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Richard Nordquist

How Benchley Beat Writer's Block

By November 26, 2012

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It may sound paradoxical, but a critical stage of the writing process is the period spent not writing: that wall-gazing, head-scratching, often nerve-rattling time devoted to discovering something to say and finding the right words to say it. Rhetoricians call this stage invention. Some writers call it hell.

A master of the art of not writing was humorist Robert Benchley. During the 1920s and '30s, he was almost as famous for his well-lubricated spells of writer's block as for his comic essays in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. (See "How to Avoid Writing.") But according to his son, on at least one occasion Benchley found a way to outwit his block:

Once, he had been trying to start a piece but couldn't get it under way, so he went down the corridor to where a poker game was in progress, just to jolt his mind into starting up.

Some time later, he returned to his room, sat down to the clean sheet of paper in the typewriter, and pecked out the word "The." This, he reasoned, was as safe a start as any, and might possibly break the block. But nothing else came, so he went downstairs and ran into a group of Round Table people, with whom he passed a cheerful hour or so. Then, protesting that he had to work, he went back upstairs, where the small, bleak "The" was looking at him out of the expanse of yellow paper.

He sat down and stared at it for several minutes, then a sudden idea came to him, and he finished the sentence, making it read "The hell with it," and got up and went happily out for the evening.
(Nathaniel Benchley, Robert Benchley. McGraw-Hill, 1955)

For some professional advice on how to begin writing rather than how to avoid it, see Writers on Writing: Overcoming Writer's Block.

More About Overcoming Writer's Block:

Image: Robert Benchley (1889-1945)

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