Sunday, 25 September 2016
On Not Writing
I know many novelists – published and aspiring – who agonise over the phenomenon of ‘writer’s block’. But ‘writer’s block’ presupposes that you actually have the time and space and the desire to write – it’s just that when you sit down to do it, nothing comes. There are whole books of advice about it. But I don’t think I’m in the same situation.
My issue is more that the time to write hasn’t been there. The safe space in which to get the writing done hasn’t been there. Above all, the emotional energy which I believe is a prerequisite for any writing – perhaps poetry most of all – simply hasn’t been there.
I suspect a lot of people who write get periods like this in their lives. And I suspect most don’t like to admit it. The received wisdom – from the tutors, the guidebooks, and the writing magazines – is that we have to be writing. All the time. That somehow we’re not ‘serious’ writers if there are periods when this can’t happen.
All of which is, frankly, bollocks.
I’ve blogged before that you do not have to be a full-time writer to be a writer. JRR Tolkien wasn’t a full-time writer. Philip Larkin wasn’t a full-time writer. They had day jobs which paid the bills, and in Tolkien’s case inspired and preoccupied him every bit as much as the actual writing did. And the thing with day jobs is that they sometimes take over.
My day job, for the last year, has involved giving advice and legal representation to vulnerable households who are homeless or facing homelessness. It’s an amazing privilege to do this kind of work. The people I meet are extraordinary, fascinating, complex individuals. Some have serious health difficulties. Some have escaped abuse or violence. Almost all have been scarred to some extent by the present government’s persecution of the poor, the disabled and those at the margins of society. Every day I am honoured and amazed to be trusted with the stories of the hardships my clients have faced. Every day I am struck by their resilience in the teeth of terrible, sometimes tragic circumstances.
The trouble with a job like this is it’s very difficult to switch off from. I sometimes wake in the mornings realising that I have been dreaming about my clients’ cases, or trying to memorise tracts of law in my sleep. The hours are long, the work is demanding, the intellectual challenge enormous. This is all part of the reason why I love my job. But it’s also the reason that when I get ‘down-time’ from my work, I really do need to relax. To open up some emotional space for me to recover, otherwise I’ll burn out.
Now, to produce poetry requires a certain emotional space in which to be creative. To produce good poetry requires time and intellectual discipline, to work on refining those first drafts and turning them into material worthy of publication. Often, too, it requires time to get to workshops, critique sessions, open mics, to try out the material. All of this can be in short supply in a job like mine.
So that’s the reason I haven’t been writing much poetry.
I’m not beating myself up about this. After all, the work that I do is important. Let’s be honest, it probably makes more of a difference to more people than my poetry ever will. It’s an honour to be able to serve my community in this way. And it is, in many senses, a vocation. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
Nonetheless, I find myself feeling I have to apologise to other writers for Not Writing. Every now and then I’m given the distinct impression that “I’m not taking things seriously” or “I’m not a proper writer.” But I don’t think either of these accusations are valid.
For one thing, writers need source material. And the clients I’m working with now are providing me with inspiration in bucketloads. Right now, I can’t write about them – partly because of client confidentiality, but more because I’m simply too close to the people and the events to be able to write about them with any kind of perspective. I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, these experiences of mine are going to generate vast volumes of words. It doesn’t matter that they’re not doing so now.
Many people discover (or rediscover) poetry, and other forms of writing, when they retire. With new-found space in their lives, and some distance from what was their day-to-day work, those nebulous strands of inspiration start to coalesce. Formative past experiences acquire a certain perspective.
I hope I won’t have to wait until retirement to be writing prolifically again. In the meantime, even if the creative spark is dimmed, I doubt it is snuffed out altogether. I still have a small back catalogue of unpublished work that needs to see the light of day at some point. I have fragments of new poems (often cathartic silly stuff, which at least keeps up the poetic discipline, and provides light relief at the local open mics). And I have a huge store of new experiences to tap into, when the time and the space is right.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t despair. And don’t, for goodness’ sake, let anybody tell you you are failing as a writer, just because you can’t do exactly what the textbooks say, all the time.