#Blocktober begins here
A fog, a phobia—ennui, impotence, insanity—powerlessness, horror—and other attempts to describe the dreaded block
Welcome to the 100th issue of Subtle Maneuvers—and the first issue of #blocktober, my three-part series on creative blocks.
The hashtag is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer, an annual group writing sprint suffused with encouragement and camaraderie. Last summer, I was trying to think of a similar exercise that I could host here, but more in keeping with the spirit of this newsletter (overcaffeinated, underconfident, frustrated but hopeful). Looking at the calendar and my notes for possible future issues, it hit me: Blocktober!
The truth is that so much of my creative life has been defined by blocks (more on that later), and so much of what I’ve written in my Daily Rituals books and in this newsletter has been driven by a desire to understand how other people do it—I mean, how they do ambitious creative work consistently, day after day and year after year, despite all the obstacles in their way. How they don’t get blocked, or don’t stay that way for long.
I’ll admit to one more motivating factor. Last year, the bestselling author Ryan Holiday mentioned my books in his newsletter, in a very positive light, and yet something he wrote has been eating at me ever since. Here’s the mention:
One book that did this for me this week was Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: Women at Work. I’ve written about and recommended the first book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Tim Ferriss has a great audio edition) and obviously I knew that a sequel existed...because it was on the shelf of my own bookstore (one perk is that I can ‘steal’ from myself now). But for some reason, I hadn’t really read it. Quite enjoyed it this time, especially as a parent. Both books are worth reading and lots to follow up from in the bibliography. I just wish Mason could be more prolific like some of the artists he profiles!
That last sentence . . . It’s the friendliest possible criticism—not even a criticism, really—and yet it stung. I wish I could be more prolific, too! Why haven’t I been?? This #blocktober series is, in part, a search for an answer.
It will extend over three issues. Today, I want to try to capture how blocks feel. Then, on October 17, I’m going to attempt to diagnose what causes blocks, and in the third and final issue, on October 31, I will offer some solutions. Along the way, I hope you’ll chime in with your own ideas and experiences in the comments section. (Or, to send me a private note, just reply to this email.)
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OK—What are blocks, anyway?
When I announced #blocktober in the last issue, I invited you all to email me with your own histories. (Thanks to everyone who wrote in.) One reader emailed with a question: What is my definition of a block? I fired off a quick reply:
I guess my definition of a block is still forming, but I’m particularly interested in people who have an idea for a project, and have the time/resources they need to begin, but somehow just can’t seem to do it.
I think that’s a good starting point, but what’s missing is a description of how utterly miserable this condition is; I don’t think we can understand and potentially solve blocks without first acknowledging how uniquely frustrating they are. So here are seven definitions from some notably articulate sufferers:
Blocks are a kind of brain fog
Perhaps my favorite writer on the experience of being blocked is the American essayist Vivian Gornick, who has described her own struggles with writer’s block in several places. Here’s one example, from her 1996 book Approaching Eye Level:
I had been wandering around the apartment for hours, avoiding the desk. Couldn’t think, couldn’t write. My head filling up with fog, mist, cotton wool, dry ice; the fog rolling in through the window tops. The usual. The daily experience. The condition I struggle with from nine in the morning on, fighting to occupy a small clear space in my head until two or three in the afternoon when I desert the effort, feeling empty and defeated and as if I haven’t heard the sound of a human voice in a thousand years.
That sounds all too familiar to me—though it can get even worse . . .
Blocks = powerlessness + horror
As I described in a 2020 issue of the newsletter, Joseph Conrad struggled mightily with writer’s block. Here he is lamenting his plight in an 1898 letter:
I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. . . .
I ask myself sometimes whether I am bewitched, whether I am the victim of an evil eye? . . . I assure you—speaking soberly and on my word of honour—that sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming my wife. It’s no joking matter. . . . So the days pass and nothing is done. At night I sleep. In the morning I get up with the horror of that powerlessness I must face through a day of vain efforts.
Blocks are a stupefying ennui
Blocks don’t just afflict writers (though writers do seem particularly susceptible). Here’s the Abstract-Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan writing in her journal in 1955:
I am in one of those terrible times when I feel “painted out.” I alternate between ennui and restlessness—an ennui that stupefies me, keeps me curled in my chair for hours and hours, reading anything—movie books, detective stories, “literature,” old journals. Or the restlessness that makes me walk the floor, staring out one window and then another, or sends me dashing into the street to stare into people’s faces or dash from one gallery to another, or pace frantically through museums looking for what, some clue, some hint, anything in life or art that will get me out of this pit.
