Nonumque prematur in annum

Horace advised in, Letters to Piso, that once we have written we let our work rest.  “Put your parchment in the closet and keep it back till the ninth year.”

While these lines (386-390, Art of Poetry) are often interpreted as guidance towards quality, they also highlight the proper length of a thing (with a dash of Horace’s characteristic mockery).

A breath is half a chorus. Twelve hours turns a tide from high to low. A carronade is much shorter than a long gun.

The time it takes to write our work is as long as it takes. Speed is not admirable.

Side-step imposed narratives about writer’s block by casting time as part of the writing. The value of the Sun King’s soup tureen is the price that someone is willing to pay for it. The value is set by the act of payment.

The time it takes to write our work is the time it takes. The time we give is part of the writing, not a measure of the work nor a ruling of ourselves as failing or otherwise.

 

… Siquid tamen olim

scripseris, in Maeci descendat iudicis auris

et patris et nostras, nonumque prematur in annum

membranis intus positis; delere licebit

quod non edideris; nescit uox missa reuerti.

Sharp

Gather from rills that run with honey

Socrates: For the poets tell us, don’t they, that the melodies they bring us are gathered from rills that run with honey, out of glens and gardens of the Muses, and they bring them as the bees do honey, flying like the bees? Ion (534a-b)

Writer’s block is frequently discussed as some perverse coupling of procrastination in bed with perfectionism. And The Writer is the rent-by-the-hour dive in which they rendezvous. Writer’s block is often mis-characterised as a flaw or a deficiency with the writer (not the writing, choice of teapot, etc.).

Writers, again and again, describe the experience of writing as an experience of external inspiration, much like historical descriptions of religious revelation. Is block not with writing, not with the writer, not with the unwritten, but with being numb, dumb, blind, bland and deaf to the glens and gardens?

Phaedrus 245a

Let divine madness take hold.

But they who without the divine madness come to the doors of poetry, confident that they will be a good poet by expert knowledge, meets with no success. And the poetry of the sane person vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired mad-person.

Those of us who write in the grip of divine madness will always outshine the beige university professor.

Thank you Socrates, through Plato.

ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ἄνευ μανίας Μουσῶν ἐπὶ ποιητικὰς θύρας ἀφίκηται, πεισθεὶς ὡς ἄρα ἐκ τέχνης ἱκανὸς ποιητὴς ἐσόμενος, ἀτελὴς αὐτός τε καὶ ἡ ποίησις ὑπὸ τῆς τῶν μαινομένων ἡ τοῦ σωφρονοῦντος ἠφανίσθη.

Writer’s block (ii)

The experience of writer’s block, the experience of being powerless to write, coerces the writer to alter their bonds to the world and her things, including the bond between writer and self. This pursuit can initiate both understanding and frustration. Within each is the power to write.

Before breakthrough there must be blockage.

block

“So the days pass and nothing is done”

Below, a quote from Conrad; three sentences in eight hours, all erased.

I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down to eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. There’s not a single word to send you. Not one! … sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming my wife. … So the days pass and nothing is done. At night I sleep. In the morning I get up with the horror of that powerlessness I must face through a day of vain efforts.

Conrad, J. 1898. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad

Is writer’s block a social condition?

Writer’s block, the inability to write which is unconnected to a lack of skill or indifference, is often characterised as an internal, individual condition. How then can we make sense of the benefit to writing after a change in our environment?

A change in our setting, atmosphere, tools or routine can often have a positive impact on both the quality and quantity of our writing process. Writing in a different location can mean we write more. Switching to a pencil from a keyboard can mean we write more deeply about our topic. Writing on a train or bus instead of a desk can forge new connections. A change in our environmental conditions can be a writer’s marvel.

This fact suggests writing, as an act of creation, is something other than the expressed ideas of a discrete cognitive process. Could this also be the case for writer’s block? Is there benefit to characterising writer’s block as a social or contextual response? Does such a change in perspective release us, as writers, from the burden of under-performance?

