It’s a truism that the only way to make a piece of writing better is to keep working on it. Spend days, months and years honing your thoughts, polishing your prose, and when you’re done with the whole thing, go back to the beginning and do it all over again. This is what makes writing such hard work. I mean, redoing drafts is something that requires serious physical labour, not to mention the mental toll, the spiritual strain, that the exercise invariably exerts.
Any time is as good as ever to begin writing a novel, poem or an essay. But the moot question is when to stop writing something. When do you say to yourself that right, these words on the page here have been chiselled and glossed to perfection now? After how many rewrites? The American writer Ralph Ellison, after publishing his undisputed masterpiece The Invisible Man in 1952, kept struggling with this very question for over four decades.
Ellison’s unfinished novel Juneteenth became a sort of Sisyphean joke in the literary circles when Ellison was still alive, working relentlessly, for some forty uncounted-for years, on his unwieldy and directionless 2000-page-long draft of the novel. The book was finally published posthumously, compressed to one-fifth of its original size, and most of the critics who had admired Ellison’s earlier work, and who reviewed Juneteenth at the time, could do little else than shake their heads in polite disappointment.
One wonders what kind of perfection Ellison was after. Or was it simply performance anxiety, an attack of stage fright experienced by someone unable to keep up with his past successes? Perhaps he needed someone to tell him to relax a little and to make peace with all the perceived imperfections in his writing. There has to come a point after which you let your editors and indeed your readers do all the judging. But alas, some writers are never able to reach that far.
Thomas Kunkel’s recent biography of the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Man in Profile, is a wonderful study precisely of this inability to conclude a writing project. Mitchell is considered among the pioneers of what we still call “New Journalism”, and his writings inspired many fresh voices, not least those of some expert practitioners of non-fiction like Joan Didion and Gay Talese. In his biography, Kunkel writes about the “greatest disappearing act” in literary history, when Mitchell suddenly stopped producing stories.
For thirty years, Mitchell, his magazine’s star writer, published absolutely nothing, although he punctually went to the New Yorker’s offices every day, did his required time, clocked out and went home – leaving his colleagues bemused, who even, according to Kunkel, went to the extent of ransacking the dustbins in Mitchell’s cabin, looking for rejected shards of a possible manuscript.
Writer’s block is a term that becomes inevitable in this context. We’ve all experienced it – that horrible dread of the blinking cursor, the empty page, the lost potentialities. Joseph Conrad once said that words are the enemies of reality; but to a victim of writer’s block, reality becomes the enemy of words, resisting all our interpretations and attempts at transcribing it. I believe it was EM Forster who, when asked to describe his writing schedule, said that he did nothing all morning and spent the whole evening writing about what he did all morning. This is an apt summing up of what the thing feels like.
There are certain exercises that are meant to address the seemingly intractable problem of writer’s block. Exercises that don’t necessarily work. If ever you find yourself in the clutches of this debilitating condition, what you need to do is put aside the piece you’re working on, and free associate on the page. Write down whatever comes in mind – it could be plain gibberish, mathematical equations or even embarrassing secrets from the night before. The idea is to get words on the page and get the faucet running again. Once you regain flow, get back to the writing project in hand.
Of course the problem with this exercise is that it never allows you to return to whatever real writing you’re supposed to be doing. Once the verbal doodling takes over the writer’s imaginative faculties, there’s no turning back. And if you manage to force yourself to redirect attention to the main assignment, you suffer a calamitous relapse and find yourself once again staring voicelessly at the blinking cursor.
There’s also this writing software I heard about, something to cure writer’s block, which to me seems more to the point. Once you install it and have it running on your system, the software takes charge of your daily output. It works with a timer to calculate your normal writing speed. The moment you go below that level, the screen begins to turn blood red. If you go slower still, the software starts deleting the sentences you’d previously written. And if you stop writing altogether, you lose everything you’d managed to put down earlier, even some of the saved files on your computer.
It’s a concept that appears like it would work: you raise the stakes of not putting down words on the paper, put punitive measures in place, and you most definitely preclude the possibility of a writer’s block. If Ellison or Mitchell had access to such technology, it’s likely that they would have turned out to be highly prolific writers. But in that case, they would have also had to subscribe to distinctly lower standards of literary value – the fact that they never did so is something we should all be grateful for.