Franz Kafka Agonized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Virtually Useless;” “Complete Standstill. Unending Torments” (1915)

No one sings as pure­ly as those who inhab­it the deep­est hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

- Franz Kaf­ka, 1920

Poor Kaf­ka, born too ear­ly to blame his writer’s block on 21st-cen­tu­ry dig­i­tal excus­es:  social media addic­tion, cell phone addic­tion, stream­ing video… 

Would The Meta­mor­pho­sis have turned out dif­fer­ent­ly had its author had access to a machine that would have allowed him to self-pub­lish, com­mu­ni­cate face­less­ly, and dis­pense entire­ly with typ­ists, pens and paper? 

Had Kaf­ka had his way, his friend and fel­low writer, Max Brod, would have car­ried out instruc­tions to burn his unpub­lished work—including let­ters and jour­nal entries—upon his death

Instead Brod pub­lished them.

How hor­ri­fied would their author be to read The New Yorker’s opin­ion that his jour­nals should be regard­ed as one of his major lit­er­ary achieve­ments? A Kaf­ka-esque response might be the mildest reac­tion war­rant­ed by the sit­u­a­tion:

His life and per­son­al­i­ty were per­fect­ly suit­ed to the diary form, and in these pages he reveals what he cus­tom­ar­i­ly hid from the world.

These once-pri­vate pages (avail­able in book for­mat here) reveal a not-unfa­mil­iar writer­ly ten­den­cy to ago­nize over a per­ceived lack of out­put:

JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writ­ing. When will it take me up again?

JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, vir­tu­al­ly use­less.

JANUARY 30, 1915: The old inca­pac­i­ty. Inter­rupt­ed my writ­ing for bare­ly ten days and already cast out. Once again prodi­gious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapid­ly than that which sinks in advance of you.

FEBRUARY 7, 1915: Com­plete stand­still. Unend­ing tor­ments.

MARCH 11, 1915: How time flies; anoth­er ten days and I have achieved noth­ing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is suc­cess­ful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am pow­er­less.

MARCH 13, 1915: Lack of appetite, fear of get­ting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote noth­ing yes­ter­day, that I keep get­ting far­ther and far­ther from it, and am in dan­ger of los­ing every­thing I have labo­ri­ous­ly achieved these past six months. Pro­vid­ed proof of this by writ­ing one and a half wretched pages of a new sto­ry that I have already decid­ed to dis­card…. Occa­sion­al­ly I feel an unhap­pi­ness that almost dis­mem­bers me, and at the same time am con­vinced of its neces­si­ty and of the exis­tence of a goal to which one makes one’s way by under­go­ing every kind of unhap­pi­ness.

Psy­chol­o­gy Today iden­ti­fies five pos­si­ble under­ly­ing caus­es for such inac­tiv­i­ty, and tips for sur­mount­ing them. It seems like­ly the fas­tid­i­ous, self-absorbed Kaf­ka would have reject­ed them on their breezy tone alone, but per­haps oth­er less per­snick­ety indi­vid­u­als will find some­thing of use: 

1. You’ve Lost Your Way

If you’re stalled because you lost your way, try the oppo­site of what you usu­al­ly do—if you’re a plot­ter, give your imag­i­na­tion free rein for a day; if you’re a freewriter or a pantser, spend a day cre­at­ing a list of the next 10 scenes that need to hap­pen. This gives your brain a chal­lenge, and for this rea­son you can take heart, because your bil­lions of neu­rons love a chal­lenge and are in search of synaps­es they can form.

2. Your Pas­sion Has Waned

Remem­ber, your writ­ing brain looks for and responds to pat­terns, so be care­ful that you don’t make suc­cumb­ing to bore­dom or sur­ren­der­ing projects with­out a fight into a habit. Do your best to work through the rea­sons you got stalled and to fin­ish what you start­ed. This will lay down a neu­ronal path­way that your writ­ing brain will mer­ri­ly trav­el along in future work.

3. Your Expec­ta­tions Are Too High

Instead of set­ting your sights too high, give your­self per­mis­sion to write any­thing, on top­ic or off top­ic, mean­ing­ful or trite, use­ful or fol­ly. The point is that by attach­ing so much impor­tance to the work you’re about to do, you make it hard­er to get into the flow. Also, if your inner crit­ic sticks her nose in (which often hap­pens), tell her that her role is very impor­tant to you (and it is!) and that you will sum­mon her when you have some­thing wor­thy of her atten­tion.

4. You Are Burned Out

You aren’t blocked; you’re exhaust­ed. Give your­self a few days to real­ly rest. Lie on a sofa and watch movies, take long walks in the hour just before dusk, go out to din­ner with friends, or take a mini-vaca­tion some­where rest­ful. Do so with the inten­tion to give yourself—and your brain—a rest. No think­ing about your nov­el for a week! In fact, no heavy think­ing for a week. Lie back, have a mar­gari­ta, and chill.

5. You’re Too Dis­tract­ed

Take note that, unless you’re just one of those rare birds who always write no mat­ter what, you will expe­ri­ence times in your life when it’s impos­si­ble to keep to a writ­ing sched­ule. Peo­ple get sick, peo­ple have to take a sec­ond job, chil­dren need extra atten­tion, par­ents need extra atten­tion, and so on. If you’re in one of those emer­gency sit­u­a­tions (rais­ing small chil­dren counts), by all means, don’t berate your­self. Some­times it’s sim­ply nec­es­sary to put the actu­al writ­ing on hold. It is good, how­ev­er, to keep your hands in the water. For instance, in lieu of writ­ing your nov­el:

Read works sim­i­lar to what you hope to write.

Read books relat­ed to the sub­ject you’re writ­ing about.

Keep a des­ig­nat­ed jour­nal where you jot down ideas for the book (and oth­er works).

Write small vignettes or sketch­es relat­ed to the book

When­ev­er you find time to med­i­tate, envi­sion your­self writ­ing the book, bring­ing it to full com­ple­tion.

Make writ­ing the book a pri­or­i­ty.

Addi­tion­al­ly, you may find some mer­it in enlist­ing a friend to pub­lish, I mean, burn the above-men­tioned jour­nals posthu­mous­ly. Just don’t write any­thing you would­n’t want the pub­lic to see.

Read author Susan Reynolds’ com­plete Psy­chol­o­gy Today advice for blocked writ­ers here.

Have a peek at Kafka’s Diaries: 1910–1923 here.

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

Franz Kaf­ka: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to His Lit­er­ary Genius

Meta­mor­fo­s­is: Franz Kafka’s Best-Known Short Sto­ry Gets Adapt­ed Into a Tim Bur­tonesque Span­ish Short Film

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine, cur­rent­ly appear­ing onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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