5-Minute Memoir is exactly what it sounds like—a personal essay on some facet of the writing life, be it a narrative or a reflection, pensive, touching or hilarious. Enjoy this installment from Steven Rowland.
I’ve recently suffered a prolonged period of writer’s block. At least I think I have. A quick straw poll among fellow professionals about the condition elicited a mixed bag of responses. It doesn’t exist, said some. Absolutely the worst thing to strike a writer, said others. You can’t afford to have writer’s block with creditors beating down your door, said others still.
My own feelings remain in the shadows. I will say that over the last 15 years I’ve begun and subsequently abandoned four books. I will also say that often I’ll sit down to begin a freelance article—more often than not, a freelance article chronically overdue—and after five or 10 or 30 minutes of staring at a blank screen decide that no, actually, I have something much better to do. Whether that better thing to do is make a sandwich, buy a new notebook, call a friend or conduct some banana-sharp “research” on the Internet is almost immaterial. The point is, most of the time I’ll sit down to write—a way of making a living that has served me well for many years—and do almost anything but. So far, so predictable.
Laziness? Writer’s block? A lack of inspiration? There have been acres written on it. Other writers will tell you that you just need to be more relaxed or more panicked or more something in between. Or that you need to punish yourself, indulge yourself, go for a walk, lock yourself in a room.
A couple of months ago, my brother offered some advice that stuck: “You should do what Hunter S. Thompson did—write out the whole of The Great Gatsby. Apparently it helped him to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
When I found myself yet again determined to start and finish a book without abandoning it, but yet again spending hours, then days, weeping at a blank screen instead, I decided to give his advice a whirl. I picked up Gatsby. “In my younger and more vulnerable years …” I began, and just ploughed on, the following days and nights becoming something of a maniacal blur as I hammered away at my keyboard, copying out page after page.
You should have seen it. It was beautiful: a symphony of sweat and endeavor and inspiration that resulted almost immediately in curing my condition. When it came to working on my own book, the material just poured out, the words jus—Oh, who am I kidding?
Certainly nothing inspirational. The exercise felt worthless. Did Hunter S. Thompson really do this? Was he a fool? Was I? Rather gratefully I found an article that reported that he would just copy pages of it—not the whole thing—to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way.
So I changed tack. Prior to beginning the day’s work, I would write out a page or two, and focus on what I was doing, rather than mechanically bashing it out. I began not only to get a feel for Fitzgerald’s pace and rhythm, but to understand why Thompson did it. It frees up the mind, sharpens the ear and gets one into the practice of just writing. My writer’s block—or whatever it was—evaporated.
Will carrying on with this help me write a book as celebrated as The Great Gatsby? Doubtful. In fact: No chance.
But it helped me. And when you’re stuck in the abyss of nonwriting, just having your fingers move can mean the world. … Assuming you don’t take it all too far. If I can avoid turning up in Las Vegas with a trunk full of mescaline, I should be good.
Steven Rowland is a journalist and flower-bed builder based in London and Mallorca. This isn’t as odd or as glamorous as it sounds, but it almost is.
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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.