A little more than 15 years ago, "Saturday Night Live" did a skit. In it, John Lovitz was playing Stephen King and in character was interviewed by whoever was hosting Weekend Update back then. All the while Lovitz-as-King was talking to the reporter, he kept typing away at an IBM Selectric, writing furiously though the interview. At one point, Lovitz-as-King, obviously making fun of King's prolificnessas a writer stopped typing and turned to face the camera, a stunned look on his face. "Oh my God!" he exclaimed. "Writer's block." A beat, then he went on typing as quickly as ever. "Just kidding," he said.
It's a funny little moment, but I think writers who see it laugh a little uncomfortably, because we think of writer's block as something fearful. We don't mention it just as we don't' mention horrible diseases; no matter how religious we are, I think, sometimes we worry about angering the gods with our hubris. It can happen to us. We could become a writerly version of Steve Blass, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who was an All Star in 1972 and, in 1973, suddenly couldn't find the plate. In 1971: he's the winning pitcher in Game Seven of the World Series; in 1972, he's runner-up to Hall of Famer Steve Carlton for the National League Cy Young Award. 1973: he can't find the plate. He walks almost four times as many hitters as he strikes out, has an earned run average of almost ten runs a game. He consults psychologists, optometrists. . .goes to the minor leagues. Comes back for one game in 1974, five innings: seven walks, eight runs. Out of baseball.
It's a little fitting we're talking about this subject today as the Cardinals announced this morning that Rick Ankiel will no longer be a pitcher, but is moving to the outfield. The team made the move after Ankiel met with manager Tony LaRussa and general manager Walt Jockety last night and asked them to do so. Ankiel is in some ways another Steve Blass-except that we never saw enough of Ankiel at the major league level to know just how good he might have been. Still, when he came up, people expected great things of him. A writer this morning for mlb.com said he was, as a rookie, considered a future Cy Young candidate and in an interview on KFNS this morning, former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said the he attended Ankiel's first start as a pitcher in 2000 and gave the ticket stub to his grandson, telling him that he should hold onto it because it might be valuable some day as memorabilia, in twenty years or so, because Ankiel could end up in the Hall of Fame.
Like Blass, Ankiel forgot how to throw strikes. He had an infamous meltdown during the 2000 playoffs, in which he went into the record books for throwing five wild pitches in a game, and never really came back. He made his decision yesterday not long after a batting practice session in which he threw only three strikes in 23 pitches. (Interestingly, in his comment about the switch, Ankiel made a literary reference: "Turn the page," he said. "That's it.")
Whenever we writers face the prospect of writer's block, whether we know Steve Blass or not, I think, we're afraid we are going to become him.. . .as if we could wake up one morning and forget how to write, or maybe it's that we're afraid we're entitled to only so many words in our lifetime and we're going to run out of them, cursing over the novel we've lost or the screenplay or the non-fiction book about "1001 creative uses for pocket lint." If only we hadn't written so many letters to our mother, or those excuses to get our child out of gym class. . .or shopping lists: do they count against the words we're allowed as writers?
If you look around at the literature on writing, you'll find a lot about the notion of Writer's Block. When I was preparing this, I pulled down a dozen books on writing from my bookshelf at home. Two of the books were specifically about writer's block: Writing from the Inner Self: Writing and Meditation Exercises that free your creativity, inspire your imagination and help you overcome writer's block by Elaine Farris Hughes, and On Writer's Block: A new approach to creativity by Victoria Nelson. Most of the others dealt, in one way or another with the notion of writer's block. For Writer's Only by Sophy Burnham devotes an 18-page chapter to it. Writing Past Dark, by Bonnie Friedman devotes a 24-page chapter she calls "Anorexia of Language: Why we can't write" to it. Another book, The Lie that Tells a Truth, by John Dufresne, gives over ten pages to a chapter on writer's block. Two of the books I took down were by the novelist Walker Percy, my favorite novelist; in both, he talks about fear and writing.
Beyond all of these writers writing about writer's block: many of them quote other, greater writers talking about it.
The Writer's Mentor, edited by Ian Jackman, for example, quotes Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Katherine Anne Porter: "For the most," she says, "writing is now just a horrible, grim burden." It also quotes Tobias Wolff, who won the Pen/Faulkner Award for his short novel, The Barracks Thief and who also wrote This Boy's Life: Talking about what he hates about writing, he says, "Most of all is the feeling of dread that I have. I always have another cup of coffee first."
In The Lie That Tells A Truth, Dufresne quotes Joseph Heller-who wrote one of the great books of the 20th century, Catch-22: "Every writer I know has trouble writing."
