Dealing with the dreaded writer’s block
In the June 14, 2004, issue of The New Yorker magazine, there is an essay titled “Blocked! Why Do Writers Stop Writing?” (I can’t find the author’s name in the online edition). Therein one of the Romantic poets, Coleridge, is cited as a prime example of a writer who suffered from that peculiar malady known as “writer’s block”:
“‘Yesterday was my Birth Day’ … Coleridge wrote in his notebook in 1804, when he was 32. ‘So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. — O Sorrow and Shame … I have done nothing!’”
It was true. Most of the poems for which he is remembered were written when he was in his mid-twenties. After that, any ambitious writing project inspired in him what he called “an indefinite indescribable Terror,” and he wasted much of the rest of his life on opium addiction.’’
Therein the point is made that “Coleridge is one of the first known cases of what we call writer’s block. Sometimes, ‘block’ means complete shutdown: the writer stops writing, or stops producing anything that seems to him worth publishing. In other cases, he simply stops writing what he wants to write. He may manage other kinds of writing, but not the kind he sees as his vocation. (Coleridge turned out a great deal of journalism and literary criticism in his later years, but he still saw himself as disabled, because he wasn’t writing serious poetry.)”
Last week I received an email from a reader asking advice. She has been working on a novel for young adults set in the Smokies, for which she has a publisher and a deadline.
Things were going well, she thought, up until this past spring, when she came down with what she described as “a bad case of writer’s block.” I asked her to describe the symptoms.
As anticipated, she has become an expert at “procrastination” — coming up with anything from polishing the silverware to bathing the dog to defrosting the refrigerator to shopping at Walmart that will “justify” not sitting down at her desk and writing. When she runs out of excuses and reluctantly does make it to her desk, she almost always experiences what she describes as “brain jam.” Her thoughts become so jumbled it requires great effort to compose a paragraph.
On those few days when she produces a page or two after spending a whole day at her desk, she will go to bed feeling good about things. But the next morning, “upon review,” they will seem so poorly written she’ll have deleted them before breakfast.
I wrote back, saying that I not only recognized the symptoms but could prescribe the cure. When in doubt do what Aristotle, Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Hazlitt, Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, et al, did — take a walk. It will clear your mind and whet your appetite for writing. If walking doesn’t work, nothing will.
I also suggested that she read Austerlist, the magnificent novel by the German author W.G. Sebald that appeared in 2001 (in English translation) shortly before his death in an automobile accident. In Austerlitz, the main character is suffering from “brain jam,” if you will, and has fallen into the mother of all writer’s blocks.
“The various ideas I entertained at various times of this book I was to write ranged from the concept of a systematically descriptive work in several volumes to a series of essays on such subjects as hygiene and sanitation, the architecture of the penal system, secular temples, hydrotherapy, zoological gardens, departure and arrival, light and shade, steam and gas, and so forth. However, even a first glance at the papers I had brought here from the Institute … showed that they consisted largely of sketches which now seemed misguided, distorted, and of little use … Reading and writing had always been my favorite occupation … but now I found writing such hard going that it took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, with the greatest effort … than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed … Now and then a train of thought did succeed in emerging with wonderful clarity inside my head, but I knew even as it formed that I was in no position to record it, for as soon as I picked up my pencil the endless possibilities of language, to which I could once safely abandon myself, became a conglomeration of the most inane places.”
Austerlitz’s self-prescribed antidote to this malaise was nocturnal excursions along the streets of London:
“For over a year, I think,” said Austerlitz, “I would leave my house as darkness fell, walking on and on, down the Mile End Road and Bow Road to Stratford, then to Chigwell and Romford, right across Bethnal Green and Canonbury, through Holloway and Kentish Town and thus to Hampstead Heath, or else south over the river to Peckham and Dulwich or westward to Richmond Park. It is a fact that you can traverse this vast city almost from end to end on foot in a single night.”