Joseph Conrad on a truly awful case of writer’s block

“I sit down for eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all.”

Welcome to the 31st issue of Subtle Maneuvers, which was written before the distressing news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at 87 last Friday. For those rightfully seething over the coming political battle to determine her replacement, may I recommend last week’s issue on Rei Kawakubo and the “energy of anger.”


Joseph Conrad (1857–1924)

This year has been a difficult one for a lot of obvious reasons. An added source of misery for me these last several months has been my inability to write a sample chapter for a new nonfiction book proposal that I’ve been putting together. No matter how I tried to approach this chapter, I just couldn’t seem to get started. And then once I did get started, I just couldn’t seem to make it work. It was awful.

Throughout this time, not surprisingly, I’ve been keenly interested in reading about other writers’ blocked periods. One of the best descriptions that I’ve run across is from a letter that Joseph Conrad wrote on March 29, 1898. Here, the 40-year-old author is apologizing to his editor for failing to deliver the promised next installment of his serialized novel The Rescue:

I am ashamed of myself. I ought to have written to you before but the fact is I have not written anything at all. . . . I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day—and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. There’s not a single word to send you. Not one! . . .

I ask myself sometimes whether I am bewitched, whether I am the victim of an evil eye? . . . I assure you—speaking soberly and on my word of honour—that 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. It’s no joking matter. . . . 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.

It me! Or it was me until last week, when I finally turned in my book proposal with the completed sample chapter!!! I can’t express what a relief this was, and I’m hoping to be able to share more about this new book project with you all soon.

As for Conrad, he too eventually overcame the case of writer’s block described above, though before long he was onto the next one. “My head feels as if full of sawdust,” he complained five months later, in August 1898. “Of course many people’s heads are full of sawdust—the tragic part of the business is my being aware of it.”

Indeed, Conrad always seemed acutely aware of the suboptimal condition of his mental processes. “My brain reduced to the size of a pea seems to rattle about in my head,” he wrote in July 1900. “I can’t rope in a complete thought; I am exhausted mentally and very depressed.” These laments were so regular that Conrad sometimes wondered whether he should “be quit of this scribbling life” entirely, but that wasn’t really an option either. As he wrote in an 1899 letter, “I simply dare not leave my table; I must go on and wait for more fortunate days.”

Joseph Conrad in 1904. All quotes above from The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume 2, 1898–1902.

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Going forward, I’m devoting the last newsletter of each month to an advice column. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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