How to prevent writing

It comes to my attention, as a difficult summer draws to an end, that altogether too many people (some of my 3.6 Loyal Readers among them — I will not hide the truth even to protect them) are still writing books, and even releasing them to the public, despite the very best efforts of the publishing industry to put a stop to this pernicious practice. It would appear that some of you out there have not yet mastered the art of not writing, and still leak wordage from time to time. Herewith, a few helpful tips gleaned from my own recent experience. If you are still writing and want to help stem the tide, here are some methods you might try:

1. Fall down the stairs and get whiplash.

I tried this method back in April, on a dismal, foggy night when the ground was still frozen. The fog condensed to form an enchantingly perspicuous layer of wet ice on the back stairs of the block of flats where I live. The moment my feet touched the topmost step, they described a graceless underhand arc through the air, whilst my head dropped vertically onto the concrete. I injured my neck, my back (in two places), my elbow, and my laptop, which made the trip independently and still has an unpremeditated wow in the bottom of the case. Every muscle from the bottom of my skull to the top of my pelvis went into an independent spasm, all pulling in different directions with unequal strength, so that my back and neck resembled a partly compressed concertina. The noise alone was enough to drive me to distraction and unfit me for any useful work. I am an indifferent concertina-player at the best of times, and the shortcomings of my skill are only magnified when all of my vertebrae are out of tune.

Five months later, I still have bits of cartilage floating in my elbow, and from time to time the pain in my back ascends through all the outraged musculature of my spinal column to cudgel me in the back of the head. Twice in the past week alone, I have had such headaches that I had to retire from the business of living, and if I had had sufficient energy, I would have launched inquiries into the price of burial plots. But it takes a good deal of effort to arrange for a man to die, and I was not lively enough to do it. I have therefore had to linger mournfully among the undead.

The drawbacks of this method will inevitably suggest themselves to the prudent procrastinator. Many of you have other work to do, which cannot well be put aside for months on end whilst you play Khatchaturian suites in elliptical time on an instrument not designed to do them justice. If you are in this unhappy situation, I advise you not to try falling downstairs. In fact, I recommend that you avoid it, and find other ways of cultivating the desired auctorial incapacity.

2. Adopt an intestinal virus.

In the later part of June, despite the unmusical quality of my spine, I was reviving sufficiently to give serious thought to writing again. At this point, Fortune took a hand again to arrange the proceedings more pleasantly. This time, my luck was manifested in a virus of uncertain provenance, a mongrel as I believe, which established itself in the back of my throat and caused the lymph-nodes of my neck to swell up to the size of a prizefighter’s fists. Small children took to pointing at me on the street, and laughing at the funny man with three Adam’s apples. These statistics are approximate. When the swollen glands jammed up against my strained neck so that I could not turn my head at all, the virus was compelled to take its business elsewhere, and it descended stage by stage through my entire digestive tract. The general effect was that of a slow-motion hangover, without the compensating pleasure of having first been drunk.

On more than one occasion, I contemplated asking my landlord to install a second toilet in my bathroom, facing the first, because I had no way of telling, on any given occasion, at which end my dead would come forth. I managed to restrain myself from discharging at both ends simultaneously, but the alternation between the upper and lower orifices kept me something more than busy. I had to do such a deal of kneeling at the porcelain altar, and standing up again, and sitting down, and turning around, and performing ablutions that only had to be repeated ten minutes later, that I began to regret acquiring such a religious disease. It was just these kinds of high-church gyrations and genuflections that kept me from deserting the Protestant camp until the evidences of Aquinas and Augustine, and the Post-Apostolic Fathers, and all that kind of thing, came to outweigh my ingrained dislike of amusement-park rides powered by the passenger.

In due course, however, the disease abandoned its grip on my stomach and oesophagus, and confined itself strictly to business below decks. In the fulness of time it went away. And came back again. And went away again. And came back a third time, and then a fourth, without bothering to vacate the premises after the third visitation, so that it met itself coming and going. Since the virus was not about to yield the right of way even for itself, a stately barroom brawl ensued, which pretty nearly wrecked all the furniture in the establishment — I being the establishment. That, however, seemed to tire it out, and it has now subsided into a quiet and comfortable old age, in which it manifests itself chiefly by playing French horn solos on my large intestines. This music clashes with the spinal concertina and makes the neighbours unhappy. I am afraid I shall have to either start charging admission or find other lodgings.

