Writer's Block, Israeli-style: Advice From a Novelist's Keyboard

After five years of writing her third novel, Dorit Rabinyan decided to shelve it. Her painful confession is also a warning to aspiring young writers.

They were sold in the 1980s, in gift stores for men. Alongside Rubik’s Cubes and bathrobes with embroidered initials, you’d find small wooden boxes with a tiny red hammer attached. Under the glass cover lay a lone cigarette or condom wrapper or aspirin tablet, and there was a sticker that read: “In case of emergency, break glass.”

Here below is what can be considered instructions in case of an emergency. They’re for someone who is – like I was back then – in the midst of a writing crisis, and, paralyzed by fear, arrives at the decision to do what I did: to shelve the book she wrote and not publish it.

As I myself regret the difficult decision I made, it encourages me to think that some unknown writer, a suffering sister, might one day read this and learn from my devastating experience.

But first, a confession: My name is Dorit and I am a bit addicted to my work. I try to write five days a week, though that’s rarely possible because of day-job contingencies. So usually it’s three days, and sometimes I grab some time at night. It’s not that I like writing so much, but without it I become dejected and restless. After two or three days in which I am busy with other things, preoccupied with leading my life and far away from my story − my hands start to itch, an irritating impatience sets in, things lose their flavor.

I write because my sense of self is a little unhinged; I have no anchor. On days when I write, the world looks clearer, the colors are lucid. When I don’t write, I feel rather lost, lacking justification for my own existence.

It was winter, 2006. After five years of writing my third novel, three different versions of the plot, and innumerable corrections and revisions, I got up on the last day of January. A quiet day stretched ahead, a sweet day, a day that would be devoted entirely to writing.

It was a Tuesday. I’d fulfilled my job-related obligations on the first two days of the week, and the patter of the rain outside, the winter grayness, suited my plans as though by invitation: Some days seem to have been made just for writing books.

After five years of writing, rewriting, revising and erasing, I had committed to submitting the manuscript in June, five months away. The publisher had already created the fancy catalog for the upcoming year, which included my book. A summary of the plot had appeared along with the title I’d decided on: “Voice Lessons.” The title referred to the novel’s protagonist, an acting student who was taking private singing lessons, as well as developing my own voice as a writer. After two successful novels, I was trying to improve and develop my authentic storytelling voice, make it more precise and profound.

That morning I turned on the computer and opened the file. As always, I started to read what I’d done during the previous sitting. I scrolled back and read, then scrolled some more and read from the beginning of the chapter.

For some reason, I didn’t follow my usual routine. Instead of grabbing the end of the fuse and drawing out the thread of the story from it, I read another chapter. And then another, and yet another.

A few hours later it was already getting dark outside, and I went back and read what I’d written in the last few years. I remember going to turn on the light at some point, and going to the bathroom. And when I sat down again in front of the screen, I had only one definitive, devastating thought: No one can see this. What I’d done wasn’t good. It was not a good book and no one must see how not-good it was. I wept.

In the evening, my partner at the time came home. He made us something to eat and poured me a glass of wine. He suggested we go to a movie, said it would do me good to get some air. I don’t remember a thing from “Brokeback Mountain.” I sat in the theater and stared at images moving on the screen. I got no sleep that night. Or the next. I lay on the sofa and stared at the TV.

The news at the time seemed like a kind of literary reflection of my catatonic state. A few weeks earlier, on January 4, the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. Experts reported that it might go on for years.

Fear; a vortex of fear. Helplessness in the guise of fear. Maybe it was my young age (34) and the expectations weighing on me. Other life circumstances must have come into play, too. In retrospect, I know there was always something in that novel, even in the early versions, that did not want to be resolved: some sort of complication in the plot’s emotional development that I couldn’t unravel; a plot line that left me frustrated time and again. Or maybe I didn’t have the maturity then to cope with my chosen subject.

Dear authors! Suit your topics to your strength

And ponder well your subject, and its length

Nor lift your load, before you’re quite aware

What weight your shoulders will, or will not, bear.

− Byron, “Hints from Horace”

Pity? No, thanks. I pitied myself enough back then. And without pathos, please. Without romantic exaggeration about the torments of the young artist and all that poetic crap. An empty street, driving rain, a cigarette in the dark − anything but that. But still, the brutal verdict I inflicted on myself. The fatalism. I felt it was the hand of fate, that I had suffered a disaster, that it was the irrevocable end. I’d had an accident, that was the feeling. I didn’t know what I would do when I got up the next morning, what I would do with my life, only that to go on writing this novel was something I could no longer do.

I felt alienated from my book, like mother-cats are said to be toward their kittens sometimes. As though a curtain had descended on me. Every time I tried to read the book again, to look at the pages, I was seized by a nausea of disgust, an urge to throw up.

