9/11, writer’s block, and creative rebirth
In a July column for NPR about the enduring meaningfulness of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for her life and work, Alice Hoffman revealed the following:
After 9/11, I experienced serious writer’s block. Like so many, I had lost faith in the future. If our world was so perilous, if buildings could tumble and planes fall from the sky, what was the point of writing? (“Bradbury’s Fiction Reignites an Author’s Faith,” July 30, 2009)
The column as a whole is arranged as a recounting of how her early love of Bradbury’s book later reemerged as a saving grace when she revisited it while she was blocked and found that it inspired her all over again (and was instrumental in giving rise to her 2003 post-apocalyptic opus, Green Angel).
This is all quite striking to me, since I, too, have a personal story of creative block and anguish related to September 11, 2001. My Divinations of the Deep was well into planning and production with Ash-Tree Press when 9/11 happened. Moreover, on the day the towers fell I was three weeks into my high school teaching career, and I spent that day and the next few weeks dealing with the general fallout among my students and the school community (as well as among my family, friends, and everybody else; we were all shell-shocked, as I’m sure you were, too).
I distinctly remember sitting in my empty classroom during my lunch break on that fateful day, having been occupied all morning by my upset students and my own horror at the televised carnage, and experiencing a sinking sense of futility about my authorial endeavors. Of course I had been quite pleased for several months to have my first book in the works, but the impact of the unfolding horrific events shattered my little emotional bubble like a cannon ball shot through a glass house. Thinking about, and watching the ubiquitous footage of, all that death and destruction in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, and feeling my petty personal concerns dwarfed by those awful events with their equally awful magnitude, made me feel pretty damned useless and silly for having put all that personal emotion into such a pitifully trivial thing as writing horror stories.
A better recipe for creative death cannot be conceived. To feel even for a moment that your artistic inclinations — not your actual work, which may well be minor and/or in need of substantial revision, but the very seat of your creative drives and passions — is useless and trivial is the surest way in all creation to send your unconscious self, which is of course identical with that artistic center, plunging into a self-protective coma from which it may well never awaken.
So I, like Alice Hoffman — like, I’m sure, legions of additional writers — suffered from writer’s block in the wake of 9/11. I couldn’t begin to write fiction, or even, for awhile, nonfiction, without feeling instantly wretched, dried out, and vaguely sick. Pretty soon the phenomenon moved inward, and began affecting even the birth of ideas in my psyche, which all emerged stillborn. I lost what could have been several good stories that way.
(In the “additional writers” category, consider David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars, who after 9/11
just sat there, stumped, for unproductive days that dragged on into unproductive weeks and months.
“I became paralyzed as an artist with writer’s block,” Guterson says outside a Bainbridge cafe. “I was totally absorbed in the real world, the politics, the history, the news, and I just couldn’t find my way into the fictional world. . . . When I finally could return to writing the novel, it was in fits and starts. It was a real struggle. I lost a whole year, and it was not a good year. . . . I assumed there were other people, other artists in a similar state. (“David Guterson emerges from post-9/11 writer’s block,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 27, 2003
Then consider the case of K.D. Lang, who told an interviewer just last year that “Yes, 9/11 did actually have an impact on my writing. It was just so hard to fathom writing pop songs at that point.”)
Ms. Hoffman got over her block more quickly than I got over mine, as witnessed by the fact of Green Angel‘s 2003 publication date. My own fiction writing activities went dead for a period of years (and it wasn’t for lack of Bradbury, who has always been a front-and-center presence with me).
Lately, over the last year and two, the inner fiction works have sputtered back into motion, for reasons known only to my secret self, which has apparently decided it’s okay to lift its head again and have a cautious look around. Maybe it will share some of those reasons with me some day. For now, “Hello, world,” as they say. After a several-year hiatus, who knows where this might lead.