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Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

Wisdom on artistic paralysis from Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, and others.

Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Picasso proclaimed in contemplating how creativity works and where ideas come from. He is, of course, Picasso — it may be tempting to dismiss his insight with an “Easy for him to say!” sigh. But anyone who has endeavored in a creative field has felt first-hand this yin-yang of action and ideation. (The same, I’ve long believed, holds true for the larger question of “finding” one’s creative purpose and path in life — we make the trail by walking it, only to turn around and “find” a path.)

For writers, there can be a particularly disorienting disconnect between knowing this correlation intellectually and being petrified by facing the blank page. Much of that psychoemotional paralysis comes from our pathological perfectionism, the antidote to which Jennifer Egan captured perfectly in her advice on writing: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

And yet something often stands between knowing this and living this. That’s what eight of today’s most celebrated writers — Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Mitchell, Philipp Meyer, Alaa Al-Aswany, and Daniel Kehlmann — explore in this wonderful micro-documentary from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel, which has previously given us celebrated authors’ advice to aspiring writers and Patti Smith’s advice to the young.

Highlights below — please enjoy:

Jonathan Franzen:

The blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.

David Mitchell:

A blank page is also a door — it contains infinity, like a night sky with a supermoon really close to the Earth, with all the stars and the galaxies, where you can see very, very clearly… You know how that makes your heart beat faster?

Margaret Atwood:

There is something compelling about the blank page that beckons you in to write something on it — it must be filled.

Philipp Meyer:

I don’t think “writer’s block” actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero… The point is actually to get stuff on paper, just to allow yourself to kind of flow. It is only by writing that you’ll discover characters, ideas, things like this.

Alaa Al-Aswany:

The blank page gives a horizon for what you can write, because you always have this conflict between what you want to say and what you could say. And writing is this conflict.

Joyce Carol Oates:

I would never write first — I don’t think that’s good at all. As soon as you write in language, it becomes frozen. It’s better to think first — to think for a long time — and then write when you’re ready to write. But writing prematurely is a mistake.

Couple with this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft and artist Sol LeWitt’s electrifying wisdom on how to overcome creative block and self-doubt.


Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers

“You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon urged in what remains the finest advice on writing I’ve encountered. And yet for even the most gifted artists, the practice of that stewardship remains a constant and rather slippery domain of discipline.

Its elusive mastery is what Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan (b. September 7, 1962) explores in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) — the wonderful anthology edited by Meredith Maran, which gave us Michael Lewis on the necessary self-delusion of creative work, Susan Orlean’s advice to aspiring writers, Isabelle Allende on how to summon the muse, and Mary Karr on the madness and magnetism of the written word.

Jennifer Egan (Photograph:  Pieter M. Van Hattem)
Jennifer Egan (Photograph: Pieter M. Van Hattem)

Beginning with the central question of why writers write — which has wrested some memorable answers from W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Egan considers the act of writing as a form of vital self-care:

When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.

For Egan, as for many artists, this different mode of inhabiting reality embodies pioneering psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow — a supreme form of what science writer Diane Ackerman has called deep play, a state of essential evolutionary and existential significance. Egan speaks to it beautifully:

When I’m writing fiction I forget who I am and what I come from. I slip into utter absorption mode. I love the sense that I’ve become so engaged with the other side, I’ve slightly lost my bearings here. If I’m going from the writing mind-set to picking my kids up from school, I often feel a very short but acute kind of depression, as if I have the bends. Once I’m with them it totally disappears, and I feel happy again. Sometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange. I feel guilty about it, as if my inattention will cause something to happen to them, even when I’m not responsible for them…

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

Echoing Colette’s marvel at the the transcendent obsessive-compulsiveness of writing, Egan adds:

When the writing’s going well — I’m trying not to sound clichéd — I feel fueled by a hidden source. During those times it doesn’t matter if things are going wrong in my life; I have this alternate energy source that’s active. When the writing’s going poorly, it’s as bad or worse than not writing at all. There’s a leak or a drain, and energy is pouring out of it. Even when the rest of my life is fine, I feel like something’s really bad. I have very little tolerance for anything going wrong, and I take little joy from the good things. It was worse before I had kids. I appreciate that they make me forget what’s going on professionally.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joni Mitchell’s reflections on the dark side of artistic success and John Steinbeck’s lamentation about the perils of public approval, Egan considers the psychoemotional aftermath of her Pulitzer win:

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad — the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes — is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.


