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The Art of Writing

Is there madness in the method?

Key points

  • Many leads for novels stem from dreams and dissociated states.
  • There is no such thing as writer's block, but many writers fear that their big ideas will dry up.
  • Early literary acclaim seems to be a disincentive and an obstacle for some writers.

To write a novel requires long hours of premeditation as well as a fertile imagination. It also involves a determination to create art from one’s very essence. Most authors find it hard to put into words how or even why they write, but they know that each new experiment requires complete immersion. They liken the start to a surfer waiting in the water for the perfect wave to arrive. The first glimmer of a lead often comes in a dream or a late-night fugue. The morning after the revelation they feel elated and often begin to write with a furious frenzy. In the next weeks, the words may flow easily, then temporarily dwindle to a daily trickle of stilted text before fresh momentum occurs and a first draft materialises.

The next phase requires a cognitive switch that involves a measured and ruthless process of editing and revision. After its conception, the many hours of confinement at a desk, and the eventual delivery of a manuscript to the publisher, a break from writing seems to be a biological essential for many writers. Exceptions exist, however, such as Anthony Trollope (1815–1882) and Georges Simenon (1903–1989) who wrote many thousands of words every day for years on end. Despite the excellence of their work, a snobbish prejudice against prolific writers continues to exist with some being accused of hypergraphia.

Successful First Book as Deterrent for Future Work

Very occasionally, a first book can be so successful that it seems to serve as a subconscious deterrent for future work. Invisible Man, written in 1952, was widely acclaimed as a literary classic, but its author, Ralph Waldo Ellison, then spent the rest of his life taking notes for an ambitious three-volume "symphonic" novel that 40 years on in 1994 at his death still remained incomplete and unpublishable. A year before her death, Harper Lee, who died at the age of 89, published Go Set a Watchman, an inferior early draft of her 1962 masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Nothing had come from her pen in the interim.

Other writers like Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) were shy to publish, leaving behind a lifetime of unfinished manuscripts, including The Book of Disquiet, in a domed wooden trunk. The English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) believed his greatest poems magically came to him as a young man from an external source. Addicted to opium, he later wrote in his 30s that any ambitious writing project now inspired in him an indescribable terror. The French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) gave up writing verse at 19, and his friend Paul Valéry (1871–1945), in a tortured stop–start career, took a 20-year break from writing poetry.

Recognizing That Waiting Is Part of Writing

The incapacity to produce new literary works despite preservation of writing skills is well-recognised by most creative writers. While most acknowledge a deep urge to procrastinate and will often do anything to avoid sitting at their desk, they also understand that waiting is part of writing. They may stall or lose their way, but they know that the product of their suffering can be transformational to their readers. They are also reassured by the fact that, unlike brain surgery, they do not need to get it right the first time.

A common cause for writers running out of steam is a fundamental lack of knowledge about what they are trying to write about. If putting the manuscript in the desk and going back to do more research doesn’t help, then it may be that the choice of subject was wrong in the first place. Most say that their topic chooses them rather than the other way around, but the subject of many modern books is now influenced by what publishers believe will sell copy.

Many writers find going for a long walk or reading a book may re-galvanise them. A period of idleness or change of scenery can also help. They are also aware that depression or damaging addiction to alcohol, opioids, or cocaine stifles innovation.

Many aspiring writers pile pressure on themselves by setting their sights too high in their quest for immediate perfection. Creative writing courses may teach technique and theory, but, unless they are wedded to conviction, drive, and passion, they are of little use. Christopher Hitchens, the British–American author (1949–2011) caustically remarked that "Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases, that’s where it should stay."

Myth of "Writer's Block"

Most novelists believe they can write just as well when they are not inspired as when they are, and consider "writer's block" to be a romantic myth. J.D. Salinger (1919–2010), who decamped to live in the woods after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 had led to unwanted public attention, said in a rare interview, "Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy." Allegedly, he went on writing, but published nothing for 40 years.

Writers live with the dread that one day their big ideas will dry up, and they will be unable to weave their threads of narrative into celestial tapestry, but I agree with Elmore Leonard (1925–2013) when he said, "The best thing writers can do is not give writer’s block even the power of naming or defining it. Because when you name or define it, you now have something to point your finger at and blame." A useful piece of advice is to quit writing for the day while you are ahead, and the next day the muse will be raring to go.

 George Herbert Watkins, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain
A photograph of Charles Dickens at his desk.
Source: George Herbert Watkins, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain


Pierre, DBC. Release the Bats: A Pocket Guide to Writing Your Way Out of it Faber and Faber, London 2017

More from A.J. Lees FRCP, FRCPEd, FMedsci
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