It hit me late one night when I was in the bookstore after my girlfriend had locked me out of the house.
Suffering through the most devastating case of writer’s block I had ever had, I had somewhat rashly destroyed a little furniture. Then at Stacey’s insistence, I went down to retrieve the remnants of the nightstand I had hurled out the second story window. When I returned to the front door, I found it locked. Knowing that no amount of pleading, self-abasement or groveling would move her to open it, I decided to slink off to my refuge: the bookstore. I set off at a brisk pace, unconcerned that I was clad only in my Baudelaire pajamas and one slipper.
I nestled into the literature section, picking up a copy of the Diary of Franz Kafka for some inexplicable reason. I opened it at random:
August 15. Today I am not so completely protected and enclosed in my work as I was two years ago, nevertheless I have a feeling my monotonous, empty, mad bachelor’s life has some justification. I can once more carry on conversations with myself, and I don’t stare so into emptiness.
Thunderstruck, I stumbled backwards, dropping the diary and falling against a shelf of self-help books. The realization was like a white-hot whiffle bat slamming over my head: there must be an inherent dichotomy between writing and love. Clearly, Kafka felt most productive as a writer while living his “monotonous, empty, mad bachelor’s life.”
Working in this life style, he had forged a magnificent body of masterworks and indisputably established his genius. In contrast, since I had moved in with Stacey, I noticed that the rejection letters I was getting had taken on a surlier tone, and the greatest accomplishment I could boast was winning honorable mention in the “How Blistex Has Improved My Life” essay competition.
Things began falling in place in my mind to support my new theory. Dante never realized his love for Beatrice. Jane Austen never found her Mr. Darcy. Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine’s torrid affair left Rimbaud with a bullet hole in his wrist and Verlaine in the hoosegow for two years. Sylvia Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes…well, you know. Tennessee Williams’ relationship with Pancho Rodriguez survived Rodriguez’s attempt to run the playwright over with a car but not the flinging of his typewriter out the window. Yeats, spurned by the haunting Maude Gonne, later proposed to her daughter, who reportedly told him to “grow up.”
As I had fallen into the self-help section at the moment of my epiphany, I thought perhaps fate was guiding me toward some sort of solution. Scanning such titles as Ride Your Repressed Sexual Energy to the Top and Why Do I Get Gas When I Say I Love You?, I figured there would have to be something about writers and relationships, but there was nothing. I wondered how many of my fellow writers were at that moment roaming the streets in their Baudelaire pajamas, bereft of hope.
It struck me that the greatest writers seemed to have eccentric personalities singularly unsuitable for harmonious relationships. How often does one read the author biography in a great book and find a happily married, well-adjusted citizen? Usually the author suffered from mysterious nervous disorders or rare childhood maladies, was expelled from school, made suicide attempts in double digits, joined the communist party and was quickly thrown out, shacked up with a prostitute suffering from Tourette Syndrome, turned to smoking opium and swilling absinthe, voluntarily entered an asylum and emerged years later, a bedraggled lunatic cradling a bust of Nietzsche and spouting some incoherent philosophy, only to die ignominiously in front of a doughnut shop somewhere.
I wondered if this sort of suffering were a prerequisite for becoming a great writer. I wondered if my furniture-hurling were a prelude to more serious behavioral disturbances. If so, did this necessarily ensure I was on my way to becoming a celebrated literary icon or could I possibly wind up like the guy I always see downtown dressed like Rasputin and pushing a baby carriage?
All of this was, of course, beside the point. The real question, I realized, was this: was the apparent psychological instability of writers the result of the misery and frustration inherent in the writing process itself? Or was it the result of the social stigma of working at an occupation in which one could conceivably earn less than a cook at Hank’s Chuckwagon Smorgasbord? Were these the factors that made writers blue plate specials in the diner of love?
It occurred to me that I might gain some insight into the way in which the writing process affects the writer’s social self by examining the inner workings of a great writer’s mind as he worked. I hesitantly edged back to the Kafka diary and picked it up.
January 20. The end of writing. When will it take me up again? January 23. Again tried to write. Virtually useless. January 30. Complete standstill. Unending torments. February 2. Incapable of writing a line. February 5. Incapable of living with people, of speaking. Complete immersion in myself, thinking of myself. Apathetic, witless, fearful. I have nothing to say to anyone–never.
Slowly, I put the diary back on the shelf. It seemed the writing process at times made Kafka moody. I asked myself, “If I were a woman, would I want to go out on a date with Kafka? If so, what would I wear? No, I might go for coffee with him, but I definitely wouldn’t go to a movie or miniature golfing with him. I’d probably lean toward somber colors and go light on the make-up.”
How could the writing process have such a corrosive effect on a person’s social self? Was this typical of writers in general or was Kafka’s genius for portraying a dreamlike inner world symptomatic of a borderline psychosis? Was the giving of oneself over to the subconscious in the writing process a flirtation with madness and anti-social impulses?
I was suddenly overwhelmed. I realized I had to do something. I had to leave the bookstore for one thing because it was closing and the manager was warily asking me to go. I assured her I would put on my bathrobe and my other slipper the next time I came. But I knew I also had to do something about my dilemma.
“What about a disturbed writers singles association?” I proposed to myself as I hit the street. It would be revolutionary. It would be the only place where edginess, arrogance and vodka breath were considered social assets. I quickly abandoned this idea, however, after recalling that my one and only relationship with another writer had resulted in the incineration of my entire Hemingway collection after I had made an ill-advised remark about Virginia Woolf.
When I got out into the cold night air a new realization hit me: I was frigging nuts! There I was, stumbling around in my pajamas, freezing my ass off, all because that woman cared more about her crummy mahogany nightstand than my career. Why did I always run off and lick my wounds? After all, it was my house too, wasn’t it? Hadn’t I paid rent twice last year? Didn’t I keep the conversation intellectually stimulating when she was droning on endlessly about her boring job?
Maybe I needed to be more assertive. Perhaps that was the problem with most writers and our relationships; we were so engrossed in our imaginary worlds that our mates easily muscled the real power in the relationship away from us, all the while pretending to be enchanted by our ideas. Why hadn’t I seen it before? We writers were being ruthlessly exploited. What we needed was a militant political action committee with a paranoid legal apparatus. We could get Martin Sheen to stump for us on TV spots.
As I walked on in the cold, I realized that this idea, like many of my ideas, would be difficult to implement. First of all, it would be hard to explain to Stacy why I was borrowing the money. Secondly, of the two other writers I knew, one hated my guts, and the other was a hack who insisted I still owed him money although he had never paid me for my many incisive critiques of his work.
No, this would have to be a personal confrontation, with me standing in for all the oppressed writers of the world. I would march home and I would tell that woman in no uncertain terms that while it was true that I was often annoying, arrogant, destructive, self-pitying, insecure and paranoid, I couldn’t help but notice that she failed to appreciate my many positive qualities. I was sure I could think of a few by the time I got home.
Copyright, Bill Burman 2020