On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

Me time (85% cocoa).

I ought to have been in an orchestra, really. I ought to have played a more sociable instrument (i.e. not the piano, the sulky loner of the music world) and gone to rehearsals with seventy other musicians and hung out together (I see us all wonderfully stylish in polo neck jumpers) and made sweet music en masse. There’s a lovely sense of solidarity in that.

Instead, I chose writing. And writing, as everyone knows, is the sulky loner of the art world. I’m a sulky loner myself, so it’s no surprise, really, that we found each other. And yet there are times – this is one – when I question the wisdom of two sulky loners conspiring like this. Isn’t writing a thing best done by those with more resilience? Is it good for us loners to really embrace our aloneness? The danger is one that’s befallen me recently: life on your own becomes so flipping normal – status quo – that the world recedes, with the flesh and blood people who live there, till what you’ve got left is a notebook, a Scrivener file, and long stretches of silence. It’s frighteningly easy to get yourself so swept away in a book that the whole of your life becomes ‘me time’. The question I’m asking, then, is this: Is so much ‘me time’ good for the soul? And would miserable writers be miserable whether they wrote or not? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d played second bassoon in the London Symphony Orchestra? Would Hemingway have been happier tooting a horn than exposing the innermost core of his soul? And dear old, mad old Sylvia Plath – perhaps self-examination on a daily basis wasn’t the healthiest way to proceed. Might her tale have ended differently if she’d spent that February night with a gaggle of polo-necked viola players instead of surrounded by rancour-filled manuscripts and an empty flat?

Well, sigh. You’d be right if you thought I was bitter. If blog posts were chocolate bars, this one – I have to admit – would be 85 % cocoa. I’m currently stuck on that hamster wheel of The Road Not Taken, and anyone (musicians, actors, dancers) who gets their arty kicks in a gang of likeminded folks – and not staring, alone, at the screen of a laptop – is garnering my envy at this present moment. God, but it must be so nice – so bloody, bloody nice – to have someone else physically, actually, there when you’re knee deep in doing your thing – and I don’t mean disturbing you (breaking the train of your thoughts with the offer of tea when you’ve just bloody sewn up that sentence at last but you haven’t quite managed to scribble it down); I mean, doing it with you. Collaborating. You actors, musicians, and dancers – how lucky you are.

Footnote

To be fair I should probably mention the fact that I did once play in an orchestra, long, long ago. I was ten at the time. I wanted to play the cello. There weren’t any cellos at school; there was only an oboe.

My playing was so bloody awful I ended up having to mime in school concerts. The whole thing was torture from start to finish. Perhaps I do prefer writing, after all.

Not writing but drowning.

It’s been suggested, by a lovely friend of mine, that writing another blog post might be therapeutic at what’s proving to be the hardest time of my life. But there’s one teensy problem: this blog is a blog about writing. And writing is something I simply don’t do anymore.

It’s been roughly a month since the worst depression struck, but a month – or a week, or an hour, or a minute – can be an eternity when your mood’s at its lowest. And, therefore, it’s been an eternity since I’ve written. I’m not even sure I can write anymore: I’m aware that I’m doing it now – putting one sentence after another – but whether it’s making sense, or expressing the things I intend to express, is another matter entirely.

Just reading is trouble enough for my poor befogged brain at the moment (it hovers away from the page halfway through for a bout of prolonged rumination on pesky ‘real life’ till I’ve read the same sentence 192 times). I read boarding school stories, and books about ghosts, and the final few chapters of gloomy biographies about people (Sylvia Plath, Nick Drake, Assia Wevill) who met sticky ends of one kind or another. I find there’s a kind of solace in itMisery loves company, right? And you’ll read that word, misery, and – unless you’re depressed yourself, right now, at this moment – you’ll have a vague sense of the mix of emotions that three little syllables can contain… but to borrow from Keats (in his love letters to Fanny Brawne: ‘I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair’) I want a more miserable word than misery. There’ll be those of you thinking: ‘Stop carping, for god’s sake! Pull yourself together, woman. Think of those less fortunate, etc, than your fed and warm and sheltered self…’ and of course it’s a luxury, in a sense, to be allowed to fall apart, but – borrowing here, not from Keats but Alistair Campbell in an article well worth reading  – replace the word ‘depression’ with the name of a physical illness and you’ll quickly see the error in your thinking: ‘You would never say: “What does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?”’ Depression simply is. When fog descends, the fog exists – and wishing it didn’t does nothing to change it. Occasional pinholes appear and you glimpse your old life, a way through, a way out. But the nature of fog is to shift and to spread, and as soon as a pinhole appears it’s eclipsed again. Gone.

