Writing is such a difficult and misunderstood activity. It is Sunday evening and I’m sitting down to write. I’ve got no idea what I want to write and no matter how many writing prompts I trawl through online and how many times I roll my Story Cubes I just can’t find inspiration (the last roll of the Story Cubes lead me to assemble in my mind a very silly story about someone receiving a letter from a solicitor reporting that a distant family member had died and left them his pet sheep…except the recipient of the letter lived in a block of flats. As I say, it was silly and I did nothing with it). Moreover, I suddenly don’t like the story that I’m 28,000 words into writing (I’m hoping that this feeling will pass…) and I would rather go and read a book than try and wring inspiration from my increasingly frustrated brain. But this is my writing time and I feel determined that I must have something to show for this prized evening that stretches before me, since I usually cram my writing into little gaps of time here and there, like writing on the train or snatching 20 minutes whilst dinner is in the oven.
The difficulty is that all last week, and the weeks that preceded it, I was restless with the desire to write. I was writing constantly in my head and struggled to switch off as I lay in bed at night because I couldn’t stop the narrative that flowed through my brain. My job often doesn’t require full capacity of brain power so I often write in my head during the day; if I have a good idea then I furtively scribble it down on a post-it note for revisiting later. It’s so deeply frustrating that when I’m not meant to be writing, or it’s not convenient to be writing then I can’t stop myself, yet when, like now, I have allotted time to write I have nothing of value to write about.
The other challenge is how to tell people that you write. I’ve written before about taking ownership of writing: not being afraid to admit that I write. One of the hackneyed opening lines of many phatic conversations tends to be, “So, what do you do?”. This is tricky (and annoying. Do we really have to talk about work now? Why don’t you ask me what I’m reading, or what my favourite tree or flower is?). I feel a much greater affinity with my identity as a writer than with identifying myself by my day job. I work for a local authority in a role that nobody would ever aspire to; when I tell people what I do, their eyes tend to glaze over. Yet when I talk about my ‘hobby’ of writing, I tend to engage people a lot more because I talk about it with such passion and enthusiasm. I’m a university graduate and I have no career plan. As I child, I had more ambitions than hot dinners but all that has gone now leaving behind a single certainty and truth – I must write.
I recently read the beautiful and moving autobiography of Paul Kanithi, ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ in which a terminally ill Kanithi, a neurosurgeon, explores meaning and purpose of life. There was a passage in the foreword (by Abraham Verghese) that really struck me:
“For years, as a busy physician, I’d struggled to find the time to write. I wanted to tell [Paul] that a famous writer, commiserating about this eternal problem, once said to me, “If I were a neurosurgeon and I announced that I had to leave my guests to go in for an emergency craniotomy, no one would say I word. But if I said I needed to leave the guests in the living room to go upstairs to write…”
This really rang true with me. How can I possibly explain or convey the urgency of the need to write? The restless energy, the narrative in your mind that you cannot switch off, the constant distraction from any task at hand that isn’t writing. I confess that last week I ditched my lunchtime knitting group to go and write. I had made a major plot change to my story (before I hated it) and I had some serious reworking to do. I went to the group, who meet in the canteen at work, and excused myself, saying that I really wanted to crack on with a story that I was working on. It felt phenomenally antisocial, but I spent a blissful and productive lunch hour closeted away in a very quiet part of a very quiet building and I definitely didn’t regret my decision to absent myself from my friends.
I suppose the bottom line is that I am still learning about how to nurture the writer in me; especially how to be patient with myself when inspiration does not come easily (or at all), how to prioritise writing over other activities, and how to persevere. With that last point in mind, perhaps I should go and revisit that story that I’ve been working on…