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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Who’s Your Muse?

the_MusesIn my last blog, Write or Type, I quoted John Steinbeck, who always wrote longhand, discussing his pencils, where, almost incidentally, he said that

“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”

That ‘kind of unconsciousness’ has mystified artists for thousands of years; even the Greeks, where muses originated, could not agree on what muses are. Many writers acknowledge a debt to muses, the mysterious source of inspiration; muses are an attractive idea (to men anyway), beautiful goddesses bestowing wisdom on mere mortals at their whim, possessing all the world’s secrets but giving only small snippets to those who wish to tell truthful stories of human existence.

Do you need inspiration to work, or at least produce work that satisfies you? Or do you believe that everything is about technique, planning and hard work, that the muses are just a pleasant fantasy, adding mystery to what is a job like any other, that can be learned and mastered?

Not all writers have faith in the muse. Flaubert distrusted them. William Golding thought the idea of inspiration ridiculous. On being asked about DH Lawrence’s statement

“Never trust the artist, trust the tale”

he replied

“Oh, that’s absolute nonsense. The man who tells the tale, if he has a tale worth telling will know exactly what he is about, and this business of the artist as a sort of starry-eyed, inspired creature, dancing along with his feet above the surface of the earth, not really knowing what sort of prints he’s leaving behind him, is nothing like the truth.”

While I agree with much of what Golding says – the successful ‘starry eyed’ artist is rare – he does ignore the fact that the man who knows ‘exactly what he is about’ can still receive help from a source he does not know ‘exactly’, help from the unconscious, from the muse. Was Golding a writer who used his intelligence and ability only, always aware of exactly what he was doing, planning meticulously and never changing direction due to flashes of inspiration? Are writers divided between those who believe that they are sole creators and those who admit to outside help?

Gerard Manley Hopkins thought inspiration

“a great, abnormal mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive.”

I haven’t found much on what women think about muses, if they think in those terms at all, although Anais Nin believed that

“this dangerous alchemy called creation, or fiction, has become as dangerous for me as the machine.”

I’ll try to discover what women think about this subject (I’m sure the information is available), but would also like to hear from women writers about their belief, or lack of it, in muses and inspiration.

I do believe that good writing is the result of hard work, but also that during that hard work, inspiration can take over, providing mysterious insight, its origins not fully understood. It can change the direction of stories, give characters a life of their own, produce tales that were not consciously planned. I do like to think of the muse as female (mostly) but my sources of inspiration can vary according to mood, a bit like belief in an unidentifiable God – something is always there, you have faith in it, but you don’t know what it is.

The nine Greek muses were female: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Clio (History), Erato (Love Poetry), Euterpe (Music), Melpomene (Tragedy), Polyhymnia (Hymns), Terpsichore (Dance) Thalia (Comedy), and Urania (Astronomy). calliopeThere was no muse for novelists at that time due to them not existing, so I suppose Calliope represented the muse that would most likely provide inspiration for writers today. Calliope was a superior muse. She kept the company of kings and princes in order to impose justice and serenity, was the protector of heroic poems and rhetoric art. According to myth, Homer asked Calliope to inspire him while writing The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Stephen King has both experience and success. He possesses a fantastic imagination, and the ability to translate it into wonderful stories that appeal to millions of readers.  Although he is not a starry-eyed dreamer, far from it, he nevertheless gives credit to outside assistance. While his muse may not have the allure of scantily clad Greek beauties or Calliope’s obvious brilliance, there is no doubting King’s belief in its existence

“If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well. There is a muse. Traditionally, muses were women, but mine’s a guy. He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

King typically stresses the relationship between hard work and the support of his muse. The fact that hard work is essential is stressed repeatedly in King’s excellent On Writing. Another straight talker, Steven Pressman, also puts it succinctly

“Sometimes we baulk at embarking on an enterprise because we are afraid of being alone. We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.”

Pressman quoted Somerset Maugham

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Maugham, said Pressman, recognised a deeper truth

“that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting his work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronised her watch with his.”

Pressman adds

“The muse favours working stiffs. She hates prima donnas.”

John Lennon, while not identifying his help, or recommending hard work, said

“So I’m lying around and this thing comes as a whole piece, you know, words and music, and I think well, you know, can I say I wrote it? I don’t know who the hell wrote it.”

The comedian John Cleese, on being asked where he got his ideas, said

“A little man in Swindon gives them to me, but I don’t know where he gets them from.”

Despite writers’ strange and diverse beliefs: Cleese’s little man in Swindon, King’s cigar smoking slob or Anais Nin’sdangerous’ alchemy – one thing is certain – whomever or whatever your muse is, they will not come and they won’t help until you have put in the work. They will sit idly by, holding back your secrets, your tales yet to be told, secure in their ability to pluck wisdom, genius or just a good story out of the air and, when you have worked and suffered and you’re close to giving up, they might, just might, if they like what you’re doing, give you a little help.

Who’s your muse?

 

 

Note:

If you choose only two books to help you to write, not only to write, but perhaps more importantly to develop a system of work that, providing you have sufficient talent, will give you a fair chance of success, then I recommend Steven King’s On Writing and Steven Pressman’s The War Of Art. Both books give brutally honest advice and I strongly recommend them to any aspiring writer.