"Yesterday was my Birth Day,” Coleridge wrote in his notebook in 1804, when he was thirty-two. “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. How could he have done this? Why didn’t he pull himself together? A friend asked him the same question. “You bid me rouse myself,” he replied. “Go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, and that will cure him. Alas! (he would reply) that I cannot move my arms is my complaint.”
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.) Writer’s block is a modern notion. Writers have probably suffered over their work ever since they first started signing it, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that creative inhibition became an actual issue in literature, something people took into account when they talked about the art. That was partly because, around this time, the conception of the art changed. Before, writers regarded what they did as a rational, purposeful activity, which they controlled. By contrast, the early Romantics came to see poetry as something externally, and magically, conferred. In Shelley’s words, “A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’” Poetry was the product of “some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind,” which more or less blew the material into the poet, and he just had to wait for this to happen. In terms of getting up in the morning and sitting down to work, a crueller theory can hardly be imagined, and a number of the major Romantic poets showed its effects. Wordsworth, like Coleridge, produced his best poetry early on, in about ten years. Poets, in their youth, “begin in gladness,” he wrote, when he was in his thirties, in “Resolution and Independence.” “But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”
After the English Romantics, the next group of writers known for not writing were the French Symbolists. Mallarmé, “the Hamlet of writing,” as Roland Barthes called him, published some sixty poems in thirty-six years. Rimbaud, notoriously, gave up poetry at the age of nineteen. In the next generation, Paul Valéry wrote some poetry and prose in his early twenties and then took twenty years off, to study his mental processes. Under prodding from friends, he finally returned to publishing verse and in six years produced the three thin volumes that secured his fame. Then he gave up again. These fastidious Frenchmen, when they described the difficulties of writing, did not talk, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, about a metaphysical problem, or even a psychological problem. To them, the problem was with language: how to get past its vague, cliché-crammed character and arrive at the actual nature of experience. They needed a scalpel, they felt, and they were given a mallet.
It is curious to see this writing inhibition arise in the nineteenth century, for many of the writers of that century, or at least the novelists, were monsters of productivity. Scott, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Trollope: these men published as if they couldn’t stop, and they were proud of it. Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”
Had this advice been given in 1850, it might have been gratefully accepted. But Trollope’s autobiography was published in 1883, the year after his death. By that time, romantic notions about writing had filtered down to the public. Many readers now believed that literature was something produced by fine-minded, unhappy people who did not hunt, and to this audience Trollope’s recommendations seemed clear evidence of shallowness. According to Michael Sadleir, who wrote the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the “Autobiography,” the book “extinguished its author’s good name for a quarter of a century.” Trollope was later rehabilitated, but still today there is a prejudice against prolific writers. Joyce Carol Oates, who has published thirty-eight novels, twenty-one story collections, nine books of poetry, and twelve essay collections, and who also teaches full time at Princeton, has had to answer rude questions about her rate of production. “Is there a compulsive element in all this activity?” one interviewer asked her.
In the United States, the golden age of artistic inhibition was probably the period immediately following the Second World War, which saw the convergence of two forces. One was a sudden rise in the prestige of psychoanalysis. The second was a tremendous surge in ambition on the part of American artists—a lot of talk about the Great American Novel and hitting the ball out of the park. Some of those hopes were fulfilled. The fifties were a thrilling decade in American literature (Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams). But, as the bar rose, so did everyone’s anxiety, and the doctor was called. Many, many writers went into psychoanalysis in those years, and they began writing about the relationship of art and neurosis. Early on, in 1941, came Edmund Wilson’s book “The Wound and the Bow,” which reinvoked the ancient Greek formula of the mad genius. After discussing the psychological harm suffered in childhood by Dickens, Kipling, and others, Wilson concluded that “genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together.” In 1945, Wilson made the point again, by publishing, under the title “The Crack-Up,” a collection of the later writings of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. Famous at twenty-three, washed up at forty, dead at forty-four, Fitzgerald was already everyone’s favorite example of artistic flameout, but this posthumous volume, with Fitzgerald’s own description of his situation (“No choice, no road, no hope”), helped plant the idea that his early exit was somehow a normal pattern, at least for American writers. As he famously put it, “There are no second acts in American lives.” In 1947, Partisan Review printed an essay, “Writers and Madness,” by one of its editors, William Barrett, claiming that the modern writer was by definition an “estranged neurotic,” because the difficulty of being authentic in a false-faced world forced him to go deeper and deeper into the unconscious, thus pushing him toward madness: “The game is to go as close as possible without crossing over.” Many did cross over, he added darkly.
