Thursday, February 02, 2012

A writer's bad day - or is it?

Urgh. I have just spent one of those days (yesterday) that you have to suffer every so often as a writer - well, I do, anyway. Having been otherwise engaged for a few weeks, I was intending to go back to the series of stories I'm working on and begin a new one. But I went to my desk and nothing came. There was nothing there in my head, in spite of the fact that I thought I'd had ideas backed up waiting to be written. I looked at my notes: none of the ideas I had written down in my little hardback Book of Ideas seemed to matter, to mean anything, and - contrary to my previous conviction - none of the stories in the series, written or unwritten, seemed to link up in any satisfyingly thematic way.

I could tell myself why it was happening: it's because I've just spent three weeks thinking up ideas for radio and discussing them with a producer, and finally writing a treatment. While there is of course creativity in such a process, it also has a far greater cerebral component: you have to think largely outside the story, about the market requirements of the medium and the demographic you're writing for, and it's a huge intellectual task working out how a story should proceed and indeed how it should end, without the immersive dreamlike and instinctual experience of actually writing, in which things can evolve organically. I was simply in quite the wrong headspace for actual writing. But when that happens, the experience of being so is so horrible, so barren, that you sometimes think you'll never write again, and yesterday I did think that.

Well, I'm glad to say that today, after a good night's sleep, it's all come back to me - what the stories mean, in that deep gut way that fuels the writing of them - and I've remembered which story I was going to write next: ie it's now opening up before me, resonating and demanding to be written, which in my experience, is the only way good things get written.

And of course the fallow period was necessary for this to happen: the whole thing was working itself out as I got up in despair from my desk and went off into the lovely frosty day I felt I'd been wasting and bought a birthday present for my mum, and came back and sat down and chopped off the worn ends of two old duvet covers and sewed them into one (I'm a poverty-stricken writer, remember!), all the time thinking, God, am I really spending writing time sewing??! And why is my head still so empty?

I've so often told students that much of writing is done away from the desk, when you're doing other things: it comes in subconsciously and sideways. In fact, I actually say it in my chapter in The Creative Writing Handbook (Macmillan). But once again I forgot the truth of it while it was happening to me.

And the present I bought for my mum? A really lovely book: Weeds and Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald (Faber), weird and wonderful poems that - aptly for me in the circumstances -  'summon up the flora of the psyche', with etchings by Jessica Greenman.


Tania Hershman said...

This is a very interesting post. I too have been working on a piece for radio and also finding it's more about mechanics than getting in that creative zone. It's made me crave short stories! Maybe I'm just not cut out for radio drama... it's such a different thing. Ho hum... I just came across a story I started 8 months ago, haven't read it since, and really liked it and got the ending in my head! Yes, a lot of writing goes on at times when we're not actually writing, doesn't it?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it's such a very different way of thinking about stories, working on pitches isn't it? Rather like writing by numbers... One just has to hope that if the pitch is accepted, it'll then be possible to sink into the story in the right, dreamlike way...

And yes, you've proved it - writing does often happen when you're not even aware you're thinking about it!

Shelley said...

Just wanted to say that although as a writer I sympathize, I'm charmed that you're in radio--I think that's a really soulful medium!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it can be, Shelley. Theatre of the Mind, as they say.