Sven Birkerts on Writer’s Block

Sven Birkerts has an interesting piece up at the Los Angeles Review of Books on writer’s block—or, as he makes the finer distinction, writer’s expressive frustration. He writes very nicely about the writing process, about what it is there that’s wonderful and validating, and I have no beef with that at all. But I find it a bit curious that someone who writes for a living, as does Birkerts, would set himself up as such a slave to the muse. Granted, “ass in chair” is the lowest common denominator of writing philosophy, but I’ve always thought it was a pretty good one. Not necessary foolproof, and maybe not always directly resulting in a work of art, but certainly a way of producing something serviceable that can be worked with down the line.

I get that Birkerts here is making a case for the way a writer needs to forge that connection with his own style. And I think he has the idea of style just right, but its attainment seems a bit… painful. Though he renounces the idea of the “one path,” the one he walks seems awfully fraught with wrong turns.

Style, I’ll define here, for my selfish purposes, as the verbal/lexical confirmation that I’m in the right relation to my impulses, my so-called material. “The right words in the right order”: style is the outer face of the inner impulse, its realization…. And what an arduous business it is, getting to the “proper,” the “right.”

I’m not saying that writing—writing decently and well, forget about writing beautifully to make the angels sing—is easy. If it were, there’d be a lot more content here, for one thing. But positing it as hit or miss seems to be unfair to oneself as a craftsman of any proficiency. Perhaps it’s that Birkerts sees writing as more analogous to painting—you consider, make your mark, erase, consider, make your mark. Whereas I always think of sculpture, and not the kind you add onto but the kind you take away: stone, wood. You take a big chunk of stuff and get rid of what doesn’t belong. Or maybe clay is the better metaphor, because you can still append, but much of it involving taking away what’s wrong to get to what’s right. Maybe his scenario is really about being a professional writer, as opposed to a grad student/blogger/hobbyist; I may sit down to write pretty much every day, but I don’t do it for eight hours at a shot, five or six days a week. I’ve spent entire days writing, but it’s still not what puts rice and beans on the table, and for that I should probably be grateful.

Writing can’t be planned for or predicted, and when it happens, when the surge begins, it brings a satisfaction like nothing else. There are finer sensualities, sure, and basic emotions that give joy or connection when released, but as far as giving me a sustained sense that this is who I am, this is what I do, a full-fathom immersion in writing is the ultimate verification.

I relate to this completely except for the first phrase. Good writing can’t be planned or predicted, maybe, but it can be marched toward, pushed and pulled and coaxed until it takes shape. And in the course of his essay, he does get around to that, if a bit grudgingly:

I can, if my stars are kind, write myself into my style — recovering a trace of the original inspiration and then my rhythm, my phrasings. I can recover flow, resume my position, retrieve my verbal relation to my subject matter. There is the confidence that the launch of a sentence already contains its destination. I feel myself moving toward something that already exists around the next bend in the road.

And that, to me, is alchemy enough to celebrate, and not to begrudge at all.

(Cartoon is “Writer’s Block III” by the consistently marvelous Tom Gauld.)


1 Comment to Sven Birkerts on Writer’s Block

  1. Tamaz's Gravatar Tamaz
    December 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    No problem with this fellow’s view of writing at all, although for his ‘style’ I would substitutute form content and structure; getting that right is the essence of it all, and very many writers in the last twenty years may have been better off being more alive to this requirement.
    It seems to me that this cannot be achieved by sitting in a room with ‘ass in chair'; it is a mixture of a thousand different factors, and luck is one of those factors.
    When Joyce decided to expand what was an originally planned Dubliners short story about a ‘Mr Hunter’ into a day in the life of Dublin, there was a lifetime’s thought behind that decision, but luck also played its part. Once that deceptively simple decision was made, and seen to be the only right decision that could be made, in one sense “Ulysses” thereafter wrote itself, because it provided the ideal vessel for Joyce to say what he wanted to say i.e he found the exact form, content and structure that he needed to find, or, to quote from the above:
    “There is the confidence that the launch of a sentence already contains its destination. I feel myself moving toward something that already exists around the next bend in the road.”
    That is really well said.

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