Not everyone agreed that writers were mental cases, but a number of psychoanalysts did, and their loudest spokesman was Edmund Bergler, a Viennese émigré who in the forties and fifties put forth what is probably the most confident theory of writer’s block ever advanced. First of all, he coined the term. (Formerly, people had spoken of “creative inhibition” or the like.) Second, he proclaimed its cause: oral masochism, entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother. Starved before, the writer chose to become starved again—that is, blocked. Bergler claimed to have treated more than forty writers, with a hundred-per-cent success rate. That didn’t mean that the writers became like other people. “I have never seen a ‘normal’ writer,” Bergler reported. Even if their work was going well, this was often “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life”—squalid love affairs, homosexuality, etc. They had recompense, however: “the megalomaniac pleasure of creation . . . produces a type of elation which cannot be compared with that experienced by other mortals” (italics his).
In today’s psychology of writer’s block, as in today’s psychology in general, the focus is less on the unconscious than on brain chemistry. Blocked writers are now being treated with antidepressants such as Prozac, though some report that the drugs tend to eliminate their desire to write together with their regret over not doing so. Others are being given Ritalin and other stimulants, on the theory that their problems may be due to the now fashionable condition of attention deficit disorder.
We are even getting biological theories of literary creativity and its stoppage. In a 1993 book called “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” the psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison argued that manic-depressive illness was the source of much of the best poetry produced from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. This year, we were offered a follow-up hypothesis, in “The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain,” by Alice W. Flaherty, who teaches neurology at Harvard Medical School. Like Jamison, Flaherty thinks that mood disorders may jump-start the literary imagination. (Also like Jamison, she has suffered from a mood disorder, and she feels that she owes her writing career to her manic phases.) But she goes further, speculating at length on which parts of the brain are responsible for literary creativity and its interruption. She believes that writing is generated along the pathways that connect the limbic system—a structure deep in the brain, the source of emotion and drive—with the temporal lobe, which controls our ability to grasp linguistic and philosophical meaning. As for block, she thinks the main problem may lie in the frontal lobe, because block shares some characteristics with disorders arising from frontal-lobe damage, such as Broca’s aphasia, which destroys the ability to produce normal language.
Flaherty understands that these biological theories may shock people who still cherish the idea that art comes from something other than the action of neurotransmitters, and she spends many intelligent pages trying to shepherd us through the difficulty of accepting that the mind is actually the brain, a physical organ. She thinks we can concede this without discarding the more exalted concepts of inspiration, the “inner voice,” and so on. She, too, believes in those things. Nevertheless, she is a brain scientist, and she can’t help offering a few Frankensteinian suggestions. For example, she describes a new technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, in which brain activity is controlled via the manipulation of magnetic fields. “It may soon be possible,” she speculates, “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.”
In talk therapy, the trend these days is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches you to revise your thoughts and preconceptions in order to change the behavior that issues from them. Apart from one-on-one treatment, there are a number of cognitive-behavioral books for blocked writers—for example, “Break Writer’s Block Now!,” by Jerrold Mundis, a novelist. Mundis also has a set of four audiocassettes that, for seventy-seven dollars, will talk you through his technique. I’ve listened to the tapes. The idea is to remove your fear of writing by combatting your negative thoughts with self-affirmations (“I am a richly talented writer”), by controlling in your mind the size of your project (don’t start fantasizing about selling your novel to Hollywood), by thinking of what you’re writing as just a draft (don’t revise as you write), and, above all, by carefully scheduling your work and quitting the minute your assigned daily writing session is over (use a timer). Mundis’s manner is very cheerleadery, in the way of motivational training, and his Web site, www.unblock.org, where you can order the tapes, reads like a subway ad for a baldness cure. Still, some of his advice is good, at least for beginning writers.
Many of these theorists regard block as a thing in itself, a mental condition that one can be stricken with. Is it? Like most of today’s recognized psychological disorders, it is a concept that other cultures, other times, have done fine without. Not only did the notion of block not appear until the nineteenth century, in Europe, but many Europeans today don’t seem to know what it is. According to Zachary Leader’s 1991 “Writer’s Block,” the best book on the subject (much of my historical information comes from it), the French and the Germans have no term for writer’s block. Even in England, where the idea is supposed to have been born, modern writers tend to sniff at it. “I don’t get writing blocks except from the stationer,” Anthony Burgess told an interviewer. “I can’t understand the American literary block . . . unless it means that the blocked man isn’t forced economically to write (as the English writer, lacking campuses and grants, usually is) and hence can afford the luxury of fearing the critics’ pounce on a new work not as good as the last.” Burgess may be correct that writer’s block, by now, is largely an American idea, a product of American overreaching. Particularly in its mid-century version, with Bergler’s talk of megalomania and elation, the concept is suspiciously glamorous—Faustian, poète maudit. The term itself is grandiose, with its implication that writers contain within them great wells of creativity to which their access is merely impeded.
But the fact remains that some writers do stop writing, long before they want to. Why? Scientists have a rule that you don’t explain things by remote and elaborate causes when simpler, more immediate causes offer themselves. In tales of block, certain circumstances turn up again and again. They are by no means sufficient causes—as we know, a condition that defeats one person may toughen up, even encourage, another—but they are probably contributing factors. One, paradoxically, is great praise. A story that haunts the halls of The New Yorker is that of Joseph Mitchell, who came on staff in 1938, wrote many brilliant pieces, and then, after the publication of his greatest piece, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” in 1964, came to the office almost every day for the next thirty-two years without filing another word. In a series of tributes published in The New Yorker upon Mitchell’s death, in 1996, Calvin Trillin recalled hearing once that Mitchell was “writing away at a normal pace until some professor called him the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence and stopped him cold.”
There are many other theories about Mitchell. (For one thing, “Joe Gould’s Secret” was about a blocked writer.) It is nevertheless the case that, however much artists may want attention, getting it can put them off their feed, particularly when it comes at the beginning of their careers. That may have been the case with Dashiell Hammett. Hammett wrote his first four novels in three years, while he was in his thirties, and they made him famous. Then he went to Hollywood, where he made piles of money and spent much of it in bars. In 1934, when he was thirty-nine, his fifth novel, “The Thin Man,” came out, and that was the end, though he lived for almost three more decades. In his later life, he said that he stopped publishing because he felt he was repeating himself: “It is the beginning of the end when you discover that you have a style.” He tried to alter his style. He wanted to go mainstream, leave the detective novel behind. He wrote and wrote, but he never accomplished anything that satisfied him.
Again, however, Scott Fitzgerald’s is the paradigmatic story of early success, early failure, and not just because his talent was so great but because he saw what was happening to him and wrote about it. In 1937, he published an essay, “Early Success”—it is included in “The Crack-Up”—in which he said that “premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power. . . . The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining,” a conviction that leaves him little to fall back on when the star isn’t shining. That same year, Fitzgerald, finished (in his opinion) as a novelist—and also, by this time, seriously alcoholic—moved to Hollywood in order to make some money as a screenwriter. At the studios, he tried to stay on the wagon, but he repeatedly went on weeklong benders, which, when his friends finally located him, left him in need of round-the-clock nursing and tubal feeding. He soon found himself out of work as a result. To fill in financially, he wrote a series of stories for Esquire about a fictional screenwriter, Pat Hobby, whose life was an antic version of his own. Hobby used to get two thousand dollars a week from the studios; now he gets three hundred and fifty. (In 1929, Fitzgerald was being paid four thousand dollars per story by The Saturday Evening Post. For the Hobby stories, Esquire seems to have paid him a hundred and fifty dollars apiece.) Formerly, Hobby was one of the men in Hollywood who “had wives and Filipinos and swimming pools.” Now, in order to eat, he has to steal food from movie sets. The Hobby stories are a self-loathing comedy. Like Coleridge’s notebooks, they make you want to scream. Why couldn’t this lavishly gifted artist straighten himself out? He tried. In 1939, he began a novel—another wonderful one, “The Last Tycoon,” about Hollywood—but six chapters into it he dropped dead of a heart attack. Five years later, a Fitzgerald revival began, and he soon became what he is to us now, an American classic. But, as far as he knew when he died, he was a forgotten man.
Fitzgerald’s and Hammett’s histories are not the only ones in which writing problems are complicated by alcoholism. From the nineteen-twenties at least through the fifties, American literature was awash in alcohol. Tom Dardis begins his book “The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer” (1989) by noting that of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature five were alcoholics: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. As for problem drinkers who didn’t get the Nobel Prize, Dardis assembles an impressive list, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Djuna Barnes, John O’Hara, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Carson McCullers, James Jones, John Cheever, Jean Stafford, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, and James Agee. A number of these careers ended early, and badly.
