Walking Off Writer’s Burnout

Travel Stories: Jeff Biggers hadn't written anything original in months. The joy was gone. Then he and a friend went for a stroll in Bologna.

09.17.15 | 1:33 PM ET

Bologna, Italy. (Photo: Jeff Biggers)

I‘ve never had a problem with writer’s block. Just the opposite. Over the past decade, I’ve churned out several books, written hundreds of articles, blogs, book reviews, performed monologues and logged in more caffeine-fueled overnighters than a grave digger.

But until recently, I hadn’t written anything original in months.

At first I assumed my writer’s rut was related to a family illness and stacks of dense studies on regenerative medicine. But my son’s resiliency and ability to adapt, along with a constant stream of hopeful breakthroughs in science, have shifted me from stages of despair to increasing encouragement.

In truth, I was just burned out as a writer.

The joy was gone. I didn’t wake up in the morning, as George Bernard Shaw once lectured his fellow authors, with the thrill of being “used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”  (Sure, Shaw could be a pontificator in the theater, but he was an insightfully wicked one, especially for writers.) Shaw said that we must become a force of nature, “thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap,” not a “feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Well, the writer as a feverish selfish little clod is a hard place to leave sometimes.

I tried to explain this to my old friend Guy Lydster recently, as we walked down the medieval streets of the Jewish ghetto in Bologna as we had done 25 years ago, jabberwocking about stories, scene ideas, even debating character and staging details.

I’ve always returned to Italy for inspiration. (My wife and kids are Italian citizens, and my children often finish their spring semester in Italian schools. While we have been based in the States for years, Italy remains a place where we return “home” for the summer as a family.)

My literary career began under the porticos of this red-ribbed Italian city. I picked up my first literary contract here—a film option for an unpublished novel. (The book deal eventually unraveled, but the film producer paid my rent for a year, allowing me to write full-time.)

As an emerging sculptor in those days, Guy disappeared into the back lots of stone, carving figures with a hammer and a chisel. I was in awe of Guy’s artistry and commitment: the months of conjuring an original image from huge blocks of marble or clay.

In the past, we always met in the evenings and wandered the back warrens, from the illuminated wonder of Piazza Santo Stefano to the jammed locales along Via del Pratello, to the once infamous criminal haunts of my apartment along Via Solferino.

Bologna is a city made for walking, defined by its labyrinth of covered halls and decapitated towers, the nudging bronze pitchfork of Neptune in the main square and the curbside chatter of students near the university—one of the oldest in Europe—that filled the air until the wee hours. The poetic lines of the city’s beloved singer/author Francesco Guccini cascade down the storefronts along via Paolo Fabbri in the famed Cirenaica quarter.

I considered it il bel cammino: The beautiful walk. But we discovered more than beauty. 

Walking and storytelling were interlocked cobblestones for us. We brainstormed, vented, traded concerns or breakthroughs about our respective projects. We were merciless as each other’s editorial critics. We worked on novels, essays, plays, and organized readings with other writers. We walked until we were exhausted.

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar, Spanish poet Antonio Machado had famously written: Walker, there is no road; the road is made by walking.

Writing stories, we understood, followed the same process. Walking was regenerating our writing, our ideas, our depleted verve.

Just as writers are warned to not write hermetically, walking reminded me—especially amid the changing streets of social and economic conflict, corruption, immigration and the city’s transcendent beauty—that a writer can’t live in a vacuum.

Over the years, the voices on the streets had changed with the waves of economic displacement and immigration; I exchanged greetings in different languages, and eventually heard the stories of extracomunitari—immigrants of non-European community status—who hid in the shadows and labored in the underground industries and services. 

On the streets, we once met a Russian émigré, who made us understand the longing of home by an exile like Dante: Even after his death he did not return to the city that had nursed him, she quoted from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, on a poem dedicated to Italy’s literary standard-bearer.

Walking had also led me to Bologna’s Rom (or gypsy community), where a friendship with a street musician provided a first-hand look at the flip-side of the bel paese for those who have been marginalized and despised.

Walking by certain landmarks, their history of art narrated by Guy, also prodded me to try other genres of storytelling, as a musician, painter and playwright. In effect, walking rooted us in this city—now Guy’s long-time residence, and my own adopted literary home—and taught me to engage my work with a sense of place.

I now realize the act of walking was not only a practical experience for me—it was crucial in keeping me motivated, inquisitive and most importantly, honest. The combined process of walking and storytelling amid the ancient wonders of this city—and its legion of artists and writers—was also a reality check about our own place and work.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders,” Italo Calvino wrote in his classic novel, Invisible Cities, “but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

That was then. But now?

On our recent walk, our pace as brisk as ever, it dawned on me how much I miss walking—and walking with other storytellers. How the grind of deadlines had diverted the process of allowing the unexpected to unfold; how a certain writing formula had replaced the willingness to take risks. How I needed to rewalk the same streets and listen to the new and old voices again, wherever I may reside.

That night in Bologna, Guy and I walked out the flaws of a new idea for a play about the clash between two multi-ethnic and multi-lingual theater groups on stage. I returned home exhausted. 

But for the first time in months I felt what Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi had called “the sweet hour”: “When the other lights are quenched, all round, and everything else is silent, I hear the hammer ringing, I hear the carpenter sawing: he’s still awake in the lamplight, in his shut workshop, hurrying and straining, to finish his task before dawn.”

And I began to write again.

Jeff Biggers is the author of several works of travel memoir/history and plays, including the forthcoming "Damnatio Memoriae: A Play, Una Commedia," based on migration stories in ancient Rome.

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