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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  The tyranny of the blank page

G.V. Desani published All About H. Hatterr in 1948. As a book, it perhaps ranks as one of those bizarre oddities that shakes you up and about, leaving you in a puzzled, confounded state, unsure about everything except that you have never read anything like this before. And probably never will again. T.S. Eliot said this about the novel: “In all my experience, I have never read anything quite like it." 

When Desani left England for India in 1951, among those who gathered to give him a send-off was E.M. Forster. Others like Cecil Day Lewis and Christopher Fry sent messages. 

And yet, after all this acclaim, Desani did not publish a book again for many, many years. Going into seclusion after coming back to India, Desani largely disappeared from public view. For a few years, he wrote an unsigned column, Very High and Very Low in the Illustrated Weekly. Later, he taught at the University of Texas, Austin. 

But a second book remained elusive. 

Similarly with Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, published in 1953 to wide acclaim. After Invisible Man, a searing indictment of race relations in the US, the public awaited a new novel from this exceptional talent. 

Ellison, it appeared, was hard at work. He had apparently made some 2,000 pages of notes towards his second novel. Then, in 1958, he wrote to fellow-writer Saul Bellow of having a “writer’s block as big as the Ritz". The second novel continued to be spoken of and eagerly awaited. Even as the wait stretched into years and then decades, Ellison published two collections of essays: Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). The second novel never came. 

Writers often go through lean patches, unable to produce a piece of writing for weeks, sometimes even months. They are, it appears, in the thick of that strange, scary thing called “writer’s block". Gut-wrenching and nerve wracking, the writer’s block has laid many-a-talented writer low.

It is not merely an affliction with writers who make dazzling debuts like Desani and Ellison. Gustave Flaubert, the writer of many acclaimed works, is said to have once remarked, “You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands, trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word." 

Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, none of them one-book wonders, have also gone through extremely dry spells.

The term “writer’s block" itself was coined in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, who himself was extremely prolific. He wrote 25 books and published 273 scholarly articles in his lifetime. He didn’t ever suffer the affliction himself. 

A disciple of Freud, he described writer’s block as one of the many manifestations of “psychic masochism" or “the unconscious wish to defeat one’s conscious aims and to enjoy that self-constructed defeat".

Others have called this condition creative inhibition, creative slowdown and mental block. In 2004, in a best-selling book titled The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain, Alice Flaherty described writer’s block as a “vicious cycle that has given many writers a literary equivalent of a heart attack".

Of course, some writers deny such a condition even exists, preferring to term it procrastination. Philip Pullman dismissed it out of hand, saying, “Writer’s block... a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word writer, that word was taken out and the word plumber substituted, and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?"

Another writer who wrote that one great book and then went into hibernation was Harper Lee. After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, Lee did not publish again for many years. In 2015, a year before her death, Go Set a Watchman, a supposed sequel (but actually a first draft of Mockingbird), was published to less than a rapturous reception. 

Why did Lee not attempt a second work? Writer’s block appears to be the obvious culprit. Lee, herself, though complained about “300 personal friends" who kept “dropping in for a cup of coffee" so much so that she couldn’t find time to write even though she had “tried getting up at six" because, she said, “then all the six o’clock risers congregate".

Is writer’s block beatable? The internet crawls with antidotes to this dreaded affliction. Writers too have come up with their own formulae to beat it. 

Maya Angelou has this to say: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat’."

Mark Twain was rather workman-like about it. “The secret of getting ahead is getting started," he wrote. “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." 

Modern-day rap star Eminem is characteristically in-your-face with his suggestions: “Falling asleep with writer’s block in the parking lot of McDonald’s / But instead of feeling sorry for yourself, do something about it / Admit you got a problem, your brain is clouded / You pouted long enough."

Among those who successfully came back from writer’s block was the Indian poet Dom Moraes. After three books of poetry—A Beginning (1958), winner of the Hawthornden Prize, Poems (1960) and John Nobody (1965)—and a poetic pamphlet, Beldam & Others (1967), all in the space of a decade, Moraes published no poetry till 1983. Clearly, the Muse had left him. A privately printed book, Absences, was put out in 1983. But following the publication of his Collected Poems in 1990, which contained several new poems, right upto his death in 2004, Moraes published several collections to great acclaim. In the words of literary critic Bruce King, “Suddenly, at the end of his life, Moraes became a great poet."

Not so with Ellison though. His second novel was not published in his lifetime. But somehow, it seemed to be a project that Ellison himself never let go of. 

In 1994, even a few months before his death, 41 years after Invisible Man’s publication, he was still claiming the book was “nearly completed". 

Since his death, two attempts at compressing and putting his notes into novel form have been published. One in a much-shortened form was Juneteenth in 1999. The most recent, Three Days Before the Shooting..., came out in 2010. A collection of short stories, Flying Home, and Other Stories, was also published posthumously in 1996.

As for Desani, in 1991, a book named Hali and Collected Stories appeared. It was a case of too little, too late. While warmly reviewed, it soon faded from notice. 

Hatterr, reissued in 2007 as a New York Review of Books Classic, is Desani’s only shot at eternal fame. 

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.

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Updated: 18 Mar 2018, 02:57 PM IST
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