About a decade ago a novel I wrote got shortlisted for a splendid prize in Italy.
I was thrilled, but there was a catch: if I won, I would need to go to Italy to collect it. Before the finalists were finalized, they wanted to make sure I was prepared to do this. The whole thing—the plane tickets (my wife and ten-month-old kid would, of course, have to come as well), the hotels, the wine—would be on them, but they needed my assurance.
This is the sort of sacrifice writers have to make all the time.
I was thrilled, and not just because I was going to Italy. I would have been thrilled to go anywhere: I had hit a snag in the novel I writing. Specifically, it was one of those snags that causes you to write, re-write, and write again your first couple of pages.
On a good day it was the first couple of pages. On a bad day it was the first line.
I would not use the term “writer’s block” to describe my experience. Because, like you, I am not the sort of writer who has ever experienced such a thing.
It’s not the sort of thing anyone talks about. Maybe we’re superstitious, or think it’s contagious, or maybe we fear it’s worse than that: maybe writer’s block indicates a fundamental failing about oneself. There are two kinds of writers, we think: writers like us and writers who experience writer’s block.
And besides, it was not really a question of my being blocked. I was working, after all. Putting in the time at the desk, the way old Hemingway said it do it, ass in the chair.
If I could only get that first paragraph right, the rest would follow
The day after the invite from Italy arrived, I bought a hat. The forces that led me in this direction are perhaps too complicated to elaborate in hindsight, but suffice it to say that I went out that night, may have had a thimbleful of beer, and in the morning woke up next to a hat.
It was a black fedora, a little too big for me, but when I looked at myself sideways in the mirror, it made me look distinctly like the sort of writer who, once upon a time, would have strolled along the wide thoroughfares of Torino and imparted shattering truths about the human soul.
A hat to wear to Italy.
After a day of wearing the hat, it occurred to me that it was not enough – not on its own
What I needed was a suit to go with it, something pinstriped, and an immaculate white shirt, and also maybe the sort of devastating dark tie that demands a double Windsor.
Cufflinks. Yes, complicated, introspective shoes. Jean-Paul Sartre sunglasses.
A few weeks later, I was ready for departure. The night before my flight I donned my Italian outfit and stared at my reflection in the mirror. It was good, but something was just off.
It was the hat. It had to go. It was just wrong. I had to get rid of it, but that seemed criminal. The hat, after all, had got me the rest of the suit.
I forget exactly when I realized the hat was not a hat at all but the beginning of my novel that I had been writing and rewriting. It’s no accident that in Italian the beginning of an essay—the beginning of any piece of writing—is called a “Capello” or “hat.” It’s the thing that opens the piece for you as a writer, the part that allows you—somehow—to start writing at all.
And sometimes, it’s also the part of the piece—the short story, the novel—that you have to lose, in the end.
No matter how much you loved it to begin with.