The Daily

On the Shelf

Destroy Writer’s Block with the Nuclear Option, and Other News

March 15, 2016 | by

Don’t let this happen to you.

  • Anita Brookner, the author of Hotel du Lac, has died at eighty-seven. Brookner, who was born in London, gave an Art of Fiction interview in our Fall 1987 issue. “The truth I’m trying to convey is not a startling one, it is simply a peeling away of affectation,” she said then. “I use whatever gift I have to get behind the facade. But I hope I am not an aggressive writer, and that I see through people with compassion and humor … It was the need for order in my own life that made me start. And once the floodgates are open, you must go all the way.” “Her novels are beautifully written—her sentence structure is pure pleasure,” her publisher Juliet Annan told the BBC this week. “But I think what people miss is that her novels are some of the most shocking of the twentieth century, for underneath the veneer of novels plots about women failing to marry, failing to see the venal in those around them, failing to make successful lives. She wrote about the biggest fears we have: loneliness and death.”
  • Today in productivity by any means necessary: The Most Dangerous Writing App (that’s its real name) will rid you of writer’s block with one simple measure—it forces you to keep going. Stop typing for more than five seconds and it will delete all your work. This promotional piece was written using it: “The interface is a clean, no-nonsense text editor. You’ll find nothing in the way of formatting tools; if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, the app is purpose-built for writing and writing only. It allows for plenty of backspacing and typo-correcting, both of which can be useful for procrastinating in micro-doses, but I mostly felt compelled to write. Somewhere towards the tail end of my five minutes (you can choose to write nonstop for five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty-five, or sixty minutes, if you’re a masochist) the pressure starts to set in, and I’m really rambling.”
  • Or you could just follow the advice of the psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, who advocate a strict regime of vivid imagery—basically, winging it. In the seventies and eighties, they staged an intervention for blocked writers: “exercises in directed mental imagery. While some of the blocked writers met in groups to discuss their difficulties, Barrios and Singer asked others to participate in a systematic protocol designed to walk them through the production of colorful mental images. These writers would sit in a dim, quiet room and contemplate a series of ten prompts asking them to produce and then describe dreamlike creations. They might, for example, ‘visualize’ a piece of music, or a specific setting in nature … Writers who’d participated in the intervention improved their ability to get writing done and found themselves more motivated and self-confident.”
  • Once you get over your writer’s block, you’ll have to deal with the old show-don’t-tell mantra, which remains the most divisive product of M.F.A. culture. As Benjamin Markowits writes, it’s both good and bad advice: “Not many writers are good at telling—their explanations are not always that interesting. George Eliot does good explanation. Philip Roth does good explanation. But good explanation is hard to teach: it involves having a sophisticated worldview and finding the moments when that worldview has something specific to say, about psychology, or economics, or the weather. It’s easier to say to a student: let’s cut all that out, stick to the facts, tweak the sequence of events to make it more plausible, prune the dialogue and leave out all the inner thought stuff, which gives the game away, delay the moment of drama, tone it down a little, too, and let’s keep a lid on the hero’s motivations, so we don’t know whether to trust her or not. And at the end of a series of ruthless edits and workshops you have a tight, vivid, suggestive, fine piece of work. You Gordon Lish it.”
  • During the Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered at hospitals, writing letters home from soldiers who were illiterate or too ill to do so themselves. One of those letters has just been found: “I am mustered out of service, but am not at present well enough to come home. I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this + let me know how you all are, how things are going on – let me know how it is with mother. I write this by means of a friend who is now sitting by my side + I hope it will be God’s will that we shall yet meet again. Well I send you all my love + must now close.” (The soldier, Nelson Jabo, died before he made it back home.)