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


Deuterocohnia brevifolia

Dwarf bromeliad

Common name: Dwarf Bromeliad

Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago

Tags surfaces


David Ludlum on atmospheric pollution

From David Ludlum’s Vermont Weather Book (1985)

The atmosphere is still undergoing change. Alternate warm and cool periods lasting several centuries, as well as long spells of wetness and dryness, have resulted in stress to humans and their agricultural activities. During the past century, the petrochemical age, we have altered the constituents of the very air we breathe, and only in the past three decades have we come to realize the damage we have done. Now we are trying to restore the atmosphere to its former purity. We should not have left to unregulated industrial freedom the composition of our most valuable possession. (4)

This version of environmentalism is almost 40 years old. In some respects, the sentiment sounds dated. Ludlum writes in the wake of the U.S. “Clean Air” acts of the 1960s and 1970s, which were concerned with specific sources of pollution like coal plants or combustion engines. From the current era’s perspective, the notion that we need to clean up the air sounds quite optimistic and doable. Today air is still a problem, but it’s a symptom. Mainstream attention has moved to the potential collapse of the entire planetary atmosphere that makes Earth conducive to life. “Dirty” is defined differently: not particular sites of pollution like factories, but a circulating background of particles, atmospheric CO₂. Global CO₂ is far harder to address, because it is a dispersed marker of the entire planet’s polluting activities. The shift in the understanding of atmospheric pollution is a great example of how systems-level thinking can define a problem more completely, at the same time as it makes it more daunting to address.


David Ludlum, The Vermont Weather Book (Vermont Historical Society, 1985).

Tags climate weather


The condition of being blocked

I would love to read an account of creative blocks, of “being blocked” when you want to do something original, or engage in some sort of unstructured free inquiry. How have cultures and individuals understood that, what did they did do about it, why did it matter to them? “Writer’s block” is the most recognizable term in this area, although I wonder if it may be on the way to obscurity. I’ve never heard of anyone speak of writer’s block with respect to the ephemeral text-based communication that makes up the bulk of writing today.

Then again, writer’s block (or any other condition of being blocked) never pointed to a stoppage of ordinary communication. No one, for example, gets blocked when talking to a friend, or ordering dinner at a restaurant. This is because an essential part of being blocked is failing to make the leap from spontaneous and unremarkable speaking to an original expression. When a person is un-blocked, he or she still communicates when the cues from the environment and social world fall to a minimum.

But if someone simply can’t, for whatever reason, continue to speak from the other side of that transition, if he comes back with nothing to show for it, or if the attempt is so painful, interrupted, and shaming that it creates a negative feedback loop–producing ever-more dirt, gravel and sand when only the hint of something precious would make the effort continue–then I would call that person blocked.

I think a wider, cross-cultural account of this phenomenon would be worth studying, because I have the sense that it describes something much broader than a condition of artists and self-described “creative” types. The “many people are too distracted” argument gets a lot of attention; the condition of being blocked is really just a description of distraction from the other side.

See also Working while blocked

Tags thinking writing creativity art distraction


Clouds with depth

“Watching the clouds” is an everyday shorthand for daydreaming, aimlessness and boredom. It’s as if the professionals who classify clouds have this prejudice in mind as they go about their work, and they defend themselves by building a maze of systematic classification on top of the clouds. Just look at the remarkably thorough, carefully designed website of the International Cloud Atlas. It has to be one of the best online references I’ve ever seen, on any subject–as intellectually satisfying as the casual viewing of clouds is for the senses and the imagination.

We’ve had a lot of storms and weather in the last few weeks here in Chicago, and I’ve had more reason than normal to look at the sky. For ordinary observers, it seems to me that there is really just one fundamental division in cloud typologies: between clouds that create depth in the sky, and clouds that obscure. The atmosphere is an amazing medium. At its clearest one can see indefinitely far: to the stars, into thousands of light years, distances so large they have no referent on earth. It can also close off vision, down to the few feet reachable with one’s hands, or less.

