How can I describe the last four months – no single adjective will do – my memory projects it back to me in slightly blurred frames like the transient sights through a train window accompanied by the sometimes ominous clickety-clack of wheels. I experienced a strange lack of emotion accompanying the time of our actual move. ‘Don’t you miss your house?’ people ask – and oddly, no, I don’t. I think I did my grieving and took my myriad photos before I left. Houses – even the ones you’ve built yourselves – last longer than their creators and it was time to depart and hope that over the years its owners love and care for it as much as we did. Didn’t Kahlil Gibran say about the letting-go of our children — ‘you are the bow from which your children are sent forth’. I’m sorry, I misquote, but that house was our child and you get the gist.
So what’s that got to do with writing? Well, generally speaking not a lot, but in my case everything. I can only think that the move – and everything associated with it – was responsible for bringing on a rather unpleasant episode of writer’s block. When this has happened several times in the past, I have been able to work it through, but this time was different. When I’ve been away from my desk, usually reading through the last chapter or so of what I’m working on triggers the brain. I sat down as planned on January 2 to read and edit the first 25,000 words of what I’d written so far of my new novel, but where that usually leads on to the next sequence, this time there was an uncompromising full stop. And where I normally wake in the mornings with sentence fragments bubbling in my brain, nothing was happening. I tried to ignore it, to concentrate instead on one of the other writing assignments I have on queue, but the words still resisted me. It gradually occurred to me that in one of my spanking new and too rapidly created neural pathways there might be a knot. A conversation with my daughter Tammy gave me permission to desert my desk, take the pressure off — what I was trying to do was obviously not helping. So I paid more attention to exercising – 20 minutes in the gym each morning followed by 20 minutes fast walk along the riverbank. Then I tried slow walks, sitting on a park bench, my meditation routine. I tried to keep busy – but a two-bedroom apartment doesn’t take long to clean. I took out my mother’s heavy old sewing machine, changed dresses into skirts, mended, modified and colour-coded everything in my wardrobe. I over-watered the pot plants. We saw three, four movies and Federer at the Hopman Cup over the course of a few days. It all helped and was either good fun or useful, but the inspiration was still lacking, my mojo gone to God. The words — any words — wouldn’t make it to first base, let alone flow. And neither – apart from the latest issue of Australian Book Review – could I read. It was as if my mind had turned against the written word. It reminded me of my supernatural/fantasy short story “The Deadly Germ of Doubt” in which a writer gets a block and ends up getting swallowed by his computer. Because that was what I had: doubt, an overall sudden loss of confidence and along with it a lost belief in my ability to write. It might be a first-world problem but, believe me, it’s right up there with the worst of eerie and uncontrollable psychological experiences.
Emotionally it manifested in frightening outbreaks of frustration, the most incredible rising panic – terror really – punctuated by episodes of super-charged lethargy, trapped energy. I got a rash that mystified my doctor. When I don’t write, I dream, often many different clips or vignettes a night, but the dreams turned to gruelling nightmares. I felt horribly lost, disoriented, unfocused. I feared that in the few months of time-out from my desk to deal with our mega-move I had lost the discipline and whatever else it takes to continue doing what has absorbed me over the last few years.
Two things happened. A review of Siri Hustvedt’s latest book A Women Looking at Men Looking at Women in the January ABR encouraged me to look for her other works. Tentatively I started to read The Shaking Woman and as I read, I found that several of the extraordinary symptoms she describes had parallels with those of my protagonist in my as-yet-unpublished novella The Scapegoat. Perhaps it was time to take another look at that manuscript? For the first time in several months, my brain began to show signs of writing life. Next came a phone call from my sister Toni. It started in the usual ‘everything is fine’ way until suddenly I erupted. A bit like a volcano blowing its top, all my writing sadnesses and doubts poured out and I cried like a kid. Somehow the two incidents — my brain waking up and the emotional outburst — combined to form a heaven-sent catharsis. The relief, indescribable relief. Thanks so much to all who have helped me through this period of distraction. My husband appears to be particularly thankful that what we have come to regard as a norm has returned.
Because today the words are free again. Writing matters. Reading matters. I just found out how much.
Anyone else who has experienced writer’s block – or something similar – please feel free to share in this space. Otherwise I’d love to hear from you via the contact page on this site.
Meanwhile, I hope the year has started well for you and may your own writings go from strength to strength.
Main photo: Getty Images/valentinrussanov
“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.”