Blocked…

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I spent most of December in Cuba. Apart from the usual fun aspects, my intention was to read for a week, write a few blogs and get on with my novel. The first draft of the novel was complete. I had to go through it and tidy the whole thing up. I significantly changed the plot and finished the whole thing quite easily. I knew the end of the novel but couldn’t quite decide how to write it. With a few days left I decided to leave ending the novel until I got home.

 

Five weeks later I still haven’t finished it. I tinkered a little with the earlier chapters but have not even looked at the ending. For the first week, and then two, I thought it was just jet lag or being back at work, but work has been easy and jet lag only lasts a few days. It is very strange; I am forcing myself to write this, trying to get myself back in the mood, back in the writing mood. Writing is never easy, but sometimes it flows, and the writing I’ve done during the past year suddenly seems to have been very easy (it wasn’t), compared to now. How did I do it?

 

I have written one blog since Cuba, the one about an argument in the street and the heavy police response. It said something about crime in Havana, about crime in Cuba – I was pleased with it. Although it didn’t get much response, I thought it neatly summed up much about Cuba: the nature of their arguments, quickly over and forgotten, the temperament of the people and the fact that crime is almost non-existent. It was a short piece but I felt I could return to it in more detail, explain it more fully. But since then – nothing. Blocked.

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Blocked. It’s over two weeks since I wrote anything and I have not even looked at my novel for three weeks. At first you look for excuses, but now I must admit that blocked is what it is. Writing this is like swimming through treacle or going into work with the flu – I really don’t want to do it. Norman Mailer described the difficulties well:

Writing every day is a depressing activity. Sometimes after two hours of writing I feel as if I’ve done seven hours of manual labour.

Of course Norman Mailer is referring to the general difficulty of writing, not being blocked. He was an incredibly industrious writer and didn’t always find it so hard. Throughout his life though, despite enormous success, he had to keep working, mainly to pay for his five ex-wives and his numerous children.

 

Writing this does feel like seven hours of manual labour, but I feel that I must get back into it, and perhaps writing about being blocked is as good a way as any of removing the block. And as Norman Mailer put it:

One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honour decent professionals are entitled to wear.

I feel I have had too many bad days (in terms of writing) and must, if I want to be a writer, continue, even though it is the last thing I want to do. I still want to earn that ‘badge of honour’ that Mailer neatly applies to professionals – you simply must be willing to work on a bad day.

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Life is fine apart from the writing. Most things are going quite well. It is at times like this that one echoes Hemingway, when one would rather be anything but a writer, when any other occupation or pastime seems enormously attractive:

I would rather have a good life than be a bloody great writer.

There is a strong temptation to feel like this, that any occupation is better. Hemingway managed to make his life startlingly unhappy, but as he said about his friend F Scott Fitzgerald:

Scott took literature so seriously. He never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.

And Hemingway’s unhappiness was more to do with his personal life than his writing. He ruined his talent and lost his friends. Writing gave him the means to be happy; his character made him unhappy, and probably would have made him unhappy whatever he’d done.

I haven’t returned to my novel for a long time. I’m not sure why that is: if I think it isn’t good enough or if I think it is good but am nervous of the reaction – I really don’t know.

Writing was not always a chore for Norman Mailer. When he was working on a book his routine, which he kept to, was seven hours of writing a day, at least four days of the week. And it wasn’t all suffering; on some days he was:

…manic, alive, filled every day with the excitement and revelation of everything I see.

He apparently always had an aura ‘that projected a love of life’; one of his admirers said she was:

…amazed to see how jolly Mailer was; most of the writers she knew were anxious and unhappy.

I suppose I would like to follow the Mailer model, not exactly, but certainly in his love of life. Too many writers are miserable, see everything as an unpleasant task and write negatively about life. I may be blocked, but I’ve started again with this, poor as it may be. I will get to my novel again soon and finish it. Who knows what the response will be. I hope it’s good, but if it isn’t, well at least I will have completed it. And there’s plenty more where it came from. Well, there will be, just as soon as I rid myself of this writer’s block.

And ultimately I know there is only one way to do it. As GK Chesterton said:

 

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

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“There are 150 books which contain everything that literature has to offer”

In the film Before Night Falls, about the life of poet Reinaldo Arenas, his poor background and persecution at the hands of security police in Cuba, there is a scene where he visits the library of a wealthy Cuban writer, José Lezama Lima.