And the thing about writing, you see, is for ages and ages I’d used it to shelter in. A long time ago, when the trouble was telegraphing – from some distant hill – to warn me it was coming, I walled myself up, like an anchoress, in the cell of my novel and stiffened my lip and refused to admit it. And meanwhile, in ‘real life’, events were afoot. I was dicking around in the world in my head while the real one, the one that I actually, physically live in, was slowly collapsing. And so, when I try to set foot in that red-brick country house in the 1970s where most of my 2013 was spent, the front door has been set fast and bolted against me. I don’t even go up the path anymore, to be honest. It seems faux and phoney. There’s nothing inside there to nourish my soul. As I write I’m surrounded by shelf upon shelf of the books other people have written, and adding my own humble tome to those volumes seems only of dwindling importance when ‘real life’ has tragically nosedived.

And what I said earlier – about not understanding depression unless you are living it now, at this second – is true, I think. If you’ve suffered before then you think you remember (I thought I remembered), but, no, it’s not true: you will find that your brain won’t allow you to fully remember. You’d never go on if you could (with the knowledge it might come and claim you again). And that’s why it seems glamorous, in a way, from a distance: the suffering artist, the poor tortured soul. ‘All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,’ in the words of Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself aged 61). There’s a sense that it ought to be difficult, right? You should suffer. Like thousands of troubled teens before me, I burned the (metaphorical) midnight oil over Ariel, written by Sylvia Plath in the last tortured months before she placed her head in an oven, the gaps in the doorframe stoppered up to keep the gas from escaping into her children’s bedroom. I read Edge, widely thought to be her final poem, and marvelled at the startling marriage of life and art:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

It was all (to my fifteen year old self) so exciting. I wallowed inside it. Already I’d known the first twinges of what would afflict me for most of my life, one way or another, and less than a year after first reading Ariel (while waiting for a job interview at my local library) there’d be more than a few niggling twinges to cope with – but that’s another story. The fact is that most of my life I’ve been trying (and failing, and trying again) to outrun this. Whenever it catches me, I cannot write at all. And I think that is true for most writers, Plath included. The cusp of an outbreak can often be wonderfully fruitful (as mine was), but once it’s commenced… Kindly conjure the sound of a bank vault slamming shut. What joy can be found in the world of your head when that head is convinced of a ‘futureless future’ (in the words of Stephen Fry)?

So I’ve written this post for two reasons: firstly, to simply engage with the business of words (to be busy with something that isn’t Escape to the Country, or endless regret, or the click-clack of my woefully inept knitting needles) and, secondly, in the spirit of offering solace to others who might be alone in their own unique ditch at the moment, too low to see over the top, and to know there are others, in ditches, all over the place – and much closer, probably, than they realise.

For all us ditch-dwellers, here’s Dorothy Parker to round things off on a more light-hearted note.

Resumé 

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

If there was one thing I could change about the world, it’s this. (And it comes with World Peace as a BOGOF, you’ll be happy to know.)

I would alter the fabric of time and space so that novels could be written outside of the writer’s regular life, in another dimension, connected by only the merest of threads to this thing we call reality. I’ll call this dimension the Novelling Pocket. The entrance – I’d guess – is a little like Alice’s descent to Wonderland and, once safely inside, two things happen at once:

(a) Time comes to a halt – or, perhaps, more exactly: there is no time.

(b) Your emotional baggage is checked at the door.

If you haven’t immediately appreciated the joys of the Novelling Pocket then you, Sir and/or Madam, are (a) not presently writing a novel, (b) have never attempted to write a novel, and (c) are blessed with the sort of straightforward mindset that (if mindsets were bridges) would vaguely resemble Exhibit A:

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Whereas I, Sir and/or Madam have found myself dogged, for the last thirty years of my life, with Exhibit B.

Exhibit B. Photograph from http://travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

Exhibit B. The Rickety Bridge in Nepal. Photograph from travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

I think you see the difficulty.

