It grew and grew. Eventually, he thought it might require three volumes. He worked on it for forty years, until he died in , 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. Some reviewers praised it; others cold-shouldered it, as not-Ellison. 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.
That may have been true, in part, for Ellison. 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. 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.
Writers' Block : We Never Claimed to Be Professionals! by iUniverse Inc. Staff (2007, Paperback)
Nor could he publish a novel about homosexuals; such a thing could not be printed in England in his time. 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. It did not make much of a splash at first, but when it was reprinted in paperback, in , it became a sensation.
At the time of the reprint, Roth was living in complete obscurity on a duck farm in Maine. 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. The sex scenes are very raw. Ira and Minnie go to it every Sunday morning when their mother leaves to do her shopping. Once the book came out, interviewers called Broder, and she denied the whole thing.
Beneath this drama, however, there may lie another tale. In , 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. People made too much fuss over you, or expected too much of you.
Or you just got tired. Some people use up their material. 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. They are a superstitious lot anyway. 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. 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.
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. Modernism, in refusing to do that duty, may have a lot to answer for in the development of artistic neurosis. And he left many works unfinished. 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. 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. 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.
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They just wanted to get back to it, as long as it lasted. Recommended Stories. Sign in. Get the best of The New Yorker in your in-box every day. 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.
Writers' Block: We Never Claimed to Be Professionals!
Wordsworth, like Coleridge, produced his best poetry early on, in about ten years. After the English Romantics, the next group of writers known for not writing were the French Symbolists. Rimbaud, notoriously, gave up poetry at the age of nineteen. 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.
Why do writers stop writing?
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. 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.
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. 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 , it might have been gratefully accepted. By that time, romantic notions about writing had filtered down to the public. 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.
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.