Is writing bad for you?

Frank Kermode

  • Writer’s Block by Zachary Leader
    Johns Hopkins, 325 pp, £19.50, January 1991, ISBN 0 8018 4032 5

Writer’s block must be thought of as a disease even more specific to a particular occupation than housemaid’s knee or weaver’s bottom. You can have those without being a housemaid or a weaver, but you can’t have writer’s block without being a writer, and a real writer, meaning one who is known at some stage to have written something of substance. (Perhaps ‘author’s block’ would be more accurate.) It would be absurd to diagnose the condition in a person who lacked any aspiration to write, or in one who might have written had it occurred to him or her to try, or even in those, a large company perhaps, who might have done it but were denied the chance, the mute inglorious Miltons. And that raises a historical question about women such as Virginia Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare, which Zachary Leader, determined to leave no aspect of the topic unexamined, tries to answer in his final pages.

Peculiar to one profession it may be, but as this intelligent, and only from time to time laborious study frequently reminds us, the condition cannot be totally unrelated to other psychic distresses that do not express themselves as an inability to put pen to paper. So the scope of the book is a good deal wider than the title suggests.

On the margin of its argument there are cases that seem a bit awkward in this context because although they involve not writing, or not writing the sort of thing people had come to expect, they aren’t cases of what we ordinarily think of as blockage. There are authors who stop writing because they simply don’t choose to continue, feel they have no more to say, or prefer to do something else. Others suffer from quite understandable ‘creative exhaustion’, like Dashiel Hammett; still others may have written novels but lose the urge to continue work of that kind, though perfectly happy to go on writing non-fiction, like E.M. Forster. Of such cases there may be little of interest to say under the rubric of blockage, which implies some degree of distress; these writers may feel no pain at all.

There are, however, various other forms of inhibition that are painful enough – induce, as this author puts it, ‘authorial agonising’ – which are caused by social and psychic pressures of various sorts, and may more plausibly be related to the blocked condition. There are even, as Leader explains at length, writers such as Wordsworth and Coleridge whose blocks manifested themselves not in desperately blank pages and silent deskbound suffering but in all too fluent speculation, whether spoken or written, about the causes of blockage. This is where the topic gets a little untidy; at times it almost seems that Leader is capable of treating the condition of being perpetually unblocked – Blake’s, for instance – as a form of block, and no less pathological. He is tempted to suggest that writing may simply he bad for you, whether you’re actually doing it or just trying to. Writing, after all, was already suspected of degeneracy in Plato’s time, when it was still a novelty the sober philosopher might reasonably have his doubts about; and it has in some circles retained the dubious reputation of tending to distort the mind and possibly the soul as well.

This book begins with a history of psychoanalytic speculation, not only on writer’s block but on other conceivably kindred disabilities. Although the term itself is of American origin and is said to have originated in the milieu of American ego-psychology, it is not in that context that Leader ultimately finds comfort and counsel. He has a chapter on Freud (writing considered as a transgression, the blocked writer as a victim of powerful repression, the block as ultimately Oedipal); a tour of Jung (real poets cannot be blocked, to be blocked is itself a sure sign that the patient isn’t a poet anyway); and a tribute to Otto Rank, for whom the problem of creative blockage was central. Leader pays his respects to others as well, but his destination is the English object-relations school of psychoanalytical thought. After dealing with Klein he settles down happily with Winnicott, whose view of creativity as a way of easing the tension between inner and outer reality – a prolongation, that is, of the transitional phenomena of infancy – is held to offer the best answers.

According to Winnicott, the confidence and strength necessary to exploit that tension derives from adequate nurturing, from what he called a ‘facilitating environment’ or a ‘good-enough mother’. Leader finds this useful in his treatment of Coleridge, who lacked such advantages and had in consequence many creative difficulties, not least, in a man obsessed with originality, a confusion, arising from that lack of facilitation, between the original and the borrowed. This led him into plagiarism. Winnicott knew about that and also about other relevant matters; so did Adrian Stokes, who had the additional qualification of being an artist himself, and it is mostly from these writers that Leader derives an object-relations aesthetic which, in a diagnostic mode, can explain, among other things,block.

