from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Begin Anywhere, Begin Somewhere

On writers' block This is part of an essay that appears in my Writing the Bright Moment book. Listening to friends and fellow writers, the issue of writers' block is always relevant. And I'm lifting it from the book as I have A Task ahead: I'm at my daughter's still, in sunshine and solitude, with 3 days to myself just to write – which given that theoretically I'm a full-time writer might sound odd; but in fact like 95% of writers I find that writing alone simply doesn't pay the bills, and so much of my work involves facilitating others' writing (a joy) and doing all the groundwork of organisation, admin, promotion etc behind the scenes (extraordinarily time-consuming and unrewarding). So this is a treat: about a dozen poems waiting to be redrafted and typed up, and a third novel picked up from where I left it lying roughly 6 years ago; and so I'm back to it now.

For a long time, I stated – ad nauseam – to my students that there was no such thing as writers’ block. I quoted Peter de Vries’ words when asked whether he waited for inspiration before writing: ‘Yes, and I make sure that I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.’
I really believed that such a phenomenon as writer’s block was a delusion, a failure of confidence, something that could be willed away. Mind over matter and get on with it – stop being such a prima donna. (I don’t actually say this, but it has been my attitude.) Just sit down and write the first sentence. Then another; and another.
Over the years of course I have written probably billions of sentences in articles, stories, poems and reviews and a number of published and unpublished full-length manuscripts, with never a moment’s hesitation. I’d never found myself unable to write.

Now I understand. I’m no longer quite so cavalier. Partway through my second novel I hit Block. Big block. For weeks, even months, I felt as if my tongue and my hands were tied. The worst of it was that that book had become so ‘forefront’ I couldn’t do anything else either.
I don’t know how it is for others – you – but maybe it’s always the same: it wasn’t that I didn’t like what I wrote; it wasn’t even that I didn’t know what to write next. I had the plot all worked out in my head, and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown (sort of) on paper. It was just that I couldn’t actually make myself get the words down.

I am learning, now, to be gentle on myself (I’m much harder on myself than I am on my students).
The truth is, there are times when I simply can’t write. That’s how it is. There may be any number of reasons: times of personal crisis or change; times when the ideas are not ‘ripe’ enough, when you need to write something else, something different; times when you’re too tired, or distracted, or stressed; times when what you really need is a treat, or a rest, or a walk or some input from something or someone else. Or when something else is more pressing than writing. Maybe, as Hemingway (was it?) said, the well needs to be filled up again before you can draw anything off. Maybe – as I explore elsewhere in this book – you are simply still somewhere else in the creative process, incubating.
And sometimes you have to just sit and do it anyway. The wisdom, of course, lies in differentiating between states.

It’s a bright December morning, and I’ve cleared a day to write (this year, this has been a relatively rare occurrence). Because I need space to think, away from admin, phone and family, I treat myself to breakfast in the local wholefood café by the church, where I can see trees and sky and jackdaws. The café’s warm and the coffee’s good and the light slanting in is of just the right quality and intensity, and the lunchtime quiches and cheese scones are steaming temptingly and my folder is sitting weighty and promising on the table beside me. There was a stimulating programme on the radio as I drove in – Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, exploring the connections between language and thought and identity, something which interests me greatly. So as I sit down my head is full of ideas and I can’t wait to get back to the next piece for this book, which is today’s agenda.
I’ll just have a look at the newspaper, I think; I don’t get much time to read papers at the moment. Just five minutes with my coffee.
But the paper – of course – is back-to-back disasters: too many to process. It seems to be worse even than usual at the moment: an unmitigated picture of grotesque murders and senseless cruelties. And five minutes in and already I’ve lost it, unable to wrench my mind away from the news, and unconvinced that anything we can do, even anything creative, can stand between us and some of the grimmer aspects of life. How can writing do anything to tackle unnameable pain and fear and torture and injustice? And if it can’t, then is it just a comfortable bourgeois indulgence? And if that’s the case, where does that leave me? I’m full of fear and dread suddenly for this world we live in; for all of us, all our fragile lives; for another young local girl who’s gone missing so soon after the last tragedy; for my own daughter; for Iraq and Palestine and Israel and numerous other countries; for what today seems like an insuperable excess of the clashes of violence and powerlessness in our species; for my own helplessness.

