Writer’s Block and the Thirst for Inspiration

Writer's block can be an obstacle for writers as they age, and a lack of inspiration may not be an obvious cause.

| May 2014

  • Writer's block is a common foe for creative types, and in this case, the author wonders if it is due to the slowing down of the creative motor.
    Photo by Fotolia/villorejo
  • Collected and edited by Janet Burroway, "A Story Larger than My Own" follows the trials and thoughts of women writers as they trace the highs and lows of their creative careers.
    Cover courtesy University of Chicago Press

When a writer finds success, he or she is also visited by the pressure to sustain that success, and with that a constant pursuit of new stories, characters, and themes. A Story Larger than My Own (University of Chicago Press, 2014) explores the frequent crises of confidence faced by women writers as they approach middle age. Janet Burroway collects the thoughts of writers who are all over the age of sixty, and shares their challenges of a changing publishing scene and the difficulty of combining writing with the ordinary stuff of life—family, marriage, and jobs. In this selection from "What I Know," Hilma Wolitzer writes about continuing to find inspiration as she ages, and a severe bout of writer's block that threatened to derail her writing career.

One of the perks of the writing profession—if you don’t go on television to plug your book or plaster your photo on the back cover—is that nobody really has to know how old you are or what you look like. Your wardrobe doesn’t matter, either. You never even have to change out of the pajamas in which you may work, as I do, going directly from bed to desk each morning (or, as Amy Tan puts it, “from dream to dream”). Sometimes, lost in a fictional universe, as a writer or a reader, I’ll be surprised by my reflection on the way to the kitchen or the bathroom. So that’s who I’ve become! Yet an author’s age is often mentioned, if not stressed, in reviews and discussions of books, especially those written by women “of a certain age,” that coy euphemism for old.

I’ve always been aware of the limits and advantages of a writer’s particular age. At seven or eight, I sat under the kitchen table, eavesdropping on the grownups and storing that thrilling stuff—the coming attractions of life—like a squirrel gathering acorns for winter. That is, until someone noticed me and they all quickly lapsed into Yiddish or Pig Latin—“Ixnay, the idkay!” Still, there was my own experience to mine. Flannery O’Connor once famously said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I believe she was referring to writers and their material. But all I wrote back then was the usual juvenilia about the seasons, as if I’d invented them: “Spring has come all over again / Out of the houses come women and men / Young and old with a joyous cheer / Did not you know that spring is here?” I have no idea where that odd locution came from—no one I knew in Brooklyn sounded like that.

At twelve, advised by an English teacher to write about what I knew, but already prevaricating (like a true preadolescent), I penned verse about being blind, or a refugee, or an unwed mother. In my twenties and thirties, mired in domesticity, I wrote domestic stories in which Jell-O appeared almost as frequently as it did at my dinner table. The first of those stories to be published was called “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.” Taking that English teacher’s advice, at last! And with a first novel in print at forty-four, I was sometimes billed as the “Great Middle-Aged Hope.”

Now, in my eighties, and with a photo to prove it on the back of my latest book, age has become both a positive and negative factor in my career. Isn’t that great—she’s still working! But who wants to read something written by somebody’s grandmother? As science extends longevity—there will soon be more of us than of them—society remains stubbornly ageist, ravenous for the newest, youngest best thing. And although we’re gaining on them in numbers, those kids keep coming up like chorus girls, in all the arts.

Actress Estelle Parsons, who first appeared on stage when she was six years old and is still going strong almost eight decades later, doesn’t feel displaced by younger actors because she’s “still able to inhabit characters from sixteen to one hundred and five.” Novelists, of course, have similar freedom. We can all be ingénues or ancients in our minds and on the page.

11/20/2014 6:41:45 AM

Every writer needs to find inspiration in order to produce inspired writing. I suppose, inspiration comes from living, watching, listening, and thinking for writing. http://www.courseworkwriters.com/essay.html http://johngreenbooks.com

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