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

Is there reasoning in our idea of writer’s block?

 

  1. The writer has a tendency to write. Tendency is a union of desire (I want to) and capacity (I can).
  2. This tendency is visible in writing-process behaviour. E.g., constructing sentences, shaping notes into logical paragraphs, correcting draft work and so forth.
  3. Writing-process behaviours often, eventually, produce a consequence such as a publishable text, a novel, a poem, a letter, a journal.
  4. Writer’s block is presence of [1] and the absence of [2], [3] and/or [4].

 

If [1] is not present, writer’s block cannot be present.

 

Is there a conflict with the idea of writer’s block and the presence of capacity, the I-can-ness, of writing as an activity? Isn’t writer’s block a lack of capacity; an experience of I-cannot-ness?

Yet, if we remove capacity from [1] does that mean desire unfulfilled completes the picture of writer’s block? Could we say an oak tree has writer’s block if she desires to write but cannot?

Are there grades of capacity? Should we say that the capacity in [1] has been diminished in certain respects? I.e., the writer retains some capacities such as holding a pencil and directing language yet tacit elements of writing as an activity will not open or yield fruit.

Under what circumstances can capacity become and incapacity? Or is it that capacities can become dull?

Writer’s block (i)

Generally, writer’s block is described as the experience of being unable to write, despite the desire to write, wherein no other perceptible incapacities prevent writing. Some people claim writer’s block is a myth; that it is a form of self-delusion. Denial, however, is an unhelpful approach to a person experiencing writer’s block.

Writer’s block is often characterised as a type of suffering. It could, perhaps, be thought of as a type of pain. This view, of writer’s block as a type of pain, may have more efficacy than the usual psychological approach to writer’s block as a stress reaction.

We have a range of effective frameworks for understanding and managing pain. The experience of suffering, in contrast, is often left unattended and demoted as less critical than an experience of pain.

 

How writing rescues us from being dull and blind

Of the experience in writing phenomenology, van Manen says, “it is like falling into a twilight zone, where things are no longer recognizably the same, where words are displaced, where I can lose my orientation, where anything can happen.” A partial loss of self is how van Manen describes his experience of writing. Yet, if we wish to discuss this as one’s relationship to oneself, I think it is not an experience of loss but of suspension and adaptation. We are somewhere other than our Körper place. We are in the space of our Leib self; sensing and animated without the threats of material life and death.

Below is an example from one of Behnke’s phenomenological experiments in perceiving kinaesthetic affectivity. In simple terms, it is an observation made from a practice that creates a space of bodily openness. In this space intersubjective empathetic responses to other bodies can move from being anonymous, or ignored, to being seen and observed. When you read this passage, imagine Behnke gently walking around parts of her urban environment with an awareness of her self as a body and the bodies of nearby ‘anothers’. We enter the description as she is pushing open a door in readiness of walking through the doorway.

“On closer examination, however, one can begin to sense, for instance, how one’s hand is already holding a door open rather than letting it go, in a way whose timing is already coordinated with the movement of others who are about to go through the same door. Or one can feel the pressure of the shopping cart’s handle against one’s hands as one is already checking its motion to make way for another shopper even before consciously ‘‘steering’’ one way or another. (Behnke)

The push of your hand on a shopping trolley, or door-knob, in a named consciousness towards other nearby bodies she calls “interkinaesthetic civility” which “weaves a fabric of reciprocity”. Even without the complicated back-of-house phenomenological theory this description is beautiful and stands with strength on its own. How did Behnke achieve this? How does she write such insightful passages?

