For months before writing the one of the greatest novels in American literary history, Moby Dick, Herman Melville was blocked. Like Ahab’s obsession with the white whale, Melville’s literary ambitions consumed him, but he wasn’t producing. According to Elizabeth Renker, author of Strike Through the Mask, Melville’s wife didn’t find him to be much fun around the house either. In fact he was emotionally (and quite possibly physically) abusive towards her.
Renker wrote her book about Melville’s tortured relationship with his writing, and how these themes are revealed in his books. Renker connects the terrifying white of the whale with the terrifying white of the empty page for Melville. His central character in Pierre struggles with writing, and I’ve also blogged about Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in terms of writing blocks.
He was prone to both extended periods of intense binge-writing that deteriorated his health and relationships, as well as recurrent episodes of severe blockage. Somehow he produced an extraordinary collection of books, but the process was agonizing, and he eventually quit writing novels.
I’ve blogged previously about the interpersonal challenges that arise for those people who are intimately related to a blocked writer. Renker explores this issue with the women in Melville’s life (wife and sister), who both suffered considerably from his temper as they accompanied Melville through his challenges with writing and life.
Maybe the ‘pre-Moby’ Melville just needed a good latte. Given the critical role coffee plays for so many writers, it’s not surprising that Starbuck’s took their name from the First Mate of the Ahab’s whaling vessel – Starbuck. I don’t know if it was coffee or something else that got Melville cranking again, but he did finally get Moby Dick written and published.
But alas (adding insult to injury) the initial reviews of Moby Dick were lousy, and he made almost no money from what was later recognized as one of the greatest American novels of all time.
What can struggling writers learn from Melville’s story? 1) great writing may require great struggle, persistence and sacrifice 2) the external rewards of writing are unpredictable, fickle and fleeting 3) you may feel compelled to write, but writing doesn’t guarantee happiness in life, even if you’re good at it.
The writing life is humbling, mysterious and rife with challenges, but if you’re one of those people who feels the urge to write anyway, then you probably ought to chase the whale.