Irvin D. Yalom: On a 'Curious' Writer's Writing Block
Illustrated by Bill Bragg
My old Ozark friend Pete Hale, who's now a physicist - but whose son Ben is a up-and-coming novelist - sent me a somewhat breathless email yesterday:
I just read this at the New York Times: "A Curious Case of Writer's Block." Oh man! It had me at "Irvin Yalom," as I've read a couple or three of his books and he is really great. Kind of an Oliver Sachs who's more than ready to go fully-on literary. Anyhow, this little essay is a total blast, and seemed like something you'd really like. See what you think.I read the column with interest, for it concerned a most peculiar man - call him "Paul" - a man with a fifty-odd-year writer's block who sought out the psychiatrist Dr. Yalom for an single, baffling session, namely, to read some of the long-term correspondence he'd had with a scholarly Nietzsche expert, from which I excerpt a short passage near the end, wherein Yalom gets a surprise:
"Paul," I said, "I'm uncomfortable because we're coming to the end of our session, and I've not really addressed the very reason you contacted me - your major complaint, your writing block."I wrote back to Pete: "Interesting essay . . . or short story . . . or (very short) case study." Why 'interesting? Because it offers what every writer wants: recognition of the significance of one's writing.
"I never said that," he replied. "I know my words: 'I wonder if you'd be willing to see a fellow writer with a writing block.'"
I looked up at him expecting a grin, but he was entirely serious. He had said he had a writing block but had not explicitly labeled it as the problem for which he wanted help. It was a word trap, and I fought back irritation at being trifled with.
"Well then," I said, "let's make a fresh start. Tell me, how can I be of help to you?"
"Your reflections on the correspondence?" he asked. "Any and every observation would be most helpful to me."
"All right," I said, opening the notebook and flipping through the pages. "As you know, I had time to read only a small portion, but over all I was captivated by it, and found it brimming with intelligence and erudition at the highest level. There was no doubt he had the greatest respect for your comments and your judgments. He admired your prose, valued your critique of his work, and I can only imagine that the time and energy he gave to you must have far exceeded what he could possibly have provided the typical student. And of course, given that the correspondence continued long after your tenure as a student, there is no doubt that you and he were immensely important to one another."
I looked at Paul. He sat motionless, his eyes filling with tears, eagerly drinking in all that I said, obviously thirsting for yet more.
Finally, finally, we had had an encounter. Finally, I had given him something. I could bear witness to an event of extraordinary importance to Paul. I could testify that a great man deemed Paul to be significant. He needed a witness, . . . and I had been selected to fill that role.
I ought to read the New York Times Opinionator columns more often.