Notes From the Wasteland No. 28 ‘What Do You Do When You Can’t Write?’

It happens. It really does. It happens to all of us. Now and again. Once in a while. Every day. All the time. There are just times when we can’t write. Just can’t find the words. Or write a sentence and then delete it. A paragraph? A page? Entire sections.

We. Can’t. Write.

And so what do we do? What do you do? Me? I dig deep. I recall and remember those other times when I felt like this, when my words wouldn’t come. No matter how hard I tried. I picture those other times when I couldn’t get the words to form sentences. It used to happen a lot to me. I used to find it quite distressing, putting undue pressure on myself and then feeling like I had failed. But when it happens now I think about three things:

  1. A sentence today is a paragraph tomorrow. I can write. I have written before. I will write again. I will be satisfied with anything I can manage, even a single sentence. I will do everything I can to stop feeling bad about my (apparent) lack of progress. And then try again tomorrow.
  2. Sometimes you just can’t stop. We’ve all been there, in the flow, words forming sentences forming paragraphs. And when we’re in the flow it feels like we will never stop again. And when I can’t write I picture this flow and remember the warmth of the rush.
  3. My house was built brick by brick. In most situations, once the foundations are in place, building a house means laying brick upon brick upon brick. Writing is the same. Only in very rare circumstances do people complete novels in one go. Most of the time, we build our stories and our worlds brick by brick. This way, we can focus on the wall in front of us and not the roof that isn’t there yet.

What do you do when you can’t write?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 26 ‘Can You Write 200 Words a Day?’

I have spent enough years working with enough people to know that when it comes to self-directed research projects it is normally the fear of the total that causes the most distress to people. I should know, the distress I see in others was once the same distress I once saw in myself. It was during the first year of my doctorate and I wasn’t writing anything worth writing. The first year is often like this and so I imagined that I was roughly on the right track. I told myself that it was a good idea to be working through the things I didn’t want to write about in order to get to that which I did want to write about. But somehow, it just wasn’t working.

I soon realised that I had no real project.

I had managed to get a full doctoral scholarship based a research proposal that clearly promised enough to get the award but the problem was that the research itself was not going to sustain a doctoral-length study. It was too vague and not formed enough. You sometimes expect projects to sharpen their focus as you go through the early stages but this one was not going to work. Fortunately, very fortunately, I was able to come up with a convincing enough alternative (as well as being lucky enough to meet a new supervisor) and so I started afresh, this time with new purpose. With the problem of the topic resolved I now faced something far more pressing; how would I get the project completed within the time frame of my scholarship. For a wide range of real reasons, I really needed to finish as soon as I could.

But I was now facing the reality of writing – the reality of constructing eighty, ninety, or a hundred thousand words to make an original contribution to the body of knowledge.

These numbers hit me and haunted me. They loomed over me like skyscrapers, casting long dark deep shadows. I. Was. Paralysed. This was it. I had no more excuses. I had no more time. All I had was the pressing need for words, thousands and thousands of them. Thousands. Everything was predicated one me finding these words from somewhere. Anywhere. Thousands and thousands of them. And so I started writing. I wrote a paragraph. A small paragraph. It was probably one hundred words, give or take. I remember staring at this paragraph, expecting it to need deleting like the countless other paragraphs I had written and erased, written and erased. But this one stared back at me. It felt different to the others. It felt more convincing, more suitable for saving and that was what I did. I saved the paragraph and closed the document. I went away and left the paragraph alone. The next day I opened the document and the paragraph was still there. It still seemed suitable. In fact, overnight, the paragraph had somehow acquired a new tone, one I hadn’t noticed previously. It sounded formal, admittedly, but also also balanced and ready. When I read the paragraph it also felt connected to something, to an idea, a direction. Surprised but encouraged, I wrote the next paragraph. It was about the same number of words as the one it followed and that was the key, it followed. It wasn’t separate, it was connected. It lead somewhere. I saved the two paragraphs, closed the document and went away again. The next day, they were both there and when I read them I realised that I was so bothered by the total number of words I was expected to produce that I had lost sight of the fact that actually the total didn’t need to be my focus. That was too big and too abstract and just too much. I needed to focus on the way I was able to make a paragraph join another paragraph.

It was a small thing, a tiny thought, but central to everything that followed.

From then on I stopped thinking about the total and started thinking about the words themselves, their succession and connection, the way they flowed and fill the page. And so I resolved to write two hundred words a day and be happy with that. If I wrote more then that would fine, a bonus, a reward. If I wrote less, that would be fine too. When it happened I would save the document and walk away, confident that when I came back the next day I could start again. And I did. And I could. And so I did. Until the day arrived when I didn’t need to any more. Because I had finished. And my two hundred words had become ninety-six thousand words. Each one connected to the next. And the next. And the next.

And what a day that was.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 14 ‘How hard is it to let go of something?’

