It was a Friday in October 2009 and I was shuttling about so much, packing bags and weeping over lost notebooks, that I didn't notice the curious gifts on my coffee table until long after the departure of their maker—a talented chiropractor named Ryan who is also a conservatory-trained opera singer and something of a virtuoso on Cambodian flutes. I was pausing duties at the Washington City Paper, where I had negotiated what the publisher generously termed a “sabbatical” from my job on the arts desk to finish a longish project that would involve roughly 100 hours of video-transcription and certain other tasks that I decided were best dispatched in a friend's farmhouse in rural New Hampshire.
It was also at least a year since I had written anything longer than 3,000 words, and though I didn't tell anyone at the paper, I was terrified.
So I discovered Ryan's gifts around midnight on the eve of traveling: three half-beveled wedges of balsa wood, each smaller than a cassette tape and each labeled in pencil: WRITERS' USE ONLY. The note beneath them said quite simply:
If you get writer's block, just toss one of these in the woodstove.
This effigy of writer's block remains one of the loveliest presents I have received. A single bit of balsa, lone survivor of the woodstove, sits in my drawer right here. An evil totem, made for me to destroy when I am unable to create.
If writer's block is a simple pathology that prevents you from dashing off a first sentence, then I do not suffer from writer's block. In fact, I wrote six alternate first sentences for this piece alone. Here they are:
- Humans suffer performance anxiety everywhere—on stage, in the bedroom, occasionally in the gents' when Greg is watching us micturate.
- The best part about interviewing your favorite writers for a piece about writer's block is that you don't have to pay them.
- I believe it was Proust who said, “Memory is my mistress; reality is my wife; writer's block is her mother.” Actually I'm fairly sure Proust never said that.
- 404 Error: Muse Not Found
- [insert real corker of a sentence here]
- **don't forget to price spark-plugs; also—arrange California trains & call dad**
Mine, as you see, is a fertile literary imagination, but naturally I shouldn't crow; a facility at banging things out does not make you a writer—it just helps you hit deadline. Not all typing is writing, and not all writing is typing; writer's block subverts far more than the first sentence. Straightforward creative paralysis, or the inability to start typing, is merely the most literal-minded definition. Silkier, more insidious strains of the problem can occlude vision, structure, tone, music. Not being able to type is one thing; being blocked from the true heart of your project is a more serious ailment, one that every wordsmith has known and suffered. The very enterprise is masochistic, as Sir Philip Sidney reminds us: “Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: / 'Fool!' said my muse to me, 'look in thy heart, and write.'”
What writer has not, like Sidney, bitten his pen, or (say) chewed thoughtfully on her typewriter? The solution, as Sidney's muse admonishes, is to get going. In our lucid moments, writers develop strategies and share them with our partners in misery. As a teacher, and occasional perpetrator, of writing, I decided it would be fun to ask some of my favorite people how they deal with The Block. These bits of testimony will not work for all writers, but I believe a sense of the options (while remembering that one does not struggle alone) is of great practical value in staving off madness.
In other words, do try these solutions, alone or in combination. “Mix and match” is the cry.
Perfectionism is the pre-eminent writer's paralytic, one reason Jacques Barzun suggests: “Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes.” (This enduring wisdom is especially familiar to newspaper reporters, who are told to “type until you find your lead.”) On a parallel principle, thinking aloud is a clarifying exercise. Each semester I indoctrinate my undergraduate journalism students with notions of “composition-by-conversation,” and we try to enjoy this oral method of revision—to prune something thorny by expressing it, in vernacular, to a real or imagined roommate, and probably a recording device. I would be lost in every professional sense without a recording device.
Dayo Olopade, author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, says thinking aloud is central to her routine.
If I am a verbal person it is expressed most readily in the spoken word. So when I am stuck on something I take out my voice recorder—key tool for the reporter class—and start explaining the tricky point or new argument, as though at a dinner party. When I've sounded it out a few different ways, I start to transcribe. And before I know it I have a rough paragraph or two. This has been my method for ages.]]
When you can't transcribe your own words, someone else's will do just as well. Hunter Thompson spent a lot of time and paper re-typing Fitzgerald and Hemingway to “feel the music” in his fingers. In channeling the voices and rhythms of your forebears, you can sometimes type your way to your own voice. Casey N. Cep, essayist for the New Yorker, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere, favors a similar technique.
A thing I do, if writing isn't going well, is to write out something I really love, like one of Keats' odes or a bit of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop or even a few sentences from Woolf or the Gospel of John. It's nice to remember what can be done with words always, but especially when it seems like you can't seem to do anything with them.
If this approach has an obvious mystical appeal, its function is earthbound and entirely practical. In Cep's words: “You copy it down, and there it is, and you remember that all writing, even the best writing, came about one word or one line or one sentence at a time.”
Calum Marsh, film critic for Esquire, the New Yorker, and the Village Voice, finds that sometimes reading on its own is enough.
I keep a dog-eared copy of Martin Amis' book review collection The War Against Cliché beside my desk and consult it before nearly everything I write. If I'm feeling particularly blocked, I have a habit of sitting down and reading it straight through until I'm inspired to get started—which seems to work without fail.
