The Writer Who Never Writes

On setting down those first words, and on Augusto Monterroso’s story “Leopoldo (His Labors)”.


If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)


Specific details illustrate. They are the ones that show in the famed show, don’t tell. 

I could have chosen other quotes that possibly better convey the universality of Leopoldo’s affliction, and there are many:

He did not like to write. He read, took notes, made observations, attended conferences, criticized bitterly the deplorable Spanish in the newspapers, solved difficult crosswords puzzles as a mental exercise (or for relaxation) …


…he was seized by deep terror when the time came to pick up his pen.

Those are familiar sentiments. But familiarity should be left to fluffy, worn jumpers on cold evenings—the interesting memories will come from the friends and flavours of hot-chocolate you spent those evenings with.

Indeed, specific memorable details can carry a whole story, even if it is as long as fifteen pages, which by Monterroso’s standards is a marathon. (The average length in Complete Works and Other Stories is three pages. A related fun fact: Monterroso is credited with writing one of the shortest stories, consisting of only seven words, before the Twitter era—in 1959. More about this next time.)

What is at the core of the Quote?

Polyptoton. Metaphorical itch.

Polyptoton is the repetition of the same words, usually intended as wordplay. In the Quote we have note, notes, notebook, notes, which are not intended as humour per se, but as an emphasis of the recursive absurdity of Leopoldo’s procrastination. Likewise, suggesting a comparison between manager and chicken smacks of deeper metaphorical meaning, but (mostly) ends up reading as a literal, if striking, surrealist element.

I actually lied a little: Leopoldo did write bits and pieces, but he never made it too far because he had heard, or read, that Joyce and Proust corrected a great deal, so one couldn’t be expected to actually finish anything, not really, not today and not tomorrow.

This final excuse suffers from the same being-on-the-verge problem: if to write, you have to begin a first draft, then to finish writing, you have to begin a last edit.

Begin something, today.


Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

7 thoughts on “The Writer Who Never Writes”

  1. I always gain comfort from a writer who talks about writer’s block. And of course creative ‘block’ affects artists whether they are painters, sculptors or photographers. I find that if I am out walking or running my mind gains a clarity and words flow. The problem is that by the time I get home those words that were crafted (by the release of endorphins through exercise) are often smudged and have lost that flow. Sitting down with a blank piece of paper in front of me is scary unless I already have a clear idea.
    I was very reassured by a quote I came across last week by Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer prize winner who I am sure you will have heard of. She said: ‘Don’t be afraid to write badly. Once you have something on the page, you can fix it – and if it ends up being good, no one will ever guess at its ugly start’. I draw great comfort from that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I like: “smudged and without flow” — that’s an apt description for how it feels in my case too. I have one of two reactions after the endorphin-induced creative splurge: either I judge that I wasn’t ready to write it down anyway (and it will come back in a more robust form), or I fear I’ll lose it if I don’t write it down in which case I pour it out any old way. I’m a perfectionist, too, so I prefer to have a clear idea before setting out, but I also find that some essences can only be distilled in the umpteenth edit, and no sooner … which is both discouraging (no one wants to expect to edit that much!) and encouraging (there will be many opportunities to hone in on that special gem of an idea). So I agree with that too: no one is likely to see the ugly start, no matter what—only the end result, if and when, you chose to show it to the world!


  2. I’ve mentioned John Le Carre before and one of his quotes about writing is “Let’s all pretend to be someone else, and then perhaps we’ll find out who we are.”
    And you’ve got me thinking again!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a fine exercise … Anything that shakes our daily point of view, shows us a different aspect of ourselves—the difficulty is usually making head or tail of it and then learning from it.

      Always happy to hear it’s got you thinking!


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