Blocks are an “awful jackass feeling”
After the tremendous success of her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry suffered frequent bouts of writer’s block. She wrote in her journal in July 1961:
The days pass and pass and I do nothing. Such times have been before. I just sit all day or traverse the streets in pointless rounds—and then sit at this desk and smoke cigarettes. Would like to be working but am in awful trouble with it.
A few months later Hansberry noted that the “Blobby-globby days” were back again, and that she felt “that awful jackass feeling that I suppose is inextricable from being a writer.”
Blocks are like being in jail—with impotence (?)
From Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir Making It:
Blocks are to the professional writer what jails are to the professional burglar: a “normal” occupational hazard which must be taken into consideration in the choosing of the profession and discounted, as it were, in advance. What happens to a blocked writer is this: not only is he unable to finish anything he starts, but after a while he literally forgets how to write, becoming tangled in syntax and lost in grammar, quite as though he had never mastered the elementary art of constructing a sentence. Once he is in this condition, there is nothing to do but stop, for—as with the experience of sexual impotence which a writing block so closely resembles—the more he tries, the worse it becomes. Yet having stopped, he can never know if the block has disappeared unless he tries to write again and so he goes on trying, only to be defeated again and again and plunged deeper and deeper into what must surely be the most complete condition of self-hating despair this side of insanity.
(Podhoretz’s description of the blocked writer losing “the elementary art of constructing a sentence” reminds me of Joan Didion on always reaching a point in writing where she “cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke.”)
Blocks are like being in a car that won’t start
Thinking about my own blocks in preparation for this newsletter, the best metaphor I could come up with is a car with a dead battery: You can turn the key, step on the gas, shift gears, and blast the horn all you want but you’re still not going anywhere. So I was tickled to find Vita Sackville-West employing a similar image in a 1950 letter:
I am really rather depressed by my inability to write the simplest thing. No, let me be truthful. I am not “rather depressed,” but mortally depressed. I am like a motor-car that has been standing in a cold garage and refuses to give out even one little pétard of a firing-spark. I daresay it will warm up against some day, but meanwhile it is as cold as a frog.
Blocks are a sort of phobia
Zora Neale Hurston could be stunningly productive as a writer—she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks!—but she also went through “terrible periods” when she couldn’t write at all. Here she is in a 1938 letter:
Every now and then I get a sort of phobia for paper and all its works. I cannot bring myself to touch it. I cannot write, read, or do anything at all for a period. . . . Just something grabs hold of me and holds me mute, miserable and helpless until it lets me go. I feel as if I have been marooned on a planet by myself. But I find that it is the prelude to creative effort.
I’ll leave you all on that relatively optimistic final note. Next time: Blocks—why?? I have some theories, though as always I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or over email.
An all-time favorite track (which I first heard on the CD that accompanied Richie Unterberger’s book Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll). Wait—should I do an entire #blocktober playlist? Let me know if there’s any interest and I’ll start gathering together more great songs of frustration and powerlessness.
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First of all, I totally understand your response to the last line of that commentary on your work. It would induce panic and shame in me. Keep in mind that you have two books out, though. More than most people can say!
I sometimes think the contemporary version of the block is a fog or impotence (I love the latter as a way of describing) induced by too much stimuli. In short, the internet, our phones, doomscrolling, and so on. Whenever I am blocked like this, it's because there's too much coming in, buzzing around. I can't make my way through. When I am on a good streak of getting to my writing before looking at anything else first, I have an easier time, at least until fear and other feelings set in...
Just wanted to chime in to say that you are not a slow writer, Mason (in my opinion). Now that I'm dipping my toes into writing about a different note-taker every week, I recognize just how much work goes into your work. Your books are super ambitious -- you have to research hundreds of people for each of them. It's almost like each of your books is over 100 mini-books in one. (You probably already know this, but sometimes it's nice to hear it from someone else).
As for being blocked, I'm all about "productive procrastination"--whenever I feel blocked on one project, I'll switch to another. This is the only way I ever get through my grading!