Monday, July 14, 2008

Overcoming the Ultimate Writer's Block

When author Howard Engel opened his front door and picked up his morning paper seven years ago, nothing on the front page made any sense to him. At age 70, the dean of Canadian mystery writers and creator of the Benny Cooperman series had lost his ability to read.

As it turned out, Engel had suffered an overnight stroke that left him with alexia sine agraphia, a rare condition that made it impossible for him to read, while still being able to write.

Many writers would have given up at that point. Not Engel, though with 10 Cooperman books, a handful of short stories and novellas, and a pair of radio and TV adaptations behind him, he could easily have walked away from the book world with no loss to his reputation.

Instead, he relearned the alphabet and dictated a new Benny Cooperman mystery -- Memory Book-- in which his sleuth wakes up in a Toronto hospital with a condition similar to Engel's.

His latest book, released last week, is a memoir: The Man Who Forgot How to Read. It's a testament, writes renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in the afterword, "to the resilience and creative adaptation of one man and his brain."

It's a testament, too, to a love of the written word and a commitment to creation that would not be stifled.

How does your commitment express itself? Where have you been blocked and how have you overcome that block? If you haven't yet overcome it, what's holding you back?

Nothing is holding Engel back. According to the current issue of The Week, "Engel is working on a third post-stroke mystery, sounding out each syllable as he hunts and pecks on the keyboard in his Toronto study."

Photo of Howard Engel: Joshua Sherurcij


Patsy Terrell said...

Next time I'm about to whine about not having enough time to write I'm going to remember this. And shut my mouth.

Mark David Gerson said...

It's okay to whine, Patsy. Just don't forget to write!

Daniel Smith said...

Wow, that really is an inspiring story. I can't imagine losing the ability to read. I too will think twice before complaining of writer's block next time. Thanks for sharing Mark!

Daniel Smith
Smithereens Blog

Todd D. Severin said...

Great post, and what great timing. I just wrote about the block I've been having lately. My blog, My Writing Life, ( shares writing lessons and tips I've learned along the way, including the Ten Point Revision Strategy. I'd love to exchange links with you if you like what you see on my site. Let me know.

My Writing Life

Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about making lemonade! Sounds like Beethoven's story.

My block is two-fold: my first book and no support (i.e., writers' group) and it was inspired by a bf who might soon be an ex. I still persevere, however, because it feels like I'm writing about me and I wanna see what kind of message/rabbit I pull outta my hat. I've had something like developmental arrest: I'm "middle-aged", but my (finally!) developing spiritual side and certainly the creative writer side are really 20 years old or so. I also thought it might be a good allegory for the YA market.

Don't have a clue as to what I'm doing but, as Daffy Duck used to sing: "Oooooh, ya never know where you're goin' 'til ya get thar."

Thx! Suze said...

WOW! What an amazing man Howard Engel is!!! I admire his determination at 70 to read, write, and publish again. Thank you Mark David for this post about an extraordinary man and writer!

Mark David Gerson said...

Thanks for the note, Todd. I'd be happy to exchange links with you...only I don't see a direct way to contact you on your blog. Drop me a line at and we can sort out the details.

Mark David

Stephen Tiano said...

The older I get, the more I appreciate stories like this. Thanks.