The Writer’s Block
How ten top writers cope with a fear of the blank page
How do you get over creative block? Inspired by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s struggle, some of the most successful writers of today share how they deal with burnout
Matt Graham is the history-obsessed TV writer behind Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which looks at stories from America’s history that don’t fit into the way we learn about its past.
Art has an extraordinary power over humanity. The easiest path through blocks? Letting go.
The Creative Process remains one of the mysteries of the human experience and how it occurs is still not understood. What is known for certain though is that, when it breaks down, the resulting purgatory it creates for the life of the artist or writer can be catastrophic. Testament to this is the tragic life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
/ˌrʌɪtəz ˈblɒk/ (noun)
a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a novel, play, or other work
Exactly a hundred years ago, in the 1920s, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the epitome of the successful creative couple – Scott had written The Great Gatsby, a zeitgeist novel which made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic, and was considered a symbol of the era. His Southern belle wife Zelda became a style icon for the new era, and he and Zelda lived the life they wrote about, behaving badly at parties, travelling between Paris, the South of France and the US. They were the symbol of ‘the Beautiful People’ – in today’s parlance, influencers. Both would have had millions of followers.
By 1937, this picture had completely changed. Both Scott and Zelda were prematurely aged by their hard partying lifestyle; both suffered from alcohol abuse and their relationship was marked by conflict. The good times were over.
Both had squandered money, spending as fast as they earned. Zelda had suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to an asylum in North Carolina, while Scott’s long awaited 1934 novel Tender is the Night was a critical and commercial bomb that seemed to confirm his modern irrelevance. The Roaring Twenties had given way to the Depression, and the flamboyance of the previous era, which the Fitzgeralds typified was considered embarrassing and shameful. Scott struggled financially to make ends meet, and got by on short stories.
He documented his fall from grace in a collection of essays in Esquire magazine in the 1930s called The Crack Up, which was mostly met with derision and ridicule. After conducting a drunken interview with the New York Post profiling him on the night of his 40th birthday, Scott was horrified to discover the paper had portrayed him in print days later as a broken old Jazz Age novelist; forgotten and prematurely irrelevant. It cut too close to the bone. Humiliated, he attempted suicide in a North Carolina hotel room.
Many who did remember the old Fitzgerald were in Hollywood – the powerhouse of the era’s creativity – and the same year of 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was hired by MGM studios. He took a train out to Hollywood, his salvation as a writer, so he believed, at hand. He threw everything he had left into it.
It was his second such venture. The first, a decade before at the apogee of his literary success, had seen he and Zelda behave especially badly, leaving after only two months of chaos in which Scott allegedly had an affair with a young starlet.
Now, however, the situation was different. He was returning to Hollywood after years of financial instability and an unsuccessful book. The formerly thriving writer was deeply shaken after years of difficulty and had lost his confidence, believing that he was unable to create new work. He saw his MGM contract as a lifeline thrown his way from the cosmos.
Scott took up an office at the MGM Screen Writer’s Building and a bungalow for $400 a month at the The Garden of Allah Hotel, at 8152 Sunset Boulevard in today’s West Hollywood. There he would live along with many other writers and actors; the hotel, with its quaint Silent Era bungalows and reputation for confidentiality was notorious for both affairs and riotous parties and had become an outpost of New York’s Algonquin literary set – as well as for a clique of penniless British actors who inhabited the old servants’ quarters. Unlike other hotels of the era, The Garden had no in-house detective and this encouraged its “anything goes” atmosphere – combined with the fact that due to LA’s bizarre zoning laws, it lay technically just outside the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police. Reputedly, it was here that Errol Flynn met the love of his life, when he was introduced to cocaine by actress Lupe Velez.
Situated across the street from the equally famous Schwab’s Drugstore – known as the soda fountain where Lana Turner was discovered, where the lyrics for the Howard Arlen song ‘Over the Rainbow’ were dreamed up, and immortalised in the opening sequence of the noir movie, Sunset Boulevard – the Garden was known for its secluded feel, bad restaurant and large Black Sea shaped swimming pool.
