Sunday, 22 January 2012

Notes: Blanks and Blocks

I've just posted the paragraph I've written today. I spent a fair time getting it right, then moved on to another couple, both of which I deleted. Then I stared at the screen for a long time, played a couple of games of internet chess, went back to the paragraph, stared at it again. I'm stuck.

Sometimes I quite enjoy being stuck. That's especially true with poems, when I can go into a trancelike state, going over the possible word-choices again and again and at the same time examining a sort of space inside my head which the word must fit. It's a process of getting to know the poem before you've written it, when there are still thousands of potential poems it might become - I almost don't want it to be finished, not for a while anyway. This stuckness, though, is not like that. It's the kind that comes with all sorts of doubts and negative thoughts. It feels like a deep depression, with added guilt.

Of course, that bad mood may be a sign that the novel is the wrong one, that I ought to be writing something else (or even that I am not a writer at all and ought not to be writing anything - but I'm pretty good at keeping that idea at bay). In the past, I have generally worked on this assumption, and probably saved myself from some disastrous projects in the process. It may well be the right approach to take when writing poems, when there are always a number of other projects to hand, big and small, light and serious, that might work out better. Most of them have probably been abandoned at some time in the past, then taken up again - just because you drop something for now it doesn't mean the idea is gone forever. That's also true with stories, a lot of which I've tried many times over a period of years before finally getting them right. But with a novel, you need to demonstrate a bit more staying power, knowing that you are not going to get it anywhere near right first time. My failure to do this is the main reason I've achieved so little in a genre I am besotted with - and I speak as someone with a 60,000-word draft of a fantasy novel on my computer that I have no idea what to do with. (Thanks, NaNoWriMo!>

There is an intriguing relationship between writer's block and the epiphany I wrote about in an earlier post. What, after all, is epiphany but another name for that old writer's obsession, inspiration? It can't be willed into being, but I still can't help wanting it to arrive spontaneously and transform my work. Maybe things would run more smoothly if I forgot all about it and just got on with what I was doing anyway, but somehow the expectation of epiphany / inspiration is hard-wired into me, as I'm sure it is to most writers I know. Those epiphanies can take the form of a sudden idea for a different novel, or for a complete rewrite of this one. They can be completely, wonderfully, startlingly right - but most of the time they are deceptions.

Anyway I had a mini-epiphany over my writer's block this time: why not try to blog my way out of it? A bit more constructive than playing chess, anyway. (Which has, believe it or not, sometimes worked for me in the past.) When I was writing the first five posts for this blog, the preliminary notes for the novel, the ideas flowed out of me - then, as soon as the novel itself started, things slowed to a crawl. The point of this blog is that by making the writing process a self-conscious everyday thing I should be able to get round the inhibitions that cause writer's block. So let's look at what I was writing when I got stuck.

My aim when I sat down was to write a section (1000 words or so) introducing the university campus where some of the novel is to be set. (Based, roughly, on the University of Sussex at Falmer.) I was going to do a straight description, but then I thought that was a rather dull approach, and I should take the opportunity to dramatize it a bit by introducing some personal details right away. So I wrote the paragraph about finding the five-leaf clover. It's all true, and I kept the pressed clover for years, though I doubt if I still have it.

I started the novel with one symbol, the starlings, and now here I am introducing a second one. The significance of the clover to me at the time was that I was desperately unhappy, and hoped it was an omen that my luck was going to change. At the same time, as I say in the description, I wasn't at all sure that a five-leaf clover was supposed to be lucky as a four-leaf one is, and I wasn't even 100% sure it was a clover anyway. There is potential here for some comedy, I think, and the clover might be worked into another scene or two. But at the moment it has to be left hanging. The novel needs to get on and describe the campus.

Now that I think about it, the writer's block that struck then doesn't seem all that mysterious. I described it as feeling like a depression, and what can be more depressing than thinking about your own unhappiness even if it was thirty years ago? More than that, there is something pathetic about clinging on to this quite unmagical piece of vegetation when I wasn't even superstitious. That's how desperate I was: it is not a comforting thought.

So that paragraph was full of emotion for me. But like a good creative writing tutor, I didn't spell most of the emotions out: show, don't tell. That precept is normally meant to avoid being over-obvious when the action and description should be doing the work for you. But the reader has no idea yet how unhappy the narrator is, and is probably wondering what the paragraph is doing there at all. I either have to make more of the symbol or leave it out (at least till later).

Conclusion: I think that paragraph was a wrong direction. But I won't cut it now because that's not how this blog works. I'll have another go later. At least I have resisted the temptation to start a completely different novel.


  1. don't agree. Thought the five-leaved clover scene worked. The very fact the character bothers to collect it at all reveals a huge amount about his inner workings. I thought it worked as a symbol. was comic in the same subtle style of earlier sections. And it had a kind of fictional magic. It feels like magic realism even though nothing out of the ordinary has happened; like it has some latent quality because the character is so desperate to profoundly alter his reality.

  2. Reminded me a lot in voice and and character of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.