Have you ever wondered how easy it really is to carry the biggest burden possible and let it weigh you down on a daily basis? Like really wondered? I don’t know about you but for me the weight of my burden is a constant companion; always there, by my side, loyal, dependable, guaranteed to never leave me. This companion is familiar, comforting (almost), and kind enough, from its perspective, to devote itself to me. But what happens if tomorrow morning, or right now, or whenever I decide that I don’t want this this constant companion, this neurotic nursemaid, this bothersome bedfellow any more? Can I just put this burden down? Leave it behind me? Go my separate way? I know that I want to but the question still remains, can I? How will I do this? What will it feel like? Will I feel lighter? Less troubled? More at ease?

But what if I don’t feel any of these things?

What if I feel bereft? Apart? Separated? Adrift? Devoid of gravity? Unpinned to the surface of the world? I suppose the question really is, do I want to let go? I know what both answers are. I want to let go. I don’t want to let go. I want to let go because I want to feel different to how I feel today. Right now. Last week. Always. I don’t want to let go because I don’t want to feel different to how I feel today. Right now. Last week. Always. It is all I want. It is everything I have never wanted.

Everything.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 11 ‘I’m happy to say that I’m not always happy.’

I’m happy to say that I’m not always happy. Not in the sense of a joke or a tongue-twister; that’s not what I’m happy to say. I’m not being glib, or facetious, I’m not downplaying or undermining anyone or anything. But I am happy to say that things are not always light and bright for me. The darkness is always there, just over the hill, only as as far as the end of the day, the next passing cloud, the step I take after the next one. This is not a confession or a realisation. It is nowhere near as dramatic as that. This is just a simple statement of fact. Not that there is anything simple about simply being happy. Far from it.

I look back as far as I can to see where the darkness was born and I can only say that it was possibly always there inside of me. And outside of me. There is no blame. No one who knows me is responsible in any way for anything. That’s not how this works. I am only responsible for myself. Perhaps this is a luxurious position to occupy? As always, I can only speak for myself. For other people there are other reasons. That is understood. When I survey my past I can identify events and situations, as we all can, but the same can be said of my more recent life. Indeed, I feel that this more recent life has been far more profound in terms of its impact on me. Far more. In fact so far more that I am only slowly beginning to realise how profound. Hence each one of these slowly typed words.

The pandemic doesn’t help. Pandemics never do. But that’s slightly counter-intuitive, like blaming meat for rotting, or vacuums for filling with air. If it wasn’t this, it would be that. And if it wasn’t that it would be something else. Or something else. Again. Ad infinitum. Perhaps the pandemic does help? And nothing in this last sentence is meant to downplay anything whatsoever to do with the global misery and horror that the pandemic has brought upon us all. But perhaps the pandemic helps me to find the time to sit down and think more deeply about things. Mortality does that, I guess, and I have been as mortally afraid of the virus as everyone else. Outside the window of the room I’m currently writing in, the surge in cases is truly extraordinary, as it is elsewhere, and were it not the reality of our lives it would be another hold that Netflix can cleverly have over us with their current capacity for compelling storytelling.

So why am I happy to say that I’m not always happy? Is that even a thing to say out loud? It is. And I’m happy to say it. Because the alternative is not to say it and not saying things is something I use to do too much.

Far too much.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 10 ‘Do you think about people you no longer know?’

Do you think about people you no longer know?

People you used to know, intimately or otherwise. Either last week or years ago. Not because they are dead but just because you no longer know them. Do you wonder what they are doing? How they are? How they are feeling? Do they still like the things they like? The things they don’t like? Are they laughing? Crying? Happy? Broken? Or just somewhere in between like always? I suppose at the heart of this is the thought that maybe they are thinking about you? Wondering how you are doing? Remembering the touch of your hand on their skin? Your voice in their ear? Just remembering? I suppose at the heart of this is also the thought that probably they are not thinking about you? They’re not wondering how you are doing. They have long forgotten the touch of your hand on their skin. Your voice in their ear. No longer just remembering.

Do these questions linger? Do they stay with us like a taste on our lips? A flash in our thoughts, an interruption; occasional or often? Do they lay in wait for us? Are they lurking somewhere, silent and hidden, like the ultimate prank, with time bided and everything? Or do we just forget, remember and then forget? We can’t hold every thought and feeling we’ve ever had in equal suspension, knowing the contours of each simultaneously. That’s just too many stars to try and see in the night sky. But imagine if it was possible? Like the roots of some fabulous tree outlined in the soil that is our brain. Each gnarl and twist visible at the same time. I once went somewhere so beautiful that it was impossible to take it all in with my eyes. Photos were no good, with their frames and aspect ratios. The views were just too big and too vast and far too amazing. And even though I wanted to see everything at once I simply couldn’t. The vastness was a reminder of the limits that are forced upon us by such things as biology, limits that chafe and deny but defy defiance.