Now, it is true that I underwent all these manifestations whilst under the residual influence of my spinal injury, so my evidence may be to some degree biased. However, I am firmly of the opinion that I would have been unable to write from the virus alone, without any assistance from the icy stairs. At any rate I think there is no need to combine the two methods, except in unusually resistant cases of writing.

But it may be that your constitution, Dear Reader (I had almost typed Dead Reader, which would have been silly, for I am not, I hope, addressing these remarks solely to myself), is so delicate and untrustworthy that it would not reliably serve you through such a turn. Do not despair. I have more advice to offer. It is quite possible to prevent yourself from writing without suffering any infirmity of body — at least, not your own body.

3. Drive a dying car.

When I moved into my present flat, I was assured that I had been wise to choose what is known nowadays as a ‘walkable neighbourhood’. I was soon undeceived. I do, in fact, live well within the bounds of the inner city, and all the necessaries and common luxuries of life are to be found within easy walking distance — as the crow flies. Unfortunately, I am not a crow. There is a crow who lives not far from my bedroom window, quite happily it would seem, given his habit of announcing his overflowing pleasure and vivacity at five o’clock every morning. Well, different things suit different people, especially when they have wings. The drawback of my present lodgings is that they are located on the side of a hill, halfway up a slope that is (I have taken careful measurements) fifteen degrees steeper than vertical. If I walk down the hill to do my shopping, I have to hire Sherpas and build base camps to get back up again. If I go up the hill to the little cluster of shops at the top, I have to lower my purchases back down with a winch. On top of that, these are inner-city shops, which is to say, ruinously expensive ones. As a rough average, I should say that my groceries and things cost half again as much when bought locally as I can get them for at the cheap supermarkets in the suburbs.

Fortunately, I have a car, so for a trifling expense of fuel and time, I can do my shopping where I please. That is, I could do it where I pleased. Over the course of last winter, my car (an elderly Mazda Protege, not of a vintage year) developed an infirmity. Whenever I drove it up the hill I live on, with the 105-degree slope that I mentioned, it had an alarming tendency to rev up the engine and try to drop out of gear. I took it to my mechanic, who is expensive but honest, and to that extent superior to the kind of mechanic who quotes you cut-rate prices on all kinds of work that you don’t need. I knew a mechanic once who offered to sell me a new electronic ignition system for barely more than the wholesale price, and throw in the labour at a sacrificial discount, when my car was only out of gas. —But I digress.

By the time I got round to my expensive but honest mechanic, Admiral Halsey — my car, that is; I have a tendency to name inanimate objects; I call this tendency George — began to cough and sputter whilst idling at stop lights, and eventually all of its valves began to clatter like a blender full of golf balls. This noise muffled the concertina in my spine and the brass band in my nether parts, but was not otherwise encouraging. My mechanic informed me sadly that the Admiral’s EGR had gone out of whack, along with its catalytic converter, and that the clutch was on the verge of expiring.

I had never heard of an EGR before, but not wishing to seem ignorant, I kept quiet until I got home, and asked Google to tell me whether an EGR was a fruit or a textile, and whether I should boil it in syrup or only send it out to be dry-cleaned. It seems that it is a widget or doohickey, I forget which, that recycles some of the car’s exhaust back into the intake to give it a second dose of internal combustion, which is better than releasing it straight into the air in the form of smog, God knows. The Admiral’s trouble was that its widget or doohickey had got stuck in the open position. This caused the intake to be flooded with (dirty) air, no matter how the fuel-injection system tried to balance the air-fuel mix, so that it always ran too lean. This explained why the engine knocked at idle, but sounded more or less normal at speed. If that had been the only thing wrong with the Admiral’s health, I should have ordered the repairs to go ahead; but since it also needed a catastrophic perverter, and a new clutch, and a new windshield, and various other little repairs, amounting to about a four-thousand-dollar bill for a car that I could hardly give away at a robbery, and I did not have four thousand dollars in the world, I decided against it.

