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Can’t Write, Won’t Write

Has literature, like geology, arrived at some kind of taxonomic completion?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Like some heretical dyslexia- or ME-denier, I’ve never had much patience with the idea of writer’s block. Long years on the front line as a newspaper journalist assailed by imminent deadlines has hardened me with the knowledge that once you put bum to seat and switch on the computer, something will emerge because it has to. Writing may not be a job for sissies, but pleading a block is a poor excuse: it is just not a certifiable condition, and bashing out decent English prose is hardly rocket science either.

Yet the myth remains potent. First identified in 1947 in an essay by the Freudian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler as a syndrome of “oral masochism” (linked to denial of the breast), it has since become a cliché of Grub Street patois, used to explain any glitch in regular productivity. Plenty of modernists – Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Larkin –seem to have suffered from it, like a bout of intellectual flu, often exacerbated by depression or alcoholism. As an antidote, I would cite the maxim – John Updike’s, if memory serves me – that a day in which he didn’t write a thousand words was a day he counted as wasted.

However, this year something has taken hold of me that makes me feel that my attitude is too smug. I appear to be in the grip of something I can’t altogether rationalise or control, something I am tempted to dramatise as a form of accidie, an existential despair about the purpose of writing.

It doesn’t affect my ability to churn out humdrum stuff; what I need to do, I can. There’s no block in the sense of a solid barrier or wall, rather a numb vacuity. The cupboard is bare, the well empty and dry: I have nothing to draw on.

In the interstices between my teaching sessions at the University of East Anglia, I wander round the campus and look for uplift in the richly intense Autumn landscape: it gives me back so little it might as well be bleak nuclear midwinter. In the evenings I read hungrily and impatiently, like a clumsy lover, but nothing fires me up or inspires me; nothing drives me to that magical point of no return at which you simply have to put yourself into labour and bring what kicks inside to parturition.

There are some sound material reasons for this. My trade is no longer materially valued the way it was, even ten years ago: in fact, it has plummeted to the level of a junk bond.

Our culture is one that finds the whole concept of the careful composition of words increasingly factitious. Rates of pay have been slashed, publishers have become more cautious, and the democratising impact of the internet, with its open forums, blogs and comment scrolls, has destroyed, for good or ill, the romantic idea of professional writers as initiates of a caste or guild apart. Nobody needs a commission to go into print, nobody guards the gate. Anyone can enter and speak now, free of charge, leaving the profession of what used to be called belles-lettres at one with the corpses of shorthand typing and bus conducting.

A death rattle grips the post-Gutenberg literary order. Visit any bookshop or library and it becomes quite clear that there are just too many books on the shelves, their numbers uselessly multiplying like knotweed. Within his lifetime, Shakespeare could reasonably have hoped to have read everything that had ever been published anywhere in Europe, but nowadays that task would take you into the numberless corridors of theoretical physics.

These are black thoughts that I find overwhelmingly demoralising. What’s the point of flinging yet more words into this bottomless pit? Yes, writing is my registered craft and passport-endorsed profession, but does that guarantee that anything I have to say will prove important, or original, or beautiful? If not, why bother to play a game that seems increasingly irrelevant? Perhaps we don’t need any more fine words? Just as the taxonomies of geology and botany finally achieved some sort of completion or closure, so perhaps has literary criticism and literary history reached the point where there is nothing new that can profitably be said – never mind Jacques Derrida and the indeterminacy of interpretation.

I try to reassure myself. The muse may return. I am just fallow, hibernating, regenerating, waiting for the warmth of Spring. In some respects this limbo is rather pleasant. One grants oneself a licence to be indolent. I spend hours in the library browsing aimlessly. I savour poetry with a depth that I can’t when I’m in a fluster. I’ve also been re-reading a slew of English novels that I haven’t been anywhere near for forty years; Emma, Howards End, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, The Mill on the Floss. I tell myself I’ve done my time and paid my dues: with a baker’s dozen of titles in the British Library catalogue, nice reviews, a few laurels, and two million words of journalism at a rough count, there’s no need to feel guilty.

I’ve even had a few ideas – an elegant meditation on an episode in the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a raunchy young adult’s novel – but they seem to flare up and fizzle out: the second worst thing about my state of mind is a toxic mixture of loss of confidence and what-the-hell laziness. I don’t think I could pull it off, and would it be worth the effort anyway?

I say second worst, because a session on the psychoanalyst’s couch would reveal that my darkest, deepest fear is something else. It is that writing might actually be an activity that I hate, an enemy I have grappled with for most of my life and still cannot master. Words are so damned slippery, and putting them in the right order is as hard as completing a nightmare Sudoku.

In other words, I think that the true cause and nature of writer’s block might be a sort of hostility to the infinite possibilities that language presents. Not having nothing to say, but too much, an embarras de richesses: and given the absence of a compass, how does one choose one path through the jungle rather than another?

Then again, perhaps I’m just standing on the edge of the pool, too scared to dive into the cold water? Waiting… writing. The difference is one letter.

Rupert Christiansen’s latest book, I Know You’re Going to be Happy, published by Short Books, won the Spear’s award for memoir in 2013.

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