Last night, of course, I had many ideas for what I was going to write this morning. Now, woken from strange dreams (including one that involved incessantly phoning a football stadium in a non-existent Norwegian town called Borkland, and the architect’s plan of the stadium coming up on my phone whenever I called), I sit here and haven’t a clue about what the dream means nor about the ideas I had yesterday. There is something decidedly odd about imposing artificial restrictions on myself, the main one being that I’m not allowed to pre-write this, because if I do, it’s not a warmup exercise the the rest of the day’s creativity.
I had breakfast after I wrote that first paragraph. Sundays is always a late start, because, no matter how often M and I tell ourselves that we should be sensible, we try to extract every possible moment of freedom from the weekend and end up burning the candle at both ends.
The irony is that first thing this morning I came up with the line “this plague has stilled the church bells,” started trying to write a poem from it which came to nothing, and then, just before breakfast, the sound of the bells from Norwich Cathedral drifted up the hill into our garden and entirely stopped that thought process. When we lived in Stradbroke, our house was just down the road from the church, and the sound of bells was a part of everyday life until covid came. And life and writing became dominated by it. And the bells stopped.
There are so many adverts and blogs now, promising to make us better writers, promising to teach us how to write more effectively, how to market better, how to become best sellers. But the point for me is that the writing process is not something that can be simply captured in sets of straightforward instructions, not something that can be distilled into a few lines, nor compartmentalised into a collection of mechanical tasks. First you need an idea, then you need to find the words to describe that idea, and then you need the determination and time and will to take that idea and draw it to some sort of conclusion (even if that conclusion is an open-ended ending of a poem or a novel). It’s an indefinable process; it’s a wild animal that can’t be tamed, even if you, like I am trying now, work on your words without that fabled inspiration, because to write by inspiration alone is to write so sporadically that most days are spent waiting for the muse rather than finding it. It can’t be described, proscribed, prescribed, caged, bottled, dispensed at will. And yet, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, can awaken something that we’d never even thought of before.
R, a writer friend of mine who has been a friend and mentor forever (and whom I only met because of an interview I did with Poetry Review), describes her days in a much more metaphysical way than I could. C, another writer friend (whom I met only once, in Doncaster, at one of my book launches, but whom I have stayed in touch with and admire greatly for his openness about his mental health issues), mixes his love of steampunk and model-making and war-gaming with some of the most revealing and inspiring posts (all the while attending convention after convention and hand-selling his books). And our processes are all different, and evade comparison because they can’t and shouldn’t be compared.
And that’s another thing – to even make our voices heard takes so much marketing that of time spent on writerly pursuits (if that’s how I can describe them) we spend only 25% writing and the rest thinking about and implementing ideas that might get our voices heard. I spent three hours late yesterday afternoon in this smoke-filled office working out how to add a subscription option to my blog (see the form below). It’s not yet an ideal solution, but I couldn’t work out how to add a subscription button into the sidebar, and when M came into the office and said she could hardly see me through the smog, I decided it was time to give up. I used to enjoy spending hours on finding technological solutions for things (sometimes even pulling all-nighters to get networks working), but my patience for that side of things has long since waned.
There is no solution to this conundrum. Sometimes I think it would be healthiest and most effective to withdraw entirely from visibility to the outside world, and ply my trade for myself only (which M reminds me all the time was my path of choice when she first met me in 1989). Would becoming a recluse, a mystery, make my voice carry even further? Somehow I doubt it.
Perhaps the words will find their own way.
this plague stilled church bells
the powers that were
told us to close our doors
to faith and empathy
while they danced
in the darkness of their lies
hundreds of thousands
of graves are unattended
as government crimes
masks forbidden now
a deep breath
of disease for every student
while the plague mutates
into a greater beast
we never had a chance
and the bells that ring now
are the last rites
a dance of death