In an interview he gave to the New Orleans Time-Picayune in 1980, Walker Percy quipped: "When everything's going right, you can sit for three hours and stare at a blank piece of paper."
This, in itself, is good news for all of us.
That there is so much written about writer's block-that some of our greatest, most successful writers talk about writing being hard-means it's a common fear, a common ailment. It means that if we suffer from it, or are afraid of succumbing to it, we are not alone. And that makes it somehow easier to get through, or get past, because maybe when we sit down at the computer or with our number 2 1/2 Eagle pencil and our legal pad and can't think of word one, maybe we are not the worst person on earth, after all. Maybe it's just that writing is hard work and so it's natural that we cannot write as if we're taking dictation.
Certainly many writers have addressed this difficulty:
Tobias Wolff, in an interview he gave to salon.com likened writing to exploring a cave:
"It's like spelunking, with a light on your hat. You keep going into different chambers until you find a chamber that seems to you to be the right one; you're descending into dark and unknown territory and you can never see very far ahead."
E.L. Doctorow, who wrote Ragtime and other novels, said it was like driving at night on a dark highway: you can only see as much of the road ahead as your headlights illuminate.
Maya Angelou said, "Each time I write a book, every time I face the yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, "Uh oh, they're going to find me out now. I've run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out."
As Percy says, "When everything's going right, you can sit for three hours and stare at a blank piece of paper.
"But say everything's going wrong. It's a Monday morning, and you've had bad dreams, and you know nothing good is going to happen. But you go anyway. You go into your little office, and you look at a blank wall. And you give up. It's a matter of giving up, of surrendering, of letting go. You say, 'All is lost. The jig is up. I surrender. I'll never write another word again. I admit total defeat. I'm washed up.'
"And you stay there, and after an hour, you say, 'Oh well, I've been cast up on an island. I'm a wreck. But here I am. Still Alive. Here's a pencil. Here's the paper. Here's the three-ring binder and the Blue Horse paper. And you say, 'Since I'm here, why don't I write something. . . .
"What I'm telling you is, that's when things happen.
"What I'm telling you is, I don't know anything. It's a question of being so pitiful God takes pity on you, looks down and say, 'He's done for. Let's let him have a couple of good sentences.'"
In another piece-actually something that Percy wrote for Esquire magazine in 1977, in which he interviewed himself ("Questions They Never Asked Me") Percy gets even darker on the notion of writer's block and despair:
"A good novel-and, I imagine, a good poem-is possible only after one has given up and let go. Then, once one realizes that all is lost, the jig is up, that after all nothing is dumber than a grown man sitting down and making up a story to entertain somebody or working in a 'tradition' or a 'school' to maintain his reputation-once someone sees that this is a dumb way to live, that all is vanity sure enough, there are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide. If one opts for the former, that is that. . .and there is nothing more to write or say about it. But if one opts for the latter, one is in a sense dispensed. . .One is not dead! One is alive! One is free! I won't say that one is God on the first day, with the chaos before him and s free hand, Rather one feels, What the hell, here I am washed up, it a true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. I can move my toe up and then down and do anything else I choose. The possibilities open to one are infinite. So why not do something Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Faulkner didn't do, for after all they are nothing more than dead writers. . ..a dead writer may be famous but he is also dead as duck, finished. And I, cast up here on this beach? I am a survivor! Alive! A free man! They're finished. Possibilities are closed. . ."
But for the writer still around: Percy suggests anything you write is better than anything Faulkner or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky could write now, because they are, of course, dead.
Many of the writers who have something to say about writer's block suggest that it doesn't exist, per se. It's not an illness in itself, but a symptom of something else. The sneeze is not the disease, the itchy eyes are not the disease: the allergy is. The cough and the fever are not the disease: the flu is.
So the question comes:
Why can't you write if you cannot write?
Writing is easy, when it comes down it. I sit down to my computer and I write:
"The man comes into the church."
There is a subject and a verb there. It's a sentence. It's writing.
I write, "What she wanted most was to sell the house."
There's a subject and a verb there. It's a sentence. It's writing.
It was easy. It took me a half a minute to get it down.
So, if writing is easy. . .what is hard?
Looking at that can lead us to see why we cannot write what we need to write.
Good writing is hard. There's no question about that.
Good writing when we're afraid of the judgments people might make about us is hard.
I mean, all I had to read was this:
"Joe Schuster, chair and associate professor in the Communications and Journalism department at Webster University, will give tips, tricks and hints on overcoming writer's block while offering motivating suggestions that will help you succeed."
That's pretty daunting.
That makes coming up with a subject and verb pretty tough.
