A dear friend of mine swears by her “units.” She organizes her thinking/writing/teaching life into a series of 45-minute units that collectively add up to something like a productive day. I marvel at her steadfast commitment to her system and ability to balance the aforementioned demands under which we both labor and commiserate. For the writer hoping to carve out space and time for writing the calls, crises and distractions that require our attention are ever present. These last few years my own search for steady academic work has made a writerly life near impossible.
And yet, it turns out that I actually do quite a bit of writing. I edit job letters, compose sample syllabi, rephrase statements of teaching philosophy, rearticulate research statements and write multi-paragraph emails to mentors asking for letters of recommendation alongside detailed instructions for submitting said letters.
If the above list fails to describe a “writerly” life to you, I’m not surprised. Perhaps the misrecognition at play here speaks as much to the fantasies of writing as to the realities of limited time. “The writer” is an overdetermined object of desire, a figure that even Roland Barthes, essayist extraordinaire, saw fit to unpack in “The Writer on Holiday” and “Novels and Children.” Let the following serve then as a series of scenes meant to interrogate such fantasies while pointing towards a repaired relationship with the blank page/screen.
To write about writing being “blocked,” I mean both thwarted and compartmentalized. Thwarted by professional and personal demands of various stripes. Compartmentalized by necessity. This is the nexus that all writers confront.
Recently seeing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) on the big screen, I found myself paying attention to the weather more—the persistent pelting of snow morphing into a whiteness that envelopes everything in its path. I also took stock of the film’s extreme rendering of the trials of writing.
When it becomes apparent that the Overlook Hotel will not offer Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance the productive respite he seeks, his unraveling takes off quickly. As we come to learn, Jack cannot write because he cannot effectively compartmentalize. The world has been blocked out for him (more or less) but he cannot block out his world (demons and desires) long enough to write. The violence and bloodletting that subsequently ensue are the closest Jack ever gets to releasing his “blocks.” Witness the iconic images of blood rushing into the film’s mise-en-scène—rendered as hotel still life—and out towards the camera. I cannot help but think of Ernest Hemingway’s quip “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
These are masculine as much as they modernist visions. Kubrick we should remember was a notoriously insular artist. Did he recognize himself in Jack? Jack Nicholson’s performance is so broad and campy it is hard to know what Kubrick might have seen in the novel’s version of Jack Torrance. Still, we do know from Diane Johnson, the writer who worked on the screenplay with Kubrick, that the shooting script was a series of minimalist descriptions of scenes and that Kubrick found it easier to adapt from novels versus writing original screenplays. If Kubrick found others to do the heavy lifting of writing, he also noticeably articulated his ideas in a writerly argot. As Johnson recalls, “We talked about books. I remember being struck with how literary he was, how much he had read and how his approach was very writerly. He would talk about things in writerly, critical terms that I don’t really hear filmmakers use that much. So we had these nice sort of booky conversations.”
In Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) we hear writers struggle with their work. Yale offhandedly references his unfinished book on Eugene O’Neill as rationale against having children. Isaac, Allen’s avatar, dismisses his comedic scripts for television while searching for just the right tone for his own book. In the film’s opening minutes, we humorously learn that Chapter 1 just cannot get off the ground. But Diane Keaton’s Mary feels little angst about her own endeavors. She may be as ambivalent as the other leads in the film when it comes to love, sex or the “authentic” self. But before her typewriter she is crystal clear. She has a job to do. In a scene in the film’s second act, Isaac caringly berates Mary for wasting her talents on writing novelized versions of screenplays while she types diligently away. Only a phone call from Yale, asking to meet her, interrupts her writerly flow.
In finding myself drawn to depictions of writing on film, I take note of my interest in moments that foreground the labor involved in what is usually imagined to be one of the most privileged of activities—seen almost as non-work. Films that feature writing gravitate towards the writer as neurotic or anguished figure, even if for sympathetic laughs as in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). Rarely are we exposed to the ordinary affects and thoughts that motivate the typing and turning of pages. Only the hustle of the cinematic newsroom captures something of the everyday, deadline driven anxiety meets thrill many of us collectively work under.
Against the vision of the tortured writer, celebrated by romantics and modernists alike, we need to reclaim a different set of imaginaries. If feminism has taught us anything, it is that double, triple and quadruple shifts constitute the quotidian blocks under which most people labor on the planet. Audre Lorde once argued that the beauty of poetry’s economy was that it could be written on the fly, sitting on the subway or in between shifts. Novels, peer reviewed articles and poems are cut from different writerly cloth to be sure. Yet all train the writer in the necessary art of blocking out the world. If Manhattan’s Mary makes time for both eros and writing surely we can get down to brass tacks.
–Jason Alley: Into both early and late Godard.