“The courage to wait is greater than the courage to spill one’s heart”: Poet Natan Zach perceives abstention, restraint and patience as acts of courage. In my case, the decision to shelve the manuscript was not a manifestation either of restraint or courage. It was defeat, surrender, submission to absolute fear.

With a heavy heart I informed the publisher that there was no book. I said I had decided to drop the novel, to let it go; I told them not to expect it. So frightened was I of myself, of my incapacity, that the decision to desist, to store that book deep, deep in some closet and forget it ever existed gave me the illusion of being in control of the situation.

Eight years have passed, but it’s still hard for me when I recall myself as I was then: suddenly starting to cry while waiting in line at the bank, crazy with worry, not sleeping nights. Reading all kinds of manuals about the art of narrative, looking for solutions to writing crises. I’m fond of the daily routine, and to be in a state of suspended animation, to get up in the morning and not do something good and useful with myself, was no small matter for my productive soul.

Eight years have passed, and today it sounds like a rash and twisted act, totally off the wall. But the only way to extricate myself from the pit I’d fallen into – the most logical and practical move, so I believed – would be to start a new book. I imagined a short book, a quick one; I imagined that I’d finish it in a year or two.

While working on the shelved novel, an idea had buzzed in my head, a story I’d put aside. Perhaps under the influence of the books I’d read, which had made my fingers itchy to work again, I thought that was what I should do, that this is what would save me.

Happy ending

One night I turned on the computer and attacked the keyboard in earnest. Characters and settings, plot lines, motives, obstacles. April brought the buds of spring, and from day to day I was filled with hope and curiosity. I was in thrall to the belief that I could start over. That I could discard that novel and write a different book, a better book. It was the same illusion of control, of omnipotence, of the notion that all was well with me, and at the same time all was well with the world: The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and here I sit and write in my room.

Eight years have passed, and my story, thank God, has a happy ending. Still, when I recall that dramatic period, what grieves me most is the waste, how cavalierly I treated my efforts. I finished the book I had eagerly started that night, in April 2006, only recently, and the effort has drained me. (In the middle there were two years when I tried something else − don’t ask.) I submitted the manuscript to my editor in October, and, God willing, knock on wood, the book will be published next summer. But the years of work that went down the tubes, the vain effort, the bitter disappointment − for that I haven’t yet forgiven myself.

On the other hand, the novel is still here on my computer, in a yellow sub-file of My Documents, just two clicks away. And maybe one day I will come back to “Voice Lessons.” Who knows? Maybe I will muster the strength to complete the work. The problem is that in the time that’s passed, my mind-set has changed. What I’m interested in has changed, my taste has changed. Maybe one day I’ll open that file and read the text, and it won’t look so awful to me, maybe it will even look not bad. Still, the content, and the passion for it, were forged out of the person I was back then. When the day comes I might find it all irrelevant, invalid, distant from me.

Dear friend, if you’ve fallen victim to any of the syndromes described above, the first thing to do is calm down and drink a glass of water: it’ll be alright. It’s a temporary setback. A well-known phenomenon of severity and inordinate criticism which cause a lack of judgment.

My first piece of advice is to buy a plane ticket and hightail it out of here. For a few weeks keep your distance from the book, from the process and from the bitter decision that has afflicted you. That will give you perspective on what happened; it’s worth it.

When you get back home, you should, if you have the economic wherewithal, find a good therapist. After you’ve pulled yourself together somewhat, print out three copies of the manuscript. Yes, it’s awful, I know, unfinished, and God forbid someone should see it like this. Nevertheless, give one copy to your editor – a good literary editor knows how to read a manuscript and can see the sculpture in the rough stone. Don’t worry. Give the other copies to two friends who are good readers: One who likes you very much, and the other tough, strict, someone you trust to tell you the truth.

Now comes the hard part: Sit and wait. If you must do something with yourself, go volunteer for the homeless, train for a triathlon. You have to let the story rest in some attic, let it lie there for a month, two months, half a year − whatever it takes until you work up enough distance and enough sangfroid to come back to it courageously. That was the brave step I didn’t take, and it would be a pity − if you’re reading this − to find yourself regretful, too.

Don’t abandon anything. What’s buried trickles down into the groundwater, poisons the wells, weighs down the system and makes it sluggish. Ultimately, with hand on heart and head bowed, failure is better than burying. And your story isn’t as bad as you’d thought. The fatigue, the listlessness − in the end you come out of it. Don’t listen to the bad voices. Go and muster your strength and come back to it better than ever.

Dorit Rabinyan’s two published novels, “Persian Brides” (Canongate) and “Strand of a Thousand Pearls” (Random House), have appeared in English translation. She was also awarded the Jewish Wingate Quarterly Award

David Bachar