Right now, once again where it leaves me is with my hands tied and my mouth stopped. There. That’s how it is. So after an hour of not writing, I get up and go out; look at the bare trees, the Christmas lights, people’s faces, the traffic, the moors just visible beyond the town. And I drive home: east wind, mud on the lanes, cattle in the dunny winter fields.
And I can’t write a word.
Q: Do I let it go, or push on through?
A: Today I really want to write.
OK. So how to find a way in?

Peter Redgrove’s essay on ‘Work and Incubation’ that a friend has sent me sits in my folder. I scanned it through again just now; and here is Rodin, answering a younger artist’s question: ‘What do I do when I can’t work?’ ‘Work at something else.’ Anything, actually, will do. Keep a folder of ‘rainy day ideas’ that you can pick up and put down. Edit yesterday’s work. Wash the dishes. Bake some bread. Make or play some music. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Be gentle with yourself. Go look at the bare winter trees. Write about them. There’s always more to observe in this world than you will have energy or time to write about. Remember you’re a writer. Write something. Write anything. Begin somewhere. Write about what’s stopping you. Write yourself through it.
Begin somewhere.
As I think this I think about the many times I’ve said (perhaps not so brutally, but the gist is there): ‘I don’t care if you don’t feel like writing. You say you’re a writer. Sit down and do it anyway.’ Easy words.
Time for my own medicine. Write yourself through it. And there’s my gap. Instead of ‘forcing’ myself to write the chapter for the book, I write to a friend of how distressed I was at this morning’s news, how it’s affected the rest of my day. (So often the problem and the solution arise in the same place – reading words ‘blocked’ me; writing words about not feeling able to write, and about those read words, frees me.)
And now, here I am: writing something; writing about what’s stopping me, about that whole process. And – see – here’s what I needed for the book.

For the truth is writers write. It’s what we do; it’s how we make sense of the world; it’s how the world speaks to us; it’s how we answer, and how we question. It needs no justification and maybe value judgements are anathema. We may not stop the world or change the world or even speak to one other person. But still we write. ‘The real writer is one / who really writes,’ says Marge Piercy. ‘Work is its own cure. You have to / like it better than being loved.’


  1. When I sold my first novel (and felt good about myself for doing so), I too used to tell people there was no such thing as writer's block, and it's true I can always write something. Words always come, yet there are so many things that can stop you from publishing them.

    For me, it is when I start being too self-critical. I decide my words are not good enough and the story's complete rubbish... if I want proof, I only have to look at the sales figures of my latest book. Why aren't they JK Rowling's figures? Because my writing's rubbish, of course... and so I spiral downwards, tighter and tighter, until I never want to publish another word again.

    In those dark times, I write hundreds and thousands of words. To myself, to friends, to books that sit in drawers - and then I throw most of them away. That is why writers appear to get writer's block.

    And then, of course, there's publisher's block - when the publisher goes through exactly the same process and apparently never wants to publish another word by an author again... which can set off a bad case of writer's block, too!

  2. Being 'good enough' is a major problem for me. And then there's the 'what's the point?' one... A sense of futility. Who's going to be reading books in the future? It is an act of faith to write, and a brave step to put it out to the public.
    Having courses available to us aspiring writers helps immensly. (Thank you Roselle, for yours)
    I hope you are in full flow now!

  3. Veronica: you and 99% of us... And I don't truly believe that the real hard-copy paper book is actually going to disappear. And yes, it is an act of faith: coming to the edge and jumping, time after time. And as in the New Age dictum, discovering that you can, after all, fly! Don't lose heart; and please keep writing!


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