All of this is fine and well until you see the person you no longer know. In many cases, this doesn’t ever happen, geography and other guardrails prevent us from these encounters. But there are always times where we do see these people, maybe from afar, online, up close or any other combination of time and space and place. What do we do then? Pretend we never knew them at all? Hope they don’t see us? If they don’t see us then that’s something but what if they do? What do we do? Chat? Smile? Blush? Cut them dead? Look over their shoulder? The answer is that there is no answer until such times and we need one and then we won’t know. We may wish the worst for someone and rehearse for years the thing we want to say if we ever see them again. And then we see them and our long-brewed rage subsides long enough for us to force a small smile. Or forces us to because at the moment we had dreamed about for so long we learn that the fuel that flamed our fire had exhausted itself at the moment of meeting. Or it doesn’t and we don’t and then we do and all the fuel we had stored for years pours forth in a final act of futile firestarting.

So the question is what are we supposed to do about this thinking and these thoughts? We can’t ignore them. I can’t, anyway. And in any case, why should we? Should I? After all, these thoughts about these people are part and parcel of what it is to simply exist, to be; to be conscious of our past and mindful of where it points us forwards. But they are also about what it is to love and then love no more. Sometimes the choice to love no more is out choice, we decide and the deal with our decision. Other times, this choice is not ours to make but is made anyway. We have no choice for if we did it would always be the case that this would be something we would not choose.

But I cannot speak for anyone.

I can only say for me.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 9 ‘What means the most to you?’

What means the most to you?

People. Obviously, and endlessly. Absence is absolute. It is for me. Connection is everything. The only thing. Real. Profound. Deep-felt and long-lasting. If ever severed or broken, then all else that follows is broken too. Even though we wish it wasn’t.

But wishes are the winning lottery tickets you never bought. The face we saw but never kissed. The hand we never held. The life we never lead because we have to lead another. That other life. The one we might not have wished for after all. But where does this leave us anyway?

Perhaps wishing is only wasting the chance to wonder?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 8 ‘Is silence the worst thing you can hear?’

Is silence the worst thing you can hear?

What do you think?

When you look at someone and all you hear is nothing.

When you ask the darkness something and get no reply.

When you hope against hope to hear (from someone) but never do.

Silence.

The sound of your skin hardening. Your ears healing over. Closing through neglect. Never to reopen. Sealed forever. Bound with the grim whisper of the tomb. Skin and bone combine to fuse and form a permafrost.

The small scald of neglect, that daily burn upon your skin when the absence of attention you expect but hope against occurs once more again. Once more. As before. And again.

The words here are like the mirror that used to hang somewhere in the house but has long since removed yet every time you pass the spot where the mirror used to hang, you still look to see your face but find yourself not reflected anymore.

When you walk the world knowing that no one has anything to say to you today or any other day. You could walk the same path with the same steps for several lifetimes and be safe in the knowledge that only silence will accompany you.

Perhaps that’s a comfort.

Some people prefer solitude. The simplicity of silence. Of not having to engage. Ask. Joke. Laugh. To share.

Some people prefer to ignore those that surround them. That fill their space. Perhaps for fear of making that space a shared one? For, they might argue, who wants to share their space with anyone? As if intimacy is a pathogen only worth disinfecting; like washing your hands instead of stroking their face.

I’m sure these people find this act of ignoring others liberating.

Others find this same act terrifying.

I know where I stand. What about you?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 7 ‘How do we know where we’re supposed to be?’

How do we know where we’re supposed to be?

A question probably more easily answered in the negative.

We probably know where we’re not supposed to be and that’s normally where we want to be.

That’s where I want to be right now – where I’m not supposed to be.

But how do we really know where we’re supposed to be?

I have all the basic weights that pin me to a particular point on the planet; child, house, spouse, career, but some of these weights weigh heavier than others, and by doing so belie the simple facts of geography.

I have defied geography several times in my life, moving, shifting, relocating; each act of defiance larger than the last, from home, to town to, ultimately, country. And with every act I have felt that I was growing, changing, developing, responding, engaging, rearranging, changing (once more), and, growing (again).

But what happens if we stop defying geography?

Does this prevent us from further growing, changing, developing, responding, engaging, rearranging, changing (once more), and, growing (again).

I don’t think that it does. I hope that it doesn’t. I really hope that it doesn’t but as I write these words I’m really not sure.

That’s the why of these words, I guess.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 6 ‘I sometimes wonder just what it is.’

I sometimes wonder just what it is.

What it is to stop and think. To evaluate. Measure. Weigh. Decide.

How do we do these things? Why do we do these things? Is there any value? What is the point? I suppose there are no answers to these questions. We do these things because they are the things we do. We have always done. We will always do.

And if this is the case, and I believe it is, then the answer to these questions, in part or whole, is that we do these things because we don’t notice we are doing them. They just happen anyway.

But, if this is the case, and I believe that it is, or, at least, might be, then the act of wondering is actually just us noticing something about ourselves; taking the time, we could say, to halt the time of our living for long enough to catch a glimpse of the automaticness of our existence.

Like pausing the moving image?

Or pointing our phone at something alive and stilling it with our lens?

These are early thoughts for early days.