In describing a phenomenon we may not know what needs to be chosen and highlighted from the infinitude of experience until the choice is made. Such selections are felt in the process of writing. As we scrawl, one sentence another follows; a sentence is not an idea or meaning but a metaphor (literally a carry-over). As Ingarden insightfully saw, when we describe an aspect of an object we do not describe the object.  “In fact, it is quite the opposite. If the aspects were described, then what is represented in the work would be, not the objectivity that is to appear in them, but the aspects themselves… and the corresponding object would either totally disappear… or would belong to the work only as something that is indirectly represented”. Phenomenology as a practice of writing description is our path around anonymity, dull consensus and predictability to the phenomena as it essentially appears. We can begin to see the truths of the world not through observation but through written description and that is the practice of phenomenology.

 

[Buy me a coffee]

 

Behnke, E. A., 2008. Interkinaesthetic Affectivity: A Phenomenological Approach. Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 41, pp. 143-161.

Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

van Manen, M., 2002. Writing in the Dark: Phenomenological Studies in Interpretive Inquiry. London(Ontario): University of Western Ontario.

 

Sketches from phenomenology: Writer’s Block

Phenomenology is a philosophy as well as a practice. Some of phenomenology seeks to know what a thing is at its core, at its essence.

 

Phenomenology also, in my reading of Husserl et al, demands exegetic writing align ‘content’ and ‘experience’ to be genuinely phenomenological. This piece, therefore, requires and recognises the experience of both reading and writing within a reflection on the nature of writer’s block.

 

***

 

Drill: Imagine peeling the skin from a Royal Gala apple

 

A man sets out on a journey to a place he has never been before. Another man comes back. A man comes to a place that has no name, that has no landmarks to tell him where he is.

Another man decides to come back. A man writes letters from nowhere, from the white space that has opened up in his mind. The letters are never received. The letters are never sent.

Another man sets out on a journey in search of the first man. This second man becomes more and more like the first man, until he, too, is swallowed up by the whiteness. A third man

sets out on a journey with no hope of ever getting anywhere. He wanders. He continues to wander. For as long as he remains in the realm of the naked eye, he continues to wander. (Auster 1980)

Auster, in this passage from White Spaces is talking about writer’s block. About setting out, trying to set out, coming back having been nowhere.

 

Drill: Feed a page into a typewriter. Type. Pull the sheet out.

 

What if writing is not as we think it? This is convention—the writer, adorned in accoutrements, tempts moments to ‘create’. We build. We attach symbols to a surface. We lay down black marks that create meaning. Writing is assumed an active role while the page is mere support. What if we take writing as a process, that is, not what is written but the movement of writing itself as an experience, as a phenomenon?

 

Drill: Speak the following paragraph while also walking

 

Writing then becomes a different beast to the mind-centred capture of idea, to the scribe wielding symbolic patterns. Flusser argues that the gesture of writing is carving, taking away; from the first writing in 3100BCE, we pressed pictograms into palm-cupped Mesopotamian clay tablets.

 

Drill: cup your palm

 

If writing is subtractive, carving—what is being carved?

In the experience of writing, the carved is The Page.

In one type of phenomenological reduction, to find the thing itself, we can experiment by removing primary qualities of the thing until we reach the tipping point—until we cross the line where are our object ceases to be what it is.

Can we take away red and still have an apple? Yes. Thus an apple is not essentially red.

 

Drill: Sit down, write on paper

 

Writing is movement and movement needs space. The one thing we cannot remove from the page without losing the phenomenon is space. The Page is space. White space, silence, emptiness without which we can never move, never write.

What if writing is sculpting, carving space?

What then becomes of writer’s block?

 

[Buy me a coffee]

 

Sources

Auster, P., 1980. White Spaces. New York: Station Hill.

Flusser, V., 1991. Gestures. In: A Note on ‘The Gesture of Writing’ by Vilém Flusser and The Gesture of Writing, trans. Nancy A. Roth. pp. 25-41.

Husserl, E., 1952. Ideen zu einer reinen Phanomenologie und phanomenologischen Philosophie II. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, E., 1969. Ideas. General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. First Book.. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Husserl, E., 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Second Book. Dordrecht: Kluwer.