The Doldrums

Odilon Redon: ‘The Smiling Spider’ 1891

When you catch yourself looking up the definition of writer’s block on Wikipedia, you know you’re in trouble.

I’ve done it, and the very act of typing writer’s block into the search box felt like wading through tar. After that, I didn’t really need to read the page, though I did, and found it clinical and rambling at the same time, not an easy thing to pull off. The writer, I decided, bitterly, hadn’t been suffering from the affliction he or she was trying to describe. Quite the opposite. Lucky them.

It’s a strange phenomenon – I say that with an air of detachment, as if I’m peering at it through a macro lens or studying an MRI, but I’m not detached at all – and perhaps it isn’t the easiest thing to understand if you happen to be one of the many sensible people who don’t need to write for a living. Writer’s block isn’t really a thing; more an absence, though it feels like being mildly ill. Like having a cold inside your skull. You want to write, but you can’t. You need to write – it’s a job, after all – but nothing happens. You have an idea, a good idea, but when you sit down in front of that glowing, radiantly empty page on your screen, your idea evaporates. Or worse, it hangs in the unmediated space between you and the screen, mocking you with its poverty, its grotesqueness, like one of Odilon Redon’s nightmares. This is what you wanted to write? Me? Please: go ahead…. And of course, your fingers scrabble desperately for the mouse which takes you, with the merciful speed of broadband, to Facebook or eBay or some other digital rest home for the once-creative.

When I need to write but can’t, I try to combat the sense of time burning away like an unsmoked cigarette smouldering in a melamine ashtray. It’s been decades since I smoked – quite a few years since I’ve even seen a melamine ashtray, in fact – but that’s what it feels like: I’m an abandoned ciggie, burning away, leaving the ghost of myself in hollow ash and a smear of sepia tar. At this point, what would you prefer? The Redon spider or the cigarette? Choices, choices. You could look for a Redon print on eBay. You could look for a melamine ashtray.

These doldrums can stretch into days, even weeks. If you aren’t careful you can end up marinating in anxiety. Action is the only real medicine. Preferably something mindless but useful. Nothing better, when I can’t get my hero to do what I want him to do, than taking a chainsaw apart on the dining table. Or at least sharpening the chain. Which is what I did today. I got the bigger saw – the 70cc Husqvarna – sorted out, with the intention of cutting up some oak logs. The driving sleet that came across the valley in white sheets like the curtain of a purgatorial opera house put paid to that idea. But I did get the chain sharpened. Yesterday I cut up a heap of beech logs that had been sitting for a couple of years. Beech blunts a chain really fast, for some reason, though it burns beautifully, and this pile had knocked the points off most of the cutters. The house was empty. The Chef wasn’t around to yell at me for covering the table with oily sawdust and iron filings. DSCN7064So I filed, and checked the rakers, took the bar off, deburred the rails and greased the sprocket. Put it back together, took a look outside at the weather and said to hell with it. And then, after I’d put the saw away, got rid of the filings and the smears on the table, I sat down, stared at the horrible vacancy on the screen, and started, slowly, to write.


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