Falling into the pool at The Garden was a rite of passage. Comedian John Barrymore apparently held the record for the number of falls, according to one resident: “the pool being perfectly situated for those who return home late and tired from parties.” Actress Tallulah Bankhead once dove in wearing a heavy evening gown and emerged naked to the delight of assembled partygoers. Humourist Robert Benchley, a longtime guest, famously quipped after being thrown in at a party: “Get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini.” The line became immortalised in a Mae West movie the same year. The Garden of Allah was anything but a quiet place to write.
In order to help himself remain sober and work, Scott chain-smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, compulsively ate Hershey Bars and drank a crate of Cokes a day. Despite seeing the new contract as a new beginning, Scott couldn’t shake the midlife melancholy into which he had sunk as the memories of his successful years receded. The hedonistic atmosphere of the Garden did little for Scott’s diligent attempt to remain sober and work – exacerbating his melancholy while he strove for professional salvation. According to a probably apocryphal legend, he once crawled from his bungalow to reception at The Garden of Allah in the midst of a long drinking binge and asked “for a place to die”.
Gripped with lonely despair, Scott even famously sent himself a postcard there. The pressures of early middle age were on him; Scott had to pay for his daughter’s school, and Zelda’s medical fees.
The belief that he was finished as a writer confronted him at every moment. He had barely been in Hollywood a week before his former protégé, Ernest Hemingway, arrived in town to remind him of the prodigious change in their respective fortunes. (Scott had got Hemingway his first agent after they’d met at the Dingo Bar in Paris years before). He remarked afterward, “Ernest’s life is defined by success, mine by failure.”
In July 1937, Hemingway, brash, confident and dismissive of many around him – including theatre titan Orson Welles, soon to make his own disastrous Hollywood debut and who’d been briefly attached as narrator to the film – arrived to screen his new documentary about the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Earth, at Dorothy Parker’s House in order to raise money for the cause of Spanish Republicanism. Fitzgerald was newly and shakily sober, and drove his friend Lillian Hellman there at ten miles an hour; like Hemingway, she’d met him in Paris years before, in the golden heyday of Fitzgerald’s fortunes, and was shocked at the change in him. The event underlined the changes in their respective fortunes. Hemingway was now an international celebrity, while the books that had made Scott famous were barely still in print. “It’s no use writing,” once bitterly confided Fitzgerald to Ogden Nash, “so long as Ernest is around”.
a behavioural condition characterised by an intense desire to write or draw, and the opposite of writer’s block
Scott’s Writer’s Block is the subject of multiple films and books and is a well known story. The associated psychological effects of his condition – such as his paralysing alcoholism, are well known to writers, and the jury is out as to exactly how much of his erratic behaviour in Hollywood was as a result of the condition. Writers and artists are known to suffer from psychological conditions like depression, anxiety and addiction much more often than more ‘normal’ sectors of society. Van Gogh famously sliced off his own ear. Scott’s condition served to exacerbate his problems, and vice versa.
What’s less well known is that Scott’s condition is often considered a taboo among writers – many of whom claim that Writer’s Block itself is a defeatist fantasy. So: what is the truth behind this condition and how do writers today deal with it? Why is it so controversial?
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In order to answer this question, we need to define exactly what Writer’s Block is
At the heart of it is the idea of how one creates – the idea of Inspiration vs Craft: in other words, how much of the creative process is pure Inspiration and how much is learned Craft?
Art has an extraordinary power over humanity – stimulating the emotions and allowing those who view it to change their perceptions of the world. Writers and artists are revered for their power and influence. ‘The Creative Process’, the mysterious process by which these ideas come into being is not well understood, even by the writers and artists themselves. Many describe the process of creation as one in which they themselves become only the vessel for an idea, their job merely as a physical delivery system. The Ancient Greeks understood this concept perfectly.
‘Inspiration’ as the source of creativity for a writer comes from the Ancient World, where the old poets believed that one needed to be possessed by a spirit, called a ‘Muse’, who would gift them with an idea. Poets would sit and wait for the Muses to touch them, as seen by one of the opening lines of the Iliad (“O Muses, sing to me…”). Their role was merely as a channel: creative work was a gift from the Gods and had nothing to do with human endeavour. To the ancient Greeks, for a human to believe he held the gift of Creation was the ultimate Hubris.
