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History: Blank Screen Chronicle


It seemed like a good idea at the time. Bar-stool logic at its most self-indulgent.

A few days later, having sobered up, I gave the notion some clear-headed thought. Once the echo died out I decided I’d give it a whack and snuck up on my computer, my blank screen, as it were. I sat there staring at the flashing bar thing for what seemed like 45 seconds. Nothing. So I cracked a beer and called it a day. Flashing things make me thirsty.

The first known case of “writer’s block” was discovered by a French guy, Sen. John Kerry, who got lost in a cave in late 2004. What he found on the cave wall was a series of crude sketches that appeared to depict a man staring off into space while sitting at a typewriter. The sketches, which some archaeologists have concluded constitute the first panel comic strip, show the man in various stages of his “process” e.g., leaning back in his chair, eyes closed, surfing the web, tossing back shots of absinthe while his fellow cave dwellers stand behind him and point and laugh and issue grunts and oinks. The last panel gives the reason for their amusement: The would-be novelist has forgotten to put any paper in his machine.

Not that paper, or a lack of paper, as the case may be, has anything to do with being stymied. Consider what is perhaps the most well-known occurrence of writer’s block, which can be found in Exodus, in the Bible. According to the Biblical scholar Cecile B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, a.k.a. Moses, climbed Mount Sinai to receive the laws of God while the children of Israel milled around below. By most accounts, old Moses was up there for 40 days and 40 nights freezing his staff off while God pecked away at a pair of stone tablets. Forty days! This from the guy who whipped up the universe and Earth and all the neat stuff on it in a mere six days. But when faced with a blank screen, even the omniscient freeze (Moses actually spurred the Almighty along when, in a bit of prescient profanity, he is reported to have said, “Jesus, Yahweh, get on with it!” Yahweh responded by reminding Moses what happened to Noah. “You think Sinai is cold?”). Of course, Moses smashed the tablets to pieces once he descended Mount Sinai and found his people had uncorked the communion wine and were busy staging the first Burning Man. By the time Moses had hauled himself back up the mountain, God, who had watched the whole thing from behind a rock, had condensed the 10 Commandments into one, which he wrote with a charred stick on a napkin, to wit: “Hey man, be cool.” The Texas delegation objected to the edited version citing a predisposed intolerance to “hippie-like” statements, dank pockets of Austin notwithstanding.

While writer’s block is generally considered a condition of the garreted onanist, so to speak, examples of group block are known to exist. One infamous example of a collective failure in creativity happened when writers and producers of the venerable PBS science series NOVA aired a show the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1986. Rather than offer a rerun when inspiration eluded the team, they slapped together a piece called “Killer Pies from Space.” The premise hung on NASA reports that a burst of gamma radiation had blasted a dozen apple trees in an orchard near Tony, Wisconsin. The half-baked episode included runny computer generated images of glowing apple pies hurtling through the void toward Earth. The ensuing uproar nearly caused The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to pull its funding.

A fantastic resource for students of mental obstructions is a German work by Heinrich Schlüb called Gehirnkrampf: Eine Geschichte der Schreibblockade, which translates to Brain Cramp: A History of Writer’s Block. Schlüb, in a flash of mimetic genius, turned in a manuscript of 375 pages that was completely blank except for the title and a dedication to his wife, who was also his secretary. “Zu meiner wunderbaren Ehefrau Gerta: Haben Sie dies mit Ihren Füßen getippt?”

Translated, the dedication reads “To my wonderful wife Gerta: Did you type this with your feet?”

I fell into this book one night while sitting at yet another bar stool, a futile attempt to cure a hobbling case of writer’s block. I’d decided a walk around the block would clear my head. I should have been concerned with my feet. An obstinate chair entangled them and a copy of Herr Schlüb’s masterwork, left open and doodled upon by a careless patron, greeted my face as gravity overtook me. Who knew writing could be so dangerous?

Mark Hunter struggles with writer’s block every 45 seconds and has for 20 years. The best cure he’s found for the condition is a deadline, real or imagined.


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