Since that day, Admiral Halsey has gone into an alarming decline. The racket of the valves has grown worse, to the point where squeegee men offer free diagnoses instead of trying to squeegee my windows. This is an improvement, but not, in my careful judgement, worth the disadvantages that accompany it. The trouble is that now the Admiral stalls. Every time I step on the brake, the tachometer falls below a certain critical value, and the engine leaves off working. Sometimes the dashboard lights and the instrument panel cut out. Much more often, the power steering quits, and most alarming of all, the power brakes stop having power just at the moment when I need them most. I have learnt to stand up on the brake pedal with both feet and pit my own bodily weight against the momentum of the car. If I were not a fat and bulgy man (being out of condition partly on account of the same ailments that are preventing me from writing), I believe I would have lost by now. I hardly dare to take passengers any longer; I would not let myself in the car if I thought I was valuable. I would scrap the Admiral, but because of the shopping trouble I mentioned, and the necessity of visiting my elderly parents sometimes (and also because I am making a desultory search for a day job), I cannot do without a car altogether, and I cannot afford a replacement.

On balance, I cannot conscientiously recommend this method of not writing. It does, to be sure, distract the attention wonderfully, and it gives all kinds of scope for talking to mechanics, and used-car salesmen, and helpful hoboes, and all that sort of people, when one could be sitting safe at home and inflicting literature on the world. But if every unblocked writer in the world started to drive an Admiral Halsey in order to get blocked, the carnage on our streets would be insupportable. I entreat you not to buy a car like mine. Public safety will not stand it.

4. Have a flood.

Amidst all these other inconveniences, the Bow River began to rise dramatically about the middle of June, and in the last days of that month, every river in the district joined together in the famous Alberta Flood of 2013. Our last flood, in 2005 or thereabouts, was (we are assured) a once-in-a-century event, and consequently we were all vexed to have a much bigger flood only eight years later. It was highly inconsiderate of Mother Nature to forget how to tell the time, just when our insurance rates were subsiding to normal again.

I was not personally flooded — the most tenacious floodwaters have trouble clinging to a 105-degree slope — but I observed a good deal of water hurrying by my door on its way to less fortunate parts of town. Nevertheless, there was a period of as much as a week when most of the bridges were closed, and the city centre was evacuated (along with over 100,000 people from the lower-lying neighbourhoods), and the municipal waterworks were running at a tiny fraction of capacity. We were implored not to do any washing or take unnecessary baths. Fortunately, the worst effects of my virus did not occur during the ban, so the unhappy day when I very suddenly had to wash the bedclothes occurred at a time when I was eligible to do so.

Now, the suffering of thousands may seem a trivial thing compared to the holy and onerous vocation of writing, but I can assure you that it seems quite otherwise when you are in the midst of it yourself, and bombarded with hourly reminders of the disaster. The most noble and assiduous selfishness cannot quite shut out awareness of one’s fellow-men at such a time. I spent the week (and more) in a pretty constant state of discomfort and anxiety, wondering which of my friends and neighbours were safe and above water, and which ones had taken up residence in Hudson Bay. My physician was one of the latter. One morning when I was due to see him about my maladies, his office called to explain that his road to work had been washed out, and his house more or less submerged, and consequently he would not be in that day. I am happy to report that his fortunes have recovered since then. Neither of us was happy at the time.

The only defect of this method (supposing that you are not flooded out yourself) is that it is somewhat difficult to generate a 100-year flood on demand. Even if you could have such floods whenever you chose, they would eventually lose their effectiveness, as everyone abandoned the district for higher ground. Sadly, we must look elsewhere for our excuses.

For similar reasons, I find it hard to recommend two other methods I have recently experimented with:

5. Have elderly parents with dementia and other health problems, living in an institution that doesn’t want to keep them.

(It is important, in such a case, to ensure that the people responsible for your parents’ care are at loggerheads with each other, widely separated in space, and utterly indifferent to your desire to be informed. This will maximize your anxiety and minimize your chances of doing any good that might relieve your pent-up feelings of inadequacy and guilt.)

