Photograph: cc Lisa Jane Persky
When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I'm sure I'm floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principle? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?
— Flaubert, letter to George Sand
Though I don't think of myself, touch wood, as a blocked writer, I will admit that the spells of sputter and balk — of hesitate, delete, and pause — have increased over the last decade, and the anxiety that is their shadow has grown accordingly. This is painful, as the vocation has over the years become ever more identified with the inner life. I watch myself closely. I see that even in productive periods, when I feel I am making honorable headway on some project and have earned the right to exist, the day's work seems to take more build-up — me trying to maneuver myself into the right "state" — and the intervals between good sessions get longer and longer. At the same time, I believe that I am, by whatever personal standards, a better writer than I was when I had no such anxieties. The radius of my available experience is greater than it has ever been. I understand things more deeply.
But tell that to the man mired in a thought-trance in front of his illuminated screen. Coach and lecture myself as I will, it avails not. No smart idea, no heaps of notes, and certainly no earned satisfaction from previous work can hold a plea when I am here, undisturbed and caffeinated, and the spark just will not cross the gap. It's all irrational, and I know it works both ways. Aches and money woes and the aggravations of an over-crowded calendar are as nothing whenever the signal comes clear and I feel the agitating stir of words and phrases.
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. Alone at my attic desk, catching the flow of words, when the flow is there to be caught — or generating it when it is there to be generated — I break with my more tentative self, claim some more necessary seeming "I." The change has everything to do with finding words and their sequence. The joy prolongs itself for a short time after I stop — a resonance, a psychic afterglow — then it tapers away, the other life resumes. But I am already thinking toward the next occasion.
The memory of the best of the best writing moments haunts, most grievously when the desire is there but the impulse is absent, or when the impulse flickers and sputters but doesn't catch, when the words — which I believe are right there, as if on the other side of the sheerest membrane — will not come. The good ru...