N is talking about people who work out of a segment of the modernist canon one writer wide. They always pursue some punitive formalism or other and are marked by an astonishing vanity despite being read only by a following of five, with whom they are in weekly savage public disagreement at a pub. They’re mostly men, she says, and you recognise them by their raw ears. Be careful about encouraging them: encourage one and you’ll be his next victim, because there will always come a point at which you reveal that you’ve failed to fully understand the precursor. Disappointment will quickly turn to rage.
That seems a little harsh, I tell her.
But N only stares into the air as if remembering something. “You don’t want their teeth in your leg, because they never, ever have the common sense to let go.”
I thought I might describe every single step of this staircase, every crack, flaw and grain in the oak as if it were a landscape. But if I can’t describe what’s outside the window–the way the winter sunshine falls on houses half a mile away while the High Street lies in shadow–how can I attempt something that much more complex? Close up, as far as language is concerned, the stairs exist off the edge of resolution. I continue to be an observer who was never much good at observation, stuck with a means of communication which can’t carry enough information. No wonder there’s this constant retreat to metaphor. The attempt to push through into something else is always a failed attempt to be in the real.
It’s a narrow room at the top of the house, probably a corridor in the original Georgian structure. Door at one end, window at the other. I bought a refurbished pine table to use as a desk. A glass display cabinet with not much in it–the two volume Shorter Oxford, some handwritten journals from the 1980s, a fan heater, an ashtray I bought when I was eighteen, the old cat in his little cardboard container. It looks like a cabinet in a junk shop, a display of ageing items assembled but not in any sense collected. I don’t want books where I work; they’re on the next floor down. I don’t want paperwork near me any more; that which hasn’t gone to the recycler is in the cellar. One picture, placed so I don’t see it from the desk. I sit near enough the window to get some light during the day, not near enough to become interested in anything but the roofline of Downes the greengrocer across the road. On the new desk, from left to right: terabyte drive in a black case; Mac Mini, on a slate place-mat to protect the desk from waste heat; 19″ ViewSonic flat screen; keyboard from an original iMac; transparent laser mouse with all its internal gizmos lit up red. Nothing else to catch the eye, except some seashells & fossils on the windowsill. A young jade plant in a plain pot. Late afternoon, two lamps project fans of light on the long wall behind the computer. No calendars, progress charts, pinboards, index cards, plot diagrams, lists of characters and their trait paradigms. No filing boxes. Oak floorboards black with use. Orange Mexican rug. The street fills up with rain, dusk, cars swoosh past, rush hour in Shropshire. I sit at the desk and my back aches from moving things about.
You’ve been inside the mystery long enough not to care anymore that you can’t encompass it. In fact you’ve been inside long enough to prefer a position a little way outside, just left of the door. The view is more interesting. Parallax error runs in the background of everything you see, like a little bit of code totting up Air Miles and Nectar Points and so on. The main thing is that you don’t have to try, although it takes a few decades of trying before you discover that. You have to put in those decades, then one day you just upend an old wooden box on the pavement and start selling your CDs from it. People see you there night and day and they wonder about your life, something that stopped puzzling you years ago. You’re happy at last, give them a few years and they will be too.
Aliens arrive on Earth after a long journey, only to find that humanity has died out. They’ve never used writing or paper, so they don’t get books; they’ve never stored data digitally, so they don’t get computers. They recycle the books for fuel & the internet servers for chemicals. But their own typical data storage system looks & acts very much like a jackdaw, so they value the jackdaws & put them in beautiful jackdaw-friendly environments & spend the next 500 years reverently trying to decode the messages of hope they’re sure humanity left encoded in jackdaw behaviour. Jackdaws can’t believe their luck.
