Updated: Dec 2, 2020
The term “Writer’s Block” is one that gets tossed around quite often in writing communities, and understandably so…yet for me the problem is rarely being blocked, it is being exhausted or overwhelmed, a condition I call “Writer’s Fatigue”. It comes with the following symptoms: dread at sitting down at the computer, mastering the art of procrastination, getting a headache or the desire to nap when time for writing occurs, and an extreme heaviness between the shoulder blades. I can typically identify when it is coming too, because it always occurs at the same time as when my writing-related deadlines are looming. This August was no exception. Although I knew that if I just sat down and wrote All The Things, life would be easy, none of the Things wanted to be written.
Then I saw Herman Melville’s chimney.
I was in Pittsfield, Massachusetts with a friend to see the Barrington Stage production of Company (which, for the record, included a perfect performance from Aaron Tveit as Bobby) when we learned that near the theatre was Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home when he wrote Moby-Dick. My friend, being a massive fan of the big ol’ book about the whale, desperately wanted to visit. I, on the other hand, wanted to go because I will do basically anything related to history, whether or not I have an affinity for the person involved. (Confession: I have never read Moby-Dick)
Arrowhead is not a particularly imposing place, but it is peaceful. The home, parts of which date back to the 18th century, is a pleasant yellow, with a large barn and nature trail through the woods at its back and flower-filled fields to one side. Inside is where I found the cure for my Writer’s Fatigue.
Our tour guide, Jeff, was as enthusiastic about discussing Melville’s life as I am talking about Hortense Bonaparte, which I enjoyed, but the real star of the first floor was the fireplace and chimney. Dominating the room, it was a wide structure that came up to about my shoulders. There was writing above it on the wall and down on the fireplace itself. The words were decorative and intentional, not the result of scribbling or graffiti. No, they were put there by Herman Melville’s brother, Allan, after Herman had moved out. What they were caused me great amusement: the opening to Herman Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney.” The story is about a man's stubborn refusal to let his wife remove the chimney in order to create a great central hallway in their home. [Spoiler Alert] As you can guess from the fact that I was able to see the chimney a few weeks ago, just as in the story, the chimney remains intact at Arrowhead, never surrendering to anyone’s desires for redesign. [/Spoiler Alert] It was bizarre and beautiful, this chimney and fireplace covered with Melville's prose. I wanted to run my fingers along it and sit and stare at it, not unlike the man in Melville's story. Words are a powerful thing, and once you send them out into the world, you never know where they will end up. I suddenly wished I could get back to work immediately, but it was not time for that yet, the tour had to continue.
There were more gems for writers upstairs: a bedroom where Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed and Herman Melville’s study. I could not help but smile when I saw Hawthorne’s guest room was about half the size of Melville’s study. Melville’s brain apparently had a greater need for space than Hawthorne’s body. Imagining Hawthorne squished into that tiny room- which, according to our guide, he complained about in his journals- was a good deal of fun, especially since it opened directly into the giant study. I admit that I, too, would have written annoyed journal entries about that when comparing the sizes of the adjoining spaces.
The most interesting feature of Melville’s study was not a piece of furniture or a book, it was the view. Here, we were told, Melville sat at his desk facing the window and looked at the mountains. To Melville, the shape of those mountains was reminiscent of a whale, and it was part of his inspiration for writing Moby-Dick.
As Jeff told us about Melville’s publishing struggles, I found myself nodding and looking around Arrowhead thinking, “Yup, anyone who ever lifted a pen understands your frustration, sir.” This stayed with me upon leaving Melville’s home and for the drive back to New York.
The following day I was still pondering Melville, his chimney, and the mountains and beginning to feel like I could actually do all the work I had been avoiding. It was as if, standing in the home of a world-famous author long gone, I was reminded that everyone who has ever hoped to write has reached a point of frustration or exhaustion from it. Don't get me wrong, I never intended to quit, that isn't me, especially given that writing is one of my biggest life loves, but sometimes you need a reminder that the war you are waging is the same one that has gone on for as long as there have been books to print. We are all connected in experiencing this. Thanks to Melville, my Writer's Fatigue had vanished.
Then, with wonderful timing, I received feedback on a submission I made for Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is a phenomenal event where writers with completed manuscripts submit to mentors who may or may not select them from the thousands of entries in order to help polish their piece for submission to agents. The most beautiful thing about it is that so many of the mentors are readily accessible and will offer a bit of feedback even to those who did not get selected. My feedback from Carrie Callaghan and Tracey Enerson Wood was kind and much-welcomed. They guided me to exactly where I needed to go in my editing. I owe them infinite thanks for generously responding to anyone who asked. Coming straight on the heels of the Melville visit, I felt uplifted and encouraged.
So it was that with a chimney in my mind and feedback on my screen, I was able to work again without fighting off dread.
My closing advice to you, dear reader, is when Writer’s Fatigue (or Writer's Block!) strikes- step outside. You never know what you will find there or what will await when you return, but most likely you will feel refreshed and inspired.
And who knows, maybe one day you too will have your words on a chimney.