On suffering from life block

“Thank God for lovely work,” a writer-friend said the other day. She been having a tough time on the romance front and now was returning, bruised by life, to the author’s place of ultimate safety – the study.

Writing as therapy: how tempting it is, and yet how dangerous. For weeks, months, you can hide away in your work, avoiding the perilous, uncontrollable thing they call the “real world”. Then one day, perhaps for reasons of research or simply because you have become uneasily aware that you are missing out in some way, you decide to step outside, blinking and nervous, and join the party…

But – here’s the horror – you seem to have lost the knack of living. Everything in the real world seems loud and fast and threatening. People stride about, apparently talking to themselves. Conversation is difficult, particularly when you asked about events, celebrities and TV programmes you have never heard of. Relationships? You’re not even sure what a relationship is any more.

In short, you are suffering from a problem which is far more insidious and widespread among writers than that much-touted cliché writer’s block. You have life block. It is not the blank page which threatens you but the teeming, riotous reality beyond your office window.

The symptoms of the life-blocked author are relatively easy to recognise. Rather than dealing with letters, bills, a questionnaire about earnings from The Author, you prefer to lock yourself away and redraft an already much-redrafted scene. When a brown envelope arrives, you blanch and queasily push it aside. If you feel frustrated, angry or confused, you decide that the best way of expressing yourself is to keep quiet, retreat to your room and get it all down on paper. “I used to believe that I should perfect the work and life could go f*** itself,” Philip Larking once wrote to Andrew Motion, eloquently expressing the long-term effects of the syndrome. “Now I’m not doing anything, all I’ve got is a f***ed up life.”

It all starts so quietly and innocently. In your early days as a writer, you had to force yourself to do four hours’ work before joyfully joining your friends down at the pub. The four becomes six. The outside world attracts you less and less; what you feared might be a prison becomes a refuge. The concept of going down to the pub, or having a lengthy lunch, or any meal at all, begins to seem pointless beside your need to work. The conversation of your friends is invariably a disappointment; their apparent obsession with trivial daily things – events or people in the news – bores you. Sometimes, you have discovered, they can talk for five or ten minutes without even mentioning writing.

Increasingly distracted, you find reading newspapers a waste of time. War? Famine? Mass murder? The death of the planet? Your eyes glaze over at the latest news of these irrelevancies, at the prattlings of commentators and politicians and experts. These days, the only stories worth your attention are literary – a spat between writers, a plagiarism suit, a big new advance, the decision of a novelist to go and live in America.

Life block is most likely to affect novelists, and for obvious reasons. In your fiction, dialogue is spare and to the point, full of telling aperçus and deft witticisms. Characters are major or minor – although you pretend that they “take over”, you know in your heart that you are the boss and they do what you tell them to. Children can be minor diversions, adding a touch of warmth or pathos to a scene and then going to bed without a murmur. Even teenagers are articulate (think of Frank Bascombe’s son in Ford’s Independence Day or The Swede’s daughter in Roth’s An American Pastoral). Sex is either a glorious and tremulous event, sustained unflaggingly over several pages and completed with orgasms which are like beautiful, mighty waves braking, again and again, against the rocks, or, with a more subtle, eroticism, takes place out of sight, beyond closed doors.

Above all, your fiction provides structure and balance – a beginning, a middle, a sub-text, an intellectual argument, a twist, an ending. In life, it is all middle, all sub-text, all argument and, rather too quickly, all end.

In order to avoid that Larkinesque fucked-up life, you must attempt to break the stranglehold of your own written words before it is too late. In this at least, overcoming life block is like dealing with writers block. Try to get a bit of living done every day even if it seems completely hopeless and amateurish. Start slowly, re-introducing yourself to your family, attempting to chat “normally” with your friends. Avoid becoming depressed by your own inarticulacy – remember that writers are famously bad at talking.

Read newspapers. Somehow trick yourself into watching one of the more asinine TV shows – How to Become a Millionaire, for example. Join a worthwhile committee (most of the Management Committee of this very society are attempting, often quite successfully, to overcome life block). As you gain confidence, you might try some of life’s trickier moves. Go to restaurants or the theatre. Attend parties which have nothing whatsoever to do with books or authors. Have sex: while it will never be quite as perfect as that to be found on the page, you may be startled by the experiential, non-literary pleasures it affords.

Then, when you’re ready for the big test, you might even fall in love. Admittedly my friend tried this approach, and is now back in the grip of life block once more, but that will only be a temporary phase. Life, after all, has much to recommend it.

Summer 2000