The idea of Inspiration is so powerful that even today it is popularly believed by many to be how writers work – the writer’s unconscious being stimulated by events in the external world.
Because the creative process remains not well understood, the general public believes that writers and artists are simply born that way. Popular belief centres, according to bestselling writer Elizabeth Gilbert, on creative writers “having”, rather than “being” a genius.
In Hollywood in the 20th century, the idea of Craft was created in direct refutation of these ideas; that ideas were and are created by disciplined human – rather than divine – endeavour and that writers can control what they do: inspiration is something you train yourself to receive, but craftsmanship is the discipline you subsist on in its wake.
This concept fascinated Fitzgerald, and he often described it in his stories, particularly as by his character Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, a producer showing a European prince around a Hollywood studio and the ultimate proponent of the idea of Craft: “We have all sorts of people – disappointed poets, one-hit playwrights, college girls – we put them on an idea in pairs, and if it slows down, we put two more writers working behind them. I’ve had as many as three pairs working independently on the same idea.”
Fitzgerald felt he had lost the ability to create novels and short stories. He thought he had run out of natural Inspiration and was desperate for salvation via Craft. In ancient parlance, he had lost hope that the Muses would sing to him. In Hollywood, then as now, the idea of the writer as a Craftsman is considered king – a writer doesn’t need to depend on such inspiration in order to create things. Key to this, is the Hollywood idea that a writer is a “professional” like any other tradesman.
The way Craft works in practice is that writers sit down and simply work on ideas. Craft was developed so that people waiting for writers’ work didn’t have to wait for Inspiration, and for writers so that they didn’t have to sit around waiting for an idea. These ideas are both in conflict with each other, and the battle between them plays out in writing today.
Writer’s Block is a condition that is related to pure inspiration, the idea that a writer has run out of ideas, and is one that Fitzgerald believed could be solved through the application of Craft.
That is, he would embrace his role as a cog in the studio system to find his salvation, working to outwit his Writer’s Block in the process. However, Writer’s Block affected his behaviour, worsening his situation and causing him to lose his fight against alcohol. His drunken performance at a high level studio tea party, in which he insisted on singing a song which ridiculed the assembled guests. was widely believed to be the reason for the termination of his MGM contract. This episode was immortalised in one of Scott’s own brilliant short stories about Hollywood, Crazy Sunday, published in 1932.
Perhaps as a result of his performance, Scott was let go from MGM. But his story doesn’t end there. “American lives have no second acts,” he once claimed, but his own story was to have a powerful, dramatic, and tragic third act. It would begin the very night after attending Hemingway’s screening.
Today, numerous remedies have been suggested for writers suffering from Writer’s Block. Everyone who creates for a living has some experience of, and anecdote related to, creative stagnation. Many have theories of how to deal with it. Location and or lifestyle change, more reading, less pressure, there are numerous ideas on the subject, but the fear of stagnation persists as perhaps the greatest fear for any creative person, perhaps because of the debt one owes to a universe beyond their control.
Increasingly, Writers’ Block is also being recognised as a scientific condition: in 2004, the book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and The Creative Brain, argued that the desire to write is the function of specific areas of the brain and that a creative block can result when those areas are disrupted.
Whatever the truth of the creative process, many factors are believed to affect it – one such being location. Community is often a great incubator of creative talent. Paris in the 1920s and 30s, for instance, being the creative melting pot that it was, allowed interaction and community between writers and artists. It was after all, at a crowded bar in Paris, that Fitzgerald first met Hemingway. Interestingly, isolation, though viewed as romantic, can actually be fatal for creatives – an idea explored by writer Stephen King in his classic novel, The Shining. In a well known anecdote, writer Steven Gaghan describes renting a remote cabin in order to write the screenplay for the movie Traffic. The experience became a nightmare for him when he was unable to produce anything of value for months on end, and drove him to the uttermost despair.
For Scott, after writing for years by himself with increasingly diminishing returns, the community he found in Hollywood would prove vital to the next – and final – stage of his career.
