I am used to Writer’s Block. What once frustrated me, I now accept as something that I have to deal with. I go through fits and starts – periods of intense creativity followed by barren spells of nothing. In a slightly twisted way, I suppose it reflects the nature of my addictive personality – bursts of intense interest in a particular box set or movie or chocolate bar or alcoholic beverage that eventually settles down and is processed, cataloged and stored away for future reference in my brain. It’s not a short attention span, more a desire to absorb as much as possible rather than stagnate. In the past I have churned out entire short stories in a night, novellas in a few working days and an entire novel (again, in actual working time) in a few months. Then there is silence. I sit back and wait for the Next Big Idea to storm into my head like a tidal surge. I bounce it around for a few days, come up with occasional scenes, passages, bits of dialogue and then I go. Find the key to the wind up toy, pause for a few cranks and I’m hammering the keys out of my laptop.
Last month I had an idea that was, in fetal terms, overdue for delivery. It’d been in my head for maybe a month before, and as I’d thought about it and pictured the key scenes in my mind it started to grow by osmosis. I realised I could include a discussion about a different topic as well as the one I originally envisaged. The imagery I wanted to get across, the metaphors all began to change. There were central anchors to the story that kept the original message and outcome held down, but around it the story began to blossom. I realised I had the potential for a novella, or possibly even a novel if I wanted to really get into the backgrounds of the key characters.
I decided to start as I always do though – with a short story. I knew there was potential for it to grow into a novella, but I wanted to start small and then see where it went. I had a head full of ideas, I had all of the plot mapped out, I had dialogue and voices, I had characters and their back-stories, their motivations. I had a beginning, a middle and an end in a neat arc, in which all hands involved ended up in a different place to where they started. In short, I had everything a writer could possibly want to see the next five hours fly by uninterrupted.
And then I sat down.
The strange aspect to this was that I didn’t freeze. This wasn’t like all those exam nightmares where you revise for weeks about the English Reformation or the Periodic Table only to have all that information wiped out like a malfunctioning computer at the sight of the first question. Everything was still buzzing around in my head with the fury of thousands of bees trapped in a car, but as I stared at the Microsoft Word blank page, my hands went on strike and refused to type. I shut the computer down after staring at it for about twenty minutes.
I did eventually get the story out, a week later. But unlike every single story I’ve ever written in the past, it wasn’t pleasurable. When I’ve written in the past it is easy. It’s like riding a fast but gentle torrent of water, or being in a centrifuge. The channel between my mind and what is appearing on screen is perfectly streamlined. I’m a surfer perfectly catching the arc of a wave. Nothing can distract me, short of chainsawing my legs off at the knees, or setting me on fire – and even then I’ll probably finish a paragraph before seeking medical attention. I’ve never been a massive user of recreational drugs, but the high from being totally in tune with the images in your head and how you are writing them down will take some beating from cocaine or other miscellaneous barbiturates. I’ll feel my skin prick at my own description of a hot sun, I’ll be breathless if I put a character in a high place, my heart will pound if I put someone in danger and I’ll laugh along with a joke that comes out of nowhere from a character that I am supposed to be in total control of.
However, I became aware during this story that I was rushing. Not rushing to get to the juicy ending, or to see a bad character get comeuppance, I just wanted to get to the end of the story. I wanted to finish it. I immediately threw out a lot of the background that would’ve seen it potentially become an emotive and chilling novella, and instead settled for a flashy, slightly surreal short story – all image and no character – which became Edward. Writing sentences that would’ve once been as effortless as sledging down a snowy hill became as grueling as trying to drive a car uphill with a broken gearbox. I tore out four passages of dialogue – usually the strongest aspect of my writing – partly because it was awful, and partly because it was perfectly fitting for the flow of a novella, but far too clunky and slowed the pace down of a short story. Reading it back, it feels like watching a film with the sound off. There’s lots of imagery there, but you don’t really care about the characters because you can’t hear their voices. They don’t have anything to say.
So why did this happen? Why did someone who adores the actual physical aspect of writing and can describe it in so many ridiculously overblown ways, with a head full of an idea that they like (and I have a very strict filter for what I consider worth running with or not – another large part of the reason for not being prolific) end up churning out a half-arsed piece of sub-standard work?
I can only imagine that it is a confidence thing. Which is odd, because I’ve always had confidence in my ability to write and to write well – when I’m rejecting ideas or deleting false starts its because I know I can do better, and have done so, rather than dismissing myself as the Worst Riter Evarrrr. I think, and I appreciate the slight absurdity of this, that I was scared. Scared of fucking it up. Scared that, once finished, it wouldn’t be the image that I’d started but a terrible malformed bastard. I used the cliched analogy on Twitter of being the horse rider who is scared to get back on. This doesn’t entirely work, unless I’d had a novel completely trashed by reviews and bought only as cat litter paper, which hasn’t happened (yet). Swimming in the safe and shallow waters of complete anonymity, I should have no reason to be worried about the reception of a story, or any reason to be fearful of screwing something up. Better to fuck up now instead of when I’ve got a captive audience waiting to shell out their hard earned wages on my latest expensive hardback which is more Chopped Arse than a burger van menu. But there is definitely that essence of needing to get back in the saddle, to just ride through the fear (and already I have the creepy Patrick Swayze character from Donnie Darko in my head), to get over whatever strange psychological wall I seem to have erected for myself, and to go back to being the writer who enjoyed writing, and who deliberately invented tangents to continue writing. I perhaps need to get over this idea that I am going to fuck up my own vision and thus compromise the story before it even reaches the audience. The writer I was occasionally before, ran along a firm sandy beach to an air conditioned bar with cheap cider on tap. The writer I am now is tentatively trying to pick his way through a bed of stinging nettles to reach a bad night’s sleep on a rotten mattress.