6. Have a death in the family.

(For maximum effect, let it be a favourite uncle, and have the death occur hundreds of miles away — not too far to travel to the funeral, but too far to go whilst carrying Admiral Halsey on your back. Bonus points if you cannot find a hotel room anywhere in town the day of the funeral. Not being able to take your father to the obsequies, because his guardian won’t allow him to travel, provides an extra twist of the knife.)


There are other reasons why I have not been writing this year, but I cannot recommend them to the aspiring student, as they may not be sufficient by themselves to shut up a voluble Muse. It is like the man who caught pneumonia just before a piano fell on his head: his survivors could never be certain whether he would have died of the pneumonia, so they gave all the credit to the piano.

Now, if you are troubled with the vicious and impertinent habit of writing, I exhort you to go forth and saddle yourself with some of the difficulties I have listed here. If one of them doesn’t dry up your creative faculties, try another. And if you can handle all six and still turn out marketable copy, my hat is off to you. It is clearly your destiny to be the Rasputin of literature.


  1. I am very sorry to hear of the calamities you’ve suffered these last few months. It pains me to add to them but your 3.6 loyal reader accounting is now in error. Unless one of them has wearied of you or the near half-man has now suffered the loss of the seeing part of him, I bring you to 4.6. Found your blog a few weeks ago and have read through the last two years worth of entries so far. Very enjoyable reading.

    I’ve yet to buy anything with your name on it just yet so I’ll understand if my avowals of loyalty are inventoried right next to the natterings of the five o’clock crow.

    • Thanks for commenting, and do please feel welcome to stick around!

      Alas, the 3.6 is now a fixed number, beyond the power of new data to correct — like the 13 stripes on the American flag. I shall not be taking a census of Loyal Readers anytime soon, and if I did, I would have to ignore it for reasons of poetic consistency.

      • Thanks, Tom. I am now the owner of the Kindle version of ‘The Eye of the Maker’. I claim Delaware as my stripe if it is not yet spoken for by any of the other Loyal Readers. Having met but two people in the entirety of my life from that great state, I feel good about my odds.

        All jest aside, I will put up a review on Amazon when I’ve finished the book and gathered my thoughts.

  2. I hope the fall and winter prove less catastrophic!

  3. Thank you for this informative essay. I shall file it away in my Bin of Good Advice, which of course I never consult. That is the nature of Good Advice. However, it is no fault of yours or your advice, and if I do say so myself, your inclusion in its hallowed if ne’er-tread halls puts you in some very good company indeed.

    And if I may also say so, you are a brave and noble man, and on the day the Reaper comes to harvest – May it be long delayed! – I expect you to be that rare soul who meets him with a smile, a wink, and a mocking, “What kept you? I thought you’d never catch up.”

  4. Sherwood says

    I am so sorry you’ve been going through this hell. I sure hope you get a quiet and productive autumn.

  5. Here’s to hoping that autumn will be better.

  6. . . . yikes. That is an impressive litany. I hope you have nothing to add to it for quite a while to come.

  7. What fine alchemy it is, to take so much pain and turn it into so much laughter!

    • Thank you. I couldn’t think of anything else to do with it, so I took Byron’s advice:

      ‘And if I laugh at any mortal thing,
      ’Tis that I may not weep.’

      It seems to help.

  8. BTW — I always puke in the sink: that way, the faucet washes the puke away almost as fast as you spew it. Much less disgusting, IMHO. Just a heads-up … so to speak.

    • Advice noted. However, when I am sitting on the toilet, the sink is off to my left at an inconvenient distance, and I was never any good at puking out of my earhole. Also the sink is shallow, and tends to splash easily, so I would rather not fill it with anything more disgusting than water.

    • Have done a few times; our sink is old and cheap, so the…uh… chunks get caught.

      Even when you haven’t eaten anything solid for days, which is scary.

  9. Thanks, Marc, Marie, and Marie, and also well-wishers not beginning with M, such as Jonathan and Sherwood. It’s good to know that you’re still there and still taking an interest. I sincerely hope you are all doing much better than I have been.

  10. Stephen J. says

    The only thing I can say is, Good God, man. (Though the difficulty of perceiving that goodness through suffering’s veil has always been the only motivation for atheism for which I have ever felt much understanding and sympathy.)

