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writer’s block


It’s damned hard to concentrate on anything so ephemeral as a book when outside your windows, Nature is exploding, full of flowers and scents and greenery. All I want to do is lie on my back in the grass, bare toes buried in the daisies and the dandelions, and look for animals in the clouds with Damien, except there are no clouds at all. The sky is a limitless blue, the grass is the retina-burning green of the best emeralds, and the cherry trees are blooming. As Damien said yesterday: “It’s raining flowers, Mommy.”

So it is. It’s raining flowers. Hurray, hurray, the First of May, outdoors – never mind.

May, and flowers, and cherry trees are all distractions from my current mental toothache, or headache. For a long time, I have suffered a bad case of writer’s block. Not here, and not on my other blog. Blogs are easy – the avoidance actions, to use a psychological term, of would-be writers who can’t write the Important Stuff, the stuff they – vainly, for the most part – think will make them Rich and Famous, or at least rich. I have two rules when I set out to write either of the two blogs I own – first, that it is extemporal. I have one idea when I start, and I have none at all as to how I finish. It’s just a question of seeing where my words will take me at that particular moment. There’s no rehearsal, I don’t write it in my head beforehand, I just – go, and let the whole unholy mess speak for itself. The other rule is that no blog can take more than two hours to write. The one exception – also found here – was a birthday tribute that ended up reading like a besotted funeral eulogy for someone who’s still alive, only because it was cold, raining, and Damien decided to let me suffer for it by constant interruption whenever I located a train of thought. Spelling mistakes, bad sentences and typos are corrected, but other than that, it’s the Standup School of Writing.

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to improvise, ever since I prepared for my graduation by wallowing in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, rather than Thucydides, Plato and Aristophanes, and I still managed to get a B in my final oral Greek exam.

Smoke and mirrors and an overlarge vocabulary will get you nearly everywhere. There’s a lot to be said for the Act As If philosophy.

Then, there’s that Other Thing. The Important Stuff. The Potentially Rich and Famous Stuff. The stuff that gives me heart palpitations, and performance anxiety, and has me staring at my beloved Macbook for hours wishing someone would please shoot me, now.

For the past seven years, I have been writing a book with the working title “The Effing Book”. For almost two of those years, I was unable to write because I had a baby in the interim, so instead, with the help of a friendly fellow Romanophile PhD student with a large book collection, I did an enormous amount of research on all the facts I got so wrong the first – two – times around.

I called it “The Effing Book”, as in “When ARE you going to finish that (insert expletive) book?” It’s a historical novel set in the early third century in Roman Britain and in pre-Christian Ireland, so there are certain limitations and rules to observe. My facts – such as they are – have to be true to the time, and even more important, the mindset of 1800 years ago. It’s harder than you think, to leave the 21st century behind. Which is partly the reason why I do it to begin with. Imagine a world – with no pollution, no cars, no electricity, no Internet, no TV. You might think that things were simpler then, and in some respects, they were. In all that matters, however, people are people regardless of what time they live in, and so, they screw up their lives and the lives of others every bit as badly as anyone does today.
Nevertheless, I plowed through. I recreated the story to fit the proper historical context, changed things around, introduced a whole new cast of characters and a better class of villain. I started over, if not entirely from scratch, two years ago, and in that time, I also worked at several demanding full-time jobs with strange hours, raised a little boy from toddler terror to preschooler poet – “it’s raining flowers!” – and kept him from drowning one cat in the toilet or microwaving the other one. I also listened to an awful lot of Norse metal, an unhealthy amount of Brooklyn ditto, and a smattering of Irish sean nos folk music as I wrote. I maintained the Buttkicker’s internet addiction and our marriage. And – I wrote. Four chapters.

Four chapters in two years. Admit it – you’re underwhelmed with admiration. They are, if I say so myself, long chapters, a total of some 300+ pages in manuscript. Their facts are 150% accurate – when it comes to historical detail, I have absolute OCD. They are, for the most part, ready for publication, and I put the first three chapters to the test. I became a member of an online writing critique website, and put up different scenes, out of order, for critique.

I braced myself for the worst, and was surprised by what I got. My reviews ran the gamut from “Harry Potter ripoff” (one smartaleck 13-year-old) to “one of the best things I’ve read here so far”. Some of those people I critiqued myself, and in the process, we became friends with a particular kind of disease – The Writing Itch. Friends, that is, with the right to tear into each other’s prose, but luckily, we’re all so fantabulously talented – if unpublished – we rarely have to.

When I got hit by the “wtf happens next” blues, the Buttkicker sprang into action. We would camp out on our respective dilapidated sofas and hash out the storyline. From the very beginning, he’s been as big a part of this as I have – rooting from the sidelines, graciously accepting “I’m writing tonight”, and telling me, in exceedingly plain English, when I suck, and why, and how it might be improved. He has vetoed some ideas and introduced other ones, but he has emphatically not been the one who sits there in front of the screen sweating bullets to achieve perfect prose. It’s all my party, and I can cry if I want to. When a chapter is done, he lies down, eyes closed, and I read it through aloud, sometimes to raves, sometimes not.

Then, wouldn’t you know, I realized something – that I wasn’t writing – enough. Or else that I was writing too – disciplined, too hamstrung by history. I needed an outlet for all my 21st century fits of pique, or else just my fits.

I created this blog, and I let rip.

Meanwhile, every other day or so, I would open up The Effing Book, and stare blankly at the screen and the flashing cursor. Nope, it ain’t happening, not today. Didn’t happen yesterday, either. Not bloody likely tomorrow. I want to browse Net A Porter, instead, badly, and drool over Matthew Williamson, not wrangle with siblings who detest each other to a fratricidal extent or Irish kings being browbeaten by their druids, or deal with total teenaged sexual humiliation. And meanwhile, your protagonist is literally languishing in a fishing boat on the Irish sea, and will be nearly dead in about eighteen hours.

Think about it – how in Hades DO you manage to pull a story – any story – out of the ether and onto paper, and into books?
You do it by sacrificing – family time, spouse time, friend time. You get used to having hairy legs and bushy eyebrows. Your clean clothes can fester in the dryer for – oh, the horror – 12 hours! Women your age meet for coffee and discuss the delights of living without their kids, whereas I left that rather late, deal with a four-year-old, and nitpick my characters, but not nearly so much as I nitpick my prose. I think I’d gladly kill for a grandparent nearby, but alas, the ones that live are 6000 miles away and I am an orphan now.

Tant pis, as the French say.

Mainly, I suspect it boils down to a bad case of performance anxiety. I’m conjuring up ghosts, the ghosts of an age long since past, and in some cases, those ghosts are real enough. I’m conjuring ghosts from cobwebs and book dust through a long, dark tunnel called “history”.

There’s the rub. Now, if I could forget about the “his” part and just settle for the story, I might go somewhere, instead of getting stuck in the flypaper of my own time.

Aha! An idea! So, OK. Tie the kid to a beanbag. Gag the buttkicker. Feed the cats. Here goes.

“Remind me to kill you at my earliest opportunity.”
“Certainly. If you don’t get distracted and I kill you first.”
“You wish, brother.”
“Ah, Antoninus. You have no idea how much!”

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