What should we do when we don’t want to write? When the desire has died and the very thought of playing with words becomes a chore? Should we take a break? Or push on regardless?
One day this week, I lay on my bed for a whole afternoon and lost myself in Jim Crace’s prize-winning novel, ‘Harvest’. The following morning, after I walked Barney Poodle, instead of sitting down to write as I normally do, I went back to bed and read for another three hours until I finished this engrossing book.
I shouldn’t compare ‘Harvest’ with any other novel because it is totally haunting and enthralling in its own right. But it does make me think of The Brothers Grimm, and Hardy’s, ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’, and Pulitzer prize-winner, ‘The Road’, all rolled into one. And although the story is set in a medieval English village, it is about everything we are battling with in our modern age — globalization, mass migration, rapid change.
Gobbling up ‘Harvest’ like that made me reluctant to return to my own writing. I had willingly disrupted my normal routine but suddenly I felt totally out of writing-kilter: playing with words was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead I cleaned the toilet. And the sink. I caught up on a lot of emails. Anything to avoid the blank screen.
But what else was I avoiding?
I was ready to begin a new chapter and needed to find a voice for a young Jewish man in Russia just after the Revolution. I feared it was going to be hard. I was scared. What if I’d taken on something too challenging? What if I’d never write anything half as good as Jim Crace. All the old fears. All the unhelpful comparisons. Of course I wanted to avoid it!
Eventually I told myself — as I would advise anyone else — to write just one sentence, maybe one paragraph.
So I wrote a sentence. And another. I wrote quickly. I listened. I wrote without thinking. I wrote for almost an hour. I wrote a page. I had a scene. I had no idea where that scene might fit in my new chapter, but I had a scene that would eventually, hopefully, fit somewhere!
It was a start. It was a draft.
Interestingly, I carried that scene around with me all day and I felt calm and focussed and satisfied–and not remotely interested in cleaning anything!
Pushing through the block worked for me that day. And I was reminded of the writing ‘rule’: Write a page a day and at the end of a year you will have a novel. It doesn’t always work. Every day is different. But a page a day is a worthwhile aim.
Mid-week, I was reminded of another aspect of our writing craft. I went to the opening of a local art exhibition. The wine flowed, the Mayor spoke, the beautiful people stroked each other’s egos. In the crush, it was difficult to see the paintings but with a little determined ducking and craning, I glimpsed sea-scapes, portraits, still-life and the usual mix you’d expect in an amateur exhibition.
Some paintings leapt off the walls. Others were big and impressive and colourful but they didn’t work for me. They were technically proficient, I decided as I headed home, but they conveyed no feeling, they had no soul.
Artist, writer, painter, poet, we all have to create from a position of truth: that’s how the soul shines through. If not, it’s just words or paint, it doesn’t connect.
Next day, I went to my computer feeling enthused, even inspired. I wanted to find my character’s soul. Which meant digging deep into mine.
Knowing when to stick with our writing routines or when to step aside and take a break is as individual as we are artists.
But it’s in the doing, isn’t it? That’s how we find our creative satisfactions — and solutions — not in the agonising, or the fear. Not in cleaning!
(Though in this contradictory world of creativity that may not necessarily be true. Remember Sylvia Plath’s cakes? Cleaning or baking, we might well be incubating!)
I have this little quote on my pin-board that was given to me by a textile artist many years ago. I must remember to look at it more often because it applies to every artistic pursuit.
‘Every now and then go away / Have a little relaxation / For when you come back to your work / Your judgement will be surer / Since to remain constantly at work / Will cause you to lose power of judgement. / Go some distance away / Because the work will appear smaller / And more of it can be taken in at a glance / And a lack of harmony or proportion / Is more readily seen.’
Pushing through or taking a break, have a playful and creative week!