My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one. If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good. I know that. Stop getting better? There’s no excuse for that.

With an eye to our propensity for what psychologists call the “end of history illusion” — best captured by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s aphoristic summation that “human beings are works in progress [who] mistakenly think they’re finished” — Egan adds:

We all have such a tendency to think the present moment will last forever. Maybe when I’m not the flavor of the month anymore I’ll be devastated and shocked, and I’ll forget everything I’m saying this minute. But my hope is that I have the tools to handle it.

She ends by offering three points of advice to aspiring writers:

  • Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do. If what you really love to read is y, it might be hard for you to write x.
  • Exercising is a good analogy for writing. If you’re not used to exercising you want to avoid it forever. If you’re used to it, it feels uncomfortable and strange not to. No matter where you are in your writing career, the same is true for writing. Even fifteen minutes a day will keep you in the habit.
  • You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.

Complement Why We Write with great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft, then revisit Maran’s sequel, Why We Write About Ourselves — some of today’s most celebrated memoirists on the art of telling personal stories that unravel universal truth.


Cycling as a Cure for Creative Block: A Charming 1926 Case for Why the Bicycle Is the Ideal Vehicle for Writers

“The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.”

Cycling as a Cure for Creative Block: A Charming 1926 Case for Why the Bicycle Is the Ideal Vehicle for Writers

“Don’t cultivate a ‘bicycle face,’” an 1895 list of don’ts for women cyclists admonished just before the bicycle became a major vehicle of women’s liberation. That selfsame year, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw collided on their bicycles as each was making his respective trailblazing intellectual and creative contributions. In fact, the bicycle has a rich history as a witness to and comrade in revolutions both cultural and personal. (As a devoted cyclist myself, I have extracted from it both tremendous creaturely joy and an existential metaphor for my values.)

“When we have scraped together enough money, we can buy bicycles and take a bike tour every couple of weeks,” young Albert Einstein wrote in one of his love letters as he was incubating his world-reorienting theories — theories that would pave the way, among innumerable other things, for the invention of rockets, the first builders of which received their initial funding via bicycle, and for computers, which Steve Jobs likened to “a bicycle for the mind.”

Patti Smith with her bicycle, New York City, 1999. (Photograph: Steven Sebring)
Patti Smith with her bicycle, New York City, 1999. (Photograph: Steven Sebring)

Nowhere does the bicycle’s cultural role come more alive than in literature, where it endures as a beloved vehicle of writers as wide-ranging as Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, and H.G. Wells, whose official biographer anointed him “the writer-laureate of the cyclists” and who is credited with proclaiming, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” (It is perhaps not coincidental that the very first line delivered in Wells’s visionary novel The Time Machine comes from a man on a bicycle.)

H.G. Wells with his wife, Jane
H.G. Wells with his wife, Jane

But no one captures the bicycle’s writerly sacredness more vibrantly than journalist, essayist, novelist, and poet Christopher Morley (May 5, 1890–March 18, 1957) in an essay titled “Wheels on Parnassus” — a play on the title of Morley’s debut novel, Parnassus on Wheels. It was originally published in his wonderful 1926 essay collection The Romany Stain (public library), which was printed in a limited illustrated edition of 365 copies, each signed by the author.

Morley writes:

The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets. How pleasant if one could prove that a decline in literary delicacy followed the disappearance of the bike from American roads… In a car you are carried; on a bike you go.

Henry Miller on his bicycle
Henry Miller on his bicycle

It is in moments of artistic stagnation and creative block that such goingness becomes most essential, and it is for such moments that Morley prescribes the bicycle as a most potent cure:

An odd feeling comes sometimes to a writer who has long carried in the knapsack of the mind some notion that he was to put in ink. It is a sensation I can only describe as Getting Ready to Write. Those phantoms of imagination, so long halted frozen in mid-gesture, begin to show marks of animation. In my particular case, it is now four and half years that I have seen them sitting in their absurd unchanged attitudes. No wonder they are stiff: one of them (what a dear she is!) told me her foot had gone to sleep. They are sitting round a table; it is a birthday party. You would think that the cake must be very stale by this time, the little red candles guttered out. But no: I can see them burning steadily, the bright untrembling candles of a dream. Even in the puppet postures where I left them I can see those phantoms strangely show an air of expectation. Something must be done about it.

