I’ve always wanted to write and I’ve always suffered from writer’s block. I picture it as a large oblong block of wood, or sometimes concrete, filling most of the space but leaving just about enough room round the edges for the writing to sneak past it. Despite having published three books of poetry and written three novels – none so far published – as well as short stories, autobiographical pieces, children’s stories, skits and sketches and a substantial number of these blog pieces, there’s still something in me that says I can’t do it, I shouldn’t be doing it, and why would I want to do it anyway?
For the past few months I haven’t written very much, apart from a few poems, because my head has been full of students’ essays and dissertations and other kinds of work – or at least that’s my excuse. Behind that, though, are all the fears and disappointments that make up the block, and that solidify more when I don’t write. I love writing; something in me comes alive when I’m doing it that’s missing from my life when I’m not. And it’s the hardest thing I can possibly do: it brings me up against all the edges and uncertainties and painful places I’d rather ignore (or part of me would rather ignore) as well as all my limitations in feeling and imagination, as a person as well as a writer.
So why do it, then? asks the insidious voice from the block. Why not just give it up and do other things instead? Easier things, things that are more useful to other people, things that don’t demand so much of you? If that was all the block was saying, it wouldn’t be so hard to get past it. But ‘why bother?’ is only the surface layer. Deeper inside the block, ingrained into it, are other fears: that I really can’t do it and am only kidding myself I can; that I’ve got no imagination and there’s nothing there anyway; that writing will bring up terrible feelings I won’t be able to handle; that spending time writing is simply being self-indulgent, fiddling while Rome burns. All of them have some truth but none of them is a reason to stop writing.
I know I’m not, and will never be, as good a writer as I would like to be, or as good as many of my writing friends and acquaintances. On a bad day that can put me into a state of crushing envy and utter despair. On a better day I can simply acknowledge it and go on writing to the best of my ability. For many years I was inhibited when I tried to write by the fear that I would be ‘wasting my time’ – meaning my writing would never be good enough to publish and was in all probability laughably bad. For a long time writing classes were torture because criticism, however kindly meant, seemed to justify that fear. It wasn’t until I had my interview for the MA in Creative Writing and a highly respected novelist said she liked my work that I began to realise this was something I could actually do – that I might in fact be the writer I thought I was.
I’m not so afraid now of having no imagination and nothing inside, but the fear has been with me for much of my life, right from primary school days. When we had to write something in class, the other children would all start straight away, while I was left staring at the paper until suddenly, if I was lucky, a burst of inspiration would come and I’d race to finish the piece in time. I always believed my imagination wasn’t as vivid as other people’s – though I don’t necessarily think that was true – and I was deeply ashamed and disheartened to find that many of ideas I’d had were based on things I’d read or, later, heard on the radio or seen on TV. I didn’t know then that this happened for other people too, particularly children who don’t yet have that much experience of their own. Despite the above, the primary school headmaster was impressed with my writing; I found out later he had kept some of my ‘compositions’ in his desk drawer.
The fear of nothingness goes deeper, though, and dates back to a time in my mid-teens when, for reasons I won’t go into here, and which may never become totally clear, I cut off from my body, my emotions, my imagination and went into a state of profound and frightening inner emptiness – a void that I felt physically in the solar plexus. All that seemed to be left was a thinking mind that contained nothing but words – words largely devoid of reference to the outside world. But that wasn’t all it was: amidst the emptiness was a profound hatred and contempt for myself and – though I didn’t like to acknowledge it – other people who I thought resembled me, a lack of ability to connect with anyone or anything in the way I had before, a despairing inability to believe in the future, and a loss of the sense beauty and goodness. If that sounds extreme, it was. It was diagnosed as depression, and for a time I was given anti-depressants that intensified the blankness and utter inanity. I remember writing ‘boredom is a disease’ in my school notebooks. If I’d ever thought I could write, I knew now I was entirely empty.
Since that time, my whole life has been a journey back towards finding myself again – the person I lost when I left myself all those years ago. Along the way I have written – I can’t seem to help it – and some of what I’ve written has been finished and put out into the world. Writing is one of the ways I’ve had of reconnecting with myself. More than twenty years ago I wrote a book (unpublished and largely unpublishable) as my project for a personal development course. I wrote in the introduction that the project was about ‘remembering and re-membering’, and one of the strands in it was a revisiting of that time in my teens when I seemed to have lost everything. It included extracts from an autobiography I’d written for my first therapist when I was twenty-four, a turgid rumination shot through with vivid scenes from that terrible time. Writing about that time, many years after, brought back the horror of it and took me again to those blank places inside me – places where I still didn’t dare to go. In the book I also confronted my doubts and fears about writing, and to some extent allayed them. I was writing, seemingly I could write, and several people said the book was ‘beautifully written’ – I’d never thought beautiful writing was something I could do.
Although the block became less intractable after that, it’s never wholly gone away and I’ve still been seeking that ease and fluency of connection with myself that I hoped would spill over into my writing. Over the years I’ve worked with writing in different ways: morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), Natalie Goldberg’s Zen-influenced writing practice – writing short, spontaneous pieces on particular themes – and keeping a personal journal, which isn’t ‘writing’ in a public sense but can certainly open things up. I can go to poetry workshops now and produce some sort of writing, even if it seems dreadful at the time (though sometimes less dreadful afterwards), and I can write pieces on this blog, which sometimes helps to get the writing flowing.
Slowly, slowly, through therapy and Focusing and meditation and simply through living my life – and of course through writing too – the reconnection has gone on happening. I have far more of myself now, as a person and a writer, than I had in my twenties. I can’t be sure – there have been many false dawns – but it feels to me as though at last I may be finding again the person I lost back then in my teens, and may be able to meet whatever it is in myself that I’ve so long been afraid to face. I don’t know, but if not now, when? Whether being in closer contact with the person I once was would affect my writing I can’t say, but I’d like to think it might mean the block wouldn’t be so intractable.