I’m writing again, thank jebus. The slough was long and deep, but I’m rising out of it now, with new ideas and more creative energy than I’ve felt in over a year — maybe just in time for another tilt at NaNoWriMo? We’ll see. Being of the moderately sentient variety of humanoid, I had the presence of mind to question this abrupt about-face. I mean, why now? What trigger flipped the switch from no-write to now-write? It occurred to me that this analysis, as badly as I’m about to expound it, might be of some value to creatively constipated writers out there. So have at thee. Hope this brings somebody, somewhere, some relief.
On the weekend just past, we drove to the Blue Mountains to have lunch, buy a gift for the mother-in-law, and to give our son some driving practice. While the others fossicked up and down Leura Mall, I went straight into Megalong Books. The place reminds me of Shakespeare and Co. in Paris for some reason, so I have to buy at least one book every time I visit. ‘My Struggles: 5’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard was a no-brainer, and I would have been satisfied with making this $32.99 propitiation, but then a slim tome by Patricia Highsmith took my eye: ‘Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction’. Hmm… Thus replete, I fled back to the car and began to read. I didn’t even get to the end of the first chapter before I had to put it down and start writing.
Very early in Chapter 1: The Germ of an Idea, the author tells us that the most important thing about ideas is to “recognise them when they come” and recounts a “certain excitement” whenever she recognised an idea worth developing. I had to put the book down for a sec. Ideas are everywhere, but only when they’re good enough to make my flesh creep do I grab a notebook, or the ‘Notes’ app on my mobile, knowing that if I don’t commit it to writing it’ll be gone in sixty seconds. Later, Highsmith reveals that “mostly, the social intercourse is not the plane of creation … sometimes the very people we are attracted to … act as effectively as rubber insulators to the spark of inspiration“. The bald truth is that we need to do those 10,000 hours alone.
But how to reach ten-thousand hours when you’re struggling in an average week to find ten. By being sneaky, underhanded, crafty, cunning, wily and above all selfish with your time. I find it hardest stealing time from my wife; but if she’s falling asleep on the sofa at 7:30pm, then I’ll encourage her to have an early night, thrilled that I might just have secured myself three or four hours alone to write. Quiet nightshifts often contribute an hour or two to the cause. And then there are days like this: both my sons at university, wife at work, cats asleep in the garden: a whole day to myself. So I get the coffee on, keep the house cool and quiet, and get to it by picking up where I left off and editing the last few pages to find my voice again. But you can do all of that in the midst of a writer’s block, and not make any progress. In fact, it becomes enormously frustrating trying to write when the tap is rusted closed. You need a wrench and some lubricant to get it going, and who knows where you’ll find the tools.
In my childhood, I bemoaned the fact that I lived in an intellectual wasteland. An ethnic kid in a small mill town, surrounded by plantation pines, I’d spend my weekends with my best friend Steven, walking through the bush talking about SFF novels we’d read, and taking turns narrating the plots of all the novels we would write when we grew up. Ha. I had no idea Steven was gay or that he was bipolar; but then again, neither did he. None of it matters when you’re ten, practicing our swordsmanship on stands of bracken and discussing Aragorn or Thomas Covenant, or why Aiken Drum has to behave like such a dick. Steven was a square peg in a round hole, just like me.
I still have those stories in my head. They’re the ones which, on paper, would remind you suspiciously of ‘The Wierdstone of Brisingamen’ by Alan Garner, or The Chronicles of Prydian by Lloyd Alexander. They tell us that inspiration reliably comes from a broad exposure to the stories already written in your favoured genre, but a note of caution: here there be dragons. Intercontextuality aside, how do you discover the individual voice that Highsmith and so many others tell you is the key to ‘making it’ as a writer by reading other peoples stuff? I don’t want to be just an echo of all the authors I admire. I don’t want my next anti-hero protagonist to be Tom Ripley with an iPhone. Do you really want to spend hundreds of hours on a manuscript only to be told somebody else has already told that story? Did anyone actually buy Melania Trump’s excuse, that there are only so many words in the English language?
Ideas are free and everywhere: don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, ideas are the easiest part. Mor difficult is having the self-awareness to recognise and preserve the good ones. The next part, finding your writerly voice, for me means talking to yourself, minus company, absent any distractions, and not after you’ve just binge-read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series (ie. the dog watch / curtailed joke can only ever be told once). but you could be different. So if ideas are easy, and your voice comes naturally, what is the problem? For many of us, writers block = finding enough time to write. for that, you need solitude and a room of your own (or a table, a cupboard, a shed or a carpark, the dentist’s waiting room even). Be sneaky, underhanded, crafty, cunning, wily and above all selfish with your time, because the greatest novel ever written could be the one you haven’t started yet.