A word about writer's block

Kevin Cowherd

September 14, 1990|By Kevin Cowherd

YOU WOULD BE surprised (or perhaps mildly taken aback) at the number of people who will corner a writer at a cocktail party and inquire -- even before he or she has a chance to rake a cracker through the onion dip -- about writer's block.

Writer's block is defined as that malady in which the writer's creative juices have seemingly dried from a great gushing torrent to a trickle.

The writer sits and stares at a blank piece of typing paper or word processor screen and can summon neither an interesting thought nor a clever phrase, soon convincing himself that it would be far better for all concerned if he abandoned the literary life for that job in the fish store, straightening the haddock and doling out half-pounds of boiled shrimp to appreciative customers.

For some reason, writer's block remains an endless source of fascination to the non-writing public, who envision it as a private nervous breakdown in front of, say, an IBM compatible, replete with sweaty brow, anguished wails of frustration and long pulls on a bottle of scotch.

(Note: It has just been suggested to me that this column is a perfect example of someone in the obvious throes of writer's block. Actually, my mind is brimming with many fascinating topics and ideas, which we will address at a later date.

(Really. Honest. Please don't look at me that way. It makes me very nervous.)

The truth of the matter is that very few reporters and columnists on a daily newspaper can afford the luxury of writer's block.

I have tried, on a number of occasions, to explain the concept of writer's block to various editors, who invariably growl: "Shut up and write. We gotta fill the paper with something."

Once, on my way out of the office, I went so far as to sing out: "Can't think of a topic today, boss. You know how it goes. We'll give it another shot tomorrow."

Oh, editors don't go for that. Not at all.

Hearing these words, their brows furrow and their lips settle into a tight little smile, such as you might make if seated next to a toddler on an airplane and the toddler suddenly threw up in your lap.

The conversation then turns toward the writer's medical coverage, the editor hinting that it better be damn good as the writer will soon be out of a job if he or she doesn't think of something to write, pronto.

It is at times such as these that the writer will -- off a resume to the fish store, inquiring about working conditions and whether one actually has to handle the haddock, or whether it is permissible to use tongs or have the customers "help themselves."

So that is what they think of writer's block on a newspaper. Not much, obviously.

Newspapers notwithstanding, however, it always struck me as somehow unfair that only writers are permitted to be "blocked."

Certainly it is hard to envision a neurosurgeon, poised with a bone saw in front of a patient's skull, suddenly throwing up his hands and crying out to a stunned surgical team: "What is wrong with me?! I can't even think of what the thalamus is connected to! Is it the whatchamacallit, the cortex? OH, IT'S NO USE! We'll have to do this tomorrow."

It is equally hard to imagine a chef freaking out on the recipe for sole amandine: "Is it 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs and 1 tablespoon of minced parsley, or the other way around? I CAN'T THINK!"

Maybe you see what I'm getting at here. Yet writers are permitted to engage in such histrionics all the time.

One method for combating writer's block was unveiled some years ago by a former colleague, whom we'll call "Ike."

Whenever he suffered from writer's block, Ike would push away from his typewriter, stand, take a deep breath and fetch a Schlitz "tall boy" from the refrigerator. Thirty-two ounces of liquid inspiration, he called it.

In truth, it seemed to do little for his prose, yet gave him a calmer outlook on life, especially by late afternoon when he was generally so calm as to be passed out atop his battered Smith-Corona.

From what I hear, he is now working in a fish store, straightening the haddock as well as fileting all manner of grouper, flounder, swordfish and the like.

All in all, it does not seem like a bad life. The store is doing very well and the perks are generous, particularly on Wednesdays when the store holds its "$4.99 Bucket o' Shrimp" extravaganza and the staff gets to take home all the leftovers.

I often wonder if they need any help.

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