In his well known book on the subject, The War of Art: Break through your Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield emphasises that fear is good for the writing process – a writer should be afraid to face the blank page because it shows that he or she is taking his job seriously. He emphases the essential role of routine and discipline above all for a writer, what Hemingway called “showing up” for work – the Craft in action.
TOPIA asked ten successful screenwriters and authors for their takes on Writer’s Block
1. Simon Van Booy
British-American author and writer Simon Van Booy is the award-winning, bestselling novelist of more than a dozen books. He is the editor of three volumes of philosophy and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC.
“In my experience as a writer and editor, Writer’s Block is caused by many things, and different for each writer. Here’s a few things I’ve found commonly cause it…
1. Success, as it means feeling pressured to recreate a style or tone that is no longer creatively satisfying. 2. Not reading enough or not reading work that inspires you, as the writer needs to feel that magic in order to create it for the reader. 3. Working on a project that’s not the project you should be working on. 4. Worrying what other people will think. If it’s emotionally true for you, who cares?! 5. Writing for an audience and not for yourself.
2. Tina Gharavi
Tina Gharavi is the writer and director of Cleopatra (Netflix), and the feature films I Am Nasrine and Breakfast in Beirut. Director, showrunner, and occasional after-dinner speaker, Tina is based between LA and Newcastle in the UK.
“I have Writer’s Block, same as when one has insomnia… It feels like it is coming from nowhere… That it has no cause. Nothing that can make sense of it. Then suddenly you realise that, no, insomnia was not born out of nothing, not without motivation or reason. Actually, the fact that you rowed with your partner a few nights back, that the boss perpetually seem to be trying to catch you out, or that the gnawing meaningfulness of things weighs on your mind. Writer’s Block may seem insidious and without reason at first but really it is there to tell you something. I have to remind myself that perhaps you have not nourished your soul, perhaps what you are writing has no meaning or purpose or urgency, or maybe you need to go out in nature… or just stop. Stop everything. I deal with writer’s block like I do insomnia. I ask my heart what is troubling it. And if I am being honest… then I can sleep.
3. Esteban Arango
Esteban Arango is an award winning Colombian-American writer and director known for his striking visuals. His debut feature film, Blast Beat (Hulu), premiered in Sundance 2020. He recently wrapped production on his second feature film, Ponyboi, which will premiere in 2023.
“I’m a director but I’m also a writer, and for me sitting down and writing on a blank page is one of the scariest things. I think the solution for it is having a process that you can turn to: I like to have a partner, to share the load. But I really don’t quite believe in Writer’s Block. I think that it is an excuse for a lack of process.
4. Erick Castrillon
Erick Castrillon is a Colombian-American, LA-based screenwriter and director. He partnered with Esteban Arango on Blast Beat (Hulu), is currently writing a television show for Peacock, 90 Minutos, and is developing his directorial feature debut, Monster Me.
“For me, writing is a task that requires lots of energy, time, and emotional stamina. Whenever I don’t want to face the page, it’s not for lack of ideas to explore, but because the act of organising those ideas is extremely difficult. Getting in the zone to express anything is hard to achieve. Sometimes it’s because I’m depressed; other times it’s because I’d rather do something else; and other times it’s because I get overwhelmed because what I’m writing is not working. But eventually I find myself sitting down and facing the page again and again because at the end of the day writing is my job, and it is what gives meaning to my days. I love doing it. Expression fuels my spirit, so I must do it every day.
Great works of art rarely ever just appear out of thin air from one day to the next. Writing requires consistency, confidence, and a level of self determination to achieve a vision just because you want to see it achieved.
5. Chinaka Iwunze
Chinaka Iwunze is a Nigerian-South African TV and screenwriter based in Johannesburg. She has worked on shows for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Showmax, Ebony Life Channel, SABC and E.TV, is currently Head Writer for Durban Gen, and writes for Blood on Water (Netflix).
“In terms of my projects and what I get paid for, I always remember Steven King and his way of working where he’s ‘just write. Even if it’s bad, just have a schedule and write whatever. It’s easier to edit rather than to work off a blank page’. It’s something I can work from. A head writer I once worked under called it ‘the vomit draft’. Just get the nonsense out, it gives you permission to write crap.