    I confess that I had been rather worried about your status following the long silence, and am dismayed to find those worries justified, albeit relieved to hear that the nadir appears to have been passed. At this rate I shall have to invest in a Kobo ARC, or something similar, just so that I can buy a copy of Earth and Sky to a productive end.

    Have you considered setting up a charity Kickstarter of some type to collect some assistance donations? I suspect you have more Loyal Readers than you think; $10 or $20 each from a widely distributed bunch of people adds up faster than one expects, and might make a critical difference to the Admiral’s functionality.

    • Have you considered setting up a charity Kickstarter of some type to collect some assistance donations?

      That might be a good idea. I looked into it several months ago, but at that time Kickstarter was only available to U.S. and U.K. residents. There is now a banner across the home page of announcing: ‘Kickstarter is now available to Canadian project creators!’ So I shall think seriously about that — and if it looks even halfway plausible, I shall open the matter up for discussion here on the blog.

  11. Hi Tom,

    I hope things are on a long upswing. I just finished The End of Earth and Sky, and it was good! I don’t know much, but I know what I hate, and I didn’t hate that. So I just bought your earlier book on Amazon. I went to buy Writing Down the Dragon, but then I realized I already did. So I bought a copy for my dad. We’ve really liked your Tolkien essays.

    I wondered why things were kind of quiet over here. I always hope for more content from writers I like, but please don’t consider that pressure at all.

  12. I am sorry for your losses and calamities. As it sounds, you are struck no less than Job. If so, I hope your end shall be as splendid as his.
    I offer my condolences and prayers. I will also add that not only the seasons are turning – in but a week, the 5774th year will be upon us, and I can only conclude with the lines opening the evening prayers of the New Year: ‘May the year and its curses end, may the year and its blessings begin’.

    • Please don’t say ‘Job’ in that loud voice. If you must mention his name, whisper. I haven’t had boils yet, and I don’t want to give anyone ideas!

      • Certainly. But you should not worry; it should have no effect, for my native tongue is Hebrew. To me ‘Job’ is that thing you must do where you work, in order to earn money. I never understood how that name came about; all know the ‘b’ at the end should be a ‘v’, and that the ‘j’ should be an ‘ey’.
        But I will also mention that whereas last week we read the Torah portion of the great curses (Deuteronomy 28), this week we will be reading their aftermath (Deuteronomy 30), wherein it says “And the Lord thy God will make thee plenteous in every work of thine hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, for good: for the Lord will again rejoice over thee for good, as he rejoiced over thy fathers:” And may these blessings come to us all soon.

        • Language is funky.

          You know the Russian name “Ivan”? And Irish “Sean”? Those are both from the same name as “John,” which is… what, something like “Yochan”?

          • Indeed, John is originally Yochanan. How that came about… again, I can somewhat understand the j/y divide, still preserved in how ‘Johann’ is pronounced, and the hard ‘ch’ sound is lost in many languages but where did the second ‘n’ go? And how did it even get to Ivan or Sean?

            • Oooh, I use to be good at this! (learned on my maiden name, which had exactly one sound left of its origin)

              Yochanan=> Yo’anan => Yo-an/Johann=> John, the ch is dropped.
              Yochanan=> Yovan=> Yivan=> Ivan, ch mutates to v, that Y sound goes more I. (probably actually via latin)
              Yochanan=> ‘Chanan=> Ch’an => Sean, ch sound becomes sh sound

              More complications because there was Greek and Latin involved, and they swapped Is for the Ys, and probably some other stuff…..

          • suburbanbanshee says

            You missed Iohannes/Ioannes, the Latin/Greek versions of the name. Yochanan was hard for Greek and Latin speakers to say, but the standard way to make a barbarian name Greek or Latin is to add “-os” or “-ios” for the Greeks, and “-us” or “-ius” for the Latins. For some phonetic reason, in this case it went to “-es” instead.

            Since most European languages automatically whack off “-os” and “-us” endings, they very calmly did the same to the “-es” ending.

  13. Glad you’ve survived, though I ache for you. It’s always good to see your name in my inbox, be it from your writing here or blog comments.

  14. I split a gut. Metaphorically. Whereas it seems you came nigh unto doing it literally. Gadzooks, man, hyperbole and real life aren’t supposed to mix.

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