Block, however, can also be studied as a historical phenomenon. Towards the end of the 18th century some poets began to worry about originality and to feel that it was getting harder to escape the limits imposed by their great predecessors. Of course Dryden could speak of Shakespeare and his contemporaries as ‘the giant race before the Flood’, and indeed the habit of thinking that the present generation is a poor specimen compared with its predecessors is or was very general. ‘We are scarce our fathers’ shadows cast at noon,’ as Donne remarked. Still, new concepts of genius and its operations, its requirement of originality – ‘Originals can arise from genius only,’ as Edward Young alleged – did make a difference to writers, who might well feel frightened into impotence by the appalling demands of genius and sublimity. Reminding us of the Romantic habit of leaving things unfinished, or writing other pieces to avoid having even to start on the big ones (not by any means an exclusively Romantic habit), Leader homes in on his principal exhibits, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

I think it a little odd to call Wordsworth blocked just because he didn’t finish his great work, The Recluse, and because he wrote a lot of sonnets and other smaller poems to hinder himself from getting on with it. Here the concept of block suffers just that loss of definition the author as a rule wants to avoid. The difficulty is that although sure of possessing the equipment of poet and genius, Wordsworth was also sure that the vision to which he hoped to retain some access was of its nature fugitive, except during the period of ‘first creative sensibility’. The ‘glory’ of momentarily experiencing it in later life was bound to be accompanied by melancholy reflections on its normal inaccessibility. It is not the poet but the sources he seeks that are blocked (‘I approach them and they close’), and the glory comes when at certain moments these interdictions are suspended. In other words, this is block as an aspect of what it feels like to be in the world as human and adult, a condition which, as Wordsworth demonstrates, can be consistent with copious discourse. It makes little sense, then, to speak of the opening stanzas of the Immortality Ode as having anything to do with writer’s block. Stanza Four is a passage about cosmic block that is itself of such unblocked splendour that it threw Blake ‘into a hysterical rapture’, but it does nothing of the sort for Leader, who offers only the reflection that Wordsworth was only 32 at the time, practically in his prime, and could have been producing ‘poetry that matters’ instead of putting it off and wasting time on the Immortality Ode.

The treatment of Coleridge is more persuasive and benefits from the work of Thomas MacFarland. Coleridge also wrote a lot but he was certainly blocked. Biographia Literaria is an almost comic instance of the desperate – and successful – tactics he would adopt to avoid writing what he thought it was his duty to write. It could also reasonably be said that in spending so much time reading and annotating other people’s books and hunting up conversational partners, he was avoiding work on his opus maximum, or even that he was avoiding writing in general.

Coleridge called his own case ‘a derangement – an utter impotence of the Volition – and not of the intellectual faculties’. He fits the Winnicottian schema all right: as a child he had no facilitating environment and throughout life he sought substitutes, friends who would care for him and be cared for by him, with many sad, inevitable failures. His passion for dependence even accounts, it is argued, for his plagiarisms – he couldn’t quite hold steady the difference between himself and others, and the confusion extended to their literary and philosophical property (though he was, of course, by the same token, a giver). Explanations are also found for Coleridge’s fragments, and for such other irresponsibilities as his handy fictions or fibs, the Person from Porlock and the imaginary friend who advised him to withhold the central chapter of Biographia Literaria.

According to Leader, Coleridge came to think of language itself as a treacherous opponent, a view from which, it seems, he himself doesn’t altogether dissent. We are offered some curious speculations on the causes and cure of such mistrust. Word-processors are said to help with block because the screen resembles a human face (what make can that be?) or because, being thought of as somebody to talk to, a processor can reduce the inhibiting narcissism of solitary composition, the terror of the merely written word.

It is further suggested that all such inhibitions are likely to be stronger in women. Stereotyped down countless phallogocentric centuries as incapable of serious writing, and consequently prone to get blocked and suffer psychosomatic illnesses, they have even more trouble than men in ‘failing to negotiate rival or opposing claims, variously associated with pairings such as inner and outer, primary and secondary processes ... subject and object, written and oral, male and female’. It would be nice to think that the purchase of an IBM or Macintosh could cure this inveterate condition at a stroke.

Pending that cure, the torments rising from such oppositions can at least be explained in post-Kleinian terms. Of course it cannot be argued that the want of a facilitating environment invariably leads to blockage. On those grounds Beethoven probably had as much excuse for getting blocked as Coleridge. And it might not be too difficult to show that many persons who lacked a good-enough mother have nevertheless covered their share of paper. Furthermore, if a fruitful tension between inner and outer worlds, or between a need to say something wildly new and a respect for traditional values and achievements, provides not only an adult substitute for the security blanket but a recipe for good art, why isn’t there more of it? Why don’t more people who in childhood enjoyed a facilitating environment become writers, painters or musicians? Perhaps there lingers somewhere behind these views the old notion, maybe in the updated form given it by the likes of Rank, of the necessary estrangement of artists, which is good only in so far as they control it and see themselves, in an older phrase, as men speaking to men – as superior men certainly, but not as madmen. Some of them, runs this explanation of block, lose that control and regress to whatever you want to call the wrong state, say paranoid-schizoid. So they stop being able to write and become neurotics instead. But some, though similarly circumstanced, do not. Why not? Mr Leader is a patient explainer but some things are outside his scope. Incidentally his strong interest in plagiarism may be responsible for a tendency to disarm suspicion by misquoting: for example, Dr Johnson on page 120, Pope on page 129, Wordsworth on page 150, Collins on page 286.