In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee offered this remedy for writer's block:
You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that's where you've been getting. What do you do? You write, "Dear Mother." And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the "Dear Mother" and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.
(John McPhee, "Draft No. 4." The New Yorker, April 29, 2013)
Though I hadn't heard of McPhee's method when I was in grad school (many years ago), that's when I first applied it. Unable to get started on a critical essay on Saul Bellow, I pushed aside a stack of note cards and began describing my frustrations in a letter to a close friend. By page three of the letter, I was discussing Bellow's rhetorical strategies, and by midnight I had slapped together an adequate first draft--with all the "whimpering and whining" left out.
Sometimes the magic works.
For more advice on how to defeat writer's block, see these three articles:
In the early decades of the 19th century, the most popular grammar textbook was Lindley Murray's English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795). It sold millions of copies, ran through countless editions, and bored the life out of several generations of American and British schoolchildren.
In a lecture delivered in 1868, J.M.D. Meicklejohn (also a textbook writer) accused Lindley Murray of "taking all the pith and marrow out of the English language":
As for grammar, . . . one might think that some intellectual Herod had been the compiler of most of the published treatises; and that his object was the hopeless bewildering of youthful brains, and the final snuffing out of youthful intellectual light. Yet even grammar might be made full of what artists call colour, if we chose to study the best way of setting it forth. Certainly that way is not to be found in Lindley Murray; with his dull rules rattling against the mind, like dry bones; without a morsel of flesh to cover their anatomy.
("Plain English." Reprinted in All the Year Round, August 8, 1868)
Meicklejohn went on to say that, as a maker of "grammars meant not to be understood," Murray was responsible for the "headaches, confusion of mind, moral prostration, and personal disgrace" experienced by students throughout the English-speaking world.
The familiar challenge facing educators was to make the teaching of English "palatable and of easy digestion." Or as the Reverend William Fletcher had put it decades earlier, "to remove some of the thorns, briers, and rugged obstacles from the path of learning, that the tender feet of little ones may seldom have occasion to complain of the roughness of their way."
A teacher at Woodbridge Grammar School in Suffolk County, England, Fletcher set out to translate Lindley Murray's basic concepts ("too uninteresting to please in their crude and undigested form") into fables that would appeal to "such little masters and misses as might wish to be amused and instructed at the same time." The result was The Little Grammarian; or, An Easy Guide to the Parts of Speech, and Familiar Illustrations of the Leading Rules of Syntax: In a Series of Instructive and Amusing Tales (1828).
For the most part, the reverend's narrative method was to embed principles of grammar in lessons of piety and virtue. But on occasion he would startle his young readers with abrupt acts of violence and elements of the grotesque--as demonstrated by "The Robber and Little Ann," an odd parable about definite and indefinite articles. (The italics are Fletcher's.)
Some few years back, a poor man, living on one of the moors in the North of England, whilst busily employed in cutting turf, was cruelly beaten by an impious man, because he would not give him his watch and the little money he had in his pocket; indeed, so much was he injured, that he had only strength to crawl home on his hands and feet.
His little girl (about three years old) had been to visit him at his work as usual, and was asleep on a bed of heath at the time her father was attacked; but his cries awoke her just in time to catch a sight of the barbarous thief, as he turned away from the mangled and almost lifeless body of her parent. Poor little Ann cried most bitterly as she assisted her poor father in his efforts to reach home, which, after more than an hour's toil, he accomplished.
Now poor Ann's father was an honest industrious man, and much respected by his neighbours; therefore every one did all in his power to aid and assist him during his sickness. In the course of a month, he was able to limp from the bed to the fire-side, but he never recovered the entire use of his limbs, so cruelly he had been used by the wicked man on the moor. He could no longer carry the turf he cut; but an ass, given him by a friend, did that part of his toil for him, so that perhaps in the end, we might say, he was not a very great loser by his misfortune.
Well, a year or two passed away, and the barbarous thief remained undiscovered, when it happened, that on little Ann's return, one evening, from a public house, where she had been to carry home some work that her mother had done for the mistress of the house, she rushed into her father's hut in great affright, and called out, as she swooned away, "I have seen the man"; more she could not say for tears and faintness.
Her parents at first thought some man had frightened her on the road, as the evening was rather dark, and begged her to tell them who it was, but still she could not speak for terror and alarm. At length, her mother said to her husband, "Did you not hear her say the man? If she had said a man, I should have thought some silly fellow or other had been playing tricks with the child. Surely, John, she has not seen the man who lamed and robbed you?"
"I have, I have, mother," said little Ann, for her faintness was then nearly over; "and, if you run fast, you will see him at the Plough: he had just then paid his reckoning and was about to leave, when I ran home as fast as I could to tell you. Pray make haste, for I am sure you will be in time to take him."
The consequence was, that John hastened to the Plough as fast as his crippled limbs would enable him, and arrived there just in time to recognize and secure the man who had assaulted and robbed him, before he departed. The man was taken to prison; and in a few months received his trial, and was sent from England for life, to repent himself in toil in a distant land for the crimes he had wrought in his own.
Now, had little Ann used a instead of the in her alarm, the thief would have escaped before she had been able to tell her parents what she really meant: hence learn the great difference between a or an and the.
How effective was this curious tale in teaching "the great difference" between definite and indefinite articles? There's no way of knowing. Unlike Murray's English Grammar, Fletcher's Little Grammarian wasn't a bestseller, and the author never published a sequel.
But I am certain of two things. Many teachers still labor to convey the rudiments of grammar in ways that are "palatable and of easy digestion." And concocting lessons that are instructive and amusing at the same time remains a difficult job.
More Language Lessons From the 19th Century:
In our ever-expanding Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms, you'll find a name for . . .
- a sentence pattern containing two corresponding phrases or clauses, each one headed by the and expressing a comparative (the X-er . . . the X-er or the X-er . . . the Y-er): comparative correlative
- the syntactic process by which a subject-related quantifier (all, both, or each) can be separated from the subject and appear in more than one place in a sentence: quantifier floating
- the rhetorical practice of asking oneself a question and then immediately answering it: anthypophora
- verbs that occur together in a single verb phrase (e.g., "I'll run go get a taxi") without a marker of coordination or subordination: serial verbs
- a word (such as hopefully or media) that has undergone a marked change from one use to another and is likely to be the subject of dispute: skunked term
- a construction in which an independent word has the same role as an inflection (such as the use of the auxiliary will with another verb to form the future tense): periphrastic
- the "literaturization" of rhetoric: a shift in focus from public speaking to writing, from acts of persuasion to works of literature: letteraturizzazione
- a response (in spoken English and informal writing) made up of a subject and an auxiliary verb or modal (e.g., "I do"): short answer
More Words About Words: