A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary


The Unbearable Truth

(some thoughts on the pathology of writer's block)

   To claim writer’s block is to admit to not being a writer, while at the same time pretending to be one.

   The phenomenon of writer’s block has always been a mystery to me, something that would be at home in a museum of oddities along with the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, Mesmerism… Every pronouncement of writer’s block has never elicited more than skepticism from me. As a science undergraduate I took some electives in a department of Creative Writing. It was there that I first encountered the claims of writer’s block. In fact I faced examples of its manifestations before I encountered any examples of creative writing— the so-called fiction instructor had been suffering from it for many years, and the only thing he had written was a list of things that one could not write about (and which he solemnly handed out to the class). Imagine a chemistry professor stating to the class that he had chemistry-block... his resignation would follow soon after. Of course there were some students who were also stricken. As I listened to them describing the particularities of their ailment I considered that if only they wrote down what they were saying, they would be cured. Then again, who wants to be a doctor prosecuted by a cook before a jury of children who are fonder of sweets than they are of bitter medicine (Socrates).
   I should add that for my entire adult life I have written every day. This is not hyperbole. Every day, in sickness and in health, something literate has been attended to, edited, amended, erased, continued… And it is for this reason and this reason only, that I feel justified in calling myself a writer.

writer: n; 19. For any writer there is only one truth, and it is the most difficult truth to remain faithful to— a writer must write what is their’s to write. Sometimes profound, lifelong silences might be required in order to approach just such a unique creative possibility. And along with silence there are the false starts, the labyrinths, the traps, and the seemingly endless forests of failure and banality that anticipate every courageous exploration. It is therefore understandable why most would rather write specifically for the sake of writing, if only to avoid, with every word, the responsibilities and the fidelity owed to the truth they cannot bear.(A Personal Dictionary)

   To be a writer is to write. It is that simple. And so it follows that if one does not write, one is not a writer. There is no such thing as builder’s block for an architect, or experiment block for a scientist. There are certainly frustrations, just as there may be conditions that make the realization of one’s work impossible. Nevertheless, in such examples one would still do all one could expecting that perhaps one day the restrictive conditions might change. To cease the activities required of an architect or an experimental scientist is to cease being such a thing. The same holds for being a writer. There are many aspects to being a writer beyond putting a pen to paper. To claim that all such activities are blocked is to cease being a writer. Moreover, to insist that one’s malady is so debilitating that it affects one’s ability to even conceive of any written activity is so obviously hysterical that to comment on it can only lend it validity. But I am commenting on it, if only to indicate its complete lack of validity.

   Again— to claim writer’s block is to admit to not being a writer, while at the same time pretending to be one. To be sure, this phenomenon is evidence of some sort of debility— but one that has more to do with delusional thinking than with writing.

   If one is a writer, there is no excuse for not writing, except of course if one is exhausted, physically and mentally from writing. But this is precisely what is not claimed by the stricken. When one remembers a true poet like Osip Mandelstam, who composed poems in his head because the presence of written records of his activity was for him, in Stalinist Russia, a death sentence, it is evident that for a writer, there is truly no excuse for not writing. The excuses such as I am too busy, or I have nothing to write about deserve no comment. There is always something to write— a letter, even a letter to someone who does not exist, or a response to something one has read, editing of old work, the composition of a list of titles of books one would like to write (including a brief synopsis), a manifesto, a refusal speech for an award one will never win, a suicide note… the universe of possible writing is indeed infinite. To claim writer’s block is to demonstrate one’s unwillingness to enter, or participate in such a universe. It is also to forget that there is no other universe.
   In the end, to write is to live. The stereotype of the writer, who exists sheltered from life and the living, is an argument from incredulity. The committed writer could not be more engaged with the world of the living. And this is why it is a rare thing to be a writer.

writing: n; 12. That generative residue, that which persists and which in the end is represented by the words and the book it has left behind is identical with the subject who, in the end, is represented by the moments and by the life he has left behind. (A Personal Dictionary)

   If to suffer from writer’s block means only that one does not write, and such an ailment affects the majority of humanity. Yet, it is only a small minority of these sufferers who claim that they actually are writers and that, if it was not for their illness, they would have no shortage of evidence to justify their claim. One has to ask why they desire to proclaim such a thing. They are no different from the mass of humanity that does not write. There is nothing shameful in this. At the same time, apart from a lack of self-knowledge and some innocuous dishonesty, there is nothing malicious about claiming to be a writer when one is not. After all, some people claim to be the living incarnation of Christ, or St. Peter, and we understand the true nature of their debility— and it is not salvation-block.

   There is always the possibility that the one who claims to be suffering from writer’s block is consenting to the discomforts of delusional thinking in order to save themselves from the perceived horror, and the true suffering, that would ensue should they allow themselves to admit an unbearable truth.

write: v; 9. What we do not write for those do exist, we write for those who do not exist. (A Personal Dictionary)