Thursday, 17 May 2007

How do I get there from here?

Each morning the tyranny of the blank screen assaults me anew. I imagined it would get easier to write, the more of it I did, but the opposite seems true. And then I read that a woman who has produced a hundred and sixteen novels and twelve thousand short story collections has to ‘relearn’ how to write every single day. This is terrifying news. If it’s this hard now, after just a couple of years, what chance do I have after ten, twenty years? How can I avoid being anything more (and probably a lot less) than a sentient jelly?

There are some techniques I use to slap my muse to life each day, sometimes a strong coffee will do it, other times a certain song, loud on my headphones. Occasionally it’s a poem or short story, but often, as soon as I start to read something, the thought of trying to produce something myself flaps out of the window and away up the hill.

I have tried writing on a series of topics over several days, in order to have something guaranteed to write about the next day. The most successful of these was my ‘country’ series where I wrote down everything I knew about particular countries, whether because I had visited them, or because I had never been there and wanted to find out what I could make up. My ‘food’ series was not bad (the crayfish entry was memorable); my ‘building’ series, however, was largely a waste of time. I discovered I know next to nothing about architectural features. But in every case I found myself ground down after a while, it felt too much like routine.

I have tried writing a novel (without having an idea for a novel); I've tried daily flashes; I've tried John Gardner’s writing exercises; I've tried automatic writing; I even went through a phase of forcing myself to think of an opening sentence in the time it took me to brush my teeth, with predictable consequences which my dentist was delighted about – still I’m here, today, unable to think of a single goddam thing to write about, filling my notebooks with yet more what-shall-I-write-about-today verbiage. Garbage. Verbigarbage.

Every single day I go through this vaguely psychotic process. Part of the problem is, I have no idea what I’m working towards. There are no signs of progress, no one saying, you’re on the right track, just keep going like that and you’ll get there.

In any case I’ve decided today: enough is enough. Once and for all, I am going to find a foolproof way to get myself into writing mode each morning, some technique to wake up the writer part of me long enough to produce something, even – especially – when I’m not in the mood to write. No more ‘what shall I write today?’ entries in my notebook.

This might have to be quite drastic. It doesn’t matter. Desperate times and all that. There must be some infallible way to access that weird floaty mood I’m in after a strong coffee or a pint of beer, or after reading something striking or hearing some good music, that mood when I can actually write and not care about what I’m writing.

The trouble is (more analysis! shut up already!) I’m a slightly different person each morning so I don’t know what is going to inspire me that day. I have witnessed this phenomenon in my five-month-old daughter, who by all accounts has pretty similar days and nights – naps and meals at certain times, the same songs, the same books and stories, the same toys – and yet one morning she'll wake up with the joys of the season running through her veins, and the next will be as grumpy as a February afternoon on a disused pier in Norway. As Jonathan Franzen put it:

"He had good days and bad days. It was as if when he lay in bed for a night certain humors pooled in the right or wrong places, like marinade around a flank steak, and in the morning his nerve endings either had enough of what they needed or did not; as if his mental clarity might depend on something as simple as whether he’s lain on his side or on his back the night before, or as if, more disturbingly, he were a damaged transistor radio which after a vigorous shaking might function loud and clear or spew nothing but static laced with unconnected phrases, the odd strain of music."

That sounds about right. As if, not only will a piece of art move one person and leave another completely cold, but also, a piece of art may move a person on one day, and leave that same person completely cold on another. Which suggests that we are different people every day. This is doing terrible things to my sense of identity. Maybe I should change my name each morning? It makes me think of that most absurd and meaningless of questions, where are you from? Somerset, I say. As if that tells them anything at all. What a random fact to know about a person. Where am I from? I’ll tell you where I’m from: a slightly fitful night where I dreamed of canoeing to the North Pole in hiking gear with my Dad and then I woke up with pins and needles in my left foot. Hey, come back here, I was talking to you, you in the hat and the striped scarf, running up that hill, little stick man you are, little Irish stick man it sounds like, I’m going to run after you to find out where the hell you hide at night, breaking my radio, sowing my dreams with images of walking boots - you can leap over that 1000-mile-wide ravine if you like but you can’t hide forever, you little leprechaun stickman with electricity hair, I’m going to catch hold of you and tie you up in my office and feed you prawns until you squeal your secrets...

Right then. How the hell did I get here from there?

1 comment:

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

I'm all depressed now Dave