Why are writers people that wad ruled paper?
December 16, 2009 7:04 AM   Subscribe

What's the origin of the image of the frustrated writer? You know this character - crumpling his drafts into little balls and throwing them in the wastepaper basket, or staring endlessly at a blank page. What are some really early appearances of this image?

If you don't know the exact origin, examples of it from film and television would help.
posted by voronoi to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα (writer's bard's block)
posted by oinopaponton at 7:08 AM on December 16, 2009

Well I cannot speak to the origins of the image, but the reason that they wad up the paper is so that people will not slip on loose sheets on the floor. If it is a bunch of wads of paper everywhere (which is how I imagine old offices) they can easily be swept up with a push broom, and walking through them would be like walking through leaves. If those same sheets of paper were flat on the floor it would be very easy to step on one and fall flat on your ass.
posted by BobbyDigital at 7:26 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ha - I was going to recommend looking at muse invocations too!
posted by Miko at 7:27 AM on December 16, 2009

Barton Fink, a great film on writer's block.
posted by effluvia at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2009

Plus, wadded paper can be thrown towards the garbage can with greater accuracy and a force that temporarily satisfies frustration.
posted by jeanmari at 7:36 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

BobbyDigital, do you have a source for that nugget?

(I've always thought it was just to discriminate between garbage and a piece of good paper that fell on the floor. Surely crumpling up paper predates offices.)
posted by rokusan at 7:58 AM on December 16, 2009

I don't have a source for the image, but it would have to have arrived around the arrival of cheap paper. Paper was too expensive to waste in Shakespeare's time, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE notwithstanding.
posted by musofire at 8:05 AM on December 16, 2009

I first saw it on Peanuts comic strips, with Snoopy throwing balls of paper off the roof of his doghouse and beginning the next page with "It was a dark and stormy night..."
posted by Pragmatica at 8:38 AM on December 16, 2009

I think the image is simply a representation of reality. Douglas Adams was once asked in a letter how he goes about writing. His response was, "Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds."
He was notoriously bad at meeting deadlines.
posted by cimbrog at 8:39 AM on December 16, 2009

Surely crumpling up paper predates offices.)

I doubt it - paper was much too valuable prior to the widespread introduction of cheap, mass-manufactured wood pulp paper in the late 19th century. People used to iron out used pieces of paper and sew them into copy books- making paper required rag and fiber and was a slower artisanal process. people didn't consider it very disposable. There were a lot of reuses.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

"Staring at a blank page in frustration" goes back as a trope, in Europe anyway, at least to the 18th century.

The first specific visual evocation that I can think of is this: Thomas Nast has an illustration for the 1870s Harper's edition of The Pickwick Papers that pictures Snodgrass at his desk, quill in hand, with discarded drafts filling a wastebasket.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Sir Philip Sidney, 1591 (Astrophel and Stella):

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear she might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled stepdame Study's blows;
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."
posted by feelinggood at 4:27 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

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