When I don’t know how to move forward I shut down, I go back to things that reignite me, like The Twilight Zone, or watching The Terminator, and just doing nothing and not thinking about what I have to do and just consuming content and being ok with the process, trusting that eventually something will happen. I’m actually working, even though I’m shut down. At the heart of it, it’s allowing myself to stop freaking out and letting it go, and doing stuff that’s nice. Trusting that the subconscious will eventually find a balance and come around. Allowing the subconscious to solve things for me, has always worked. As cheesy as this sound, trusting my process will get me where it needs to get me, has always worked.
6. Coline Abert
Coline Abert is an irreverent French sci-fi writer, producer and occasional director. Based between Paris, London and New Orleans, Coline is known for Les Revenants (Canal +), The Walking Dead: Europe (AMC) and 1899 (Netflix).
“I’ve never experienced a real Writer’s Block, the fear of the white page, but I used to be very good at procrastinating, when I was not feeling the story and the characters so well. I’ve spent hours sitting in front of my computer for hours, doing random searches on Google, and not writing a line; vomiting all the scenes at once on the page the night before the deadline, which used to be my nightmare.
But with experience, I’ve become better at dealing with time – forcing myself to write a few pages every day, even if I hate every word of it. I’m also making sure I have a few days to do a polish before delivering. More importantly, I think I’ve become pickier with projects I’m committing to. I’m now only going for projects I feel passionate and inspired about.
7. Jerry Shandy
Originally from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Jerry Shandy is a TV writer based in LA. He is best known for Batwoman (Warner Brothers), Perception (Amazon) and Dominion (SyFy).
“When I was asked about Writer’s Block, my impulse was to say I did not believe in it, I felt like it was a term bandied about as an excuse for laziness. Carrying out the physical act of writing is not a difficult thing. However, in giving the topic deeper consideration, I must admit there may need to be an asterisk applied to my long held, but not thoroughly analysed, belief. The reason for this is that there is a significant difference between simply writing, and writing well. If a writer isn’t “inspired”, then forcing words onto paper will result in bland and perfunctory material. To write well, a writer must be excited by the right idea, at the right time – then a sort of alchemy may occur which elevates the work. How a writer conjures this intangible magic, how they become chock full of inspiration… well now we’re veering off onto a different topic best suited for different time.
8. Zakir Shaikh
Zakir Shaikh is the TV writer of Sullivan and Son (Warner Bros) and co-creator of One Night (Amazon). Originally from the suburbs of London, and now living in the suburbs of LA, he is of Indian-Pakistani heritage and obsesses over how decolonisation created all the modern world’s problems.
“When people used to ask me how I dealt with Writer’s Block, my initial response was – ‘I don’t ever get Writer’s Block’. Then I realised that it can rear its face in many ways, not just the traditional feeling stuck for ideas and unsure what to even write.
For me, I’ve always been able to generate content – in my head. Writer’s Block happens when I struggle to convert what’s in my head down on the page, when I use all kinds of avoidance tactics to actually deliver. Let me read the news, let me play a game of Wordle (why is there only one a day?), let me go for a walk… honestly, I’m thinking about it. But I’m not DOING it.
It’s taken me years, but what’s helped me overcome it is knowing that it’s all driven by fear – what if what I produce isn’t as good as what’s in my head? Now I realise that the quality of work suffers when you overthink the story; that you need the instinctive ideas to flow out of you when they haven’t had the chance to be censored, filtered, checked and balanced. That’s when you get that rare adrenaline hit of writing well.
9. Brent L. Smith
Brent L. Smith is the author of Edendale Society and Pipe Dreams on Pico. His latest novella, Gambling Hell in No Time (Far West Press), is due in 2023. His work has appeared in Flaunt Magazine, L.A. Weekly, and MUFON Journal. The self-professed “scion of high strangeness” resides in his native Los Angeles.
There are so many distractions today, and everyday horrors, it’s miraculous anyone writes anything of substance at all. Not just global horrors, but personal ones, especially. How do you focus on writing a novel, for instance, when you’re on the verge of financial ruin – flirting with all manner of personal and spiritual bankruptcy? It’s hard focusing on the long road ahead when the vultures are circling. I believe firmly in Writer’s Block.
