Music to my ears from David Mitchell at this year’s Sidmouth Literary Festival
Knowing neurosis from the inside ought to be really useful for a novelist, if only it didn’t make it so very hard to get yourself into the starting gate.
If you don’t dare call yourself a writer, you can’t say you suffer from ‘writers’ block,’ can you? I put it in inverted commas because in common usage, it’s generally a misnomer. Most of the time, it’s a fancy way of saying you don’t know what to do; truly pathological inability to write is serious, but rare. As a student, however, I was one of those people who needed to ‘catch the tide’ with any written task; if there was noise, or distraction, or a too-late start to the day, there would be major stress and a likelihood of procrastination. Of course, it was always somebody else’s fault.
I’m now a recovering neurotic, whose period of peak muddle collided with all the major life decisions. Classic. School had been a place where my work had been valued and encouraged. But once I’d left, I didn’t have the guts to sustain myself as a writer, and in fact I buried myself in other business without sharing that deep-seated aspiration with anybody. Eventually a blessed conjunction of the right people and the right circumstances helped me sort my head out. When, after several false starts over the years, I completed a first, unpublished, novel, it was written largely in the middle of the night, and as a conscious act of defiance against the day job which was turning me into an insomniac. I reasoned that if I woke at 3 am, whatever I did with that wakefulness was going to be my business and my business alone. (Interestingly, the brain is very tuned-in to fictional possibilities at that time of the night.)
I’ve since lost count of the number of women who wrote their first book early in the morning before the kids were up; or in fifteen minutes grabbed here and there, in a parked car. If writing matters to you, you will.
So I was very interested to hear David Mitchell, interviewed this week at the Sidmouth Literary Festival, say, in answer to a question, that he didn’t ever suffer from ‘writers’ block.’ With two teenage children, he doesn’t have set times to write; as he put it, ‘I just think, this is the hour I’ve got, I’ll use it.’ He’s no smug smarty-pants, either; what he does acknowledge is getting stuck. Hallelujah! Music to my ears. Not so much the language of the ivory tower, as the shed, or the workshop.
Like the craftsman we should all be, he has ways of dealing with getting stuck. He points out there are two main causes. The first is not knowing your character well enough. His answer? Get your character to compose a letter to you, the author, setting out how they think and feel about everything, from politics to sex. The second reason is that the particular material you’re dealing with – which may be very good – just doesn’t belong in the story you’re writing. He recommends putting it aside in a special file for future potential use; a welcome, positive spin on the idea that sometimes you just have to ‘kill your darlings.’ What I love about David Mitchell’s advice was its practical, down-to-earth nature. in order to get yourself un-stuck you either write, or shift segments you’ve written out of the way. You may, of course, end up with the authorial equivalent of a garage full of ill-assorted screws and bits of wood that just might come in handy. But you haven’t wasted your time.
To hijack a phrase from Auden, about getting stuck they were never wrong, the Old Masters. There were always studies, cartoons, multiple versions before the masterpiece was finally painted.
And yet, and yet… the problem, as you first embark on writing as a serious activity, is that it is personal, emotional, and you feel you’re putting yourself on the line, so it’s easy to be a bit jumpy and even precious about it. And how can you take material you’ve spent hours, maybe weeks, coaxing out of your head, and chuck it in the bin?
Cultivating writerly habits is important, but I’d argue that the mental habits are way more important than the circumstantial ones. Whether you sit down at the same time each day, and write in pencil or ink or on a laptop, is really a matter of personal choice and convenience. If you need your special Moleskine notebook, or insist on a turquoise pen, fine, just be honest that these have only ritual significance. (I adore buying stationery but it’s never a good sign.) What does matter is understanding that the five minutes it took to have a key realisation about your WIP equals a good day’s work; and that the material you pare away isn’t wasted, just evidence that a) you can create and b) you’re in control of your creations.
I’d much rather admit to being stuck than self-diagnose with an incurable condition…