When you have writer’s block, is it okay to read instead of write?
I liked what Book Country members had to say in response to Molly‘s recent post on the “How do you break out of writer’s block?” thread. Atthys Gage reassured Molly that reading “cannot help but make you a better writer,” and Carl E. Reed expanded the list of acceptable procrastination techniques to include “cooking, physical exercise, dreaming . . . Everything is grist for the mill when you’re a writer.”
Molly, Atthys, and Carl are onto something. In the book WE WANTED TO BE WRITERS: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Michelle Huneven (with whom I studied in graduate school) says that she starts the writing day by reading “something–usually fiction I admire–until I get itchy and want to make fiction myself.” Over the weekend, I tried this, spending a big chunk of time relaxing with a few historical novels. I felt guilty reading instead of writing, but by Sunday evening, I’d not only read two really fabulous books, I’d also logged 5,000 words on my WIP. Not bad!
Bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin definitely endorse reading as a cure–and not just for writer’s block. THE NOVEL CURE is their compendium of books-as-cures for all manner of ailments: low self-esteem, unemployment, and, of course, writer’s block. The authors recommend I CAPTURE THE CASTLE (by Dodie Smith) for ridding yourself of writer’s block. Here’s why they chose it:
The remedy for writer’s block inflicted upon the novelist father in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is nothing short of genius. But–darn it–to tell it would be to give away one of the plot twists in the unutterably charming novel. Mortmain, as he is known by his second wife, Topaz, achieved great critical success with an experimental novel called Jacob Wrestling. But he has not been able to put pen to paper since an unfortunately incident involving a next-door neighbor who foolishly intervened when Mortmain brandished a cake knife at his first wife while they were having tea in the garden. He ended up spending three months behind bars, writer’s block set in, and the family has been penniless ever since.
While Topaz and the three children struggle to feed and clothes themselves and the ruined castle crumbles around them, Mortmain drifts around reading detective novels and the Encyclopaedia Britannica and staring into space. He’s ditched all his friends and has more or less stopped talking to his family. Eventually Rose, the elder daughter, can stand it no more and decides to marry her way out of poverty. But the younger, wiser narrator daughter Cassandra soon realizes it’s time to force their father’s writing hand. Her plan–which involves a Freudian regression to the moment at which the block began–works to a T.
Sufferers of this unfortunate condition should not necessarily attempt to copy Cassandra’s cure. It is somewhat extreme and in any case would not work with your own consent. But read between the lines of this book and a fuller, more complete picture of how Mortmain’s block dislodges will emerge. As you read, gather the things you need around you: a person of like mind, someone to do the cooking, and yes, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Feedback on the success rate of this remedy would be greatly appreciated.
From THE NOVEL CURE: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Reprinted by arrangement of The Penguin Press, a Division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright 2013 by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkind.