Paper Tiger

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It has been quite a while since I have had to whine about my inability to identify anything suitable to whine about.  It takes me right back to the dark days of Lockdown, and my fixation with pens, CD’s, very old sit-coms, and ice cubes.  The certainty then, that except for the workers of Downing Street, nothing was happening for everyone, at least provided a starting point: there was no experience to write about except for the lack of it and that was universal.  I spent so long gazing at my own navel that I now have a stoop.  It was not even possible to watch the world passing by outside the windows as the world was banned from doing so.  We took our thirty minutes daily exercise on a circuit that began and ended at home and involved crossing the road every time we encountered anybody else doing the same thing, we banged our pans with everybody else as we enjoyed the two minutes of weekly ‘community’, applauding the NHS on our own doorsteps, and it was there to write about and everybody understood it.  My gift for the inconsequential was suddenly useful because the inconsequential was the only escape we had from the very consequential and, for once, we all needed it.

Tonight I have nothing and I am struggling to find a way in which to write about it.  Having spent the last few hours staring through the window at the slowly encroaching landscape of new-build where, for forty years, I have looked out onto fields and trees has taken my mind away from everything.  NIMBY it might be, but I cannot help but grieve over the loss of something which I have held dear for two-thirds of a lifetime.  I will get used to it, much like I get used to my inability to smile without revealing un-bridgeable gaps; to spend a day with the grandkids without needing gin; to read the dire warnings on my medication without needing a strong magnifying lens, a bright light and even more gin.  It is often easier to embrace change than to welcome it.  I don’t want to be old, but I do want to get old.

I have tried, for a bit of a change, to put my pen to one side, to stare at a blank laptop screen, hands poised above the keyboard like arthritic spiders, waiting to pounce upon any notion that might pass their way, but it doesn’t work for me.  I crave paper.  I can’t doodle on the laptop.  Deleting is nothing like as cathartic as ripping it up and starting again – although it is more sustainable.  Everybody, from the bank to the window cleaner tells me that I should go paperless, but I’m not quite fully on-board with the logic yet.  You see, I remember from my youth when huge forests of coniferous trees were planted to provide us with paper, and I am aware that scientists now believe that these are detrimental in our fight against climate change.  In short, they need to chop them down and replace them with broad-leafed trees.  Having chopped them down, I’m sure they can’t just leave them lying there can they, so they might as well make paper out of them.  At my best estimate, I don’t suppose I’ve got much more than a couple of trees left in me now and my oak planting record is a good one, so I’ll keep on jotting my whines to paper (as soon as I can find something to whine about) – even if it does mean that, for now, the world is just that little bit more full of hot air than it used to be…

