WRITER’S BLOCK: A MODERN MYTH

Posted: April 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


Been rolling the term around in my skull lately, think I’ve just about decided it’s wholly spurious. Some concept someone (probably not a writer) made up way back when that’s stuck with us, dogged us. Haunted some of us.

An elderly Monet, bed-ridden, fingers knotted grotesquely with arthritis, was dabbing at a painting propped on his chest one day when a dowager neighbor happened by, looked down at what was probably another take on lily pads and declared: “That’s marvelous! Especially considering your condition!” Monet reportedly looked her up and down with smug indifference. “Madam,” he replied evenly, “one does not paint with one’s hands.”

Poor analog or not, it’s my contention the same holds true with prose.

‘Writer’s block.’ Have noun and adjective ever been more damagingly coupled? The first valiantly cries, “Fluidity!” The second hatefully screams, “Inert!” Kind of an oxymoron when you think about it, and at the least grammatically confusing. ‘Writer’s block what?’

Themselves, I think.  Except that one can hardly be a writer without having written, so what got blocked?

I’ve no proof of this—all pure theory on my part—but I’d bet most even reasonably prolific writers rarely if ever go in terror of the blank page. Insipidly obvious as it may sound, it’s only paper. Just as the keys are only keys. The Kendal only plastic. They’re not what you’re writing with.

Okay, I’m stating the obvious: we write with our minds. And minds surely do get blocked. What I’d argue is what writing has to do with it. Worrying about the story or book that isn’t there yet is worrying about the non-existent, worrying about worry. “Fear itself,” as Roosevelt put it. Because, of course, the story is there. It’s just not set down yet. “How do you carve an elephant?” the man asked. “By cutting away everything that doesn’t look like one,” the sculptor replied. Feature a solid block of stone: does it really matter how or where you begin? In the end, it has to come out somewhere. But only if we start.

It’s not exactly brain surgery. No one’s going to die if we go down the wrong path. That’s what the delete key is for. We don’t have to know where it’s going to begin. And what a terrible bore if we did. Some part of everyone’s day is tedious; why concentrate on that part? Illuminate the day (and, if by chance, the human condition) with words! If Columbus had feared completing the first league, America would still have been there…I just wouldn’t be living in it. But someone would. Why not me? Sometimes the biggest hurdle is getting out of our own way. The idea is not to stop fearing the unknown, but to till it. Fear is the first cousin to suspense. You can make money off suspense.

“Ah,” some of you are saying, “I get it, Jones, you’re one of those guys that works without a net, goes charging off into the story without the least idea where it’s going! But I work from an outline, my friend! Chapter by chapter even! And I know exactly how it will end! Anything else is reckless. As Truman Capote said about Kerouac’s On The Road, ‘That’s not writing, it’s typing.’”

So okay, outline first. I don’t outline (except maybe in my head) and maybe my work suffers for it, but I’d never try to steer someone else from outlines. Outline all you want. Outline till the cows come home. Just don’t become its prisoner. If you use outlines for fortification, say the way you use coffee, hey–go for it. Hang out your clothespins and plot points. But beware: a blueprint alone does not a building make. If you aren’t, to some extent, “making it up as you go” —and often at the expense of those clothespins—you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your characters, your plot and whatever underlying theme or motive you assign the damn thing.

Author William Styron (Sophie’s Choice, etc.) remarked of the writing process: “It’s never dredged up. It pops up. Always a surprise.” He also went his last twenty years of life without writing another novel. And died bemoaning the fact. Styron suffered massive bouts of depression. And isn’t depression just another name for writer’s block?

I don’t think so. Many artists, sculptors, painters, suffer depression. Some amount of depression has been credited in aiding an artist’s work, even contributing to their best stuff. Anyway, it does seem to go with the territory. Styron wrote some grand, epic-style books. Then, at age sixty, facing the prospects of his own mortality, he grappled with his first round of depression. When he came out of it, he wrote a book about it: Darkness Visible (some irony there, I think, and maybe payback: make depression pay!). Then, convinced his muse had departed him, Styron plunged into a final phase of despondency that only died when he did. Jesus. I’m getting depressed just writing about it.

Can we learn anything from the Styrons, Hemingways, Londons, and Plaths–great writers who, for their own reasons, chose to take the shortcut? Maybe only that, like black holes and quantum mechanics, the relationship between depression and art doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. On Monday the Universe seems to coexist with and tolerate them, on Tuesday it doesn’t seem to matter.

Depression is real. Very real. And god-awful. Been there myself a few times. Seems to hit many of us, with varying degrees, later on in life. But I don’t happen to believe in muses. And my guess is not that Styron, Hemingway, etc. couldn’t write, but simply believed they couldn’t. They aren’t the same thing. There are times when it doesn’t pay to think. To my mind, the worst thing a potential writer can do is stop and think about the act of writing. Because right away that prevents him from thinking about anything else. What’s surprising about Styron is that he knew this! He admitted that trying to “dredge it up” never worked, that it always “popped” up from nowhere. Like a gift from God.

Well…maybe. A pretty thought. And if God made us, then I guess he might have made some us writers too. But I kind of shy from the idea. Seems dogmatic. And it cramps my ego. Isn’t there a relationship between faith and something about choice? It may seem like a gift–and no amount of flailing and head-banging will bring it to the surface—nevertheless, I’m convinced it does come from us, from somewhere down there in the twisted corridors of our memory-packed, idiosyncratic, atavistic brains. I think the fact of this is reflected in the writing itself, the individual, singular “voice” we give it. In any case, who really cares where it comes from? In the end, who even cares at all? And certainly: who ever really cares more than the person who went to the bother to write it? We all die alone.

I had this night class in college: Drawing and Painting. One evening, weary and exhausted from three hours of life drawing, I was sick of the model, sick of myself and ready to tear up my latest masterpiece when my instructor came up behind me. He looked at my drawing a long moment, nodded, and said, “Go home” (meaning back to my dorm). I was astonished. “Go home!” I lamented. He nodded again. “You’re not having any fun.” I was still miffed. “Look,” I told him, “I’ve been working really hard at this thing!” He smiled. “I know. That’s when it’s supposed to be the most fun.”

Pretty smart guy.

I had a pretty smart English teacher, too. The kind of rare find who will actually listen patiently when you confess you’re struggling with a class theme. “How do you break writer’s block?” I asked him. “Put down the first sentence,” he said. I thought about it. “And if you can’t think of a sentence?” “Then put down the first word,” he said, “the rest will follow eventually. Let the damn thing write itself. Who do you think you are, Faulkner?” “Of course not,” I replied humbly. “There you go,” he nodded, “what have you got to lose?”

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