Gay Talese On Writers Block

Question: Have you ever experienced writers block?

Gay Talese: Probably I have writer’s block as a natural condition. I mean when I was a journalist working on a daily newspaper, my only job was The New York Times and it was only between 1956 and 1965, a nine-year period, and I’d have about four hours to write something. And I’d go out and get an assignment in the morning and at one o’clock I’d go back to the office and by seven o’clock it was supposed to be into the desk, into the editor. And I’d be laboring over it and laboring on it. It would be two or three hours sitting there in the city room sweating it through. There were other colleagues of mine who would just sit there as if they’re playing a piano in a fraternity house. It was all coming easily and it was just fun. They were having fun. I never had any fun. I didn’t think writing was fun for me. It wasn’t then, it isn’t now. But I had always a feeling that I can do a better sentence. I can tell it better. If I only had another 20 minutes, another 50 minutes, another 3 hours, another 20 hours, another 20 years, I can do it better. And sometimes you become with that mentality, you create these blocks. I mean it isn’t blocks so much as you want to rise above the ordinary, the mediocre, the easy to do, the functionary. You want to rise, you want to do something. You want to do something more worthy of the more discerning reader. And that takes time. It takes time, as my father always said, to make a good suit. Well, it takes time to write a good paragraph. To write a good book takes a lot of time. So you might say writer’s block, but I thought writer’s block, I mean that’s the phrase, but I thought sometimes writers write too much. I mean sometimes writers should say, “This is beneath my level just so I can get it published and maybe some readers will read it.” But sometimes writers write too much and they write secondary- they let it go there and it goes out there and Barnes & Noble’s shelves are filled with this stuff. They’re a famous writer, you can write two bad books and you get a good book and a bad book. I’m not saying you always know what a good book is. I mean you think you’ve written a good book and then maybe you’re coming to believe because reviewers have penetrated your sense of self it’s not a good book. I mean I think of the writers who are great fiction writers. Let’s just take people in my lifetime. I think William Styron wrote very, very, very, very few books that were not on a high level, whether they were long or short, whether they were Sophie’s Choice or Confessions of Nat Turner or a book about his own depression, it’s a fine book. You know, some of the writers that are more prolific who are contemporaries, I don’t have to name them, you can probably imagine who I’m speaking, wrote too many books. Yes, they have established with this book and this book and this book their reputation, but there are a lot of books that had they not been done nor do I believe they had to be done in order to produce the good books; they could have put it aside. It’s tragic when you think that sometimes writers who die, their grandchildren or somebody related will come out of the drawer and find this unpublished book manuscript by some writer. It might be Hemingway or it might be any distinguished name, John Steinbeck for example, and they get published, they didn’t want them published because they had the maybe good judgment to know this was not on the level of which I am capable. But sometimes editors don’t care and books are published. But, you know, you’re hearing me talk in ways that probably doesn’t embrace others in the way of attitude, but it’s just the way I feel.

Question How do you decide which stories are worth it?

Gay Talese: This is a very, very, very difficult question because it’s how I’ve felt through everything I’ve done. I first started when I was 24 years old writing about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which started to go up. It’s been Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York City. And they started to build that in 1959 and didn’t finish till 1965, ’64. And I started watching that going up, that bridge going up over this period when I wasn’t working full-time for The Times. On my days off or after hours, I’d go to Staten Island or Brooklyn and watch the construction workers. And I thought I really could spend 20 years writing this book ‘cause the book about a bridge is a book about a monument that is not timeless but can live for centuries, like the Brooklyn Bridge is more than a century old. And we do not know who the great builders of that bridge are except we know the designer, the Roebling brothers. But all the hundreds of people that put the stones together, put the wire, put the cables together, there’s no record of those people. So I wanted to do that in the Verrazano Bridge because I was there and I got to know the construction crews. But I could have spent a lot more time. And after the book was published, I was very saddened. I said, “You know, I blew it because now the book is out, the story is over, the bridge is built. I should have taken maybe 10 years.” And then the next book I did which is about The New York Times, I did take a long time. But sometimes in the books that I mentioned, The New York Times book and all the others that followed that in the middle of them I thought, “I’m taking too much time and I’m never gonna live long enough.” And sometimes you think you’re gonna die before the book is done and then you feel that you have to move faster and then there’s another side of you that said, “No, no, don’t do that. You’re gonna regret it,” as I regretted not spending more time on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I wish I had- I was too young or too impatient.  I don’t know what it was. But that book, it’s a nice little book, but it could have been more. I didn’t quite have the imagination or the willpower when I was young to do that. I haven’t made the same mistake since then. But at times since then, I have felt the opposite. I mean spending 10 years for a book is a long time and during that time, you’re doing nothing else. If you’re, you know, teaching college, if you’re lucky enough to get a teaching position, many writers do that, they think it’s a wonderful thing, but I don’t want to be on the faculty, not that I’ve had many opportunities, but there have been a couple of offers, but I felt I can’t commit to next year because next year, I’m gonna be on the road researching. I want to do here, I want to go here. I didn’t want to be tied down. I wanted to have what I mentioned before, the option of being free and going on the road and discovering things by chance. And I didn’t want to have to know that I had to teach three classes next year from September, you know, through June or whenever. Look, it is a very satisfying profession to be in something called book writing, very satisfying, but it has its downside and the downside has to do with your relationship to yourself when you’re alone. It’s a solitary profession. I mean maybe it’s fun to write a Broadway musical and to be Rogers and Hammerstein back in the 1940s doing South Pacific or to be a film writer working with a director or to be in a cast, you know, of a whole chorus, but when you’re a writer, you’re a solitary scrivener and only your own discipline will get it done. And you have to put in your own hours. No one’s saying you have to be there at nine o’clock or eight o’clock in the morning. No one says you have to put in five hours or three hours or twenty hours. No one says that. You have to be on your own good behavior, if that’s the word. And it’s really very demanding if you have any sense of dalliance or you drink a little too much or you’re on some drugs which you think are gonna be energy-producing when the reverse is true. You’re out of it. You’re out of it. And there are people who set great examples. Of my age group, I’d say Philip Roth is the one writer that I think of as a fiction writer who his whole life he’s done good work and he continues to do good work. And it’s not sloppy books that he produces. They may be not as- you know, shorter this time and longer the next time in terms of fiction, but he’s a great historian. If you read Philip Roth from the 1960s as I have to his most recent book published in 2008, you get a sense of this country as well if not better than a historian. It’s fiction, but he is also so in touch with the reality of what it is he’s writing about, no less than Faulkner writing about the south in the 1930s and ‘40s or Hemmingway writing about World War I. And you really get a sense of history in these great works. And Tolstoy in the period of Napoleon’s invasion in the early 1800s Russia, this is great stuff.

Writing has never been fun, but with enough time its pretty good.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
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  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
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