Around the block

I've said for years that I don't believe in writer's block. I believe writing to be a craft more than an art, and I think the only way to cure a problem with writing is to sit down and work through it by writing - a lot. Inspiration is cheap, and words are entirely free. Too many people use writer's block as a convenient excuse to explain away their fears, or to undercut their own ambition. This is not to say that writing is easy - you need the privilege of time, and you have to commit to the time, and you have to read all the time - but it is to say that writing has nothing to do with muses.

So when I sat down on Sunday night at Benaroya Hall to talk with Fran Lebowitz, I had to ask her about writer's block. Lebowitz's decades-long case of writer's block is arguably the most famous creative blockade since Coleridge was interrupted while writing "Kubla Khan."

The question, as I put it, was inelegant: I told her I didn't believe in writer's block and I wanted her to persuade me that it existed. That gave Lebowitz the option to use herself as an example. She said if she didn't have writer's block, she wouldn't be at Benaroya Hall on a speaking tour. Because she can't write, she suggested, she has to travel to cities being witty as a public speaker for her supper. If she could write, she'd be at home - writing.

I tried a different tack: is writing, for Lebowitz, a pursuit of perfection? Yes, she affirmed. For her, she was only interested in writing if she could write perfectly.

Lebowitz started out by writing a column, and I started out writing for a weekly newspaper. Didn't those early relentless deadlines teach her the same thing they taught me - that no writing could ever be truly perfect, that ultimately you just have to be okay with letting it go into the world? No, Lebowitz disagreed. Deadlines worked for her column, back in the day, but she seemed to expect more of herself now.

Some might argue that there's no such thing as a perfect sentence. I tend to disagree; Vladimir Nabokov wrote a shelf full of books that are as close to perfect as anything I've witnessed in my life. And that's the vision that Lebowitz is pursuing - the perfection of Truman Capote, of Harper Lee. The kind of perfection that demands a monastic dedication.

Nobody will ever accuse me of writing a perfect sentence. And the difference between Lebowitz's writing and my own is not unlike the difference between an airplane and a tricycle. So it's presumptuous of me to compare my own experience to hers. But I believe her, now: Lebowitz's writer's block is as real as her custom-made cowboy boots. She's blocked by her own expectations, and those expectations are confounding her endless pursuit of perfection.