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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 

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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.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
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The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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