The remembered rhythms of thought, whether we are re-typing St. John or re-reading Martin Amis, are useful preparation for composing something original. Meanwhile, Troy Patterson, writer-at-large for Slate, relies on actual music to stimulate the writerly glands.
Sometimes when I'm trying not to not write, I listen to the Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray,” over and over, for its propulsive churning pump, while clinging to Virginia Woolf's idea that achieving a style is simply a matter of catching a rhythm.
(Patterson's email contains this charming addendum: “If your research turns up contact information for any person experienced in liberating writers from that condition, please do pass it along; I'm especially curious, lately, about hypnotists.”)
I either turn to reading or movies to try and rattle things in my brain. Mostly, I want to forget what I'm working on and what has me feeling so stuck because obsessing over being blocked only makes me more blocked.
Gay, too, stresses the aural aspect.
When I get back to the writing, I read the piece aloud until I get to the place where I am stuck and oftentimes, that act of recitation helps me find a more solid footing within the work in question.
Certain writers guard their solitude with vigilance. Dame Margaret Drabble, the novelist, critic, and biographer, says that mornings of peace are imperative.
Any conversation between waking and working can be fatal. Before embarking on creative work or on a longish essay, I do need to know I am alone, and in the morning can go straight from my bed to my machine (after coffee) without speaking to anyone, and be there alone for at least two hours.
Like E.B. White, who famously communed with the muses in a hotel room amid the wet heat of a New York summer, Drabble works well in temporary accommodations.
A featureless room can be liberating. I’ve good memories of the Station Hotel in Peterborough and the Westin Harbour Castle, Toronto. I wrote a lot in both of these buildings.
These days I’ve been able to work for about four hours every morning, and there’s a kind of freedom in the routine. I don’t have to think about whether or not I should write today—I just do.
Having said that, when I get stuck on a book I take the feeling seriously and stop. Usually I’ll go for a walk. Once I took a brooding five-mile trek through a thunderstorm all because of doubts over a few crucial sentences.
Drabble, too, espouses the walking cure.
The best remedy is walking. An evening walk can work wonders. I often think of the Latin tag, solvitur ambulando—it will be solved by walking.
(Another useful Latin tag is Pliny the Younger's nulla dies sine linea—“No day without at least a line.” On dark days I wonder whether a tweet would satisfy Pliny's provision.)
During certain creative funks, it is unwise to push too hard. Porochista Khakpour (Sons and Other Flammable Objects; The Last Illusion) says the best way of beating writer's block is to step slowly away from the keyboard.
The cure for me is simply to not write every day. I write when I'm “on.” And I quit while I'm ahead—I end a work day at a point where I'm not tapped out but rather still have some juice so there is something to look forward to for the next session.
Such advice will sound familiar to anyone who has read A Moveable Feast, or any of Hemingway's frequent exhortations always to “stop while you are going good. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time.”
By a similar token, Khakpour is troubled by writers who type when they should be thinking.
I think about my work constantly. I do see this problem where writers are writing all the time but not simply thinking enough. My ways comes with far less hard action but nearly nonstop contemplation.
A minority of respondents, comprising one man named Choire Sicha, does not believe in writer's block. Effacing himself and everyone else (such is his way), Sicha writes: “I, like ... don't ever have writer's block? I SHOULDN'T JINX MYSELF. HEH. Generally I just figure when people have 'writer's block' they should either go to therapy or get sober or break up with their boyfriend or just figure out they're not cut out for being a writer and should go get a job folding scarves.” In this respect, Sicha resembles a certain J. Alastair Frisby, who once told P.G. Wodehouse the humorist would “never [finish] a book” and suggested Wodehouse “get a job selling jellied eels.” Scarves at least represent a less slimy option.
In Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the fictional autobiographer coins the “Shandean” mode of composition: “I begin with writing the first sentence —and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” This method is sound if you are writing comedy, or dialogue, or Tristram Shandy, but it is hardly a fit routine for a writer who is truly blocked. Indeed, to speak of “cures” for writer's block is not wholly unlike selling snake-oil (or jellied eels!). When a friend of mine told me that he doesn't have “a block-breaking routine,” I was tempted to interject, “But you always hit deadline!” But I checked myself. That's like telling a depressive, “But you make such funny jokes!” The problem is not whether you can sneak a piece past an editor by the buzzer; the problem is what your spirit and self-possession must endure en route.
So what is a writer to do but devise, modify, borrow, and steal scraps of wisdom from our betters while deriving comfort in knowing that even our betters suffer the malady too? The only answer is to keep trying, to find temporary salves, combinations of inherited techniques, that stave off creative lethargy. My own standbys are rather pedestrian—I try to lose myself in the most unblocked books I know: Shandy, and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. (I also read Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker for reasons I need not defend.)
And then, if I am particularly lost, I simply email a few friends, which is how I came upon all the lovely advice above, plus this colorful note from Evan Fleischer: “One way to deal with writer's block is to walk until a strange flower grows in time-lapse-photography fashion out of your head.”
Hey, it's no less plausible than combusting a bit of balsa.