On Not Writing


This morning I was listening to Radio 4 in the car. These days I get all my current affairs/cultural opinions/wisdom by osmosis while half-listening to Radio 4 in the car. As I cruised round the Holy Lands looking for a parking space, Radio 4 was broadcasting one of a short series of documentaries they’ve recently recorded on the fear of death. The lady interviewed was a writer. I’d never heard of her but this is hardly surprising. The more I read, the more I realise that I’ve never heard of most of the writers out there. This woman had terminal lung cancer. She was surprisingly chipper. The programme was much easier to listen to than a radio documentary about a dying woman should be. I kept listening even after I’d found a parking space. Two thirds into the interview the writer said something which struck me as exactly the sort of thing I’d say in the same situation. “I’m still writing,” she said, “I can cope with just about anything if I’m still writing.”

I’m not writing these days.

There are a number of reasons why I’m not writing. I’ve been sick for almost three weeks now. I am tired like a person who’s forgotten how to sleep. I’ve no idea what’s happening with my job and, despite all my best intentions to rise above it, the worry of this is like dragging a dead leg round town. Also, I’ve discovered The Killing on Netflix. It’s really addictive. There are almost forty five hour long episodes. The next episode begins playing in the corner of the screen before the last one is even finished. This is hardly fair.

I say I’m writing. I say this mostly for my own benefit. I go to coffee shops with my computer. I move paragraphs around. I change the odd adjective to a different adjective and then, the next time I sit down “to write”, change it back. I make lists of things I want to write about. I have stellar ideas for my novel just before I fall asleep and the next morning can’t remember what any of these ideas were. I see other people power-housing through NaNoWriMo, crunching two thousand words a day, and I want to poke them viciously with HB pencils.

I am not writing anything and it doesn’t feel good.

When you are a writer not being able to write feels a little bit like the end of the world. It is almost as unbearable as writing badly and knowing you are writing badly. You feel stuck inside yourself. You feel scared that you’ll never stumble upon another good sentence again. You feel guilty all the time: guilty that you are reading, watching Netflix, cleaning the bathroom or taking a nap when you should be writing. The guilt is the worst part of not writing. It’s like a wall which requires pushing through or climbing over before you can actually get writing again. You think about nothing but being able to write again.

I realise this probably sounds insane to people who aren’t wired like writers. It probably sounds narcissistic and overly dramatic and rightly so. Writing is not the only thing in my life. Despite how I feel about it, it probably shouldn’t even be the most important thing in my life. People should always be more important than words. I am lucky to be so well-peopled. My community of friends and family and fellow-writers is one of the things I am most thankful for. But writing, like the woman in the radio 4 documentary, is how I cope with all the other parts of life which come hurtling at me without warning or consent. Writing is how I process my days, how I celebrate the moments which need celebrating and mourn the things which require grief. Sometimes it’s an act of creation and sometimes and act of confession and more often than not a kind of thing which passes for prayer. When the writing isn’t happening it always seems as if the world has become a little bit overwhelming. Everything feels as if it needs nailing down, but I’ve misplaced the nails and forgotten how to use the hammer and there are only so many things I can carry with two hands.

I am not writing and I don’t feel like myself.

I’ve been here before and people always give me the same advice. Go easy on yourself. It’s just a season. Take a break from the writing. I can’t do that. I’ve written almost every day for the last ten years and it has become a discipline like brushing my teeth before bed. It’s almost impossible to take a break from it; without writing my day feels as if it is missing some vital component like shoes or coffee or falling asleep. I have to keep trying even when the writer’s block is not so much a stoppage as an actual, enormous block of something solid sitting between myself and the words. I have to keep chipping away, trying to get back to the good stuff.

So I won’t be taking a break this week. I’ll keep carting my laptop across the road to the coffee shop and trying to write. I’ll keep scribbling down little fledgling ideas and almost instantly forgetting where they’re meant to fit. I’ll keep taking comfort from Flannery O’Connor who said many, many wise things about writing, but this week said specifically to me, “when I told you to write what was easy for you, what I should have said was what was possible for you.” I’ll be trying to content myself with shuffling adjectives and eking out the odd decent sentence in the hope that if I keep showing up at the table eventually the possible will begin to feel a little more like the easy again.

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