“Yesterday was my Birth Day” … Coleridge wrote in his notebook in 1804, when he was 32. “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. — O Sorrow and Shame … I have done nothing!’”
It was true. Most of the poems for which he is remembered were written when he was in his mid-20s. After that, any ambitious writing project inspired in him ... “an indefinite indescribable Terror.”
Therein the point was made that “Coleridge is one of the first known cases of what we call writer’s block. Sometimes, ‘block’ means complete shutdown: the writer stops writing, or stops producing anything that seems to him worth publishing. In other cases, he simply stops writing what he wants to write. He may manage other kinds of writing, but not the kind he sees as his vocation. (Coleridge turned out a great deal of journalism and literary criticism in his later years, but he still saw himself as disabled, because he wasn’t writing serious poetry.)”
Some time ago, I received an email from a reader asking advice. She had been working on a novel for young adults set in the Smokies, for which she had a publisher and the inevitable deadline.
Things were going well, she thought, up until she came down with what she described as “a bad case of writer’s block.” I asked her to describe the symptoms. As anticipated, she had become an expert at “procrastination” — coming up with anything from polishing the silverware to bathing the dog to defrosting the refrigerator to shopping at Walmart that would “justify” not sitting down at her desk and writing. When she ran out of excuses and reluctantly made it to her desk, she almost always experienced what she (brilliantly it must be allowed) described as “brain jam.” Her thoughts would become so jumbled it required great effort to compose a paragraph. On those few days when she managed to produce a page or two, after spending the whole day at her desk, she would go to bed feeling pretty good about things. But the next morning, “upon further review,” they would seem so poorly written she immediately deleted them from her computer.
“What can I do,” she asked. “Writing is what I love most of all, but now I can’t do it.”
I wrote back, saying that I not only recognized the symptoms but could prescribe the cure: “When in doubt do what Aristotle, Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Hazlitt, Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, et al, did — take a walk. That’s right take a walk. It’s that simple. A nice walk will clear your mind and whet your appetite for writing. If walking doesn’t work, nothing will.”
I suggested she might read Austerlist, the magnificent novel by the German author W.G. Sebald that appeared in 2001 (in English translation) shortly before his death in an automobile accident. In Austerlitz, the main character sufferers from what you call “brain jam,” and has fallen into the clutches of the mother of all writer’s blocks. “The various ideas I entertained at various times ... ranged from the concept of a systematically descriptive work in several volumes to a series of essays on such subjects as hygiene and sanitation, the architecture of the penal system, secular temples, hydrotherapy, zoological gardens, departure and arrival, light and shade, steam and gas, and so forth. However, even a first glance at the papers I had brought here from the Institute … showed that they consisted largely of sketches which now seemed misguided, distorted, and of little use … Reading and writing had always been my favorite occupation … but now I found writing such hard going that it took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, with the greatest effort … I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed … Now and then a train of thought did succeed in emerging with wonderful clarity inside my head, but I knew even as it formed that I was in no position to record it, for as soon as I picked up my pencil the endless possibilities of language, to which I could once safely abandon myself, became a conglomeration of the most inane places.”
Austerlitz’s self-prescribed antidote to this malaise was nocturnal excursions along the streets of London:
“For over a year, I think,” said Austerlitz, “I would leave my house as darkness fell, walking on and on, down the Mile End Road and Bow Road to Stratford, then to Chigwell and Romford, right across Bethnal Green and Canonbury, through Holloway and Kentish Town and thus to Hampstead Heath, or else south over the river to Peckham and Dulwich or westward to Richmond Park. It is a fact that you can traverse this vast city almost from end to end on foot in a single night.”
“You need not walk all night,” I cautioned. “Just get out the door and let your feet find their own way. There will be enjambments, of course, but before long you will have rediscovered the syntax at the heart of the way things are and return to the work that provides such joy.”