Writers known for not writing

Joan Acocella’s short history of writer’s block for The New Yorker:

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.

She mentions Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, and Zachary Leader’s Writer’s Block, which she says is the best book on the subject.


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