Writerland, Chapter 6: Battling the Demonic Watcher at the Gates

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

We writers are our own worst enemies, or rather we host them, like demons. Don't take my word for it. Ask Freud. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud mentions a correspondence between the 18th century poet Friedrich Schiller and a writer bemoaning his lack of creative drive. Schiller suggested that while there were benefits to self-criticism, they were useful only after the act of creation. Because inside every creative soul, Schiller went on, there existed a dark force poised to stomp all over bursts of creativity just as they are poised to take flight. He called this maddening creature The Watcher at the Gates.

I did not know that I was plagued by my own Watcher until I discovered its presence in 1977 in an essay in the New York Times Book Review by the novelist Gail Godwin. Godwin too was cursed by a Watcher, and so were her writer friends. “It is amazing the lengths a Watcher will go to keep you from pursuing the flow of your imagination,” she wrote. “Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive looker-uppers. They are superstitious scaredy-cats. They cultivate self-important eccentricities they think are suitable for ‘writers.’ And they'd rather die (and kill your inspiration with them) than risk making a fool of themselves.”

Just because you know you are possessed by a Watcher doesn’t mean you can stop yourself from obeying it. For 40 years my Watcher has made me floss, pace, snack, keep my fingernails trim, and more recently, convinced me that I must check Twitter every four or five seconds to make sure I hadn’t missed out on anything while I was staring helplessly at a blank screen. Made ya look, says my Watcher, knowing I am powerless to stop it.

You know you do this. Everyone does. Let me assure you it’s not your fault. Because here’s the thing about Watchers: they are wiser about you than you are about yourself. Or so they want you to believe. Otherwise, why would we obey when they insist we are in no position to write until we have checked Kayak for discounted airfares to places we will never go.

Godwin suggests ways to trick Watchers: writing very fast before they can notice (Virginia Woolf did that); make insane deadlines; write “a letter” instead of judgeable prose. But ultimately, they can only forestall a Watcher’s dark influence, not eradicate it. Because, as Godwin concludes, your Watcher understands terror, and knows that terror is yours.

“If he's really ruining your whole working day, sit down, as Jung did with his personal demons, and write him a letter. "Dear Watcher," I wrote, "What is it you're so afraid I'll do?" Then I held his pen for him, and he replied instantly with a candor that has kept me from truly despising him. "Fail," he wrote back.

Which brings us to now.

When this newsletter began on January 22nd there were just over 500 reported cases of coronavirus worldwide and seventeen deaths. Ten weeks later the number of infected is almost at 900,000 and over 42,000 people have died. The numbers climb daily and with it comes the fear, the panic, the sensation of not knowing what the world – out there, and at home – will look like tomorrow, let alone in a week or month.

It is a hard time to write, and to be a writer. The distractions are real and ever-present. Combined with the enduring pernicious influence of our Watchers, the work, already daunting, can feel overwhelming and sometimes impossible.

There are many reasons why people write. But at the heart of what we do is a desire to make sense of the universe, and perhaps to impose a bit of order on what otherwise feels chaotic, be it our love lives, work places, or the everyday struggles of being 20, 30, 40 or 80.

Just now order feels in short supply. Writing cannot will a virus away, but it can help make the experience of living at this perilous and frightening time a little easier, a little less overwhelming.

So, we’d like to use this newsletter to offer help, with distractions. And with a place to write.

The distractions come with stories, some new, some from our archives. They are not about coronavirus. They are, we hope, a way to be transported to someplace else, to other lives, and with other dramas, other worries.

The first is a new piece from The Delacorte Review. It’s called The Baller, and its author, Audrey Gray, a journalist deeply frightened by all she keeps learning on the climate beat, meets an eighty-year-old man who changes everything. We hope you enjoy it.

As to the writing: if you’re game, we’d like to invite you to try your hand at what we’re calling Flash Non-Fiction.

We want to draw on one of the tricks Godwin uses to distract her Watcher – writing very fast, with a very tight deadline.

We’ll offer a prompt. The writing must be nonfiction – you can draw from memory but it has to be true, or as true as you recall.

The length is 250 words. We believe that when writers limit the time they have to think, it reduces the time they have to worry, to descend into existential dread about not getting it right. Sometimes, it helps just to take the plunge. And at 250 words there is little choice but to dive into the deep end and see what happens.

We also want to put a time limit on this writing. So once your hands touch the keyboard you should spend no more than 30 minutes writing. See what happens. If you don’t like it, delete and try again.

Look it over once. And send it to us by April 6th by replying to this very email. Once we have those submissions, we will share them with those who’ve contributed. We will not edit. But we will screen for content we deem offensive.

If you’re stuck. If you’re stalled with your writing. If you want to get your Watcher out of your hair, we invite you to join in.

As to the prompt: In my room…

Good luck. Enjoy. We can’t wait to see what you write.


Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.