I Had a Writing Block Once. It Was the Worst 20 Minutes of My Life

Isaac Asimov? Robert Silverberg? Andrew J. Offutt? Harlan Ellison? David Gerrold? David Langford? Frederik Pohl? Anonymous Fan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg were both famously prolific. Apparently, one of them delivered the following quip:

I had a writing block once. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.

Alternatively, the remark may have been crafted by a fan in this form:

He had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life.
She had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of her life.

Would you please explore the provenance of this joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence of this humorous schema known to QI appeared in the influential 1972 collection of short stories titled “Again, Dangerous Visions” compiled and edited by Harlan Ellison. The author Andrew J. Offutt in the introduction to his tale stated that he had suffered a period during which his writing abilities had faltered. In the following excerpt Offutt employed his distinctive style using a lowercase “i”. Emphasis added by QI: 1

“Last summer, June 1970, i experienced my first Block, that ancient writer’s devil i’d heard about. Stupid; it was MY fault.

After an elaborate multi-paragraph description of his difficulties Offutt finally presented the punch line. The term “liefer” is in the original text:

“i fought, i kept sitting down and trying to type, i snarled, cursed, cussed, obscenitized. Kept on fingering keys, (i use three fingers, one of which is on my left hand. It gets sorest.) i kept on. Come on, damn you!

“i PREVAILED! It had been awful. It had lasted 45 minutes, and now i know what a block is. i’d liefer forget, and i will never ever stop at a stopping point again!

“i can’t see that a block ever need be longer, assuming one has any control over himself at all.

Harlan Ellison’s response to Offutt asserted that prominent science fiction authors such as Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley had endured blocks that had lasted for years. Ellison also wrote that the witticism about an evanescent impediment was already being told within SF fandom: 2

There are fans who jest about me and Silverberg “blocking”—for half an hour. But one day will come, smartass; one frightening, mouth-drying day when nothing comes. And then you’ll know what it is to suffer the torments of a hell you can’t even name.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1982 the screenwriter and novelist David Gerrold presented an anecdote in the pages of “Starlog” magazine about a group of writers attending a science fiction convention “a few years back” who were discussing problems afflicting the profession: 3

But this particular gathering was a remarkably candid one, and it was Robert Silverberg—yes, the incredible prolific Robert Silverberg—who said quietly, in that deliberately casual tone he affects, “I had a writing block once…” Immediately, he had the attention of the entire group. Robert Silverberg?!! He added, “It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.”

In 1991 a version of the quip appeared in the British computer magazine “8000 Plus” within a column by David Langford who today is best known for his long-lived SF fanzine “Ansible”. Langford discussed techniques for overcoming writer’s blocks: 4

Asked if he ever suffered this, the hugely prolific Robert Silverberg said: ‘Once. It was the worst ten minutes of my life.’

In 2009 the book “Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers” by Harry Bruce reported that the joke was applied to Asimov buy a colleague: 5

Not surprisingly, the writers with the least respect for writer’s block tend to be those who’ve produced the most books. About that happy master of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, a colleague said he “had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life.”

In 2011 the top SF editor and writer Frederik Pohl wrote a piece about Silverberg and included the following remark from the busy writer: 6

“What do you think, I’m some kind of freak who never has periods when he just can’t seem to get words on paper? I’m human, you know. Just last week I had a really scary episode of writer’s block that lasted from about 10:45 in the morning almost till lunch.”

In 2017 Robert Silverberg reminisced on the topic and suggested that the quip may have started to circulate as early as the 1950s: 7

I believe the first time I broached this joke was at the 1956 Milford writers’ conference, where a bunch of the elder gods — Sturgeon, Kornbluth, del Rey, Klass — were talking about their writer’s blocks, and one of them asked me if I had ever had one, and in a diabolical moment I said something like, “Yes, it was a Tuesday afternoon last March.” I see that I have rung various variations on this over the years.

In conclusion, both Andrew J. Offutt and Harlan Ellison referenced the humorous remark in print in 1972. Ellison stated that the quip was already in circulation, and QI believes that it was probably first applied to Robert Silverberg. The creator was likely an anonymous fan or Silverberg himself. It has also been applied to Isaac Asimov.

Image Notes: Painting by Leonid Pasternak with the English title “The Passion of Creation”. Image accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro whose mailing list inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Mark Carson who pointed to the pair of “Dangerous Visions” books and identified Andrew J. Offutt and Harlan Ellison as candidates. Many thanks to S. M. Colowick who located the 1982 “Starlog” citation. Additional thanks to discussion participants Ivan Van Laningham, John Cowan, Michael J. Lowrey, Dennis Lien, and Bill Mullins. Also, thanks to the volunteer Wikiquote editors.)

Notes:

  1. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124 and 125, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1982 February, Starlog: The Magazine of the Future, Soaring: Building Blocks by David Gerrold, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Published by O’Quinn Studios, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive at archive.org)
  4. 1991 September, 8000 Plus, The Padded Cell by David Langford, Column Number 60, Future Publishing, Bath, England. (Accessed via text archive at ansible.uk) link
  5. 2009, Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers by Harry Bruce, Chapter 17: Blocked!, Start Page 187, Quote Page 193, A Douglas Gibson book: McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview)
  6. Website: The Way the Future Blogs, Article title: Robert Silverberg, Article author: Frederik Pohl, Date on website: May 2, 2011, Website description: Created by Frederik Pohl to create and share material for a possible sequel to his memoir titled “The Way the Future Was”. (Accessed thewaythefutureblogs.com on January 7, 2017) link
  7. Mailing List: American Dialect Society, Article title: Re: Quote About Asimov, Date on message: January 3, 2017, Author of message: William D. Mullins, Original source of message: Robert Silverberg. (Received via email January 3, 2017)