Who am I, after all, to offer any sort of tips, tricks and hints on overcoming writer's block?
So, I freeze:
You all are sure to see through me, to see that I don't know anything at all. . .like Maya Angelou, I have been waiting for twenty-five years of working as writer for people to discover the fraud I am, and you, tonight, are the first to see that.. .I'm convinced.
And so forget it. I can't go on.
The fear is the disease, the block just the symptom. The sneeze, the fever.
So how do you handle it?
Perhaps a greater fear trumps the fear of not being able to write well:
I couldn't very well come here tonight and say, well I couldn't think of something to say. Public humiliation trumps private humiliation any day.
But then why should we care about private humiliation?
When Rick Ankiel goes to the mound in Busch Stadium, there are 49,000 people watching every move he makes. Standing on the mound, if you're aware of those 98,000 eyes focused on you as you prepare to pitch, as you prepare to wind up, as you think about the itch on your nose, the callus developing on your left index finger because, damn it, you're gripping the ball too tight, thinking about why is the strike zone so small and why isn't the umpire giving me the corners tonight, thinking about, if I throw another one high and away, another one to the backstopᇅ,000 people are going to howl, and boo, when there's Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan watching me in the dugout: is Tony about to call the bullpen if I miss on just one more pitch, thinking, okay, this one just has to be perfect. . .well. that's one thing.
But writer-when we're writing-we're in a stadium where spectators aren't allowed unless we let them in; no reporters and photographers are allowed either, unless we let them in. And so, as Percy says: what the heck? Here I am: write something, anything.
That is, after all, the advice that so many writers give on dealing with writer's block:
James Thurber said, "Don't get it right; get it written."
The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Spender said, "The best thing is to write anything, anything at all that comes into your mind, until gradually there is a calm and creative day."
I think the quickest path to writer's block is this fear that we won't measure up, but measure up to what? We can only be the writer we are at any given moment. Are we waiting until we're a better writer before we write that article or that novel or that poem or that script or that ad copy? We'll never be a writer at any given moment than we are at that moment.
"Don't get it right, get it written."
Here's an analogy, which will probably fall apart because there are probably those of you here who know more about bridge than I do:
I used to play bridge. Yes, I'm a dull guy from the Midwest. I never claim to be otherwise. But I used to play bridge; for maybe ten years, I played bridge every weekend. I don't say I became a good bridge player; I just used to play a lot. And I learned something: there often came a hand when making your contract depended on the cards falling a certain way. In order to make the contract, you had to have the Jack of Diamonds fall on this trick or the ten of clubs to fall on that trick. If it fell, you were home free, your contract made. But to get the Jack of diamonds to fall or the ten of clubs to fall on a particular trick, you had to play that trick. You had to lead your Queen of diamonds or your jack of clubs and then hope that the cards fell the way you wanted them to. You. Had. To. Play. The. Hand. You. Were. Dealt.
Writing is like that.
You have to write with the ability you have on any particular day. You have to write with the insights and the wisdom and the research and whatever else you have on a particular day. You aren't John Updike. You aren't Charles Kaufman. You aren't William Goldman. You aren't Walker Percy.
You can only write as you are.
Now, I say all of this, but this is my best self saying this. I have faced writer's block. I have written a lot. I once figured, when I was on the staff of a newspaper that I wrote more than 100,000 words in a year. I don't write that many words in a year-many or all of you might write more words in a year than I write nowadays-but I still write a lot. I can tell you what works for me:
Fear of public humiliation trumps private humiliation, as I said. If an editor calls me up and says I would like you to write such and such and send it to me by such and such a date-I may have trouble getting down to it. (I always say, writing is the quickest way to get everything else done. When I have a writing assignment, I get my bathrooms scrubbed much more quickly than when I don't have a deadline. Today, working on these remarks, I paid half a dozen bills and reviewed a dozen graduation petitions for my department. If I didn't have to figure out what I was going to say, to finish these remarks, I would probably have put those off until tomorrow.) But I will sit down and meet my deadline: If I don't, I don't get paid, and getting paid is nice since my son is in the process of getting braces. If I don't turn in my work on time, the editor won't call me again and will probably call everyone he or she knows to tell them that I failed. Channel 5 will do its lead story:
Rick Ankiel will pitch no more, but here' the top story:
Joe Schuster didn't meet his deadline.
"He's just no good, not at all," Jane Q. Editor will tell the reporter, while the TV screen shows me dashing into my house, my coat over my face. "He's just a miserable human being."
So, public humiliation trumps private humiliation.
But what about those projects that no one else is waiting for?