In my experience, the easiest path through blocks? Letting go. Your debt, your relationship problems, your job, your children, your fading youth, just let it all go for a few hours, for a few minutes. Sit down and let ‘er rip. Voices in your head don’t get the book written. Keystrokes do. And when it comes to writing (and perhaps all things in life), when you take the step into the Void, the path reveals itself. But it requires a step, and getting out of your own way. It starts with letting go of everything. This takes practice, and it becomes a practice.
Some people go their whole lives without letting go, even for a moment. Don’t leave your life’s work to chance, don’t feel like you need anything in order to let go. It’s the only thing you don’t have to buy or earn, it’s yours, and no one can take it away.
10. Maisha Closson
Maisha Closson is showrunner on Truth be Told (Apple TV+). Previously she was an executive producer on the dramas, Kindred and The L Word: Generation Q. She began her career working on comedies including Becker and Rodney. She’s originally from Orlando but doesn’t go back much as she has issues with Florida.
“Creative flow is a delicate thing. My writing tends to come in fits and starts. Some days result in three really good pages. Other days end with me staring at the three truly awful sentences I’ve written and then desperately going on Deadline to see what all the successful people are doing. I’ve come to learn, though, that feeling stifled creatively is just part of the process. To combat it, I just keep writing. Poorly. Then maybe I take a walk, eat, or call a friend. Then I go back to the page and it gets better.
For me, it helps to keep at it. Sometimes this may mean thinking about it- – away from the page. I play and re-play scenes in my head all the time. I talk to myself. I steal things from overheard conversations, books, friends’ experiences. Eventually, I get there. The challenges in writing are many: meeting deadlines, writing when there is no deadline, creating characters that pop, writing for characters you don’t love, addressing notes, rewriting, making sure your story actually works. It’s a wonder we create anything at all.
So I offer only this advice: Write for the moment you read your work and get that tingle because you know it’s good. It’ll be worth it.
Escape from reality
Fitzgerald strove to find his salvation in Craft; he’d long given up on Inspiration, or even the Muses visiting him, but it would be a chance meeting that would help him create his final masterpiece.
Demoralised by the events of the screening and his former, more successful protege, the following day, Scott reluctantly attended a party at Robert Benchley’s villa in The Garden of Allah – he couldn’t easily have refused for he was living there too. It was there that he met a young female British Hollywood correspondent, Sheilah Graham. This meeting would change both of their lives.
Both were already in relationships. Fitzgerald was still married, with Zelda under medical care in North Carolina, and Graham was engaged to the Marquess of Donegal – the party at Benchley’s was in fact in honour of the couple – but both were instantly attracted to one another. As a result of meeting Fitzgerald, Graham broke off her engagement in less than a month.
Sheilah Graham saw in the despairing writer what many others apparently didn’t and he, in return, was one of the very people to believe in her. Her secret was that her real name and identity, Lilly Shiel, was something she kept closely guarded. She’d grown up in London’s impoverished East End with a Jewish background, and had no formal schooling. She was terrified of discovery.
Learning this, and after she challenged him on antisemitism in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald referred to her as “beloved Infidel” and the two grew closer. Fitzgerald created for her the ‘College of One’, where he tried to give her a one-to-one education in the classics, history, literature and the arts, the education she had been deprived of thanks to her birth. The two supported each other, but Fitzgerald’s drinking was to test the relationship severely.
Nevertheless, he managed to find more movie work, and the stability she gave him allowed him to overcome the thing he’d been battling for so long, his Writer’s Block, and to create something genuinely new – his final novel, The Last Tycoon. Its setting was Hollywood, a world which Fitzgerald viewed as one of his own ascetic salvation, alternately both Paradise and Purgatory.
At its heart was a tragic Fitzgeraldian hero, based on the man personally responsible for the Craft that Fitzgerald so admired: dashing young super producer Irving Thalberg, a man cut down in his prime, became immortalised as Monroe Stahr. Thalberg had done more to create the idea of the “Studio System” than any other man, pioneering the Hollywood writing techniques that Fitzgerald saw as his salvation, but dying before forty having changed the world.
