Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…


King Richard, Prince Harry and Betelgeuse

So this morning Mark turns to me in bed and says, ‘Betelgeuse is due to go supernova someday.’  This is at a point where I am barely conscious and when any normal human being would be mumbling incoherently instead of bombarding their partner with astronomical facts.

What I thought he said was that Betelgeuse was due to go supernova on Monday.

‘What time on Monday?’ I asked, thinking it’d be like an eclipse and we could go out and view it.

‘Not Monday!  Someday!’ he corrected me.  ‘Of course,’ he continued, ‘it might already have happened.  It could have happened 600 years ago and we’d only be seeing it now.’

There was a pause while we digested that fact.  Or at least, he digested it.  I went back to sleep.  ‘Just think!’ he enthused, ‘it could have happened while Richard III was being killed on the battlefield!’

Now there’s a thought, and it sent me in two different directions.  First, about the speed of light, which totally does my head in when you think of how unbelievably fast light travels and then how long a light-year is and then put the two together and think of 600 Earth Years!!! in terms of light years – you just can’t comprehend it.  It’s like that awful sermon on hell in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’.  It gave me nightmares when I first read it:

‘– Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it?… And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore…  Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high… and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain?… Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended….

One of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words – ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God… ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O, what a dreadful punishment!’

There’s more of this stuff, about thirty pages more, and probably not too dissimilar from the kind of stuff they used to preach to children.  Imagine it!  You’d be locked up nowadays.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, on Betelgeuse.  And, Richard III being the last English King to die in battle, this set me thinking about how it would be a good thing if politicians could actually lead the armies they so glibly send off to fight for their country.  Perhaps they wouldn’t be so keen to go to war if they actually had to wage it themselves.  Instead of which we have Prince Harry going off to fight in Afghanistan – and of course he won’t be allowed to be in any actual danger so that will make a greater headache for those around him.

OK that’s it now.  I’m going back to sleep.

Kirk out

Close the windows and leave the heater on…

So, here we are then.  Listening to Melvyn Bragg’s series on Culture, it of course touched on Snow and Leavis.  And here’s what I think: in short, Snow was Right and Leavis unbearable.  OK?  Got that?  So now you know what to say at dinner-parties when the subject comes up.  ‘Oh, of course Snow was right!’ you can drawl, between sips of your Merlot,* ‘but Leavis was simply unbearable!’

Want more detail?  Well, Leavis maintained, in The Great Tradition, that Great Art must have a moral purpose.  In this he was, ironically, similar to Dr Johnson who, though he is often quoted as saying ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’, also thought that a writer should have a high moral purpose.  Leavis could be seen I suppose as the last gasp of Christian morality (though I’m not sure if he was religious); and his scalpel cut right through the centre of literature: he thought Lawrence better than Joyce, Austen and Henry James entirely worthy, and both Eliots (George and TS) are Up There too.  He left out Dickens altogether, though he later recanted, and thought that although an openness to life and experience was useful it was not a necessary condition of art: he thus dismissed the Bloomsbury set with one sweep of rhetoric, consigning them to the same rubbish-bin as Hardy.

Nowadays we probably think the opposite in many respects – and much of this is due to the influence of his opponent, C P Snow.  Everyone knows the phrase ‘The Two Cultures’, even if they don’t know where it comes from: it’s from a lecture (later a book) which calls for more integration between arts and sciences – and in particular, more scientific awareness on the part of the artists.  To illustrate the point, he sets the arts people in his audience a simple question:

‘What is the second law of thermodynamics?’

This, he says, is the scientific equivalent to asking ‘have you ever read a book?’  He overstates his case – but still, the point is made.  What is the second law of thermodynamics?  Hang on, I know this one: the first law is something like, whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot or cold it is.  And the second law is something about heat travelling from a hotter to a cooler body.  OK, let’s see – have I got that right?

Blast!  No – that’s the first one.  The second one is ‘the entropy of a closed system tends towards the maximum.’  Which means, I think, that if you close the windows the heater will warm the room up.

OK then… so: to return to Leavis and his point about a moral purpose in writing.  I think it’s self-evident that Dickens combined entertainment and a moral purpose – not only that, but the fact that he combined them so well, made his ideas more pervasive.  ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ was instrumental in closing down those infamous Yorkshire schools where illegitimate children were basically dumped without hope of escape – it was because of his portrayal of Smike and the public’s outrage that this was actually happening, that he was able to be so effective.  Beat that, Austen!  There’s practical morality for you!

But nowadays we seem to think roughly the opposite of what Leavis said: that openness is all, and a moral purpose is a hindrance and frankly, a bore.  It is interesting to note that Joyce is now celebrated as a thoroughgoing genius while Lawrence is, sadly, all-but forgotten (I have a poem about this – see below).  And another irony is that Snow is remembered only for the phrase ‘the two cultures’ whilst his novels have been forgotten.

So there we are.  Give me C P any day, for all his faults – and let’s leave Leavis outside bleating in the Snow…

Kirk out

*this is probably entirely the wrong sort of wine and shows how seldom I go to dinner parties.

The Lawrence poem begins:

They don’t give a fig about Lawrence

now sex is cascading in torrents

it’s hard now to credit

that folk who’d not read it

once looked on his work with abhorrence!

They don’t give a damn about Dave

the Messiah who came up to save

our bodies from virtue

that bodice can hurt you

but now he just spins in his grave


But now?  Now that Harry’s met Sally?

it doesn’t take much to get pally

and everyone’s grabbing

to have what she’s having

and that’s not at all up your alley

Ripe Tomatoes are Here!!!

