Discover more from Subtle Maneuvers
Power doesn’t answer to the will
This year, I want to kick things off with a single resonant phrase that I ran across recently, which I think perfectly captures the core dynamic of creative blockage.
First, some context: I found the phrase in George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street, which I’ve been reading as part of my book research. My book-in-endless-progress is about the dilemma of making art and making a living—a dilemma that New Grub Street dramatizes to superb effect. Most of its characters are writers, and their varying approaches to making a living as writers spur all manner of crises, conflicts, and comeuppances. (In one especially memorable scene, an impoverished writer must choose between rescuing his just-completed manuscript from a burning building or rescuing a drunk guy passed out inside. He chooses the manuscript!) As the Gissing biographer John Halperin has argued, “New Grub Street is perhaps the greatest novel ever written about the collision of the creative impulse with material circumstances.”
The hero is Edwin Reardon, a tenuously established novelist whom we first meet in “the pallor of mental suffering” caused by writer’s block—a condition that his pragmatic young wife, Amy, cannot comprehend. It is September; for the couple and their infant son to remain solvent, Reardon needs to complete a new novel by Christmas. “I really can’t see why you shouldn’t,” Amy tells him. “Just do a certain number of pages every day. Good or bad, never mind; let the pages be finished.”
Reardon’s attempts to explain his predicament to his wife/the universe could only have been written by an author intimately familiar with writer’s block himself—as, indeed, Gissing was. Reardon tells Amy:
Perhaps I am only out of sorts. But I begin to be horribly afraid. My will seems to be fatally weakened. I can’t see my way to the end of anything; if I get hold of an idea which seems good, all the sap has gone out of it before I have got it into working shape. In these last few months, I must have begun a dozen different books; I have been ashamed to tell you of each new beginning. I write twenty pages, perhaps, and then my courage fails. I am disgusted with the thing, and can’t go on with it—can’t! My fingers refuse to hold the pen. In mere writing, I have done enough to make much more than three volumes, but it’s all destroyed.
In reply to this and similar litanies, Amy scolds her husband for his defeatism. “You are much weaker than I imagined,” she says. (Ouch!) “Difficulties crush you, instead of rousing you to struggle.” Reardon really has no defense:
My behaviour is contemptible; I know that. . . . But I am at the mercy of my brain; it is dry and powerless. How I envy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There’s the day’s work cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to work at something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, they are free to rest and enjoy themselves. What an insane thing it is to make literature one’s only means of support! When the most trivial accident may at any time prove fatal to one’s power of work for weeks or months.
(Encountering passages like this, I had to wonder if Gissing had somehow time-traveled 130 years into the future to read my journal, which has, in the last few years, contained some uncannily similar laments.)
“How very silly it is to talk like this!” Amy answers. She argues that Reardon must “look at things in a more practical way.” He needs only to set himself upon decently good work that will sell—which he is eminently capable of. Reardon’s reply contains (finally) the phrase I mentioned at the outset, that seemed to me so resonant re: blocks.
I am no uncompromising artistic pedant; I am quite willing to try and do the kind of work that will sell; under the circumstances it would be a kind of insanity if I refused. But power doesn’t answer to the will. My efforts are utterly vain . . . my imagination can shape nothing substantial.
Power doesn’t answer to the will! Isn’t that the truth? And I think this is exactly when blocks occur—when the author or artist tries, by sheer willpower, to do something that simply cannot be done by sheer willpower.
And this is why trying to make a living by your art is so fraught—because if financial necessity compels you to muscle a project into existence despite your imagination’s refusal to cooperate, well, then you might end up like poor Reardon, who finally takes his wife’s advice to “just do a certain number of pages each day”—and, after three months of crushing labor, produces a book that satisfies neither himself, nor his critics, nor the general public. Its dismal sales virtually guarantee Reardon’s tragic downward spiral.
So what does power answer to? I mean, if it can’t be summoned by sheer willpower, then how can it be summoned? I’ll try to address that next time.
GISSING’S WRITING ROUTINE
In New Grub Street, when Edwin Reardon finally buckles down to producing “a certain number of pages each day,” his daily routine is thus:
At nine, after breakfast, he sat down to his desk, and worked till one. Then came dinner, followed by a walk. As a rule he could not allow Amy to walk with him, for he had to think over the remainder of the day’s toil, and companionship would have been fatal. At about half-past three he again seated himself, and wrote until half-past six, when he had a meal. Then once more to work from half-past seven to ten. Numberless were the experiments he had tried for the day’s division. The slightest interruption of the order for the time being put him out of gear; Amy durst not open his door to ask however necessary a question.
This was virtually identical to Gissing’s real-life routine, as described by a writer friend of his:
After breakfast, at nine o’clock, he sat down and worked till one. Then he had his midday meal, and took a little walk . . . about half-past three, he sat down again and wrote till six o’clock or a little after. Then he worked again from half-past seven to ten. I . . . doubt whether there is any modern writer who has ever tried to keep up work at this rate who did not end in a hospital or a lunatic asylum, or die young.
No wonder the dude was prone to blocks! It didn’t help that Gissing barely knew how to relax. John Halperin writes: “A terrific hypochondriac, he had all kinds of dietary fetishes . . . worried constantly about the weather (the single most important concern of his letters), and never really rested. He tried riding a bicycle for exercise but found it made him too nervous.”
And yet, even with his blocks and his worries and his hypochondria, Gissing was terrifically productive. Between 1880 and his death in 1903, he published 22 novels, averaging one a year. He managed to do this despite abandoning much of what he started. According to Katherine Mullin, the writing of New Grub Street was preceded by “a dismal ten-month period in which seven novels had been begun and abandoned.” When he finally committed to the book, he executed it at an astonishing pace. Mullin writes that New Grub Street “was begun at the start of October 1890 and completed 11 December that year, taking around seventy days to write 187,000 words. This was comparatively leisurely progress: two years later, he wrote The Odd Women—around 150,000 words long—in fifty days.”
This begs the question: Was Gissing really blocked at all? Or were those periods when he couldn’t commit to a new project just the necessary (if excruciating) prelude to his bursts of extreme productivity? I wrote about this last year—sometimes what we experience as a “block” is . . . actually just what the creative process feels like. 🙃
THE PERFECT WRITING ROUTINE?
As the world’s foremost expert on creative habits (maybe? I just made that up), I am sometimes asked to describe the “perfect” daily routine. And there isn’t one! The perfect routine is whatever works for you—duh. But, of course, most successful routines do have several things in common, and, recently, for Alta Journal, I tried to unpack what those components are. Read my conclusions here.
Alas, the piece was published with a not-exactly-attention-grabbing stock photo. I wish it could have been paired with this Liana Finck sketch from the other week—precisely how I feel about my own dinky but beloved daily timetable!
In case you missed it last year, my #blocktober playlist on Spotify features two hours of (surprisingly upbeat) songs about frustration and powerlessness. Listen here or below.
Thanks for reading! This newsletter comes out every other Monday—and you can help keep it coming by becoming a paid subscriber, buying one of my Daily Rituals books, forwarding the newsletter to a friend, or even just clicking the “like” button below.