Being stuck at home writing; attempting (eg failing) to complete DIY projects in a fashion that could in any way be described as acceptable; watching daytime TV; endeavouring to make something edible out of three chitted potatoes, a can of mackerel fillets, four frozen brussel sprouts and a carton of lentil soup; watching late-night TV; drinking a strange brown brew that could just possibly be classed as coffee in a strangely distant parallel universe; twisting the very fabric of linear time and exploring the distortion of binary progression in deciding whether or not it is late enough to open the gin yet – sounds like fun, doesn’t it? There can be no end to the number of entertaining blogs it is possible to glean from such circumstances. Surely a brain that has lately evolved to watch the evening news without ever once imploring its host to jump off a cliff must have something valid to say.
I see my brain as a series of cogs and wheels that whirr silently, like a kind of clockwork computer, wound by curiosity. I imagine it is surrounded by little men in offices who read books and beaver the day away, taking messages from the other little men who occupy the eyes and ears, observing the world outside, like the myopic, uni-limbed pirate who was always stuck up in the crow’s nest in the kind of films I used to watch as a child. Unfortunately, my little cogs have had something sticky poured over them: the little men have taken an extended nap – perhaps they are on furlough – and whatever the eyes and ears are sending along, it is being lost in transit; dropped into a vat of porridge and abandoned to be raised by wolves. My head has become a Tena – it doesn’t matter how much I put into it, nothing is leaking out.
It’s not a new thing: it has happened before. I have learned how to deal with it. I have an infallible method that involves lack of sleep, pages of gibberish and glasses of whisky which, now I think about it, is actually exceedingly fallible. When there is nothing to see outside, then you have to look inside. Great, unless like me, you are an empty vessel. When I look inside of me, I tend to see straight out of the other side.
I am currently working at the kitchen table as my wife has commandeered the office. This is not natural for me. I am not surrounded by my normal paraphernalia, I cannot listen to my usual music, I cannot drag my eyes away from Homes Under the Hammer – at least not until Bargain Hunt starts. The kettle, the biscuit barrel and the toaster are very much too accessible. When I am at my desk, options are limited. I have gone there to write. If I don’t write I can do nothing but stare at the guitars I cannot play, the paints that I never use, the books that I have already read a hundred times and then, in my usual state of desperation, I write. It’s the least troublesome alternative. I know that if I persevere, will get something down on paper: I will never play ‘Blowin’ Free’, I will never paint ‘Starry Night’, I will never get over Boxer’s exit to the knacker’s yard, so I write. In the kitchen, even a full dishwasher holds a novelty that pushes prose into second place.
The knowledge that I have nothing to say is not the problem – I have written over 200 blogs now without actually managing to say anything – not knowing how to say it is the problem. Because what I write is not bound by the constraints of logic, plot or rationality, I can generally skip by such moments, but for others, for proper writers, it can be a real problem. Harper Lee took sixty years to publish her second novel – only to reveal that it had been written before the first. Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived on opium from his mid-twenties in the hope that it would help him overcome his block. I’m not sure that it helped. I’m not sure that he cared. Whilst some authors develop tactics to fend off ‘The Block’ – Hemingway, for instance, always stopped a day’s writing in mid-flow so that he could return the following day primed and ready to go – many do not acknowledge its existence. Norman Mailer said that ‘Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego,’ and Jodi Picoult, ‘Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.’ I can’t help but agree with Paul Rudnick, ‘Writing is 90% procrastination,’ because, boy, can I put it off. If I stopped in mid-flow, I would very rarely restart.
Maya Angelou said, ‘Just write,’ and Jennifer Egan said ‘I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly.’ I share her process, but unlike her, my own writing never ascends above the very badly, it is what I do. Every time that somebody likes what I have written, I worry that I will not be able to do it again, and the little part of my brain that allows me to play with words begins to juggle worms instead.
When I cannot think what to write about, what to say, I just write. Most blogs begin as pure drivel and then, slowly, slowly, slowly a theme develops and Presto! before I know it, drivel with a theme. I chop out the first 1,000 words, move the last fifty to the beginning and what remains is almost rational. With the simple application of a red felt pen and a double scotch it might even emerge readable.
And in the meantime, here’s an omelette I prepared earlier…
And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject. Ray Bradbury
N.B. The title of this piece comes from a Terry Pratchett quote: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write” on which I based a blog, My Unceasing Battle with Pratchett’s Californians, in June of last year. Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les memes, huh?