31 October 2010

Writer’s Block

My phone still works, but I have lost my broadband connection. It stopped functioning three weeks ago, whereupon I entered the labyrinthine nightmare of getting it fixed. First, of course, I had to check my own equipment, which involved dragging out a heavy cabinet to get at the wires and socket. The router and Airport seemed to be OK, but I had to be sure.

As a music server in the living room I use an ancient Toshiba laptop with a faulty keyboard. The keyboard doesn’t matter: the computer lives in a cupboard with the amplifier and whatnot. A small and elderly flat-panel monitor sits on top of the cupboard, and I can work the software solely with a mouse and, occasionally, an onscreen keyboard. Anyway, I needed to find out whether a USB modem would give an error message. That meant using the Toshiba: it runs Windows XP, the only OS for which I have a driver for the Thomson modem the ISP supplied a few years back, right at the start of our accursed contract.

Are you with me so far?

Having disconnected the various cables and interfaces from the laptop, I got it out. By now the battery is completely defunct, so I had to power it from a mains socket. I then had to delve into my stock of junk, upstairs, and find an external keyboard with a USB connector. Then I discovered that, having been forced, last summer, to reinstall the heap of malodorous dung that is Windows, I hadn’t reinstalled the ISP’s software. Another trip upstairs and more searching eventually produced the right CD (I tried the wrong one first, of course).

At long, long last I was ready to connect.

No dial tone.

So it was them, not me. Now the fun really began: the automated call centre, at 5 pence a minute even when I was hanging on, listening to what they thought was music and being told how important I was. At long last an Indian voice with an improbable English name, how can he help me. I explain. He does things. Which lights are glowing on my router? He tells me I am connected, will I try Google? The page won’t load. All right. Is my router plugged into the main socket? It is. Will I change the filter? The other one is downstairs: this phone’s base-station is using it. All right, try it later. Will I check all the connections? 5p, 5p, 5p. Do I have a spare CAT cable? I do. I go into another room, taking the phone. The magic string is in a big plastic sack full of such nonsense. I drag out the required length of cable, bypass the Airport, and plug straight in to the Ethernet port on my MacBook. No dice. He will give me a fault number, the engineers will call me on Tuesday (this is Sunday) between one and three. HOWEVER, he says, in capitals, I want you to change the filters and diddle some more. I diddle. No dice.

Tuesday comes. No call. I am very busy indeed with a new book. I decide to call on Wednesday. The music, I am important, 5p, 5p, 5p, 5p. An Indian lady this time, rather more abrupt than “Terry” had been. She apologizes in a pyrotechnic display of insincerity. The engineers will call me on Thurday, between three and five.

No call.

A heavenly friend comes on the scene, by telephone: she happens at the moment to be working in Japan. She will sign me up with another ISP. I give her my credit card details, the password to my email account, the whole ball of wax, and she goes into action.

She did her best as usual, but the net result, if you will pardon such an execrable pun, is that I can get no hard-wired connection until the second week of November. At least.

I live in the country, and the nearest place that sells USB broadband dongles is 20 miles away. I went and bought one, £24.99; I shall use it to upload this post. It works in my house, but only on GPRS and at a glacial, pretty well unusable, speed. To find a 3G hotspot, I must drive into town, an 11-mile round trip.

That’s what I have just done, and that’s the reason you’re reading this. (Well, I’m in Chelsea now, and I’ve written this beforehand, but you know what I mean.)

While my ISP problems were going on, I hit a big problem in my plot. I realized to my horror that what I had written was not credible: the character simply wouldn’t have jumped off a cross-channel ferry. Nor, given the disability he has, would he have been physically able to. The rest of the story, I thought, depended on that crucial scene. Without it the whole book seemed to be shot. By now I was very tired, having been awake in the early hours for a week or two of consecutive mornings, thinking about the book. Despite that, I went for an afternoon walk and tried to clear my head, but things only seemed worse. What I had written so far, 30,000 words of it, was obviously rubbish. It would all have to be scrapped.

That night I slept much better. When I woke up I recognized the old signs of writer’s block. Having recognized the signs, I knew that not all was yet lost.

Writer’s block occurs when the author has made a mistake. He may not be aware of the fact, but at some point in his story he has taken a wrong turning and led himself down a path where events or motives are not believable. He needs to retrace his steps, find the wrong turning, and decide on the right one.

This is not an easy thing to do, especially if the mistake is many thousands of words back. He has invested much labour in his prose. Besides, the vanity that informs all fictioneering makes him reluctant to admit that anything is less than perfect.

The biggest problem is to accept that a mistake has been made. After that, it is simply a technical matter of finding out where it is. If left unfixed, the mistake can be fatal to a writer’s confidence. He finds himself blocked. The longer the block persists, the more thoroughly his confidence is undermined. He may find himself unable to write anything at all. That is why blocked writers are advised to start writing at random; but the advice is poor, because it does not recognize the root of the trouble.

I loaded the file and sat calmly with a cup of tea, checking each chapter in sequence. What, I asked myself, was the function of the suicide? The death of that character was essential to the rest of the story and could not be circumvented. Then I perceived a deeper problem: a violent death would disturb other patterns and tendencies that needed to remain low-key. Illness would be better, a short-lived but fatal illness. Immediately the difficulties dissolved away. The two latest chapters, about 6,000 words in all, would have to go, but they contained dialogue and some paragraphs that could be adapted to the new scheme. In fact, they fitted the new scheme better. It was as if, while drafting those chapters, I had already been subconsciously aware that I was heading in the wrong direction.

Flowing as easily as anything I have ever done, a new linking section appeared on my screen: 1,500 words in about two hours. As it appeared, so did the entire vista of the story emerge from the fog. Regions that had been indistinct now stood out clearly. I began to get excited again. Not only did the first 24,000 words not have to be scrapped, but they were correct.

To any blocked writer reading this I would say: don’t just hang on, listening to muzak at 5p a minute. Don’t diddle with your cables. Take no notice of Terry, he’s got his head up his arse. Leave your music server where it is. Just give your ISP the push, start again, and before much longer you’ll be back online.

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