As I understand it, B says, the cliche “writer’s block” actually describes the inability to write anything at all. If you have a problem with a plot, she says, you’re not blocked, you are in fact writing; because the maddeningly slow solution of difficult problems in the context of specific pieces of work is part of the process of writing. In B’s opinion, you aren’t blocked in the cliche sense unless you’ve written nothing for several years and can be played by Mickey Rourke. Further, she believes, block is a consequence of being expected to write, or to write again. If you’ve got nothing to say, why bother? Essentially that’s a socio-economic pressure, an argument about who owns and defines writing time. Although it is experienced interiorly, by the writer, that kind of block is actually imposed from outside, by the expectations of the industry. My advice to myself, B says, pouring herself another glass of Merlot, is always: Don’t let your work be problematised from the outside. The real experience of block–being held up by something you don’t yet understand in the work or your assumptions about it or your assumptions about yourself–is perfectly natural; solve it by your own methods in your own time. Block as a necessary stage in writing is simply not block. She empties her glass quickly and holds it up to the light. I never liked Mickey Rourke anyway, she says darkly. Or that whole Hollywood fantasy of the cultural impotent.
You have to reinvent for the book. Your life doesn’t appear to have changed, but the book is telling you it has. The book is a way of acknowledging more than one thing you already knew. Now you come to think of it, life’s been weird since you finished the last one. You couldn’t settle. You felt belittled, especially in your nightmares. That’s always a conversation with the writer down inside. He knows more about everything than you. He catches on faster. He’s come to some understanding, he’s made some decision. Look around, there’s plenty you don’t intend to lose. But bridges are going to be burned. It won’t be one of those scary 100% conflagrations of the past, but something’s got to go. Indeed, something’s already gone. Now you’re going to find out what. That’s what a book is for, sunshine, finding out who you are now.
Stop reading. Stop being anxious about your relations with books. Assume your skills are adequate. Assume you don’t know who you are. Go away to another town. When you get there, don’t “write”: instead begin recording what you see. Describe a life you can only be on the edge of. Get those people down. Get down what they do, what they say, how they say it. Aim for observational accuracy but understand that you can only ever proceed from emotional & moral judgements you have already made. Never try to resolve that opposition. Never think beyond the problem of getting things down. Keep everything. After two years go back to where you came from, if you any longer believe that to be possible, or if you believe yourself any longer to be the you that went away. You can start trying to “write” again now.
That afternoon the whole of Lambeth–street after street spread out in the sun–smelled of roasting coffee. I sat on a bench outside St Mary’s, surrounded by the continual groan and thud of traffic at the Lambeth Bridge junction, listening to a thrush as it shaped and defended its territory among the ornamental shrubs. Daisies and dandelions were already out in the grass. At the edge of the path grew lesser celandines, yellow, star-shaped flowers like flat buttercups with eight pointed petals. I had cycled across from Peckham to see the garden at St Mary’s, but it was shut. The light falling across the south flank of the church was almost enough to make up for that; the faint shadows of the plane trees were like the shadows traced on a limestone cliff on a warm winter day. Water the colour of milk chocolate roiling under Lambeth Bridge in the strong sunlight. Tourists blink and laugh. A women on her own stares down over the parapet. They photograph the barges: THAMES & GENERAL LIGHTERAGE COMPANY.
Sybille Bedford, JIGSAW: “To say that Jules, the Julius von Felden of the novel [A Legacy], was my father would be as misleading as to say that he was not. Jules is like my father and unlike; to what degree of either I do not know. My intention was to draw a character in fiction; I used facts and memories when they served and discarded them when they did not.” [p18, my insert in squares.] This is a very adequate description of what went on in Climbers. Bedford clearly feels no guilt. Neither does she feel that definitions–of fiction or autobiography–have been strained. In this she resembles Colette or Pritchett rather than Isherwood, who felt he had to apologise for “lying”; or Edward Upward, who as a young man allowed his identity to become fatally intricated with his own imaginative product, and who to counter this spent the rest of his life transcribing his life like a book-keeper. What is the difference between these two kinds of writer?
Sometimes a writing problem will begin to resolve itself when you recognise that you haven’t been acknowledging pivotal events in your life. You’ve changed without knowing it. You were looking in the wrong place for solutions because you were looking in the wrong place for yourself. This recognition, however, doesn’t provide automatic or short-term relief. It’s unlikely to be a professional solution. The problem of writing is always the problem of who you were, always the problem of who to be next. It is a game of catch-up, of understanding that what you’re failing to write could only be written by who you used to be. Who you are now should be writing something else: what, you won’t know until you try.