I am reading Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin. My knowledge of Shirley Jackson is limited to The Haunting of Hill House and the short story, “The Lottery,” but I know a good biography when I see it, or at least when it is thrust into my face. Franklin is not a novelist, but she has written several full-length books, and at one point she makes a reference to one of Jackson’s many abandoned projects, saying. “the novel failed to progress.”
Franklin shows an excellent sense of style throughout, and her choice of words is no accident. Her use of the passive voice gestures at the core problem of the creative writer. We can take creative writing courses. We can read the books on how to write. We can read works like the one we want to write. We can sit at the computer all day. None of it does any good if the book refuses to progress. The blank screen, the blank page, give nothing back.
It’s a frustrating experience, one that afflicts some writers more than others. I don’t know why. It’s partly a matter of talent and partly a matter of personality. It comes in two flavors.
One is a total block where you can’t find the opening. That’s the especially maddening variety because at the end of the day you have literally nothing to show for it. There is no cure for that but to try again tomorrow and hope. It may be that the book is telling you that it doesn’t want to be written. If that is the case there is nothing to do but give up.
The other is when the work is in progress but you have come to the end of the scene and don’t know what happens next. Depending on who you are and what you are writing, that may be as serious a problem at the first. Jackson, to stay with my example, abandoned several novels after twenty to forty pages. Some of us are more fortunate. I can go to bed completely stumped on what to do and wake up in the morning with the solution. It happens fairly reliably, probably eighty percent of the time. And when I consider my new idea, I am always struck by how obvious it was, in the light of day. I don’t feel smart; I feel stupid that it had eluded me the night before.
Where did it come from? That is the troubling part of this. It came from me in one sense; no one else suggested anything. But I was the same person who went to bed clueless the night before. I have enough background in psychoanalysis to think that my unconscious was at work while I slept. But I also respect that the book was what focused my thoughts while I slept. The novel progressed.
The experience we generally call “writer’s block” can come from any number of sources, assuming that you are not one of the iconoclasts who think the term is nothing but a shorthand description of laziness. Macdonald suffered from it at times, for reasons mostly to do with his daughter and his health. His last book, The Blue Hammer, came hard, but that was a function of his declining mental abilities more than any failure of imagination. But Macdonald always rose above it. When he was blocked it caused delays, but except for Winter Solstice, I am not aware of any books he walked away from once he had truly begun. Not everyone can make that claim.