When an alcoholic writer stops writing, do we call this block or just alcoholism? (Or something else: Hemingway suffered serious depressions.) Such cases lack the bleak dignity generally associated with block. Instead of the lonely writer, at his desk, staring at the blank page, we get a disorderly drunk, being hauled off to detox. The relationship between writing and alcohol is a knotty problem, but it clearly involves a circular process. Many writers use alcohol to help themselves write—to calm their anxieties, lift their inhibitions. This may work for a while (Faulkner wrote all his best novels while drinking whiskey, continually, at his desk), but eventually the writing suffers. The unhappy writer then drinks more; the writing then suffers more, and so on. In my observation, American writers today drink much less than their predecessors. I asked a psychoanalyst what they do instead, to take the edge off. “Exercise,” he said.
"Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly once said, “they first call promising.” A subdivision of the early-success problem is second-novel syndrome. The writer produces a first novel, and it is a hit; then he sits down to write a second novel, and finds his brain clenched. Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, “The Virgin Suicides” (1993), was an enormous critical success. It also sold very well, and was made into a movie. His second novel, “Middlesex,” was published two years ago, and won the Pulitzer Prize. But between those two books lie nine years. I asked Eugenides why. One reason, he said, was that “Middlesex” was far more ambitious than “The Virgin Suicides.” (It is a sweeping family chronicle, more than five hundred pages long and full of Greek and American history. ) But another reason was the circumstances surrounding a second novel:
No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You’re suddenly considered to be a professional writer, a fiction machine, but you know very well that you’re just getting going. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that’s what creates the panic. . . . In my own case, I decided to give myself the time to learn the things I needed to know in order to write my second book, rather than just writing it in a rush because there were now people eager to read it. Finally, of course, I had to leave the country. In Berlin I regained the blessed anonymity I’d had while writing “The Virgin Suicides.” I got back to thinking only about the book. . . . Now [since “Middlesex”] I’ve lost the anonymity I had in Berlin and so am moving to Chicago. If things continue to go well, I will end up living in Elko, Nevada.
Eugenides survived second-novel syndrome, and so do most novelists, but some are felled by it. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), Harper Lee’s first novel, published when she was thirty-four, was an immediate best-seller. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a hit movie. And then came nothing. In 1961, Lee told an interviewer that she was working on her second novel, but that she wrote very slowly, producing only a page or two a day. Maybe we will hear from her yet, but she is now seventy-eight.
We will not hear from Ralph Ellison. Ellison’s first novel, “Invisible Man” (1952), was also a best-seller, and more than that. It was an “art” novel, a modernist novel, and it was by a black writer. It therefore raised hopes that literary segregation might be breachable. In its style the book combined the arts of black culture—above all, jazz—with white influences: Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Faulkner. Its message was likewise integrationist—good news in the nineteen-fifties, at the beginning of the civil-rights movement. “Invisible Man” became a fixture of American-literature curricula. Ellison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was not just a writer; he was a hero. And everyone had great hopes for his second novel.
So did he. It was to be a “symphonic” novel, combining voices from all parts of the culture. It grew and grew. Eventually, he thought it might require three volumes. He worked on it for forty years, until he died in 1994, at the age of eighty, leaving behind more than two thousand pages of manuscript and notes. His literary executor, John F. Callahan, tried at first to assemble the projected symphonic work. Finally, he threw up his hands and carved a simpler, one-volume novel out of the material. This book, entitled “Juneteenth,” was published in 1999. Some reviewers praised it; others cold-shouldered it, as not-Ellison.
Ellison’s was probably the most commented upon case of block in the history of American literature, and it was a tremendous sorrow to him. He had other griefs, too. While his integrationist message was welcomed in the nineteen-fifties, by the seventies it looked to many people, particularly black writers, like Uncle Tomism, and this dignified man was booed and heckled when he spoke at public events. In discussions of writer’s block, it is sometimes said that a writer can be stopped when he outlives the world he was writing about, and for. That may have been true, in part, for Ellison.