This week (in jolly old reality) things went tits up for me. And so… after two weeks of frantic activity (see last month’s post on blurting) all work on the novel has come to a stop. (And the fact that I almost said ‘come to an end’ shows the ricketiness of my bridge at the moment.) I’m basically fastened together with red wine and string. When I open my mouth (aka pick up my pen) I am utterly mute. I have nothing. I’m empty. I want to dive into the novel and blot out the world, but instead I’m stuck, shivering, by myself, on the top board with a swimming pool of people underneath me, pointing and staring. (Actually, all right, I’m on the sofa eating crisps, but…) Last week I was Tom Daley. This week I’m an effing beach ball.

(N.B. The bridge, thing: that’s so last paragraph. Do try to keep up.)

So you know what I said (roughly 42 hours ago) about two things that happened at once in the Novelling Pocket: the (a) and the (b), and the (a) was time stopping? It used to be reason (a) that I needed it for (most of all), but now, hello, what’s this? It turns out I have shed-loads of time, now I’ve ceased any writing. The hours have magically trebled, quadrupled, quintupled (is that a real thing?), and each individual hour – each minute – seems infinitesimal in its length as I sit here unable to dive.

The profession of writer does tend to be linked with depression (Woolf, Hemingway, Plath) as this article reminds us. And yet – in spite of this blog post’s title – it’s one of the things that’s hardest to do when depressed: if you do write, the odds are you’ll write something twisted and crabbed and polluted – and, while poetry is known for its therapeutic effects, I am wholehearted in the opinion that novel writing is not. And, besides, I’m not Woolf. I’m not Plath. I’m very much more ordinary than that. To quote Plath’s Tulips, ‘I have nothing to do with explosions.’ I want nothing to do with explosions. All I want is to write again.

  

What to do when your novel hates you.

Last week, while lovestruck writers all around the globe were frantically conjuring upwards of 1667 words per day for National Novel Writing Month, my own novel announced that it hated me.

Oh god, not you again. Another 500 words about wallpaper… Oh, look, and now somebody’s walking the length of a shadowy hallway… Again. Now they’re opening a door. Now they’re filling the kettle for tea. How exciting. You’re really beginning to grate on me, Lynsey. Can’t someone else finish me? Sarah Waters, for instance. Susan Hill… 

Every sentence I wrote was shrugged off, refused entry, deleted again with a head-shake of shame. In my absence, my novel got dressed by itself and walked off. It went down to the courthouse and took out a restraining order against me. I couldn’t go near it. The moment I picked up my laptop my novel directed me straight to a game of Prolific on Facebook, or opened a shiny new window and filled it with tweets (yes, you definitely ought to read that link, Lynsey: the one about ’20 Mistakes All Writers Make’, oh, and look, here are 49 pictures of cats falling over on Buzzfeed… you know you love cats falling over…)

The first week of NaNo was racing away. On their website, my word count was frozen in time. Other writers were hitting five figures. I drifted through Panic, past Jealousy, onto the Isle of Don’t Care. On the Isle of Don’t Care you’re so far from the book you once loved that you barely remember its name. Weren’t you writing a book once? What, who, me? I don’t think so. You were. It was called ‘Something Hall’… and it had lots of shadowy hallways and wallpaper in it. That sounds pretty dull, to be honest. Let’s giggle at cats falling over instead.

And then… Bam. There I was on the Isle of Don’t Care, doing nothing particular, browsing some articles, making a playlist on youtube, when suddenly everything changed. This was Saturday (day of the NaNo ‘marathon’). Something was fluttering, off in the distance. And there, on the opposite shore, with a white flag in hand, was my novel. Come back, it said. All is forgiven. That Sarah… that Susan… pah! They’re both busy. It turns out there’s no one but you who can finish me. No one else wants to. They’re all writing books of their own. 

So I turned to my playlist and plucked out Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (which it’s physically impossible for me to listen to without feeling something)and out popped 2,340 words. Just like that. As it turns out, the Isle of Don’t Care is a great place to visit occasionally. Ease off the pressure gauge, kick back, and leave your subconscious to wander… and all sorts of things will have planted themselves in your head when you get back to shore. 

Just be sure not to stay for too long…