Yes!  The Tomatoes pamphlet is here, with a brilliant cover by Daniel showing a church as a tomato:

Tomatoes poem logo thing (2)

Don’t you think that’s great?  He’s terrific at Graphics – a possible A* at GCSE.  So, hot, sizzling and juicy, the pamphlet will be on sale at Tomatoes next Saturday at the knock-down price of £1 each – and once I have cleared costs 10p of each sale will go to support the work of Tomatoes!  It includes perennial favourites such as ‘The Ballad of the Bowstring Bridge’ and ‘The Ode to the Upperton Road Bridge, as well as the Tomatoes poem: so come along next Saturday and get your copy.

Last night I watched ‘Transsiberian’, on iplayer.  it’s an excellent film starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer – she has a bigger part than he does.  They are travelling across Siberia and meet Carlos, a good-looking but arrogant and utterly repellent character who turns out to have convictions for sexual violence, robbery and drug-trafficking.  He tricks her into carrying his drugs, then she kills him by an overenthusiastic clonk* on the head with a cemetery paling as he is threatening to rape her.  There’s a terrific performance by Ben Kingsley as a corrupt Russian policeman (sorry, perhaps that should just be ‘a Russian policeman’) – he speaks Russian fluently in the film, or appears to (my Russian extends only to ‘glasnost’ and ‘samovar’, though I can say those words fluently.)  Justice slowly sorts itself out as the snow covers everything: the woman gets away with the killing; the policeman is brought to book and the much-abused girlfriend of Carlos finds his jacket – if not his body – buried in the snow, and takes the money he’s carrying.

But the real hero of this film is the railway, running through the Russian landscape, that vast expanse of snow in which the train is the only corridor of warmth and safety.

The snow at the end reminds me of the finale of Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ – ‘snow was general all over Ireland… falling over the living and the dead.’  Terrific ending.

And finally, let’s spare a thought for the prank that went horribly wrong.  Juvenile and pathetic though the prank call was, they could not have foreseen such an outcome.  It is very sad for all concerned.

Kirk out

* it’s ages since I’ve had the opportunity to use the word ‘clonk’

Just in case you haven’t read it

Mark said my long onomatopoeic (oo!  Have I spelt that right?) utterances in yesterday’s post reminded him of Finnegan’s Wake.  Now, just in case you haven’t read it from cover to cover like wot I have, many many times, Finnegan’s Wake is about

– well, actually it’s more of a ..

– although it’s really like a –

– actually I don’t know what the hell it is because it’s totally unreadable! and I have never got further than 20 pages in and I really didn’t enjoy those 20 pages.  I ploughed my way through Ulysses, falling with a thankful sob on the shorter Ulysses, written by a Helpful Person for those normal mortals like moi who can’t read 100 pages of this:

‘Yes because one day he came over and said to me and then I said and he said and he didn’t take that up because what was it I can’t remember when that day we went to Connemara and his mother’s skirt went right up and we all laughed and then and then and then and then and it goes on and on without a single full stop and I CAN’T READ IT!

I’m paraphrasing of course.  Here you are, read a bit yourself:

Not to mention the sexism.  All the men in the book formulate their thoughts in classical sentences whereas Molly Bloom rambles on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and

Still I suppose she does have the last word, so that’s something.

What price genius if it’s unreadable – eh?

Holly is enrolling at Regent today.  Start of a new earea, as Mrs Malaprop might have said.  Or a new area.

A new ear?

I’ll keep you posted about the RD article.

Have a good one

Kirk out

Snow was general all over Ireland

… one of the more readable sentences of James Joyce, who pulled off the unfeasible act of being a genius and totally unreadable at the same time.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled “Finnegan’s Wake” off the shelf and attempted to get into it: I only ploughed through “Ulysses” because I had to for my degree.  But “The Dead” – “The Dead” is another matter.  If you haven’t read these stories, do so immediately.

I write this because we have snow.  Snow which can be called snow: snow which covers things and makes them white; snow which is threatening to cancel buses, which may mean I don’t get to see Peter and Andy after all.  It has yet to be determined whether this snow is the Right or the Wrong sort of snow.  I’ll keep you posted.

Off to the library today.  It’s all over between me and Brummie, a Guardian crossword compiler to whose head I definitely do not have access.  Unable to solve a Rufus one yesterday – I’m beginning to think that Araucaria and I may be soul mates after all.

Phone call from Steve last night who has seen Avatar 3D (apparently the most expensive 3D film ever made – but aren’t they all?) and who, I think, said it wasn’t good but he enjoyed it.  Something like that.

I’m not looking forward to going to the library today – it will be cold.  I have enjoyed my Christmas break and am feeling quite relaxed.

Enjoy the snow – keep warm and eat plenty of fluids – or is that druids?  Apparently some people have been snowed in at a pub in the Derbyshire Dales for several days.  Tragic.  I used to dream of being snowed in at a pub in Derbyshire.  Or anywhere really.

Kirk out.

Kirkdale out.

James and Jim

Sometimes this blog has to get literary – sorry if you don’t like it, but there it is.  And I woke up today with Henry James on my

I used to mix up Portrait of a Lady Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_Manwhich is odd really because James Joyce’s name seems to follow on from Henry James’s.  You could have a whole line – Joyce Grenfell followed by – erm – well, anyway, you see what I mean.

I don’t think Henry James gets the credit he deserves.  Really, he was a proto-feminist – a lot of his work is really about the invidious position of women and the impossibility of being sincere in your sexuality.   But people just can’t stand his sentences.  Here’s an example:

“Nothing was less to have been calculated in the business than that it should now be for him as if he and Waymarsh were comparatively quite at one.” titles/ambassadors/about.htm

I’ve read this sentence countless times, and I still don’t know what it means.  Come back Proust, all is forgiven!

Incidentally, the excellent film version of Portrait of a Lady Nicole Kidman makes clear what the text does not.  Still doesn’t explain that sentence though!