Long before the nineteen-fifties—indeed, starting with Freud’s 1910 book on Leonardo da Vinci—psychoanalysts were pondering creative block, and what they saw there, as elsewhere, was unconscious conflict. According to this line of thought, the artist trawls his unconscious for his material, but every now and then, in that dark estuary, he encounters something so frightening to him that he simply comes to a halt, and no one ever knows why. Maybe so, but sometimes the conflict is conscious: the artist knows why. Such may have been the case with E. M. Forster, who published five successful novels and then, to the dismay of his readers, gave up fiction at the age of forty-five. According to some commentators, part of the problem was that Forster finally figured out, in his thirties, that he was homosexual, at which point he felt he could no longer write about heterosexual love and marriage, which had been the substance of his fiction. Nor could he publish a novel about homosexuals; such a thing could not be printed in England in his time. He did write a homosexual novel, “Maurice,” which he finished in 1914, but he had to put it in a drawer. After a ten-year gap, he produced one final novel, his greatest, “A Passage to India”—again heterosexual, but with a newly dark view of sex—and then, for the remaining forty-six years of his life, he confined himself to nonfiction. It should be added that he expressed no regret over this, a fact that may place him outside the category of the blocked. Presumably, a blocked writer feels guilty, feels like a failure—the Coleridge pattern.
A purer and more colorful example is that of Henry Roth. Roth’s first novel, “Call It Sleep,” a highly autobiographical narrative of Jewish immigrant life in New York, was published in 1934, when he was twenty-eight. It did not make much of a splash at first, but when it was reprinted in paperback, in 1964, it became a sensation. At the time of the reprint, Roth was living in complete obscurity on a duck farm in Maine. Apart from a few stories soon after “Call It Sleep,” he hadn’t published anything in thirty years. Nor did his belated triumph rouse him quickly, though the royalties from the paperback allowed him to sell the duck farm and buy a mobile home in Albuquerque. But in 1979, at the age of seventy-three, he embarked on a new novel, which eventually swelled to four volumes, under the general title “Mercy of a Rude Stream.” The first volume appeared in 1994, and it was well received. In 1995 came the second volume, “A Diving Rock on the Hudson,” and this was greeted with even more interest, for in it the protagonist, Ira—who Roth gave readers every reason to believe was based on himself—begins an affair at age fifteen with his twelve-year-old sister, Minnie. The sex scenes are very raw. Ira and Minnie go to it every Sunday morning when their mother leaves to do her shopping.
Prior to the publication of “A Diving Rock,” Roth’s editor, Robert Weil, then of St. Martin’s, persuaded him to alert his sister, Rose Broder, to the contents of the book. “How can you do this to me?” she wrote back, and she reminded him that she was the one who had believed in him as a writer, and who had typed “Call It Sleep.” Roth responded by prefacing “A Diving Rock” with a statement that none of it was autobiographical—which many people took as further indication that it was autobiographical. Once the book came out, interviewers called Broder, and she denied the whole thing. “This is not pleasant for me,” she told The Jewish Week. “I’m a very old lady.” Soon afterward, she entered into an agreement with Roth whereby, in return for immunity from legal action, he paid her ten thousand dollars and promised that in future volumes there would be no more sex between Ira and Minnie. Roth told Weil—his narrator also says it in “A Diving Rock”—that the incest story was a major reason that the novel was delayed for so many years.
Beneath this drama, however, there may lie another tale. When Roth wrote “Call It Sleep,” he was living with Eda Lou Walton, a well-known critic, twelve years older than he, who, he said, became “a mistress and a mother” to him. Walton later claimed that she did a huge amount of editorial work on “Call It Sleep.” When Roth returned to fiction, he had another helper at his elbow. In 1989, a seventeen-year-old high-school student, Felicia Steele, went to work for Roth as his typist, and she soon graduated from typing to editing. For a year, she and her boyfriend even moved in with Roth. Day by day, she worked on his manuscript, cutting and shaping it under Weil’s direction. Steele, now an English professor at the College of New Jersey, says that she was grateful to have this task: “I got a whole second education from Henry.” Weil, too, says he felt honored to serve Roth’s gift. For both of them, however, it was a herculean labor, requiring five years’ work on thousands of pages of manuscript. So while Roth’s sixty-year dry period may have been due to his feelings about his relationship with his sister, he may also, during those years, have had another, less sensational problem: that he couldn’t produce a finished manuscript without a full-time editor.
