Working while blocked

Continuing from “The condition of being blocked”

A creative block does not have to end a work before it begins, but it can mean that something is wrong. The most disappointing response to a block is to take it literally, to believe that there is really nothing there worth pursuing. Where would this “there” be? The more reasonable response is to understand the block as a signal, a pause imposed from elsewhere for undetermined reasons–a signal which has to be taken seriously, but interpreted. Something about the specific makeup of this work, at this time, under these conditions–something about it is not right, and so it can’t continue.

If one interprets the block provisionally, as a sign to reassess and work in a new way, then it is possible to work while blocked. The decision to change one’s working pattern, however slight, is already a temporary release from the block. The act of assessing the new situation is itself a novel, creative act.

One of the most extraordinary recent examples I have seen of what can come from working while blocked, to working with a block rather than against it, is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series. An article in the New Republic describes the origin of the six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical books. It began with a writer’s block that intensified when he became a parent:

Between child-rearing duties, Knausgård was trying to reckon with his relationship with his father in a new novel, but it was falling flat on the page. He saw an evasiveness in his work that gnawed at him. He didn’t believe in it. Maybe he didn’t believe in fiction at all. “He was so desperate and full of pain,” [Knausgård’s friend Geir Angell Øygarden] says.

In early 2008, Knausgård decided to try something different. He would cast aside carefully crafted phrases and narrative arcs and just write plainly about his life. No one will be interested, he thought—and his British publisher at the time was not—but it was something to do to break the dam. He recalls, “I wanted to just say it, you know. As it is.”

On the mindset that kept him writing:

As he began what would become My Struggle, Knausgård wrote in a combination of naïveté and willful denial about how the people close to him might respond. “I was kind of autistic,” he has said. “I didn’t think of the consequences.” He never imagined that all of Scandinavia would be talking about what he was typing. But as he wrote the passage about his grandmother, describing her grease-stained dress and ruined mind, he felt the risk: “ ‘Can I write this?’ I thought. There I knew.”

And the pace that kept him ahead of the block:

Knausgård had completed only two volumes of My Struggle when Book One appeared. The plan was to somehow bring out all six within a year. “It was really crazy!” [Knausgård’s editor Geir Gulliksen] recalls. But Knausgård wanted to be “under the knife of the deadline,” and Gulliksen agreed it was good for him, as an author who was “nearly always living very near some kind of a writer’s block.”

The routine:

Knausgård holed himself up and tried to avoid all newspapers, television, and radio. He instructed his friends not to tell him about any of the coverage, even the ecstatic reviews. He woke up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. and wrote till 7:00 a.m., when he took the kids to school if it was his turn, then returned to his desk until it was time to pick them up at 4:00 p.m. In that span, he could produce 20 pages. At one point, he stayed up for 24 hours and wrote 50 pages about his early days with Linda, trying to capture the rush of feeling. He wrote the fifth volume, 550 pages long, in eight weeks. Speed was a way of keeping himself free. He needed to not think about what he was doing.

What started out as an exercise became the strangest of popular phenomenona (as literature, what even was this?), not just in Scandinavia but worldwide. A few thousands pages of the most unremarkable, unheroic, almost diary-like narrative, written under a manic artificial deadline, were in a very real sense a trick, a temporary measure, an endlessly extended morning ritual to get one’s head right–all to help the author escape his block so that he could do something else.


Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle (Min kamp), 2009-2011. English

Tags creativity working block