In these moods bicycling seems perfectly the right employ. It is all very well to say to yourself that you are not thinking as you wheel serenely along: but you are, and that sure uncertainty of the cyclist’s balance, that unconsciously watchful suspension (solid on earth yet so breezily flitting) seems to symbolize the task itself. The wheel slidders in a rut or on a slope of gravel: at once, by instinct, you redress your perpendicular. So, in the continual joy and disgust of the writer’s work, he dare not abandon that difficult trained alertness. How much of the plain horror and stupidity is he to admit into his picture? how many of the grossly significant minutiae can he pause to include? how often shall he make a resolute fling to convey that incomparable energy of life that should be the artist’s goal above all? These are the airy tinkerings of his doubt; and as he passes from windy hill-top to green creeks and grazings sometimes the bicycle sets him free. He sees it all afresh; nothing, nothing has ever been written yet: the entire white paper of the world is clean for his special portrait of all hunger, all joy, and all vexation.

I was led to this forgotten treasure of a book through an oblique mention in Diane Ackerman’s fascinating inquiry into the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play, of which cycling is no doubt a prime example.

For more on overcoming creative block, see this compendium of advice by contemporary artists and Lewis Carroll’s three tricks.


Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter

“The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.”

“Read good books, have good sentences in your ears,” the poet Jane Kenyon counseled in what remains some of the sagest advice to write and live by. But if literature is essential to our moral development, as Walt Whitman believed, and reading enlarges our humanity, as Neil Gaiman asserted, then attunement to good sentences is vital not only to our writing style but to our core sensibility of character.

So suggests the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) in a wonderful letter of advice to his teenage daughter, Frieda, found in Letters of Ted Hughes (public library) — the same volume that gave us Hughes’s immensely moving letter to his son about nurturing the universal inner child.

Frieda had been half-orphaned at the age of three when her mother, Sylvia Plath, died by suicide. Hughes was left to raise the couple’s two children, for whom Plath had written her only children’s books. Shortly after Frieda’s eighteenth birthday, as she stood on the precipice of her own literary career, her father shared with her the most important thing he had learned — from T.S. Eliot, no less — about what it takes to become a poet.


Hughes writes:

T.S. Eliot said to me “There’s only one way a poet can develop his actual writing — apart from self-criticism & continual practice. And that is by reading other poetry aloud — and it doesn’t matter whether he understands it or not (i.e. even if it is in another language.) What matters, above all, is educating the ear.”

What matters, is to connect your own voice within an infinite range of verbal cadences & sequences — and only endless actual experience of your ear can store all that is in your nervous system. The rest can be left to your life & your character.

In a lengthy letter penned three years later, discussing Plath’s posthumously published Ariel poems, Hughes revisits the subject of character as the wellspring of writing:

The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.

Frieda Hughes went on to become a celebrated poet, painter, and children’s book author herself. She later resurrected her mother’s little-known art and spent much of her adult life defending her father’s character against the hubristic pseudo-analysis of onlookers who have blamed him for Plath’s death. In fact, few private relationships have been the subject of more merciless and cynical public intrusion than Hughes and Plath’s, which began in a tempest of passion and ended in tragedy. Like the relationship between Albert Einstein and his first wife, the nuanced truth of which has been drowned out by a chorus of readily offered yet ill-informed judgments, the relationship between Hughes and Plath became the target of ceaseless malevolent speculation after Plath’s death. Hughes himself lamented how critics used her poetry as “a general licence for ransacking the lives of her family” with “malice & pseudo-psychologising.” Both critics and the so-called public seemed, and still seem, to forget that no one ever knows what goes on between two people, much less inside a person, and that any right to interpretation belongs solely to those who inhabit that intimate interiority.

Complement this particular portion of the richly rewarding Letters of Ted Hughes with other great writers’ advice to their own daughters — Robert Frost on how to read intelligently and write a great essay and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing — then revisit this rare BBC recording of Hughes and Plath discussing literature, love, and life and these beautiful modern illustrations for Hughes’s 1968 classic The Iron Giant.


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