The Writer’s Circle #23 – Baking Scones

These were the kind of discussion days that Deidre loathed: talking about how you wrote rather than what you wrote – she lost her edge in such conversations.  Everybody knew that she was the Circle’s only properly published author, so she could speak about what she wrote with some kind of authority – and she did like authority – but how one goes about the task of writing, the fundamentals of putting words down onto paper, well, no two authors are the same and that meant that everybody else’s opinion became just as valid as her own.  Not a situation she relished.  “I just think,” she said, “that as long as you have the idea: as long as you know where you are and where you’re going, then everything will fall into place.”
“And when you don’t have the ideas?” asked Phil.
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t be writing,” said Deidre.
“Steve Martin said that Writer’s Block is ‘a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol,’” said Frankie.  “It always works for me.”
“Sometimes it’s not even the ideas,” said Phil.  “It’s the words.  I can spend days just beating myself up over words.  Which to use, which to avoid, which words at least  sound as if I haven’t had to wring them out of the dictionary with my bare hands?”
“I find that a cup of tea normally hits the button,” said Elizabeth.  “It’s not the tea; it’s the making of it, that’s the key.  Making the decision that I’m wasting my time just staring at the computer: the thought that at least making tea is achieving something.  It’s the routine of it.  I leave my desk, I make my tea and I return to my desk with it.  If I can’t write then, I just watch cats on YouTube.”
“Sometimes,” said Billy, “It’s a physical pain.  Like you have to drag the words out your guts.”
“Have you ever had a proper job?” asked Frankie.
“Sometimes I find it helps to write down a list of what I want to say,” said Penny.
“I always know what I want to say,” said Jane.  “It’s just… how do I want to say it.”
“It’s sometimes about finding just the right word,” agreed Penny.
“Especially when it has to rhyme with ‘goldfinch’,” muttered Deidre.
“Sometimes,” said Louise, “I go back to what I wrote the day before and I just write it all out again in the hope that when I reach the end of it I will just keep going.”
“And does that work?” asked Jane.
“No,” said Louise.  “If I’m honest.  More often than not I read what I wrote the day before and realise what a load of tripe it is.  Makes me realise that not being able to write might not be such a bad thing.”
Jeff shuffled a little uncomfortably in his chair aware that he almost certainly had little to contribute, but decided, none-the-less, to join in the conversation.  “When I can’t think of what to write, I just write about nothing.  I can write about nothing for days.”
“Frankie’s done that for years,” said Phil with a laugh.
“I wish I could argue,” said Frankie.  “It’s a gift; like being pitch perfect.  Some people never have to wonder whether they’re in tune when they sing.  Me, I can write meaningless drivel without even thinking about it.  I’m Jeffrey Archer without the bank balance.  What about you Tom, what do you do when you can’t write?”
“I’m like Jeff, I think; I just write anyway, to spite it.  When I was in… When I first started to write I always had set ideas of what I wanted to say, but it didn’t take long for me to realise how lifeless it all was.  Mostly now, when I can’t write, I just read.  It’s something I have always had lots of time for.”
“You make it sound like a prison sentence,” said Vanessa, unaware of the fleeting look of unease that flitted across Tom’s features.  “Nobody makes us write, any of us.  We write because we want to.  We write because we think we have something to say.  We write because, secretly, we would all very much like to be ‘the next big thing’.  All you have to do when you can’t say what you want to say is to find another way of saying it.  More often than not, I have too many ideas.  I just can’t line them up.  They’re like kids: I can’t get them all to sit down at the same time.  I can never make them all face in the same direction.  If I had just one – I’d pick the best one, of course – it would be no problem.  It would follow me around, do whatever I asked of it, but as soon as I have two ideas, they start chatting amongst themselves, playing games, and I can never get them to do what I want them to do.  Sometimes my head is buzzing with ideas and the only thing I can do is to find a way of getting rid of most of them.  I can’t drink tea – it makes my tongue fur – so I usually drink coffee and that’s the worst thing I can do.  I’ve never seen the attraction of water.  Why would you deliberately consume something that has absolutely no taste?  It would be like going to a Roy Chubby Brown concert on your wedding night.  So I bake scones.  They’re not good scones; most of the time they’re very bad scones, but the process occupies my mind.  You can’t worry about who is going to say what when you’ve got scones in the oven.”
“When I don’t know what to say,” said Terry, “I just employ another ghost writer.”
“Right, well, that’s all very useful I’m sure,” cut in Deidre with an audible sigh.  “So, has anybody actually written anything at all to read to us tonight?”

The Writer’s Circle began with ‘Penny’s Poem’ here.
The last episode was ‘The Price of Perceptibility’ is here.
Episode 24 ‘Redemption (part one) is here.


A Return to California

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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?

My Unceasing Battle With Pratchett’s Californians.

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My mind is in a sling – again! The plaster-cast is not yet ready to be removed. My imagination is tied in a malaise from which it can find no exit. My brain, filled as it currently is with grinding mundanities, has called in all available resources and completely shut down the tiny, sparkly bit (I’ve seen the TV animations) that controls creativity. The great steeplechase of life has pitched yet another hurdle in my path and I am currently waiting for the bloke to turn up with the step ladder.

When I began this little enterprise, I did so with the intention of publishing once a week. This became twice and eventually thrice. It suits me and, it accommodates the time that I would otherwise use less fruitfully. (At this point I pause for a while to consider the phrase ‘less fruitfully’, and quickly lose faith in the concept. We will say ‘less productively’.) I don’t lack ideas (except, perhaps, good ones) – in any case, if you’ve been reading me for any time you will, I am sure, have come to the conclusion that this blog does not rely on ‘the big idea’ to function. More often it relies upon the tiny gripe; the sudden understanding of a concept that the rest of the world has understood since the dawn of time; an itch that, without your participation, I would be unable to scratch.

Every now and then the routine day-to-day, augmented by the annoying, but ultimately surmountable obstacles that life is apt to chuck, fills such space as is available in my head and completely gums up the works. It’s an annoying happenstance, but common enough to not normally warrant mention – unless the annoying happenstance is all I’ve got to talk about.

I am not, I know, unique in this mental torpor. Anyone that has ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard knows it. Normally, a period of writing inconsequential tosh (approximately forty years in my case) and a short spell in the thinking hat will shake me out of it. The WD40 of a single malt may be required when the cogs are more substantially seized. But today that is not enough.

To cut a long story wosname, short, the point towards which I have been laboriously working – like a disgraced Samurai snail – is this: as I am patently not alone in addressing this impasse, I must, likewise, be in very substantive company when it comes to groping around, searching for a solution. In much the same way that we all have a favourite method of tackling a hangover (mine features fried egg and coca cola) we must each have our own methods of plunging the plughole of creativity. On the basis that I am pretty much up for trying anything of which I am capable (probably not LSD, despite what it did for The Beatles) I would love to know what you do to lubricate the works. How do you – pardon my presumption – get the juices flowing again? I have been becalmed upon this sea for a couple of days now, my thoughts (such as they were) lost in The Bermuda Triangle of inspiration, adrift on a sea that offers only unfathomable depths. My usual methods have not, on this occasion, offered any forward thrust.