I remember once meeting Stanley Elkin, the novelist who taught, until his death, at Washington University. He was giving a reading and one of my former teachers was there with another former student of hers. She knew Elkin, my teacher did, and so she was going to introduce us to the writer. When she introduced her other student, a woman, to Elkin, the former teacher said to him, "She's a very talented writer. Tell her she ought to write more."
Elkin, who was blunt as blunt could be, said, "Why? No one cares if she writes."
It was shocking, but true.
No one is waiting for us to write out masterpiece. No one is checking amazon-dot-com every day, saying, "Gosh is that book by Joe Schuster out yet?" No one is logging onto imdb-dot-com every day saying, I wonder if so and so finished that screenplay?
The world goes on and goes on without our work.
When it comes down it: we're not that important.
In situations like this, there is no public humiliation to trump private humiliation. . .but I think it's our fear of public humiliation that feeds our private one. We're afraid of how someone will judge us; not only will our work get bad reviews, or not only will no one want to publish it or produce it, but editors and producers will take out full page ads in the New York Times to proclaim: "Joe Schuster: miserable human being, failed writer." Not only that, but all of the sudden everyone with an internet connection will get pop up ads: Joe Schuster is a miserable being, a failed writer." And then not only will they know that, but they will hate me because of the pop-ups clogging their computer.
But the truth is: no one cares.
A few years ago, I was struck by this. I came across a book published in 1928, in which the author had devised a method to rank the 100 most important contemporary writers, then. Bernard Shaw is on the list, and so is H.G. Wells and Edith Wharton. . but so is W.H. Hudson and Stuart Edward White and Gamiliel Bradford and Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Zona Gale.
Almost eighty years ago, these were among the most important writers in English language. .. but today we have no idea who they are.
And that is liberating, I think: it relieves us of pressure to be great, because there are only a handful of people from any century who even approach greatness and so that leaves the rest of us to be able to write for ourselves.
Okay, but what if you still can't write?
Then you just need to find a trick that works for you.
I faced this when I was trying to write a novel-which is still not finished-but a little more than a year ago, I told a friend of mine that I had no trouble writing when there was a paycheck attached (Writer's block is luxury most people with deadlines don't have," said the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman), and that I wished I would somehow be out some money if I didn't finish my novel. I thought, well, why not? What if, if I didn't produce X number of pages in Y amount of time, it cost me money. I proposed that I would have to give a donation to an organization if I failed to deliver fifty pages every two months. But it couldn't be an organization I liked: how painless would it be if my money went to, say, some project to feed the hungry. That wouldn't get me to write my book. In fact, the world would be a better place if I failed to produce. So I decided that I would write a check for fifty dollars to a political party I didn't support, give the check to my friend, post-dated with the deadline for those fifty pages. If I didn't deliver, he was going to mail the check off.
I ended up writing 25 pages in one day two days before the deadline, but he never mailed the check. Nor did he mail it at the next two-month deadline or the next or the next. He hasn't sent off the check yet.
It's all a matter of finding the trick that works for you.
Or else, in just remembering that you get to revise. The first draft does not have to be perfect. All first drafts are shit, Ernest Hemingway said. Someone else (I couldn't find the original quotation) once said, "A good first draft is a failed first draft." I tell my students (and try to remember myself) that the first draft is the discover draft: it's where you're discovering what you have to say. Until I found out someone had written a book about it, I was going to, when I finished my novel, write an essay likening the life of a writer to explorers: the first draft is the discovery of the continent, the finding of the Northwest Passage. Revision is the mapping-revision is when you make sense of what you've seen, when you decide, just want does my reader or my audience need to see to understand the journey? I need to show them this creek, but not this pond. I need to show them this path, but not that one, because that one leads them unnecessarily through a swamp while this other one I found leads them across dry, flat land where they'll find plenty of water for themselves and their horses.
Writing original work is a daunting prospect. As Tobias Wolff and E.L. Doctorow say, you're heading off into the unknown. But who cares?
You aren't out there on the mound, feeling the sweat bead on your forehead as you go into the wind on what could be the one last pitch that gets you sent out to Memphis or worse to Springfield.
You're there, in your office, at your kitchen table, at a table in a Border's books drinking their decaf latte-and no one has any idea of whether you're writing well or not.
Keep your fingers moving over the keyboard; keep the pencil moving over the legal pad.
As the English novelist and critic J. B. Priestly said: "Perhaps it would be better not to be a writer, but if you must, then write. If it all feels hopeless, if that famous 'inspiration' won't come, write. If you are a genius, you'll make your own rules, but if not-and the odds are against it-go to your desk, no matter what your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper-write."
Back to Joe Schuster's Home Page