10 Cases of Extreme Writer's Block

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Unlike the plumber or the podiatrist, for whom every day brings another batch of toilets or feet (respectively) to fix, the writer can't always guarantee he or she will wake up with something to say. Terrifyingly, even for the world's most accomplished and prolific writers, the words can just stop coming (or, alternately, come in jumbled, unpublishable torrents) for decades. Here are some of the most extreme cases of the little-understood affliction known as writer's block.

1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Robert Southey, Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coleridge produced his best-known work in his mid-twenties, and spent the rest of his life taking opium and bemoaning the loss of his gift; as he wrote in his notebook in 1804, at the age of 32, "so completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month.—O Sorrow and Shame … I have done nothing!”

2. Joseph Mitchell

With his longform New Yorker pieces of the '40s and '50s, Joseph Mitchell established himself as one of the finest non-fiction writers of the 20th century. He was the sensitive, sympathetic chronicler of New York City's oddballs and outcasts, and he found his ultimate subject in the person of Joe Gould. Gould was a garrulous, self-aggrandizing mainstay of the old West Village bohemian scene, who for decades had claimed to be composing an Oral History of Our Time. As Mitchell would reveal with some sadness in his masterpiece Joe Gould's Secret, no such book existed. Gould's famous notebooks contained nothing but records of his baths, his meals, and other mundane personal details, compulsively written and rewritten. The same fate seemed to befall Mitchell: He continued coming into the office for more than three decades following the publication of Joe Gould's Secret, and was regularly seen to be working on something, but he never again published anything. As he told The Washington Post in 1992, "talking to Joe Gould all those years he became me in a way."

3. Truman Capote

Roger Higgins, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the last years of his life, Truman Capote spoke frequently of his in-the-works masterpiece, what was to be a cutting, expansive takedown of high society. But as Martin Amis put it in his review of the eventual work—published posthumously, in 1986, as Answered Prayers—"Capote spent the last 10 years of his life pretending to write a novel that was never there." Far from the complex Proustian work Capote envisioned, Answered Prayers turned out to be not much more than four pieces previously published in Esquire. Those pieces, mocking the follies of Capote's ultra-rich associates, caused a scandal upon publication and led to Capote's banishment from high society. He's widely believed to have had a nervous breakdown in the aftermath, which might account for his inability to write any more of his alleged masterpiece.

4. Harold Brodkey

In 1991, Time magazine published an article with the headline "The 30-Year Writer's Block." Its subject was Harold Brodkey, the divisive New Yorker short story writer whose first novel was announced in the early 1960s and was just seeing publication, and then, only in part. He'd spent the three intervening decades struggling mightily to finish his book, in the process developing a reputation as someone who—in the words of critic Jay Parini—had made a whole career out of "the sound of one hand clapping." The book's gestation was so famously, painfully protracted that some critics felt bad about criticizing it; as Newsweek wrote, "The Runaway Soul is absolutely the last book you want to say this about, but it could have used a rewrite."

5. Harper Lee

Truman Capote, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Harper Lee—a close friend of Capote's from childhood—published her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, at the age of 89. The book is a sequel of sorts to 1960's To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was written before it; no plans exist to publish any fiction she wrote after 1960, assuming she wrote some. For a time, at least, we know she was working on a follow-up. One of the major theories as to why no follow-up appeared is, of course, writer's block; as she complained to a friend a few years after To Kill a Mockingbird's publication, "I've found I can't write ... I have about 300 personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee. I've tried getting up at six, but then all the six o'clock risers congregate."

6. Henry Roth

Henry Roth's Call it Sleep is now a canonized classic of 20th-century immigrant fiction, but at the time of its release in 1934 it didn't make much of an impact. Only when it was republished in 1964 did the world at large take notice. In the intervening years, Roth had published nothing, crippled by one of literature's most famous cases of writer's block. Writing in The New Yorker in 2005, critic Jonathan Rosen wrote that "the reasons for Roth’s monumental block—which include but are not limited to Communism, Jewish self-loathing, incest, and depression—are ultimately as mysterious as the reasons for his art and are in some ways inseparable from them." His ending is one of the happier ones: He did eventually manage to start writing again, and his epic Mercy of a Rude Stream was published in four volumes throughout the 1990s to widespread acclaim.

7. Ralph Ellison

United States Information Agency, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ellison's was a productive form of writer's block; according to one critic, it more closely resembled "chronic procrastination." Of course, both forms of book-delaying look the same to the average reader, who knows only that the next novel has not materialized. From the publication of Invisible Man, in 1952, to his death in 1994, Ellison assembled some 2000 pages of notes towards his second novel. To Saul Bellow he wrote, in 1958, of having a “writer’s block as big as the Ritz.” In 1994, 42 years after Invisible Man's publication, he was still claiming the book was "nearly completed." In the years since, two attempts to posthumously compress and polish his notes into novel form have been published; the most recent, Three Days Before the Shooting..., came out in 2010.

8. David Foster Wallace

Wallace, like Ellison, wasn't blocked per se. On the contrary, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen that he had "many many pages written," which he then "either tossed or put in a sealed box." But finishing is just as crucial to the writing process as starting, and in his final years Wallace seemed unable to make his mountains of material and research cohere. The sections he did manage to finish were assembled into 2011's posthumous The Pale King by his former editor Michael Pietsch, though we'll never know what the book might have looked like had Wallace lived to finish it.

9. Stephen King

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Given Stephen King's usual rate of production, you'd think "writer's block" for him would constitute a somewhat sluggish early morning at the laptop—5000 words, say, instead of the usual 20,000. And yet apparently not even King is immune to the occasional drought. As he wrote in The Washington Post in 2006:

"There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it."

In his book On Writing, he described one of the few times in his life he suffered from writer’s block. He was in college, and decided not to present his new novel Sword in the Darkness to the class. This led to a four-month period of not writing, drinking beer, and watching soap operas.

10. George R. R. Martin

Ask George R. R. Martin why Winds of Winter, the sixth installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, has yet to hit shelves, and he'll say it has nothing to do with writer's block. Speaking at the Santa Fe International Film Festival in 2014, he said writer's block "isn't to blame here; it's distraction":

"In recent years, all of the work I've been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It's like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who's passing up a free trip to Dubai?"

It's possible he's actively engaging these distractions as a way of avoiding his writer's block; it's also possible he'd finish the book in a week, if he just turned down the occasional trip to Dubai. Until his next book is published, we're all free to speculate.