Why do writers stop writing?
Joan Acocella took up this question in The New Yorker several years ago. She doesn’t answer it. Nobody can. There are as many answers as blocked writers. Acocella provides a history of explanations for why writers sometimes, often, abandon writing for years. Or forever. Some of those explanations are:
1. the early Romantic notion, promulgated by Shelley and others, that writers do not control their work, that poetry is an invisible external influence that happens or doesn’t
Some writers still buy into this. I do, to an extent, because I’ve experienced it – it’s real, that “invisible external influence.” Maybe it’s not the whole story (pun intended), but for some writers it is a necessary beginning. The joke is, most of those creative types who subscribe to this are the same ones who insist on getting high praise for “something beyond their control.” You can’t have it both ways.
2. the frustration with language itself as an imperfect vehicle to convey truth (a realization that stymied the output of many of the French Symbolists)
You can overthink anything into ruin. You can lose your sense of play. You can “fall upon the thorns of” language (Shelley again!) and take legal writing seriously. (That’s a joke.) Of all the reasons for writer’s block, I find this one the most tragic and the most believable.
3. the inexplicable but undeniable prejudice on the part of serious readers against writers who produce too much (Anthony Trollope’s reputation and Joyce Carol Oates have contended with this)
Of course, there is a long history of judging writers by anything other than what they write. Today it happens to be personality, platform, and, for literary writers, which MFA program they came out of. I love Trollope and Oates and I don’t care a fig how much they’ve written. Some readers do. A lot of serious readers do. I remember encountering this prejudice against writers that are “too prolific” in graduate school – where it was a shorthand way of dismissing certain authors because a) if lightweight penny ante bestselling writers who are here today and gone tomorrow produce a lot of books then b) serious writers damn well better not if they know what’s good for them. It’s also a handy way to discount a writer whose entire output you don’t have time to read.
4. psychoanalysis, and psychological theories generally that link creativity with madness and “writer’s block” as a treatable mental condition
No discussion of this one is complete without trotting out Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which Acocella does. I read this years ago, thought it was horseshit then, and still do. Basically, Jamison sees mental illness as the source of the western literary canon, which allows her to take the politically correct stance of discounting great literature as the product of diseased minds while still appreciating it to an appropriate, socially-acceptable degree so she can prove to her educated friends that she’s not a complete philistine or anything. I hated this book. I still hate this book. But Acocella mentions another book that I suspect is worse. Alice W. Flaherty, a neurologist from Harvard Medical School, is anxious to convince that creative writing is merely the flashing of certain neurotransmitters – really nothing to see here, brain is mind and all that – and that it “may soon be possible to ward off depression and at least some types of writer’s block by holding a magnetic wand over a precise location on our skulls.”
This – from Harvard – in the 21st century! Didn’t magnetism as a cure for mental illness get debunked by a French Royal Commission in 1784?
5. being American. According to Acocella, many Europeans do not recognize the concept of writer’s block.
So writer’s block is cultural. Beyond fascinating, but as many of Acocella’s examples come from England, France, and Italy, I don’t believe it. The visitor from Porlock showed up in Nether Stowey, not New York.
6. being born in the 19th century or later (writer’s block didn’t exist before Romanticism screwed things up with mystifying creativity into something beyond the writer’s control)
This I knew. And I would add that before Romanticism, writers weren’t burdened with notions of “genius” “madness” “specialness” being “an unacknowledged legislator of the world” and all the rest of it. I love Romantic poetry but the whole movement opened the door to thousands of annoying “sensitive plant” types that are more enamored with “being different” than with the harsh solitude of word working. You can see them dressed in black, hunched ostentatiously over their laptops with their studiously-copped looks of inspiration, desperately out-maneuvering each other for the “best” slot at a local poetry performance (meaning any slot before the rest of the audience members read their own poems and leave), because well, writing alone in one’s room doesn’t get you props as a profound poetic loner. You need to go out and annoy people for that. Thanks, Shelley.
7. too much success, too early (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
This one is to laugh. The vast majority of writers don’t have this problem, and therefore the vast majority of writers who experience block don’t have this problem, either. I’m not sure why it merits mention.
News flash. Alcoholism blocks everybody who has it from accomplishing things. This isn’t limited to writing. In fairness, Acocella never makes the claim that alcoholism is peculiarly a problem for writers. In unfairness, she throws it on her list as if alcoholism is somehow particularly associated with writers. This sort of thing needs to stop. Presenting alcoholism as a creative person’s malady only encourages folks who desperately desire to be perceived as creative to drink too much. These folks are annoying enough sober. They don’t need help. If a writer is blocked by alcohol it’s because he’s an alcoholic, not because he’s a writer. That is not writer’s block. Why isn’t that obvious?
9. the writer outliving the world he was writing for
Maybe. I get this. Having spent most of my life in the previous century, I often feel lost and disconcerted by this brave new one. But sometimes this disconnect is a source of inspiration. You see, when you really are an outsider, you get to observe a lot more stuff. And you don’t have to dress in black and act like a jerk to do it. You just have to show up.
10. getting older
For some, sure, but not for all. Experience murders youthful self-confidence; it always has. The rush of words seems silly and dries up in the heat of the “real world.” But an older writer’s confident I-don’t-give-a damn-what-you-think-of me can bulldoze those blocks into the nether regions. Age is a poor proxy for inhibition, which is really what we’re talking about here.
11. discomfort with public self-revelation
I think we need more discomfort with public self-revelation. This is where Romanticism gets it right. If creativity is a numinous force writing through you, then how the hell are you revealing yourself? It isn’t about you. If it is about you, then it’s not fiction. It’s something else disguised as fiction. Anyway, this one’s easy. Don’t write about yourself. Be creative. Problem solved.