I’ve had a break from this blog while thinking about the direction it should take next. I’ve enjoyed telling stories from the street. Indeed, members of the street were out last night in it, literally. Sitting around on a gaggle of different kinds of chairs, sipping wine, blinking into the evening sun and talking about, well, the street. I was just back from taking a creative writing course and therefore rather tempted to tell them about it and look for some blog-worthy reactions.
But I think it may be best for a while for me to try flying or at least blogging solo, streetless and keeping things firmly under one mental roof. If I get lonely, I can always nip down the Tavern to share a few pints with Nige. As you may have noticed, Nige is essentially suspicious of writers. He believes that while a builder/decorator’s work is always clearly and honestly on display, and the creator therefore openly judgeable, writers tend to hide behind their writing like meerkats wearing sunglasses. The fact that Nige’s work is not always what it seems to be either – at least where numbers of coats are concerned, not to mention the odd hole made in the wall mended with packed newspaper and Polyfilla – is perhaps besides his point.
The creative writing course I took was at Denman College, which is set in beautiful grounds in Oxfordshire. It’s the Women’s Institute’s centre for a wide range of courses, open not just to members but also to outsiders, including men. While my course was taking place, the rest of the college and grounds were occupied by flower-arranging events. All around the lawns were constructs of that looked like a mixture of Miro-esque art with native American feather arrangements and even a few flowers for good measure. Lovely little bursts of inventiveness, good for kick-starting one’s creative processes.
My course was on how to deal with writer’s block, even though it doesn’t really exist. The problem is usually everything else except writing. Or that writing doesn’t carry sufficient helium in a person’s life to lift it above the demands of family, job and television. We don’t suffer walker’s block, or boozer’s block, or talker’s block, mainly because we do these things regularly and as part of our lives. But, often, writing is not a regular part of a writer’s life. Therefore, it becomes first a yearned-for moment, then, when that doesn’t arrive as soon as is hoped, turns into a thing to be feared or even hated. Not writing as such, but the process of sitting down in a chair to write.
I didn’t talk about writer’s block directly until near the end of the course. By then, the students had performed some writing exercises and had each produced a complete piece of flash fiction. Despite, apparently, suffering writer’s block. Then, I suggested that one of the possible models for explaining an aspect of writer’s block might be SIMPLICITY – COMPLEXITY – SIMPLICITY. This looks at how we’re attracted to an activity we like and develop some ability without really thinking about it, and can even become pretty good at it. Then we decide we want to do it professionally and one way or another come crashing against the fact we’re just not good enough. And we won’t become good enough by continuing with the way we currently, in this case, write. We have to re-learn; start again; break down what we’ve been doing and find its weaknesses; re-construct our approach along professional, technical lines. If we work hard enough, eventually this complexity changes into a new simplicity, only this time it’s informed and has deep foundations.
But it takes courage to give up what we know works. I once wrote a story called ‘System, Magic, Spirit’, set in a world where two very different systems of magic exist. The fact they’re different doesn’t perhaps matter so much as that they’re both systems. And systems tend to govern our actions. Somewhat like the civil service, they start out as aids to the greater life but end up cutting us off from it more often than not.
In my story, the main character breaks out of the grip of systems by re-discovering the real magic in his own life which, for him, is having the chance to help someone with promise to fulfil it. I think writing is similar, and one way to navigate the COMPLEXITY stage is to find ways to hold on to the magic. The trick, I think, is to learn to love the complexity, even while you’re struggling with it. And I think the trick to that is to love what the complexity will eventually allow you to create. Which is where SPIRIT comes in. If there’s such a thing as a soul, I think we’re given one at birth. But spirit, I suspect, is more like a conscious soul, and has to be built on the foundations of technique, understanding and invisible craft.
I realise I’m mixing systems and models here, but I think the process is consistent. When we want to step up to professional level in something we love to do, we have to find ways to preserve that love. Writer’s block, I suspect, is really just a kind of guilt induced by spending less time than we know is needed with the thing we love. And the simple way to break that vicious circle is to write more. It doesn’t have to be the greatest short story ever. It can be a journal, or a blog, or a diary, or an email. Rather than keeping back your best writing from what you see as mundane outlets for it, then freezing when you find a rare moment to produce it, put your best writing into everything you write.