Though he’s one of very few authors in history to have his name turned into an adjective, Franz Kafka was a disaster of a writer, insofar as we would consider a writer who is not a disaster to do things like get a decent night’s sleep on occasion, write every day (or at least every week), and send completed writings out into the world for publication.
Kafka did none of these things, and more often than not, actively tried to ensure that he would not be published. He in fact only enjoyed three productive periods, each lasting roughly five months, in his entire life. Even considering that he died of tuberculosis at age 40, that’s a piddling writing output. In other words, writer’s block ranked in there pretty high on the list of things from which this guy suffered.
Today, we understand that were it not for Kafka’s friend, fellow writer, and greatest champion Max Brod, we’d never have heard of Kafka. Brod famously went against Kafka’s wishes and, instead of destroying Kafka’s work after he died, organized its publication. Brod also bestowed more ordinary encouragements on Kafka, and his strategies often involved travel. The two men went traveling together whenever they could organize time off from their office jobs. Brod used those trips to nudge Kafka back to his writing.
I covered one such trip in the chapter on Kafka in my book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Leading up to their planned holiday in 1909 to Riva, a town on Italy’s Lake Garda, it had been months since Kafka had managed to write. Brod came up with the idea of having them each keep a travel diary, to be compared with the other’s when they returned to Prague. The ploy worked—by the end of the trip, Kafka was getting words on the page again.
On that trip, which Max’s brother Otto also made, they stopped for a day at the Brescia Air Show, one of the first of its kind and thanks to the interest in nascent air travel, attended not only by the world’s foremost pilots, but also by the composer Puccini and other writers who at the time were better known than Kafka. Kafka wrote a typically strange article about the show, which Brod arranged to get published in the Prague Deutsche Zeitung Bohemia. (That’s Kafka at the air show in the image at the top of the page. He’s the guy on the left.)
A couple of years later, the pair headed to Lugano, Milan and Paris. At a the Hotel Belvedere in Lugano (where you can still stay today), they hatched a plan to create what might have been the world’s first budget guidebook series, to be titled “On the Cheap,” comprised by “On the Cheap Through Italy, On the Cheap Through Switzerland,” etc. On hotel stationary, they also dubbed it, “Our Plan To Make Millions.” What twisted fun it would be if the series had come to fruition, and we might travel “on the cheap” with Kafka as our guide.
It didn’t, even though Brod went to publishers with the idea. Publishers wanted more detail than Brod was willing to give without a contract, though, and plans fell apart.
Kafka very much wanted to work on the project, and continued asking about it at least for the next year. The point being that he seemed to be aware that travel could stir tendencies toward productivity in him–breaking him free, if only temporarily, from his insomnia, his meticulous routine, and his writerly paralysis.