: no individual story ever has to carry that much weight. (The paycheck helps a lot, too. Not long ago, a woman sitting next to me on a plane asked if I had a trick for getting past writer’s block, and I replied, “Yes. It’s called a mortgage.”)

One reason blocked writers make great movie characters is that most Americans seem to think they have at least one book in them. “I’ve got a fantastic idea,” they say. “I just need to find the time to write it all down.” Ah yes, there’s the rub. And if they never quite get around to it, they can still identify with someone like Eddie, a guy with a similar gold mine locked inside him who got lucky enough to stumble upon the perfect key. These are the low-arousal low-performers, people who like to fantasize about being an author but who lack the motivation to power themselves through the drudgery of actually writing a book.

The high-arousal low-performers are more desperate cases. They believe that writing the right book (or screenplay) will transform their lives and remake their identities, and with so much riding on the outcome, they choke. All of Hollywood’s blocked writers belong to this category: Their careers, marriages, houses — whatever — always seem to be hanging in the balance.

While overwrought, such scenarios have a subjective truth; the stakes fuel the block. Some of the most famously “blocked” writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote reams of stuff — just not the stuff they thought they ought to be writing. It’s amazing what you can get done when you believe you’re shirking some other, more important enterprise.

That’s what every blocked writer really needs: something more significant they should be doing instead, an earth-shaking, life-changing project you’re stealing time from to work on this little novel. Or the great novel you ought to be drafting while you knock off your memoir just for fun. Granted, inventing such a decoy project and convincing yourself that you may actually get around to it someday requires a bold and sustained act of imagination. But that’s what writers do, isn’t it — make stuff up?

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>