Adele Parks gave a great talk last night at Portsmouth Central Library as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2016, talking about her writing life, and how she became one of the top sellers of chick lit over the last 16 years. From an effervescent and ebullient childhood in which her grandfather persuaded her to write comics for 10 pence each, through globe-trotting as an advertising executive, to her decision “not to go to my grave wishing I had written that book”, it was quite a journey, and heartening, too.
With her joyous smile, lightning-fast brain and keen intellect, Adele is one of those people one can’t help liking. Blessed with good quality hardware, you can’t help thinking she would have made it, whatever she did. I’ve seen the same in other writers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was similar – proud owner of a ferocious intellect coupled with a joyous imagination, he revelled in storytelling and much more besides. Like Doyle, Adele has energy. And lots of it.
Such traits make Adele supremely fitted to talk about the business of writing. But there is one thing she announced during that evening with which I disagreed profoundly, and it came when someone in the audience asked about writer’s block. This is one subject about which I have a brimful of firsthand experience. It is also something of which Adele clearly has none.
She started off this section by make a provocative point:
“There’s no such thing. You don’t get doctor’s block, or accountant’s block. So there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”
I’ve always wondered what people who dismiss writer’s block actually think it is. Today, at last, I heard it from someone at the top of her profession.
Adele equated writer’s block to lack of direction, or disorganisation. “If you sit down and you’re not able to write, it’s because you haven’t planned what you’re going to write,” she breezed. The solution was to plan your novel better, or perhaps have a change of scene. Go on holiday, go and write somewhere else. Meet new people. Go to an Elvis convention in Blackpool.
So there it was, writer’s block was a functional problem to do with not being properly directed. It was straightforward. It didn’t exist.
During a stay on the Isle of Arran in the 1990s, during Gulf War I, I spoke with the local female GP, an ex-military doctor, and mentioned PTSD to her. She furrowed her brow and said forcefully: “There is no such thing as PTSD”. She was adamant about it.
Everyone has a blindspot for something.
Here is what writer’s block is not. It is not sitting down to write one morning and finding that it takes 20 minutes to get in the mood. That is drinking a cup of tea. It is not worrying because your cat has taken ill and thus being put off for a day or two. That is anticipating a vet’s bill. It is not having a pile of papers that are out of order. That is bad filing.
How can I say this with such certainty? Because I lost the ability to write for thirteen years. Not being able to sit down and write during that period was not a matter of tea, cats or files. I had arranged my life so that I had all the time I needed. My despair, my utter, black despair came from something far deeper and far darker. If you’ve ever wondered what real writer’s block, is as opposed to feeling a bit uninspired or not quite knowing what to write about, let me tell you about my experience. Of course, others will have different experiences, but if you have no idea at all, perhaps this will shed a little bit of light – and explain to you why if you dismiss it out of hand you might get a furious response.
Writer’s block was the moment I realised the one thing I knew I could do really well had deserted me. It left me the day I had the final argument with a lover in which she criticised my work mercilessly, then walked out on me. Her criticism combined with that deeper emotional shock so that grief became the flavour of writing.
After her departure I limped on, writing scripts for The Bill. Her stinging criticisms came back as I wrestled plot lines, rang in my ears over and over again as I tried, stomach churning with panic, to string together stories and character motives. I criticised what I wrote, using her voice to do it. Not good enough, poor quality writing. Ugly writing. And so on.
There came a point at which I found myself unable to put one word after the other because I questioned if those two words worked together on the page. I couldn’t put together a satisfactory sentence, let alone a story. I wasn’t “feeling a bit uninspired of a morning”. I didn’t need to sit down and have a cup of tea to make it right. I had a central crisis of confidence in which I felt myself whirling into a blacker and blacker swirl of helplessness. I loved that woman. I wanted to impress her with my writing. She was gone. My writing was shit.
That was the sort of equation that was going on in my head. It usurped my emotions and took over my body. I wept at nights. month after month. The grief took control of my creative life. A deep, cold sense of bleakness. The blank page became unbearable. The stories I started to write and never finished were all tales of pain and suicide, of loss of faith in people, in God, in life itself. Sitting at my desk staring at the page, in the wordless spaces between each and every second, I sat and ruminated on how best I could die.
And still I was contracted to write 4 episodes of The Bill. A job that should have lasted six months took four grinding years to complete, until finally I was free of the show. Being trapped in a contract had compounded matters further. I was going through an existential crisis, whilst simultaneously being forced to turn out episodes of a cop show. I look back now, and that is darkly funny. At the time it was hell.
I eked out a living working in bars while the 6 months money I had been paid in advance dwindled out over 4 years, failing to fund my meagre existence. I began to associate poverty with writing. I hated myself, I hated the page, I hated everyone else – and most of all I hated the act of writing.
Sitting down to write meant pain. It meant loss of dignity. It meant humiliation. It meant having daily to inhabit that dark, lost spirit in the Hades of my soul who so wanted to come out into the light again but who was trapped.
I considered suicide.
In the end, I gave up trying to write, completely. I set up a series of businesses. I got into computer repairs, teaching English and bookdealing – the last of which gave me a steady income and such a rigid regime of work that for years I had no time to think about myself or my writing.
I did, eventually start to write again, but only after I got professional psychiatric help. I had a full thirteen years of writer’s block. Being told last night that, actually, that could have been solved with a trip to the local coffee bar (as if I didn’t try so many things) – that, I have to say, did not sit well in my soul.
The good news is that I did get out of that pit, and I want to tell you – if any of this seems remotely familiar – if you are another writer suffering in this way, and you’re sick of people who tell you to “buck yourself up” and “pull yourself together”, it’s okay to be sick of it. That person may be wise, they may be actually be bloody fantastic, but if that’s what they’re saying, then of the subject of writer’s block they know nothing.
Do know, however, that you are not alone and that there are ways back to the surface, to the sunlight. There are means of escape. There will come a time when you are no longer groping around in the dark and you will no longer feel destroyed. You will see yourself in a new way. You will be made afresh.
If you’ve got real writer’s block, most likely it won’t be a walk or a holiday that does it for you. If it does, then good luck to you. What you are feeling may be, in many ways, akin to PTSD. And just like with PTSD, seek help. There are professionals who understand the workings of the inside of your head.
Writer’s block is so much more than not feeling inspired. Writer’s block is feeling that your life is reaching its end because it is devoid of meaning. Be assured, however, it will go on. Writing, that little bright bird, she will fly back to you.
If you recognise any of this description and it makes sense to you, then seek help – and do it now. Don’t – like I did – take thirteen years to act. That’s thirteen years you won’t get back.