writer’s block

The fallows

I’ve been floundering. It’s taken me a while to notice what’s going on, and I’ve still not managed to get my head above the waves far enough to see for certain where I am, but at least now I’ve noticed the waves. The reason it’s taken me a while to notice is because I’ve kept writing. Pretty much every day, I leave some kind of stain across a page, be it ink, tears or sweat. Something gets put down and recorded.

So it didn’t immediately sink in that I’m treading water, occasionally going under before bobbing up again. Previously, trouble has come raging in, a cavalry of panic and anxiety storming in under a banner of blank pages and sleeplessness. The trickle of words I’ve been leaving in my wake, the calm, steady practice of writing a little every day – this doesn’t look or feel like trouble. But I have been treading water rather than swimming, diving, moving through the ups and downs of writing. And now I’m getting tired.

There were some tell-tale signs. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘writing up’ rather than writing on recently, focusing on getting my scrawls typed up so I can share. Except now they’re all typed up and I still haven’t shared. Then the small part of the day I carve out for sitting at my desk and just getting words down has gradually become shorter and shorter. Somehow unloading the dishwasher or doing my (very short) hair expand into tasks that chisel away at those few minutes I try to keep for writing. And then there’s my blog, perched on my shoulder, singing out that I haven’t posted anything.

I admit, I started to panic last week when the truth finally reached me. Things had been unfolding at such a fluid pace that discovering I’d lost forward momentum was a shock. My first response, of course, was guilt. It’s because I’m not dedicated enough, because I’m not sacrificing enough to the writing gods – or worse, it’s because I’ve committed the sin of thinking that I had anything worthwhile to write in the first place.

Then comes the Voice of Truth, which tells me in loud ringing tones that real writers don’t have these problems, so just give the fuck up, because you are clearly not a writer. Chalk this one up as another one of your misadventures, your failed enthusiasm. Go back to the day job and embrace that as all you can possibly be.

Luckily, I’ve had it up to here with that fucking noise. That Voice of Truth, with its shoulds and don’ts has had all the attention from me it’s ever going to get. It took me to some very boring places. These days, I’d always take actually being in the water – albeit floundering – over standing on a barren shore looking longingly at the waves.

I can’t stop the Voice having its say, but I can try and get some other voices to do battle with it. Reading other writers talk about their writing cycles has been hugely helpful. Seems that what I’m experiencing at the moment is a fallow, a time of rest after a time of plenty. It’s a time to take stock, read and think, perhaps edit and plot, perhaps work on something else before returning to the main project.

Hence there’s no panic, no anxiety – I’m recuperating, pooling my resources to take them in the next direction. It makes perfect sense. I’ve reached something close to 30,000 words of what will hopefully turn into my first novel. That’s a lot of work and words and ideas. Of course I need to pause, take a breath and survey the horizons I’m creating before I move on. And actually, the words that I’ve eeked out in the fallows are full of potential, my pen seems to be discovering a new aesthetic for me all by itself.

So I’m going to rest in the fallows for a while, get my strength again, let the ideas break over me and refresh these hard-working senses. No panic, no guilt, and definitely no bloody shoulds.

The Knot

I suppose this is a reformulation of my previous post, but I’ve been digging around inside my struggle and think I’ve turned up ways of giving shape to what I’m pushing against.

In the simplest terms, it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s that hackneyed trope of mental health versus creative impulse, in that the two don’t always sit comfortably together. That in itself is nothing new to anyone, and not new to me personally – I started writing poetry at one of life’s low points, and watched my ideas dry up as my world got sunnier again. Which also says something about the kind of work I was producing: stream-of-conscious, self-involved, very profound for me but maybe not so much fun for others to read. And there’s an element of that to this blog as well; my mission was – is – to get myself writing and to write my way into a new place. If other people find what I say interesting or useful, that’s encouraging and starting to show me where I’m doing things right – so thank you! But really, it’s been for me. My space to write, to think, to become something else.

And it’s been working. I’m starting to turn my attention outward again, shifting my focus from writing for me to thinking about the fact that other eyes might be absorbing these words. Or that I might want other eyes to glance over my scribblings. This is the beginnings of one strand leading into the knot that I’m trying to untangle. One of the revelations I’ve had from getting into a writing habit after all these years of procrastinating is that my refusal to draw on my own experiences was actually stopping my writing. I kept fishing around for that perfect idea for a piece of fiction, waiting for the inspiration fairy to sprinkle the start of an astonishing poem or novel over me.

But fishing and fairies didn’t work, partly because I have a very low tolerance for clumsy fiction. McGuffins, forced plot lines, cheesy motives and morals, anything that shows the scaffolding propping up the scenery (unless it’s done deliberately – interesting . . .) exasperates me. So my own ideas for fiction have been exasperating me for years, to the point of preventing my pen reaching the page. Then, boom, revelation came – not from the inspiration fairy, but from making myself writing on a regular basis. Of course my attempts at fiction were frustratingly poor! How could I think they were anything but hollow, heartless efforts at ego-massage when real life had thrown much weirder, darker and more interesting things at me? How can anything I make up have blood in it when life’s given me experiences you couldn’t make up if you tried?

That has been a watershed, but it’s also left me the problem of translation, of transition. How do I turn real life into a fiction that means something to people who aren’t me? Or even more concisely, how do I turn life into fiction?

Which leads me to another strand feeding into the knot. How to be honest.

I’ve been to the depths these past couple of years. Both in terms of my mental health, but also in terms of losing the structures and faith that keep most of us going through the day. I know I’m not the only one. And I know a lot of this is now behind me. But it is a precious knowledge you gain from swirling around in the chaos beneath the day-to-day, precious knowledge that starts to dissolve or recede as ‘normal’ life washes in again. It alters you, yes. I’m just not the same person I was this time two years ago. But that alteration doesn’t necessarily preserve the knowledge, the wisdom you get from being in the dust-bowl beneath it all.

I can feel knowledge fading and I don’t want it to dissipate. I’m having mad urges to tattoo my entire body with symbols and slogans, snippets from the chaos, so that I can always keep it close; but I know it’s going and without it, those tattoos will be just ordinary ink. So I want to use this other ink to capture it, to pass on some of that precious knowledge. But it’s wordless, it’s chaos. It inherently lacks narrative and structure. And how the hell do you avoid stream-of-consciousness, self-involved, wallowing-in-my-own-agonies writing when it comes to trying to describe something like this? This is another part of my knot.

I have to push and pull myself through these questions, because I don’t have a choice anymore. I have to be honest. In a world full of bullshit, fiction has to be honest.

And then it comes back to my mental health. Trying to look at things honestly takes its toll. It doesn’t leave you much room for solace or self-compassion. And lurking with your darker experiences is perhaps best done under supervision. But then the thought of writing anything that is less than excoriatingly honest makes me drop the pen again. Another strand in this big fuck-off knot.