These are among the most famous writer’s block stories in modern literature—the supposed spine-tinglers—and all of them, when you look at them, come to seem unremarkable. Maybe the English are right: block is just a hocus-pocus covering life’s regular, humbling facts. People made too much fuss over you, or expected too much of you. Or you just got tired. When I put the question of block to Elizabeth Hardwick, who was part of New York’s high-pressure literary world in the postwar years, she seemed to believe that a major problem was just the passing of youth. “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process,” she said. “Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” But loss of energy is only one problem. Some people use up their material. There has been much puzzlement among literary historians over the petering out of Melville’s career as a novelist after he published “Moby-Dick,” at the age of thirty-two, and various theories have been advanced: that he was permanently embittered by the reviews of “Moby-Dick,” that he felt his fiction revealed too much about his latent homosexuality, and so forth. But John Updike, in an essay on this question, says that basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in “Typee,” “Omoo,” and “Moby-Dick.” If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.
With so many ordinary facts lurking behind its impressive name, writer’s block may come to seem just that, a name, and names can be dangerous. The philosopher Ian Hacking has written about the problem of “dynamic nominalism,” meaning that once you invent a category—as, for example, the category of “homosexual” seems to have been invented in the late nineteenth century—people will sort themselves into it, behave according to the description, and thus contrive new ways of being. Possibly, some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing. Some may also find it a more interesting complaint to bring to a psychoanalyst than garden-variety inertia. (One analyst, Donald Kaplan, has written that analysis may in fact not be good for blocked writers. They use it, he says, as a further ground for procrastination. First I’ll finish the analysis, they say, then I’ll tackle the book.) But for most writers the danger of “block” is that it gives them something to scare themselves with. They are a superstitious lot anyway. Alice Flaherty, in “The Midnight Disease,” tells the story of a novelist who, at a literary dinner party, brought up the subject of block. Later, she got angry phone calls from several of the other guests, telling her that her thoughtless remark left them unable to write for days.
They have reason to be jumpy, though. Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. (For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer.) In the same interview in which Anthony Burgess sneered at crybaby Americans, he concluded by saying that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And . . . the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”
Apart from the effort, there is the self-exposure. The American reading public knows more about Philip Roth than they know about some of their first-degree relatives, and though Roth may have had some pleasure in that unbaring, it is probably no accident that he now lives in the country, where people are less likely to meet him on the street and tell him what they think of him. (J. D. Salinger also retreated to the woods, shortly after the publication of “The Catcher in the Rye,” in 1951. Reportedly, he has gone on writing—there are tales of a room-sized safe filled with manuscripts—but he hasn’t published anything in forty years. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy,” he said in a rare interview in 1974.) I can say from experience that even if you are not a novelist, even if you are a reviewer of dance and books, total strangers will come up to you and say that they know how you feel, and not just about dance and books. They are right. You told them how you felt.
Anxiety over self-revelation was probably not as common in the old days, when the exposure was channelled through conventional forms (ode, sonnet) that masked the writer’s identity to some extent. In former times, too, art forthrightly answered the audience’s emotional needs: tell me a story, sing me a song. Modernism, in refusing to do that duty, may have a lot to answer for in the development of artistic neurosis. If art wasn’t going to address the audience’s basic needs, then presumably it was doing something finer, more mysterious—something, in other words, that could put the artist into a sweat. As long as art remained, in some measure, artisanal—with, for example, the young Leonardo da Vinci arriving in the morning at Verrocchio’s studio and being told to paint in the angel’s wing—it must have fostered steadier minds. Still, I wonder whether the artist’s task was ever easy. Leonardo’s contemporaries reported that his hand shook as he plied the brush. And he left many works unfinished. Freud hypothesized that Leonardo’s problems stemmed from the Oedipus complex. (He was born illegitimate; his abandoned mother kissed him too much.) But could they have been due to a less sexy cause—sheer ambition? Competition among Italian artists of the Renaissance was intense. In his later life, Leonardo quit painting for long periods.
Art-making should be a nice job, yet somehow, for many people, it’s not. And they don’t know why and would rather not think about it. Once, in an unintentionally comic essay, the analyst Donald Kaplan, who was very interested in art, reported ruefully that his artist patients rarely discussed their work with him. If they even mentioned it, they used it only as a chronological marker (“‘It was around the time I was doing those brown paintings’”). All they wanted to talk about was the circumstances around their work: noisy children, obtuse reviewers. And, once Kaplan helped them deal with these matters, they quit treatment. They didn’t know and didn’t care what underlay their creative function. They just wanted to get back to it, as long as it lasted.