For six years now I have blogging non-stop, except during holiday periods, when I usually take a break. Since June 2007 I have been putting out at least a blogpost per week (at some point it was three weekly columns) about subjects that interest me: music, literature, food and the role of fathers/male carers in today’s world, to name a few. You could say that with his broad palette of ideas and topics I have kept my muse active – and in full-time employment; very important in these economically straitened times. I would agree with that. I am one of those lucky souls who seem to have something to wax lyrical about on a regular basis. However, after reading a recent article in The New Yorker about writer’s block I was left speechless and pensive. Have I been really lucky? Is writer’s block a fact or a myth?
course, to call myself a writer is taking my online hobby a bit too far and
possibly even giving it a gravitas that you might think it lacks. Yet, I use
the word writer in its broadest sense, i.e., “a person who writes”, not, “a
person who writes books and sells by the dozen”.
McPhee, the author of the article in The
New Yorker, is a writer, as in a “person who writes books and sells by the
dozen”. Almost thirty books so far, plus countless pieces for the
aforementioned magazine and Time. He is not someone I would
picture as having ever suffered from writer’s block. And yet...
begins his piece with a hypothetical Joel, one of the many Joels who write to
him asking him advice on their mental obstructions. John's answer is a mix of
comedy and pragmatism. He asks Joel to think of a grizzly bear. When words fail
to materialise to describe what this grizzly bear gets up to, McPhee asks Joel to write to his mother about the grizzly bear, and also about his frustration, his desperation
and, above all, his block. Once he gets off his chest whatever he wants to tell
his mother, the student (for I am assuming that Mr McPhee is a writing tutor)
deletes all the references to his progenitor and has only the
grizzly bear to deal with. Afresh.
We used to employ a
similar technique at the impro troupe of which I was part when I was in uni. It
worked wonders. The only difference was that we left the mother's bits in, too. We used to sit in a circle and someone would start a story with
a sentence, say: “Peter went to the park”.
Another actor had to annex another line whilst repeating the same one, for
instance. “Peter went to the park and
found a coin”. The key was in coming up with the next sentence in three
seconds or less. If someone hesitated, they were asked to sit outside the
circle. The other important element was to keep the story moving forward. Sometimes
the instructor demanded that no one use conjunctions that could stem the flow,
such as: but, however, yet, nevertheless, etc. The game was fun and it
contributed to quick-thinking.
block spring from lack of this mental agility? Or should we look for the
genesis of it in the disparity between a writer’s expectation(s) and the
reality she/he faces? John McPhee’s facetious assertion that “You could be Joel, even if your name is
Jenny. Or Julie,, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and
small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after
another and sense that you are struck in a place from which you will never be
set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to
do this, if your prose is seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence,
you must be a writer.”
probably understand why I didn’t call myself a writer in the narrow sense of
the word at the beginning of this post. If I ever do finish that damned novel I have been working on for years, I wouldn't like to give birth to stillborn
sentences. I would like my passages – if/when they are ever born – to weigh between ten
and eleven pounds and to be delivered naturally. Preferably in a little pool. I
love water births.
see John’s point. Being a writer means dealing with the idea that you won’t like
what you produce very much; especially first drafts. It
is this panic of exposing yourself, revealing your innermost truths, what sometimes
hinders good authors from becoming great authors. First drafts are like first
auditions for amateur actors. You are suddenly facing a whole audience (your
future comrades-in-arms in the am-dram troupe) and you are being asked to play a
paedophile in an improvisation exercise. Self-consciousness doesn’t even begin
to cover it.
inevitable, writer’s block? Is it like chicken pox or measles, which you are
bound to get at some point in your life (and cast your mind back and remember your parents and how happy
they were if you caught them when little)?
one of those puzzles for which I have no answer. I spend an awful lot of time
online visiting other blogs and I never cease to be amazed by other fellow
bloggers’ constant literary output and the outstanding quality of it. The Claudias,
Brians, Marys, Daves and Pats of this world write and post poems on a regular
basis, many times following a prompt. They don’t seem to suffer from any mental
impediment. Is writer’s block a myth, then? And if real, is it self-inflicted?
No, I don’t
think it is a myth, or self-inflicted. I guess that sometimes as readers,
especially if you read lots of books, you will, sooner or later, be affected at
a conscious level by the author in whose work you are engrossed. That could
explain the constant change of style and voice in that first draft.
factor could well be the “Who am I kidding” question, which John McPhee still
asks himself after more than forty-odd years of writing. That’s certainly
happened to me. Before writing this post I checked the last time I had put pen
to paper to write a poem. April 2005. That’s more than eight years ago. There’s
a poetry competition coming up now in June in Argentina and I had a few ideas for half a dozen poem. Plus my muse
has been flying low and close around, and... Who am I kidding?
the art forms, writing is, perhaps, the most perversely intimate and open at the same time. Perverse,
because there is a wilfulness about it. Like one of Laura Marling's album titles, I
Speak Because I Can. Or I Write Because I Can, as some people might put it. Intimate, because
like it or not, there will be elements of your own life that will seep into
your writing. And open because ultimately a writer (blogger or the one who
sells books by the dozen) wants to be read.
writing is such an existential ordeal. Even our hypothetical friend, the grizzly bear, would
agree with that.
Next Post: “Sunday
Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd
June at 10am (GMT)