The New York Times obituary of Joseph Mitchell heralded his work writing about average and eccentric folks, which he did well… until he didn’t. According to the obit:
If his name is not as widely known as it might have been, that is mostly because for the last three decades of his life, he wrote nary a word that anybody got to see. For years, he would show up at his tiny office at The New Yorker every day and assure his colleagues that he was working on something, but that it was not quite ready…. Whatever it was, nothing of any substance emerged from his typewriter after 1965 and his friends came to think of it as an exceptionally bad case of writer’s block.
The piece goes on to say that his editor suspected that he was plagued by perfectionism. After all, the janitor at The New Yorker cleaned reams of copy out of his wastepaper bin.
It’s tragic, really. If you haven’t read Up in the Old Hotel, do. It’s a carefully-curated collection of his work profiling unexpected characters. Mitchell sucks you in, grabs hold, and doesn’t let go until the last page.
So, what happened? Was it the infamous “writer’s block” that did him in?
I think writer’s block is a construct–a concept invented to allow talented writers an excuse for not finishing the work. Feeling stuck and stressed and overwhelmed and unmotivated occurs naturally in any creative profession. The fear of failing, of being ridiculed, of pouring your heart, soul, time, and talent into something that might be torn apart? Well, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
Crazy enough, perhaps, to stop writing altogether.
I’m guilty of this. I have a big project, a personal one rather than a client project, that I’ve backburnered time and time (and time and time) again. My
reason excuse could easily be, “Oh, man. I’m just blocked on this one.” But I know that’s not the case. I know that this is a personal project, and it means a lot to me. I know that, by writing, I risk criticism, ridicule, and burning at the stake.
Okay. Maybe not. Definitely not. But it feels like that, so I don’t write.
So, what does a writer do to overcome this? Well, first off, stop calling it “writer’s block” because you’re letting yourself off the hook.
Then, set yourself a good, solid goal. Note that I didn’t say a big, lofty goal. Just a good, solid one. Like, tell yourself you’re going to write 250 words toward your project each day. That’s not much–one page, double-spaced. You can do it. Heck, you could probably do more, but that’s not your goal. Stick with 250. Hit that word count, then save and close your document.
Do it again the next day and the next day and the next. Before you know it, your project will be up and running, sprinting toward the finish line.
Don’t let yourself claim a case of “writer’s block.” Do the work. Keep at it.
As for Joseph Mitchell, who knows, but we all would’ve been better off to have had more of his work–imperfect as it may have been.