The holiday period bracketed by the first day of Christmas and the New Year is the worst time of the year for me. For the past decade, I have spent all that time alone. Never before has it been a problem but now I find myself feeling genuinely lonely and trapped in a hovel with only my flagging intellectual powers to keep me company.
I’m not sure when my brain started dying and I write these exploratory essays, in part, to try and retrace my steps and thereby find the exact point at which I lost the feeling of absolute potency that comes with an intellect one can rely on and be confident in.
For the past two years, I have been working on my first novel. I have rewritten, deleted and revised it more times than I can remember so that this single albeit fragmented novel is actually ten novels, each one an incarnation of a previous one. In short, I’m going nowhere. Only recently have I gained a measure of confidence in “My Voice”. But even beneath this newfound comfort is a nagging feeling of things not being quite right. I write haltingly, charging through bursts of creativity for hours before stopping completely stupefied, spent and useless for weeks on end. Nothing is coming together. Everything is falling apart.
I know all the usual strategies to beat writer’s block, the most effective one being a rigorous and unforgiving enforcement of discipline, that is, to just sit and write and wait for something to form itself and to do this daily and regularly in a predictable, planned manner. That is why I headed out of town and went to Limuru where one of my friend’s parents have their retirement home and a farm with unused sheds that I could then use as a temporary domicile.
I have been here for three weeks and I have got absolutely nothing done. There are no distractions. There is no noise. I’m perched on top of a gently sloping hill, in high altitude, shrouded by mist so dense, cold and thick that it doubles as a wall preventing me from leaving and the outside world from intruding. I might as well have been transported to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Still, I have got as much work done as I have money in my pockets.
Writer’s block is the harbinger of death. It’s not just the inability to put words to paper, to conjure up coherent images from out of the formless ether or to concoct a witches’ brew of characters, story, conflict and reasoned ideas. When a writer — or anyone who relies on regularly expressing their creativity to make their life bearable and livable — stumbles into the block, what she is touching is the vast, dark, dire, vacuous, lifeless blackness of empty Space, within her own mind. That is why writer’s block is itself so paralysing and simultaneously so enveloping, expansive and endless. It really is the creative person’s intuition accidentally touching on a living being’s own mortality and examining it as it swells within, threatening to turn into a billowing, noxious cloud to end all things. Writer’s block is to be temporarily transported to a forbidding, dead planet where all souls are put to their final death; a place worse and more stark than Hades; a place where even the devil dares not tread. Here, indeed, the danger of staring into the abyss is that it tends to stare back and then attack and consume all that it sees.
That is the state in which I have survived for the past three weeks. On the first day my mind was restless and unfocused, but the thoughts were there and the wispy threads that guide me through the hopeless labyrinth of my own confusion still hung along the walls of my imagination like pieces of an abandoned spiderweb. Even so, I could not write not matter how hard I tried. On the second day, I was hopelessly lost. I reread all that I had written over the past few months and it all felt superfluous, clumsy and meaningless. The central conceit of the entire story seemed moronic. The structure was rickety to the point of brittle fragility and ad hoc to the extent of incompetence. The characters appeared hollow and completely artificial. I hated every sentence. I loathed every phrase. The work, as a whole, seemed ridiculous and irrelevant in a world so imbued with meaning, challenge and difficulty.
The more I languished in this state, walking from one end of the farm to the other, hoping to meet my muse along the way, I began to recall Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook. In it, the main character, Anna, has a wildly successful first novel and then descends into a decade long spiral of insanity and dearth of productivity. Anna becomes unable to write for many reasons. The emotional turmoil in her life as a result of unstable and short-lived romantic liaisons with men gives her a certain apathy and numbs her creative muscles. The state of the world around her, verging on war, is frightening and difficult to comprehend even after she papers her entire apartment with newspaper clippings of various events that she believes must be linked in some cohesive, sub-textual narrative that her decaying mind is yet to grasp. Her incredibly sensitive consciousness is frail and baffled by such events. Her beliefs — in the veracity of the voluntary independence of being “Free Women”, raising her eager-to-conform child to be non-conformist, political ideals of socialism/communism, the relationship between men and women — all seem to conflict with the reality around her and she struggles to reconcile her intuition and long held convictions with reality.
But such a reconciliation is hard and often requires her to tease out and rethink every subconscious premise underlying her thinking. The country around her seems chaotic and her internal state mimics it and whirls out of her control. Her early success and attendant royalty cheques afford her the luxury of not having to work and so she only has to deal with her insanity. I do not have that convenience and I have to work to keep myself from starving. I couldn’t help wondering, just this morning, if Anna would have gone insane had she been engaged in some real work instead of just tending to her child, tending to her sexual needs and tending to her friend, Molly. She probably would have still gone insane only that her insanity would have been enveloped by the mounting frustration that comes with each day of modern life. I feel that frustration daily: the career worries, the fear that my life is slowly turning into nothing at all, the money worries which make me do things I find deathly boring, and so on.
The memory of that story did not offer me any comfort. If I were a successful writer perhaps I could justify my nascent lack of productivity by pointing, privately if not publicly, to my previous work, published, bought and read in significant numbers. More importantly, the story made it quite clear to me that a paralysed creativity is the primary symptom of the beginning of real dementia. Left unchecked, I could continue to languish in this state indefinitely or, worse, permanently.
A few weeks have passed since I first drafted this essay and my novel is still rotting away, untouched and unimproved. I’m grateful that I did not rip it to pieces and delete every copy of it in a fit of utter despondency. Now, I’m back in the city wondering what the new year holds for me and knowing that it will yield nothing unless I create it first.