Here's an easy assignment: write about writer's block. Nothing to it. Story can write itself. There's no easier assignment for a writer than to write about any aspect of writing. This just happens to be about writer's block. Nothing to it. Story can write itself. Here goes. Here goes the story about writer's block. (Clever readers are asking themselves: Is this a writer pretending to have writer's block or a writer really having writer's block and stalling for time? A fascinating question. A dandy of a question. Don't you just love that question?) Here goes again: a story about writer's block. Any second now.
When stalled, tap the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary defines writer's block as "a usually temporary psychological inability to begin or continue work on a piece of writing." Well, that was good for a paragraph.
Any story about writer's block must include quotes from famous writers who said famous things about "the utter pain of blank," as poet Emily Dickinson termed it. Poet Philip Larkin dubbed himself "the world-famous unable-to-write poet." The American novelist John Steinbeck advised, "write as though you are writing to your sister or someone you love. Write 'dear.' It unlocks you a bit."
Dear, this story should also mention a movie recently opened: "Adaptation." Nicolas Cage plays the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman of "Being John Malkovich" fame. He's struggling to adapt writer Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief" (Ballantine Books, January 2000), into a screenplay. He does not know how to write a screenplay about flowers. He sweats a lot and talks to himself even more. Rather than write, he daydreams. Initially, Cage's character can't find the heart of Orlean's story, which is about finding a singular passion for something, anything.
Many movies have dealt with writer's block. Woody Allen's main character in "Deconstructing Harry" suffers a severe case of writer's block. Audiences, however, were already suffering from "Woody Allen block," which prevented them from wanting to see another Woody Allen movie. No one, though, seems to suffer Jack Nicholson block. Nicholson's character in "The Shining" has a touch o' the block. He takes his family to a secluded hotel, where he slaves away at his typewriter. His wife finally peeks at his manuscript: pages and pages with only this typed: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." She is alarmed by his lack of progress, then becomes increasingly concerned when he fails to shave and goes at her with an ax. Audiences can still relate.
The Coen brothers, makers of fine quirky movies, produced their homage to writer's block in "Barton Fink." Barton is holed up in another creepy hotel and can't write a paragraph to save his sanity. "I can't seem to get going on this thing. That one idea, the one that lets you get started, I still haven't gotten it," the character says. "Maybe I only had one idea in me." Fear -- that's the rub. Writers often fear their writing isn't any good. They fear their best work is behind them, waving at them in the rearview mirror and laughing. In this blocked state, writers are easily distracted. Instead of writing, they turn to household chores. Housework gives them a reason to live.
Behind the scenes of great literature have been writers battling great periods of creative dormancy. William Shakespeare's writer's block was memorably featured in the movie "Shakespeare in Love." Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain (so blocked he left the country), Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, E.B. White (crippling "non-writing jags") and Truman Capote had bouts of writer's block. Capote! He kept readers waiting for about a decade for "Answered Prayers," which he never completed. The book haunted him. In Gerald Clarke's "Capote" (Linden, 1990), the biographer ends the book with Capote's dying thoughts: "He continued to talk, about his mother mostly, but also about his writing and 'Answered Prayers.' " Some books, perhaps, resist completion for the right reasons.
J.K. Rowling admitted to having writer's block while writing "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (Scholastic, June 1999) the follow-up to her colossal debut. "I was scared the second book wouldn't measure up, but I got through it," Rowling said in a newspaper interview. Some Potter fans have wondered this year whether writer's block is to blame for the absence of the fifth book in the series.
Some writers say writer's block is a crock. Anthony Burgess, author of "A Clockwork Orange" (W. W. Norton & Co., 1987), said he never had writer's block. "That would be rather like a cobbler having cobbler's block, wouldn't it?" True, writer's block must sound like an artsy, feeble excuse to the rest of the world. Imagine a professional athlete, say, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman and former UCLA All-American Jonathan Ogden. Do you think he gets blocker's block? Imagine him saying, "I feel a temporary psychological inability to block."