Even in a busy city sky, when I look up, I rarely see anything. But an open sky is not empty space. A view into the sky can be much more than a line of sight between “here,” the standpoint of the observer, and “there,” the furthest visible point. An opening in the sky is an invitation to see strata: layers, a space with undefined depth, like how any unit of time can become long or short according to events.

photo clearing stratus

This picture taken a few days ago looks west, after a storm; the darker stratus clouds are just moving away, to reveal a large cumulus, a tower with puffs whose true size is impossible to gauge by looking. It could be the site of a floating city, an unoccupied landmass, the extension of a continent. This is what is distinctive about the cumulus tower: its heft hints at the depth contained in the sky.

cumulus tower

Then, too, when the stratus clouds pull back, in the foreground, those almost-featureless specks are birds–I think they’re swifts. This sky is their playground, their home. It’s wide open to them, but they take only a sliver.

close-up of birds


International Cloud Atlas

Tags weather nature


Psychological spring

In places where spring seems to be a long time coming, there is a particular melancholy that sets in when one realizes that the season is, at least for aesthetic purposes, over. After the first round of new growth–the plants that cheer everyone up with their hardy blooms when it feels too cold for vegetative life–when the weeds and the trees look leafed-out enough to pass for mid-summer, when there are a few hot days that make one lose–even for a minute–one’s reflexive gratitude for the warm weather–that’s the end of psychological spring.

There’s another part to that feeling for me. I have a few small garden plots, and I also mark the moment when the seedlings I’ve started lose their compact, orderly form–beginning to stretch this way and that out of their own principles.

What is it that’s charming about seedlings? When they first emerge, they are pretty much all well-behaved. Next they show one, two, three of their true leaves, and I imagine that they will look straight and compact like this forever, only bigger. Of course this is not right. Soon, they will become unruly, stretch out of their pots, enter into tangled warfare with their neighbors, and nag at me that if I don’t do something with them soon, they will die or be stunted and I will have wasted the season.

In the spring, gardening is a rational task. Plans, maps, calendars-plants are at least potentially faithful to the winter vision.

Reasonable lines and grids contain early-season seedlings

But at some point by around this time, in the transition to summer, I get a premonition of the chaos that is coming, that it is more powerful than me. There ought to be a word for this phenomenon, the moment when a rational order gives way to organic spontaneity. There are probably gardeners for whom the early period is the best part of the season, when they feel most confident and fulfilled by their avocation. Once the plants are in control, it’s all downhill.

Tags plant season gardening


Tom Crewe on Turgenev

Tom Crewe has a delightful review of Turgenev’s body of work in the April 21st issue of the London Review of Books. Two highlights whose combination struck me:

In reading Turgenev in English we are not departing from historical precedent. The vast majority of his 19th-century readers, in company with his most distinguished European and American admirers (James, Flaubert, Zola, George Eliot, Howells, the authorities in Oxford who gave him an honorary doctorate in 1879), read him largely in French or English. His importance for Western literature is unavoidably a mediated one, and it is through translation that we see what made those readers praise him so highly.


Turgenev’s greatest strength as a writer was his talent for detail, which had several different applications. One of his most distinctive habits is his use of similes drawn from the natural world (the result of much time spent outside, first as a child frightened of his mother and then as a devoted huntsman).

Among the examples Crewe gives is this complex metaphor from Turgenev’s novella First Love:

Indistinct streaks of lightning flickered incessantly in the sky; they did not so much flash as flutter and twitch like the wing of a dying bird.

It takes a gifted writer to manage the handoff between these two images. I, at least, find it convincing; in my mind the lightning and the bird’s wings work on something like the same underlying principle of motion.

And for a writer who has largely made his reputation through translation, it is a risky, high accomplishment to mark naturalistic detail with so much vitality that your translators have what they need to keep it alive.

Tags writing prose image russian


Carl Sandburg fog

Fog over Chicago downtown

”…little cat feet…looking / over harbor and city…” :)


Carl Sandburg, “Fog,” Chicago Poems. 1916.

