Subscribe by RSS

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Use it or lose it

One of my regular readers told me the other day that there's a lot of sex in my writing, and I was reminded of the man who goes to a psychiatrist and is given the Rorschach test. 

Asked to say what he sees in a series of ink-blots, the guy finds female body parts or couples copulating in every one. So the doc soon brings the test to an end. 

"It's not hard to tell what your problem is," he says. "You're obsessed by sex."

"I'm obsessed?" the guy says. "You're the one with all the dirty pictures."

So I'm quite sure the title of this piece will mislead that reader into thinking it's about sex too. It's not. It's about writing. And what brought it on was reading Gregor Steele's description of his own excellent blog as "vanity writing."

It's an easy mistake to make. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," Samuel Johnson said, which makes Gregor and me both blockheads at times, although we have earned a fair bit of money from writing, over the years.

Johnson was always smart but sometimes wrongSo here, for Gregor and anyone else who thinks writing blogs makes us blockheads, is a piece I wrote in summer, to remind myself why I write every day:

"I've tried all the usual remedies this morning - coffee, yoga, calisthenics, pacing up and down, deep breaths, shallow breaths, Talisker, Glenlivet, kicking the cat and banging my head against the bathroom wall.

I now have a sore head, less whisky and a cat that's out to get me*. What I don't have is the first line of the article on education I’m committed to writing for tomorrow - and if you don't have a first line you've got nothing.

(Which reminds me for no good reason of a Jock Stein comment on a Scotland-England game, in which the auld enemy was struggling badly. "England have lots of guys who can run around all day," Stein said. "But if all you've got are guys who can run around, you've got nothing.")

Some writers are happy to breeze along without a first line they like, confident that once the whole thing's written the elusive line will write itself. I can't do that. I breeze along for a while then get a maddening itch in my head. If I ignore it and keep on breezing it just gets worse.

It's a queasy, uneasy, exposed sort of feeling, like the one you get when you sleep through the alarm and rush out with no underpants on. (Come on, you must have done.) A sense of space where there should be restriction, of airy freedom where constraint ought to be.

You think you're making progress, the sensation is saying, but one more mistake son, and you'll be out there flapping around in the sunshine.

On the few occasions I've tried to write without a good first line, or get through the day with no underwear, I've always given up and gone right back to the start.

So here I am, trying out first sentences by the dozen, all of which could come from the pages of "What I did on my holidays" by Annabelle, aged 6¾.

The problem is that last week’s southern sun has sent my writing brain to sleep. A planned week of working in London became transformed somehow into lazy days of picking plums, tending vines and rides on combine harvesters. 

Take it easy, they said. It's good to recharge your batteries, they reassured me. You're going to be twice as creative when you get home, like fields that have lain fallow, they whispered in my ear.

So I went along with them. I believed their blandishments. And here I sit on a dreich Sunday in Scotland, relaxed, suntanned and fallower than I've ever been. 

Green fields all around me but not a crop in sight. Weeds, grass and birdshit as far as the eye can see.

I have learned my lesson, fellow writers, and so should you. The world is full of people who want to write but don't. Soon after you stop writing you stop being a writer. 

Fallow is for fields, friends. Keep on writing.

*Note to animal-lovers, of which I am one. No cats were harmed in researching this piece. I don't have a cat and if I did I wouldn't kick it. I might give it a dirty look once in a while, but cats like that. It makes them feel they're doing their job.

Advice on writing from those who should know.

No comments:

Post a Comment