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Is the solution to a creative block . . . sympathy?
“Your kindness is the breath of life to me.”
(For more on my own history of blocks, see this post from last year.)
Four weeks ago, I kicked off the series with the idea that power doesn’t answer to the will, a phrase lifted from George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street, whose protagonist, Edwin Reardon, suffers from a fearsome case of writer’s block. But I neglected to mention that Reardon has his own ideas about what would solve his block—and they involve his pragmatic young wife, Amy.
Amy, you may recall, greets Reardon’s block with rational, straightforward problem-solving. When Reardon despairs over finishing his next novel by Christmas, Amy says: “I really can’t see why you shouldn’t. Just do a certain number of pages every day. Good or bad, never mind; let the pages be finished.”
Perfectly good advice, no? Even more sensibly, Amy advises her husband to take a vacation before he gets back to work—which, as some of you pointed out in the comments, seems like the best possible remedy.
But this isn’t what Reardon wants to hear, or it’s not the main thing he wants to hear. As Amy continues problem-solving for him, he only grows more despairing. Finally, he blurts out:
If only you will give me more sympathy, dearest. You see, that’s one side of my weakness. I am utterly dependent upon you. Your kindness is the breath of life to me. Don’t refuse it!
This got me thinking: Is the solution to a creative block . . . sympathy? I mean other people’s sympathy—their genuine interest in your predicament, their curiosity about it, and their compassion for what you’re going through?
Immediately another example leapt to mind: In 1939, the novelist Jean Rhys told her publisher that she needed six to nine months to finish the manuscript of her next novel. In fact, the book took her nine more years, and they were years of the most grueling stop-and-start effort. One key figure who helped Rhys persevere was her local village rector, a lover of classical literature who looked at Rhys’s novel-in-progress and recognized her genius. Thereafter, he visited Rhys regularly, doing whatever he could to insulate the sensitive author from her worries and keep her on track with the book. “She needs endless supplies of whisky, and endless praise,” he told his wife, “so that is what she must have.”
This reminded me of a quote that the wonderful critic Hillary Kelly (aka) posted on Twitter last year:
Haha, yes! So understandable—and so impossible. Indeed, I have found that being blocked tends to elicit the opposite reaction from the world. Admitting that you’re trying to do your work but you just can’t, in my experience, makes people really uncomfortable! Almost inevitably they want, like Amy Reardon, to offer rational problem-solving advice, or else bland reassurances—you’ll get through it, trust the process—when what I think would actually be helpful is interest, curiosity, indulgence.
I think that’s what so appealed to me about the Louise Glück emails that I shared last time. Here was an established writer with decades of experience telling her students: Yeah, I’ve been there too. It sucks. You’re not wrong to feel this way. But also: You can do this.
At this point, I can imagine some of you wondering, ah, but does this place too much responsibility for curing a block outside the blocked person? I don’t think so. Instead, I think it’s the blocked person’s responsibility to find those supportive and even indulgent partners. No one told me this when I was a young writer! More and more, I think this may be the crucial component to sustaining a career as an artist—not talent, self-discipline, the perfect routine, or even the money to afford to do your thing (though that does help) but a community of people who are invested in your work, in a real way, happily standing by with endless supplies of whiskey and endless praise.
BUY ME A WHISKEY
Quick reminder that new issues of this newsletter are free for all but I paywall the web versions after a couple months. Paid subscribers get access to the full archive of 125+ back issues—including the ones linked below, which seemed relevant to today’s issue—as well as my sincere gratitude for your support. 🙏 🙏 🙏
DELMORE WAS EXQUISITE
Skimming the poet John Berryman’s letters to his mother last week I came across another touching example of writer-to-writer support, this time from the poet Delmore Schwartz. In April 1943, Berryman was panicking about a reading series he had agreed to put on, and he told his mother in a letter:
Delmore was exquisite when we talked on the telephone at noon yesterday; after we had finished, he said, “Now listen John, remember that your poems are very good; keep that in mind all the time —”
Can you imagine a more perfect thing to be told by another writer when you’re consumed by self-doubt? (Incidentally, Berryman’s series was a success and readings became an important source of income for him going forward.)
DINNER, DOGS, GARDENING
Another good example of absurdly indulgent writerly support involves the English novelist Radclyffe Hall, who—as I wrote in my second Daily Rituals book—suffered from frequent periods of “inspirational blackout.” To get out of them she relied on her partner, the sculptor Una Troubridge, who developed a three-stage unblocking procedure that she described in a biography of Hall written after her death.
First, Troubridge would let the blocked author brood for a few days. Then she would coax Hall out to a restaurant meal or to see friends—insisting that this was for her own sake, not Hall’s (otherwise the sulky author wouldn’t agree to go). Then, the real ammunition: Troubridge would lure Hall into doing more of the “grooming and exercising” of their dogs (tasks normally handled by a maid), which inevitably cheered her up. At this point Hall might also be convinced to take up some housework or gardening tasks, which had the same effect. “And then,” Troubridge writes, “as suddenly as it had left her, one day inspiration would blaze out once more.”
For more on Wotan and Thorgils—their full names were Fitz-John Wotan and Fitz-John Thorgils—see the Dog-related material section of the Harry Ransom Center’s Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Collection. (CC:)
Thanks for reading! Since I already plugged paid subscriptions, here’s a bonus pic of Uno the dog, who is very invested in what you’re all working on (chicken?).