When he was 400 pages into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s writing came to a total standstill.
“The story,” he wrote, “made a sudden and determined halt and refused to proceed another step.” This writer’s block went on for days and days. Mr. Twain grew disappointed and depressed. He knew the story was not finished, but he did not know how to finish it. And finally, he lit upon the reason.
“My tank had run dry,” he wrote. “It was empty; the stock of materials in it was exhausted; the story could not go on without materials; it could not be wrought out of nothing.” So, he set the manuscript aside – laid it “in a pigeon hole,” he said.
One day, two years later, he took it out, read the last chapter he had written, and discovered plenty of material for Tom Sawyer to finish itself.
The whole experience amounted to what Mr. Twain called his “great discovery.”
“When the tank runs dry you’ve only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time,” he said. The fill-up happens while you are asleep or at work on other things “and quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on.”
When he hit similar dry spots with The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he pigeonholed them, went about other business for a time, and then returned to the story anew.
And so for the remaining years of his working life, it became standard for Mr. Twain to have a few half-finished manuscripts lying around in “restful idleness” as the writer refilled his tank.