10 Cases of Extreme Writer's Block


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 

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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 the Contemporary World. 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 

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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 ten 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

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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 infamously, 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 

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Harper Lee—a close friend of Capote's from childhood—will soon be publishing her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, at the age of 89. The book is a sequel of sorts to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was written before it; no plans exist to publish any fiction she has written since 1960, assuming she's written any. 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 has 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 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 the most infamous 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 

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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 2,000 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, forty-two 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

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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—5,000 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 

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Ask George R. R. Martin why Winds of Winter, the sixth installment of his Game of Thrones 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 last fall, 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.

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.


Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."


Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.


portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.


When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.


English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!


The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.


Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.


In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.


Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.


Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

Denis De Marney, Getty Images
From A Game Of Thrones to War and Peace: These are America's 100 Favorite Books
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
Denis De Marney, Getty Images

Die-hard classic literature lovers might quibble over Fifty Shades of Grey being placed on the same list as Jane Eyre, but alas, the people have spoken. Both are among America’s 100 favorite novels, according to a national survey conducted by YouGov.

The list was compiled in support of The Great American Read, an upcoming PBS series about the joys of reading. Set to premiere on May 22, the eight-part series will introduce the "100 best-loved novels" and feature interviews with famous authors, comedians, actors, athletes, and more. A few of the featured guests will include George Lopez, Seth Meyers, Venus Williams, and James Patterson. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao author Junot Díaz, all of whom have books on the list, will also make appearances.

On the day of the series premiere, PBS will launch a round of voting to determine "America’s Best-Loved Novel." Viewers across the country will have the chance to choose their favorite book from the list of 100 and place their vote online, or through Facebook or Twitter using the #GreatReadPBS hashtag. The winner will be announced this fall.

The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote, a classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1603), while the newest is Ghost (2016), a young adult book by Jason Reynolds. The list includes authors from 15 different countries, and the books span several genres. Many of the novels are staples on high school summer reading lists, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scroll down for the full list of America's favorite books, arranged in alphabetical order.

A Confederacy of Dunces
A Game of Thrones
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Separate Peace
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Alchemist
Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
And Then There Were None
Anne of Green Gables
Another Country
Atlas Shrugged
Bless Me, Ultima
The Book Thief
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Call of the Wild
The Catcher in the Rye
Charlotte's Web
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Coldest Winter Ever
The Color Purple
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Da Vinci Code
Don Quixote
Doña Barbara
Fifty Shades of Grey
Flowers in the Attic
The Giver
The Godfather
Gone Girl
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
The Great Gatsby
Gulliver's Travels
The Handmaid's Tale
Harry Potter (series)
Heart of Darkness
The Help
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hunger Games
The Hunt for Red October
The Intuitionist
Invisible Man
Jane Eyre
The Joy Luck Club
Jurassic Park
Left Behind
The Little Prince
Little Women
Lonesome Dove
Looking for Alaska
The Lord of the Rings (series)
The Lovely Bones
The Martian
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mind Invaders
Moby Dick
The Notebook
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Outsiders
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Pillars of the Earth
Pride and Prejudice
Ready Player One
The Shack
The Sirens of Titan
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
Swan Song
Tales of the City
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
This Present Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird
War and Peace
The Wheel of Time (series)
Where the Red Fern Grows
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights


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