Arenas has just come second in a national competition; according to the film he should have won. Limas says to him:

‘People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. We create beauty, and beauty is the enemy. Artists are escapists. Artists are counter-revolutionary and so you are counter-revolutionary, Reinaldo Arenas, and do you know why? Because there is a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty, so he wants to eliminate it. So, here we are: 400 years of Cuban culture about to become extinct, and everybody applauds.’

‘There are 150 books that contain everything that literature has to offer. Read them and you don’t have to read anything else.’

‘So what will be the first?’

‘The Bible. You have to read the Bible. Just read it like a novel. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to give you five books. Correction, I’m going to lend you five books. You return them and I’ll give you five more.’

The five books chosen by Lima are Sentimental Education, Flaubert; Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust; Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, I have read the Bible, not much, but some and I liked it. But I am not able to judge it either way and am happy to take the word of those who have read it and decided that it is great literature.

Sentimental Education is said to be best novel of the nineteenth century. I’ve read it twice, find it acceptable, but without its reputation I don’t think I would bother with it. There is too much that lacks interest; everybody is too concerned with financial dealings; I couldn’t (even after two readings) keep track of everybody; a revolution was going on while the second half of the main story played out, but I remained as unaffected by it as the author. I know Flaubert was obsessed with finding the mot juste – the perfect word; that he was one of the first authors to ‘show don’t tell’. He once said

‘Around man all is shadow, all is emptiness. The moment I don’t have a book on hand or dream of writing one I could howl with frustration. Life is tolerable to me only if one can conjure it away.’

I didn’t care about Frédéric, about Madame Arnoux or Sénécal; his novel had no effect on me.

Remembrance of Things Past, I’m trying to like, people keep saying you must read this but I don’t like it. I don’t want to go too deeply into why I don’t like these books; perhaps it’s because I see them as anti-life – especially Kafka – just to say here that I do not like them. I have tried three times to get into Proust (I will probably re-try the other authors, but Kafka has probably defeated me). I was just thoroughly bored.

Metamorphosis is difficult. I find all of Kafka unreadable (apart from his letters to his girlfriend). I can barely read one sentence of him. I’ve attempted to read other stuff. I’ve tried The Trial; I appreciate the sentiment, one man caught up in a swirl of bureaucracy, but I can’t read it. I’ve even tried the graphic novel. Believe me, I’ve tried. I don’t like Kafka.

I read Moby Dick when I was still at school, then recently tried again. I enjoyed parts of it but they were few and far between. As Clive James said,

‘Melville’s ocean clung like tar. It’s one of those books you can’t get started with even after you have finished reading.’

But the filmmakers chose those five. After seeing the film (which is great), I tried to read Lima’s Paradiso. It was the only novel he wrote (he was a poet) and I can see why. Arenas too, was a poet, but he wrote some fiction too, all of which I find unreadable. This is not to say that I am right and the writers or their critics are wrong. It is a matter of opinion.

Treasure Island I’ve only read once (and fairly recently). I liked it, maybe because it was meant to be a children’s story or a tale to be taken at face value, perhaps because it’s a

‘tale [that] sprang, effortlessly, from his pen at the rate of a chapter every morning.’

Perhaps I liked Jim’s sneaky heroics, Long John Silver’s survival instincts or Dr Livesey’s steady, cheerful demeanour. It doesn’t matter why I liked it or why I disliked the others.

They could have chosen five different books for the film, for example, The Wings of the Dove, Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Great Gatsby, to name just five; there are many more I could have chosen. I won’t name them here because I’m sure you have your own choices. I’d like to hear what they are. And Lima chose 150 books; he chose five at random. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that three of the five are my least favourite books, a fourth very close and only the fifth rescued the scene (in my eyes).

There is something life-denying about four of the books, excepting Treasure Island (and the Bible of course). Perhaps it’s an attitude to life; an attitude that life isn’t worth living. I would like to add other authors to the list. My list is very conservative; I wanted to make sure that my writers were literary greats: I think James, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy and Fitzgerald are greats in anyone’s language.

Perhaps story should be king, as it is (I think) with the five writers I have mentioned. Perhaps I am too stupid to ‘getKafka, Melville, Proust and Flaubert. I don’t know. But the scene in the film stayed with me; it’s now seven years since I saw it and I return to it every two years or so.

What do you think?