I would be massively grateful for any suggestions you are able to make. I need strong magic now that the enchantment has gone from my thinking hat. Help me now, or we could be back here again in no time…

‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’ – Terry Pratchett

The Thinking Hat

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I have written before about not knowing what to write about – it’s what I write about when I don’t know what to write about. It happens surprisingly often. Most days I get home with pockets full of scraps of scribbled-on paper which, when laid out on my desk somehow coalesce into something coherent. Or at least as close to coherent as I ever get. I write pretty much every day and I write twice as much as I need. I have a computer full of ‘Just in case I can’t think of what to write about’ pieces and I do raid them every now and then. I could publish twice the number of blogs I actually do, but I do not do so for two very good reasons:
1. I realise that I already skate upon the perilously thin ice of boring you to death, and doing so on an even more regular basis could very well be terminal for both of us, and…
2. Well, it’s tempting fate isn’t it? I know my brain. The very second I let it into my little secret ‘Listen, we’re easily writing enough waffle to get us through six blogs a week. I think I’m going to go for it.’ It will seize like an outdoor padlock and no amount of WD40 will get it open again.

This is the state into which my cerebrum has currently descended. It does so maybe once a fortnight. It hitches up its drawers and lurches off into its dark corner, pulling the door tight behind it, where it rocks gently back and forth, sucking its thumb and screaming for silence – I hate silence. Sometimes I leave it alone, knowing that by tomorrow it will be back to its old self and spewing out more tripe than I know what to do with, but other times I fear that its hermit days might become permanent and I need to face it out.

Shaping up to the content of one’s own head is not always straightforward. For a start, if it doesn’t want to come out to play, it isn’t always easy to make it. Coffee will sometimes drag it out; chocolate or whisky (all three if it is being unusually intransigent) but flushing the bloody thing out into the open isn’t guaranteed to make it co-operate. Sometimes it sulks like a five-year old child, swallowing its Lego so that it can’t possibly eat broccoli, sometimes it just stares at the wall. And you have to be particularly careful about where the confrontation takes place. What happens inside your head can quite often spill out of your mouth, and that seldom looks good on the bus.

I’ve been writing for many years: sometimes moderately successfully, sometimes less so, but always writing. I was taught long ago that writer’s block does not exist and, although I know very well that it does, I adhere to this mantra. What I was taught to do was to write – it doesn’t matter what – that the very act of writing will spur the brain into action and, after a little cough to clear its throat, it will start to drip gold onto the paper. I know people who routinely throw away the first thousand words they write every day because they know it will be junk. There are days when I would willingly go through their bins. There are many days when the first thousand words I write are the only thousand words I write and, junk or no junk, they are kept for future reference. It’s a bit like being bored to death by a 0-0 draw, but keeping the game on the recorder just in case you somehow missed a goal, despite the fact that you know the final score.

Now, I must ask you to indulge me here, I am not prone to navel gazing: it has never really helped me and anyway, I can’t do it without a mirror these days. What I am currently gazing at is (are?) my finger nails. Don’t worry, I have not pulled them out in a fit of pique: they remain attached firmly to my digits. A little too firmly in fact. You see, I have a nail which routinely splits along its length. (Yes, I would love to know why.) It drives me mad, so I have taken to superglueing it together. And, yes, I know you are miles ahead of me, what I am currently looking at is a handful of glistening finger nails, attached to fingers with which I dare not pick up anything. I cannot decide what to do with them. I cannot, for instance, type into Google ‘What should I do with a handful of superglue?’ knowing that I will get no further than ‘W’… and I do not want to become any more firmly attached to the keyboard than I already am. I dare not run them under the tap, as I’m pretty certain that it will just set my fingers in such a manner that to separate them will mean that I have to succeed where Al Capone failed; by removing my own fingerprints. I have no idea of the depth of skin on a finger, but I’m pretty certain that set superglue goes deeper. Anyway, what I am currently doing is watching it as it dries and typing, as best I can, with my one unaffected pinkie.

Ah yes, and there is one more thing you need to know. I am wearing a hat. It is my thinking hat. It didn’t start off as my thinking hat, you understand. It started off as my hat. I have a head that is generally unsuited to titfers, but I found this one last year and I liked it: my wife didn’t object too strongly and only one of my children refused to be seen with me whilst I was wearing it. So I wore it. However, spring has now unfurled into summer and a much lighter hat has become de rigueur. My grey felt hat has taken up residence in my office and I have developed a habit of wearing it whenever I am searching for an idea. Due to the finger-issue I have been unable to remove it. I do not want to take it with me wherever I go, so, on my head it remains until my fingers have dried. Still, it’s not all bad. It has given me the germ of an idea…