From the 1930s until 1964, Joseph Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker about people on the margins of New York—criminals, evangelists, con artists, the fishmongers at the Fulton Fish Market and a flea-circus operator. He was famous for writing about people without passing judgment on them. In 1965, he published Joe Gould's Secret. Joe Gould was a writer who told Mitchell all about the exhaustive book he was writing called Oral History, which was 9 million words long and based on 20,000 conversations. Mitchell eventually discovered that although Joe Gould was constantly writing, filling notebook after notebook, in fact he had intense writer's block. The Oral History was all in his head, and the notebooks were filled with the same few scenes, written out over and over.

After Joe Mitchell published Joe Gould's Secret, he himself never published another word, even though he continued to go to his office at The New Yorker. After he died in 1996, a colleague of his, Roger Angell, wrote: "Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained."

The Writer's Almanac

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