The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 6 asks writers to write about writer’s block, a question that would on the surface seem unanswerable: “When was the last time you experienced writer’s block? What do you think brought it about—and how did you dig your way out of it?”
When one is in the throes of a block, the helpful suggestion to write about “anything,” even to “write about writer’s block,” feels like an excuse for justifiable homicide on receiving it.
Anyone replying to this prompt is not at present in its throes, so, good for us; I am patting us all on our collective shoulder. Because it feels like a physical ailment, writer’s block. First, it presents a heady sensation of having multiple thoughts at once, of a richness of topics and sentences available at all moments (justpickoneanyone!) … except this one, followed by a dread that one has committed to the wrong topic or married it to a disaster of a sentence, followed by a helpless sense that one always picks wrong, that one has no right to give privilege to any single thought, sentence, syllable over any other. No right to! Don’t finish, never start, just drool.
In his great novel “The Information,” Martin Amis describes the self-torture his character Richard Tull endures:
For an hour … he worked on his latest novel, deliberately but provisionally entitled Untitled. Richard Tull wasn’t much of a hero. Yet there was something heroic about this early hour of flinching, flickering labor, the pencil sharpener, the Wite-Out, the vines outside the open window sallowing not with autumn but with nicotine. In the drawers of his desk or interleaved by now with the bills and summonses on the lower shelves on his bookcases, and even on the floor of the car (the terrible red Maestro), swilling around among the Ribena cartons and the dead tennis balls, lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future, he knew, were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconceived.
For years (the novel was published in 1995) I would set “The Information” down upon reading that passage (it comes early in the book, after Amis describes Tull’s middle-aged inner self-knowledge of his self-failure in only 20 or so sentences), because that was the bookshelf in my mind, too. And I was not going to describe it better than the master, so why attempt to? My own inner self-knowledge of my self-failure extended to believing that someone else had done a better job of describing my inner self-knowledge of my self-failure. Amis is a great novelist and essayist, one of my favorites, but he is not in my head (lucky him). (There is a pun there.)
I would read and re-read that passage, though, almost recite it like a sick mantra. Because while I could see the comedy in it—it is extremely funny, after all—I could not laugh at it with anything more than a mournful, rueful, “Heh.”
Whatever failures I have as a writer, and as a person for that matter, being too critical of myself usually was not one of them. If anything, I was not critical enough, often enough: If I was not going to attempt to try but was going to get all showy-mournful over the loss of my attempt, how was I “my own worst critic,” as I sometimes hear people describe themselves?
Through the 2000s, I did not write. I was in a writer’s block that felt terminal. (Some may wish it had remained so.) Oh, there was the occasional email of some length—I shudder at the memory of an attempted mimicking of Bill Simmons before he was famous (we even exchanged emails once) that described an afternoon at a Cubs game that I sent to friends—but the breaks between attempts grew longer. I moved part-way across country and then back, with some friends not knowing I had returned, because they did not know I had left four years before.
The irony is that for five of those ten years, I was professionally a writer, first at a factory, then for IBM. My work with a radio comedy group dried up, too. Ultimately, it all ended. I attempted this very blog in 2006, something which I had forgotten about until I started The Gad About Town in October 2013 and was told by Blogger, “This email address already has a blog, would you like to see it?”, requested the password, and discovered that I had started two posts, neither of which had a complete sentence. (It was kept private then and will remain so.) If there is a Rosebud to my writing life, it may be in those half-paragraphs.
For someone who has only wanted to do one thing, write—my family still has furniture I marked up with crayons, drawing words instead of pictures on every surface when I was two or three—the experience of not writing was a painful one. It meant that my psyche was left alone to receive each perturbation and clash like it was a brand-new, unique, and uniquely awful thing.
Until July 15, 2010, I was deeply engaged in doing the one thing I did best: Get drunk. My will to engage in much else in life was slowly being sucked away, but I also believe that my writing block was partly the result of a perverse sense of integrity and honesty: Nothing that I could or would write was going to be honest. I could not write out an honest shopping list, since the one thing I was actually leaving my house for was not even on the list. Any blog post, comedy piece, essay, memoir, to-do list was a lie of omission, and I do not like to lie. So, “Unpublished, Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, Unconceived.” Until I was willing to blush while saying (or writing) the words, “My name is Mark Aldrich and I am an alcoholic,” nothing else was going to come from me.
That coin you see up top? I am pretty proud of it. (I tried to photograph the actual one but it is too shiny.)
So for the last year, I have been writing regularly. The Gad About Town has over 60 published posts; 13 of them responses to the “Daily Prompt.” But the lack of confidence that a writer’s block presents, that still visits. It did so this spring. My girlfriend’s help—really, I am a lucky guy—and my choice to do the Daily Prompt every day (even though it “is not me coming up with the ideas. Grumble”) have me writing now. So responding to the Daily Prompt every day is part of how I can respond to a Daily Prompt about writer’s block, a topic that would be unanswerable if I was in one.
Insightful. And it explains your devotion to the Daily Prompts. Have a real fondness for Martin Amis too. Wrote a thesis on the Rachel Papers (for which he graciously allowed me to interview him), the first of his novels I read and then I was hooked.
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Thank you very much for your reading my pieces lately–and for your warm and encouraging comments! I envy you talking with Martin Amis; I saw him read once at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York, when “Night Train” was new. He is a great reader of his own work, which is rare.
Ironically, for my devotion to the daily prompts, today’s is drawing nothing but stares from me.