Tags weather clouds obscurity view cityscape


Moon illusions

The moon, rising in the early evening, just above the rotunda at the Museum of Science and Industry. When I took this picture it was short of a full moon by a day or two:

The moon over the Museum of Science and Industry

There’s a long-standing puzzle about the moon when it is near the horizon: why does it look bigger? This is usually just called the “moon illusion.” The problem has so far not been definitively resolved by any modern scientific explanation, leaving it open to speculation by philosophers, amateurs, and polymaths. Also, not all people perceive the illusion in the same way. For example, I have seen the moon on the horizon that looked huge, but I didn’t find this to be true when it was next to the rotunda in this picture. Subjectively, it looked “normal-sized.” I believe this comes through in the photograph. But a quick image search for apparently large moons does show many near the horizon, or a surface-level object, that do look huge (the fact that this illusion–or the lack of it–can be carried through into photographs is a property worth noting–not all illusions do).

Optical illusions involving forced perspective take one or more objects and place them near a reference object, which deceives the intuition for size and space. There is usually something deceptive about the presentation of the reference, making the original seem smaller or larger by comparison. Maybe the moon’s appearance is another example of forced perspective. This illusion has been noticed for so long that the competing paradigms to explain it are well-established:

These include both the “apparent distance” theory

…the brain perceives the Moon when near the horizon to be farther away than an elevated Moon. Therefore, the brain calculates that the horizon Moon must have a larger angular or linear size (about 1.3 to 1.5 times larger) than when viewing the Moon when it is higher in the sky.

And the “apparent size” theory:

…when the Moon is low and close to familiar objects, such as houses, trees, and mountains, we already know or quickly estimate their apparent size and distance, then the brain incorrectly calculates the angular size of the Moon compared to the familiar objects on the horizon. When the Moon is elevated, there are no earthly objects to compare it to, so the brain perceives as being more distant and therefore, smaller than the horizon Moon.

Both explanations are from Robert Garfinkle’s lavishly comprehensive recent book on the moon, Luna Cognita (section 6.11.4, “The Moon Illusion”).

It seems to me like these solutions are trying to account for the moon’s paradoxical aspect when viewed in the traditional way: with the naked eye. Although the moon is the largest object in the sky, and it moves across the horizon each day or night, it never really changes size. The combination of motion and fixity of apparent size–this is not a normal property of most physical phenomena. Movement on the earthly plane is usually associated with some change in size. Also, to my knowledge, the moon is also the only object in the sky that that possesses both regular motion and any apparent size at all. We speak of brightness of the stars and planets, but they all appear to be points of light, closer to mathematical locations on a plane than three-dimensional objects. So the trouble arises with this object, the moon, that moves yet is not subject to growth or reduction, and which follows predictable, calculable cycles like the stars, yet retains the obvious imperfections of substance and matter (shape, texture, depth). It is not surprising that the mind/brain does not know how to treat it, and is tricked into applying standards of growth and change which the moon, in its own very strange class of objects, refuses.


Robert Garfinkle, Luna Cognita: A Comprehensive Observer’s Handbook of the Known Moon. Springer, 2020.

Tags lunar vision perspective


Bare tree networks

More than halfway through April, and while it’s still cold, even Chicago can’t keep this up for much longer. Would it be strange to savor the end of winter? Maybe not the weather itself–what was interesting in December is much less so in April–but the appearance of winter?

An example: bare trees in winter have their own kind of beauty, especially in profile. Many of those trees are starting to show their buds and seeds.

emergent catkins on a cottonwood tree
Emergent catkins on a cottonwood tree

Within weeks they will become entirely different objects. Bare trees are networks on the way to their vanishing point, a swirl of diminishing lines, beginning with their trunk, continuing to their largest limbs, their branches, twigs–they’re gone.

In spring they will be waving masses of color, more like solid objects, able to conceal the truth–impossible to hide in winter–that they are mostly made of air.

Tags winter ending beginning season tree growth