Life and silence

As I write this, I am half way through a review. I have been half way through the review for several days, and it took me several days before that point to get so much written. It is not a long review: I would estimate somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 words when finished. Nor is it a particularly difficult review: it’s a good book and I intend to give it a good review, with some hesitations. Nor is it an isolated example, I seem to be having similar difficulty getting anything written these days.

I’m not sure I’d call this a writer’s block (I’m still writing for Big Other, though my posts are fewer and further between than they have tended to be), but the effect seems to be much the same.

*

I cannot remember when I learned to read. I know I must have been reading fluently before the age of 5 because of a family story that was repeated so often that it is almost as if I remember the events.

Because of when my birthday falls, I started at infant school a week or so after the official start of term. So when I was taken for my first day of school my class was out of the room (at PT, I suspect, a palaver that I would always hate). At the back of the classroom I spotted a rack of books. I apparently headed straight for it and began reading. When the class returned, I ignored them. When the teacher began to teach, I ignored her. They were nothing to do with me, I was absorbed in a book.

Writing was a different matter. Not the shaping of letters on a page, but the shaping of words into something more; now that, I remember quite clearly. It was in my final year at junior school, so I would have been 10, and as a class we were invited to write a story. I went away and wrote a novel. It was 22 pages long, into which I managed to squeeze two books, each of six chapters, it was bound with blue and white wallpaper, and the story was ripped off from a novel I’d read about the (British) Civil War not that long before. I now have no recall of the details of the plot, except that I’m pretty sure I managed to parlay Cromwell’s victory into a happy ending for my cavalier heroes, but I had got the novel writing bug. It remains the only novel I have ever finished.

Over the next few years I made a start on maybe as many as a dozen different novels without actually finishing any of them. At one point I must have come across the notion of plotting out the story in advance, because I worked out in elaborate detail the settings, characters and plots for all 36 volumes in an international detective series without ever starting to write one.

Then I discovered T.S. Eliot, and for a while I wrote poetry. But as I left school and went on to university, I found that the lines of my poems were becoming longer. The poetry, almost of its own volition, was turning back into prose. Since I had been discovering science fiction at roughly the same time I’d been discovering poetry, I started writing short stories. I even sold one. Ken Bulmer, delightful man, bought one of my stories for New Writings in SF 31, unfortunately the series folded with number 30. Or perhaps fortunately; from what I recall of it, I’d probably find that story rather embarrassing now.

*

When I was a postgrad at Warwick University I discovered there was something called an SF Convention in Coventry that Easter, so I went. It was how I got involved in sf fandom. And in fandom there were these things called fanzines where people wrote about science fiction, so I did. In time I found people liked my reviews and wanted me to do more. At one point I was invited to submit reviews for a new magazine. There were no guidelines so I wrote maybe 1,000 words per book, only to see the reviews cut down to just a paragraph when they were published. In a fit of pique, I suppose, I sent the full reviews to the Times Literary Supplement, and they were both used. I then reviewed regularly for the TLS for some time, until a new editor decreed that only people who had had a book published were capable of writing a review.

Despite all this, it took me years to recognize that I was actually rather better at writing reviews than I was at writing fiction. After all, setting out on a course of non-fiction is hardly the way to fame and fortune. But at least it kept me busy.

*

Very busy. I have a certain facility at writing. Despite a full-time job and roughly five hours of commuting every day, I have been churning out about a book’s worth of essays and reviews every year, year in year out, without fail. I’ve been doing that for some time now, I could always find a few minutes to bash out a review and I very rarely missed a deadline.

Until a couple of months back, when the facility shut down.

Let me be clear, I do not know what writer’s block is. I don’t know anyone who has suffered it, or at least who has described the experience. I don’t think I have writer’s block. I am still reading at the same rate. I know, in the case of every single one of the several books now piled upon my desk awaiting review, exactly what it is I want to say about them. In several cases I have in my mind the first words of the review, and from experience I have found that as long as I have an opening sentence the remainder of the review will follow naturally. And yet, when I sit down at my computer, the thought of writing those few words, a task no more arduous than copy typing to some internal dictation, becomes more difficult than I can bear. I find myself staring at the screen, or playing computer games (just typing this piece I’ve had to break off four or five times to play patience or something, not that I’m addicted to the game so much as escaping the dictatorship of words), or I say I need an early night.

Usually I rise from an evening at my desk without having added a single word to the work in progress.

*

Why is this?

Part of it, undoubtedly, is external. The company I work for went into administration a little over a year ago, our jobs were in the balance for a while, then we were bought out. That means my job is now secure, but nevertheless the pressure since then has been intense, and getting more so. I can see that everyone else in my department is feeling the pressure, and showing it in their different ways. For me it has resulted in physical aches and pains, and an on-going tiredness. I feel like all my creative energy has been sucked out of me during the day, and there is nothing left when I try to write in the evening.

But that is only part of the story. The pressure has been on for something like a year, so why is it only in the last couple of months that its effect has been so numbing?

Part of it, possibly, is psychological. A couple of months ago I learned that my Big Other posts, Blogging the Hugos: Decline, had been shortlisted for the BSFA Non-Fiction Award. Now I’ve been shortlisted for awards before, and it usually has a positive rather than a negative effect. But then, usually I don’t expect to win, so I can bask in the glory of being nominated and it has no more effect. This time it started out the same, I recognized who was likely to win and that was cool with me.