The arrogance of Fitzgerald’s early career had long dissipated. Although Fitzgerald saw himself as a failure, his new found humility led to him making many friends in Hollywood and in particular gaining the admiration of a new generation through his warmth and generosity. He recommended a younger fellow studio screenwriter named Nathanael West for a Guggenheim Fellowship and commiserated with him when the reviews for his first novel The Day of the Locust were bad. The novel sold very poorly despite its modern reputation as a classic.
Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, while widely acclaimed today as one of his best, however couldn’t help him overcome his lifestyle. His work on it was cut short when in November 1940, buying cigarettes at Schwab’s, he felt faint and dizzy. He was diagnosed with heart problems. Several days later, while at Graham’s apartment on Hayworth Avenue a few blocks from The Garden of Allah, reading The Princeton Review, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44.
Fitzgerald’s death hit Graham hard and for a time she relocated back to Europe to work as a war reporter – World War Two by now raging. She went on, alongside Hedda Hoppa and Louella Parsons, to become one of the most famous Hollywood correspondents of the 20th century, with her column ‘Hollywood Today’ able to make or break careers. Much of it, she credits to Fitzgerald’s ‘College of One’, and of his belief in her.
Word of Fitzgerald’s death rapidly disseminated through Hollywood – and the following day, 20 December 1940, Nathanael West cut short a hunting trip in Baja California with his wife Eileen to race back in time for Fitzgerald’s funeral. Crossing the border at speed back into the United States, at the intersection of Highway 80 and Route 111 in El Centro, California, he ran a stop sign and crashed his Ford Station Wagon into migrant labourer Joe Dowless, from Arkansas, in a 1937 Pontiac. He’d been returning from a melon picking job in Yuma, Arizona, part of the wave of migrants who’d descended on California in The Depression in the hope of a better future.
Like the writers who came to Hollywood from Back East and Europe, but without a generous MGM salary, Dowless and many like him were chasing just another part of the same American Dream – reinvention. West and his wife were killed in the crash. West and Fitzgerald – mentor and mentee – died within 24 hours of each other.
A few years later, when a fire tore through the North Carolina sanatorium in which she was hospitalised, Zelda died in the flames. The former literary power couple of the Roaring Twenties had not seen each other since 1938.
Perhaps Scott Fitzgerald’s story shows us above all that although he considered himself “cracking up”, his Writer’s Block was above all internal – and he was able to overcome it thanks to external events in his environment, and the support of someone who loved him. His belief that he was finished was a false one, caused by nearly a decade of professional disappointment and personal chaos. The screenwriter Billy Wilder, a friend of Fitzgerald’s, described his foray into Hollywood thus: “He made me think of a great sculptor who was hired to do a plumbing job. He did not know how to connect the fxxxing pipes.” With an irony that he probably would have appreciated, a few years after his death Fitzgerald’s reputation recovered enormously, and he’s today recognised as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s unfinished masterpiece, written during his years of Hollywood obscurity, was the subject a 1976 film adaptation and now an Amazon series.
With patrons moving to the new Chateau Marmont across the street in the 1950s and as marijuana began to replace alcohol as the drug of choice, the increasingly sleazy Garden of Allah was finally demolished to make way for a bank, Lytton Savings and Loan, with a large accompanying parking lot in 1959.
A final blowout party drew numerous former residents and included an auction for the property’s remaining furniture. Rumour has it that the iconic hotel’s destruction is the subject of Joni Mitchell’s famous line from the song Big Yellow Taxi: “pave over paradise and put up a parking lot.”
The hotel was described in the blog Hollywood Lost and Found as “an Escape from Reality for those whose job it was to provide an Escape from Reality for everyone else.”
What’s so good about this?
The chance meeting between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham allowed him to finally overcome his Writer’s Block and create new work and for her to realise her potential. Chance meetings like these can change your life. We don’t understand the creative process, and how and why creative difficulties occur, but one thing is clear; environment, location and milieu play an important role in the unconscious.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.