Maslow’s insightful advice on overcoming writer’s block and the necessity of writing for self-actualization

by Scott Barry Kaufman, August 14, 2019 in Blog

In the winter of 1963-64, the psychologist Abraham Maslow taught the course “Experiential Approaches to Personality” at Brandeis University. In a new book published by Maurice Bassett, you can take a front-row seat in his course. Personality & Growth: A Humanistic Psychologist in the Classroom contains the transcribed recordings of Maslow’s lectures during that time.

There are a bunch of gems in his lectures, but today I’d like to share Maslow’s very insightful recommendations for overcoming writer’s block and the necessity of writing for self-actualization.

November 18, 1963 (Lecture)

Maslow: If you’re jammed up on expressing yourself, either about talking or about writing, now here at least there’s a simple solution: talk your head off or write your head off, one or the other. Just push yourself to it, force yourself to it, do it the way a professional writer would, make believe you have to earn your living that way. And this kind of assignment would be a normal assignment. The professional writers I know put a certain value on each hour. They have to– they have mortgages and children to support. So they must say “Well, I must earn so much in this hour; is it worth it?” If someone pays them, let’s say, $100 for a thing, they figure, “Well, that’s three hours’ worth,” or four, or whatever price they put on their time, and that’s all they’ll allow him. They’ll do the best they can in that time, and I would say that this is part of maturity. Responsible citizens have that kind of confrontation all the time– something you’re supposed to get done by next Thursday or by this evening…

Part of growing up is the whole business of expression, of learning to express yourself and of being able to pin your thoughts down as they fly past and then to be able to express them in a satisfying form. This is one example of self-actualization on a small scale. If you have some vague thought through the middle of the night or some bright idea that comes to you sometime, if you let it go, if you throw it away, if you waste it so to speak– it’s like throwing away your baby or your precious possession or something that you have created. It’s like leaving it as an abortion, so to speak; it’s like not growing it up to full term.

Expressing is part of the process of thinking, and mature thinking is expressed thinking, expressed saying, expressed writing. So I would recommend all intellectual people, all people who have I.Q. enough for the job– and you all do– to learn to write. That is part of your normal equipment, just like being able to comb your own hair or eat with a knife and fork or walk with shoes on or whatever. And the way in which it’s recommended– experience now is piled up– is simply to write. For the ones that take it very seriously, they allow themselves one hour per day, let’s say, whatever the convenient hour– nine to ten in the morning. Professional writers like Somerset Maugham, for instance, will write from nine to twelve– that’s his day’s work. He sits down at the table, he picks up a pencil or pen or whatever, or sits as his tyepwriter– I forget which– or whatever is his way, and by gosh, he sits there. If he has no thoughts in his head, he jiggles, he wiggles, he writes his name over a hundred times. He just writes, that’s all.

S.I. Hayakawa has published lessons on this. The standard procedure is: sit yourself down, get yourself in the situation– your chair, your table, your pencil, whatever slippers you like to wear or whatever it may be– get the right temperature and whatever other requirements are necessary. You sit down even if you haven’t got a thing in your head– as Hayakawa was recommending– and make nonsense words. Just write as many words as you can. And the report from the writers– the expressers I might call them, or I would prefer to say, the thinkers– is that if you do this regularly, then finally it starts flowing. Inevitably it starts flowing. Thinking is not completed unless it’s written or spoken…

If you’ve got brains but don’t use them, then you’re doing so at the cost of cancerous fatty degeneration, of regression, deterioration, just in the same way that your muscles will atrophy if you don’t use them. So will your brain atrophy. Year by year you get less and less capable of sitting, of reading, of discussing, of writing, of thinking… You’ve just got to do it; you’ve got no alternative. I warn you. The doctor, you know, is telling you: “If you don’t have enough exercise then you might have a coronary, a heart attack” or something like that. And this is worse than a coronary. To be dead while you’re alive– that’s not so good. To be dead is bad enough, but the living death is no good…

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