Friday, April 17, 2009

Lost for Words

Will Self claims to never suffer from it, Henry Roth took sixty years to overcome his, whilst John Fowles's particular manifestation saw him living out the last twenty years of his life as a virtual recluse in Lyme Regis. Whether it be real or imagined, Writer's Block does seem to be a common experience. Even the great Philip Larkin was sometime forced to declare "I haven't given up poetry; poetry has given me up". (Larkin later recovered his muse by writing schoolgirl lesbian fiction..)

The reasons and causes behind it seem as varied as the people who suffer it. Fatigue, inappropriate planning or that ceaseless persuit of perfection that has you in the grip of its claw and sees whole days and weeks pass you by as you search for
le mot juste. Right now I am sitting with a 400 page novel in front of me with only the faintest of notions how on earth it actually got here. Remember that scene in The Shining where Shelley Duvall comes across Jack Nicolson's manuscript (500 pages of the same bloody sentence)? That's kind of how I remember the process. I tend not to remember the days when the words flowed; I'm too fixated on the ones where they didn't. The days that gave meaning to dead ends, and black holes and I wonder what's on the telly. On one of the grimmest of days I even bought myself this but aside from being quite good to bite on it didn't do much for my problem.

So what is a writer to do when they just don't feel like themselves? Aside from Agatha Christie's advice, which was to eat apples in a bathtub, I hear, I would probably say just work through it. Go for a walk and then WRITE. There are only two rules to this method:

1) Don't show anyone, at least in the beginning.

2) Give yourself permission to write absolute shit (hence rule number one, above).

Somewhere in the maze of that crap, amongst the shopping lists and the painfully self-conscious thoughts that would make even a teenager cringe, you will hit upon what it was you were looking for. You will find a literary exit that will take you where you needed to go. It works. It's like the story of the kid in the stable: "with so much shit, there must be a pony".

Two other things that I routinely do which may or may not be of help are:

1) Quitting whilst I'm ahead. In practical terms this means finishing work for the evening whilst I've still got something to say. Sometimes I leave a page in mid-sentence, sometimes at the end of a chapter, but I always know what's coming after. That way, when I start the next day I can at least apply my hands to the keyboard and know that something is coming. It's a morale boost for your brain, if you like.

2) Listening to music or looking at images. Sometimes music says it better than words, sometimes pictures say it better than words. Let another medium take up your slack, be inspired by using more of your senses. This one is especially good if you're stuck right at the beginning, trying to harvest actual ideas. And because I'm nice like that, here are some I thought of already. Write on...

All images courtesy of Fffound
Title image: Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)

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