Then it changed. Some people said they were voting for me, some people even started promoting me, log-rolling on my behalf. All at once the possibility of winning became more likely. I still think, rationally, that there is no chance I’ll win; but inside, part of me thinks otherwise. And the effect has been unexpected: I froze up. I have no idea why. And I assume, come Saturday evening when the results are known, that win or lose I’ll unfreeze. But until then I feel like a rabbit staring into the headlights.

And even so, I’m not satisfied that that explains it. If all this was can be explained as freezing up, I suspect I wouldn’t want to write, and I wouldn’t have any ideas about writing. That is just not the case. I do want to write, and my inability to do so is frustrating. I know what I want to write, as I said before I know what I want to say in the reviews I have on hand, and I have ideas for a column I want to write and for a big post in China Miéville that I’m planning for Big Other. I’ve even managed to write some things. During the height of this block, whatever you want to call it, I managed to produce a couple of posts for Big Other, a review (which I think is not bad), and a column (though in fairness that was a brief revision of a piece mostly written before the block bit). So this has not been an absolute silence (and despite the regular breaks to play computer games, writing this piece has been one of the easiest writing experiences I’ve known for some time).

But still the problem remains, of sitting down at my desk and putting words on a screen. And I still don’t know when, or how, that review will be completed.

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10 thoughts on “Life and silence

  1. I suffer terrible writers block from time to time. It’s maddening, depressing. After Open City published a short story of mine- oh, a decade ago- I couldn’t write for 6 months. I couldn’t write when I was pregnant. I started this blog, a very silly (think the show, Tim and Eric) about tennis once, because I couldn’t write anything else. The blog then morphed into one, when active, that generated about 1000 hits a week during big tennis tournaments. It loosened me up. When working on one of my novels (and I can’t remember which one), I would wake up, drink coffee, go to my office, and immediately fall asleep on the floor for two hours. This went on for some time- but I did finish the book, so it must have not gone on for ever- or rather, I think I would wake up after two hours and then write for a short time? It’s amazing how little one really needs to work- but the steadiness of it- that is key to me. I remember reading that Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day. He’d be done by 9:30am. And later, he went down to 350. Knowing this sort of changed my perspective. One of the only ways I can get out of these funks is just to think, it’s OK if I suck. It’s OK if this sucks. Hell, Philip Roth- a total genius in my mind- wrote The Breast, which sucked.

    • One of the reasons I don’t think what I’ve been going through can really be described as a writer’s block is that I never felt that the things I did manage to write were bad. Some things I felt were actually quite good. The mind was working, the end result was ok, it was the bit inbetween, the transfer of ideas to the page, that wasn’t working.

      • I don’t think blocks, as John points out, for writers or anyone else, always present in the same way- as in, feeling that you are bad at what you do. They are just as unique as any other aspect of human character.

  2. Bravo, Paul, for your bravery, and not just for your honesty and vulnerability here, but in your doing what I think of as a good way of addressing the, as you describe it, facility shutting down, that is, for writing about not being able to write in the way that you’re accustomed to write. You’re using the discipline itself to work through and against, and perhaps even to reverse, its shutting down.

    Also, I think you’ve identified some very real drains (the job, its uncertainty and the new performance pressures, and your massive commute, etc.) on your creative energy. I suspect that your continued scrutiny will serve you well, especially when you cork up those sinkholes.

    Generally, when people say to me that they’re having some kind of creative block (blocks certainly aren’t exclusive to writers), I suggest that they do something else, either something connected to their discipline, or simply something else entirely.

    Considering the various shifts in your life as a writer, moving from fiction to poetry and back to fiction again, only to shift again to nonfiction, I wonder whether now might be another time of transition for you. What would happen if you were to try something outside of what you think of as your proper domain, like writing a short story, for instance?

    Like a kid, maybe, I like to think of blocks as something you can move, as something you can use to build something else.

    • Thanks, John. All those shifts were never abrupt, there was always an overlap. But I am simply better as a writer of non-fiction than I am as a writer of poetry or of fiction. The last time I wrote fiction was probably three or four years ago, and I still have two short stories that I wrote then that I haven’t actually sent out to publishers.

      If there is a transition, I think it is a move from short non-fiction (reviews and essays) to book-length work. I’m putting together another collection of my reviews, but I also have ideas for a couple of book-length critical studies, though not being an academic it’s not always easy to find the time or the resources to work on them.

      • Hey, Paul.

        It’s exciting to hear that you have book-length projects and ideas in the works. Good luck with your continued progress on both, Paul!

        As for those two short stories, perhaps sending them out might give you a different perspective on them. Or, if they aren’t really ready to send out, it’s might be worth noting that some writers, like Mary Caponegro, work on a story for years before it’s done, so dusting off those stories and digging into them might be in order.

  3. Courageous, yes: standing firm in the face of pain.

    Quite movingly, quietly, but also unsentimentally, you explore two problems. The first-order problem: an ownmost desire that is frustrated. Then, a second-order problem concerning the reasons for the frustration of that first-order desire.

    The feeling of self-division can be reformulated this way: You can’t write, but you want to want to write. These are Harry Frankfurt’s terms. Have you read any of his work? His book of essays, The Importance of What We Care About, is quite helpful.

    • Now let’s not get carried away. Big Other is bigger than any individual contributors, especially one as irregular as me.

      But you’re not getting rid of me as easily as that. Writing is still a drag on my resources and taking longer than it should, but I am writing. Right now I’m trying to catch up on my backlog of reviews (including one I owe you), but after that I’ve got a number of things I’m planning to do for Big Other, including a series of linked essays that, if it works properly, could go on for months.

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