Writer’s block provides template for creative excuses
The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Obsession, Creativity and Neuroscience By Sue Woolfe University of Western Australia Press, 145pp, $ 24.95
THERE’S a wonderful story about Dickens, whose novels were published in monthly instalments. One day he visited a stationer’s shop to find the customers were eagerly discussing what might happen in the next tranche of Dickens’s new book. But Dickens was a customer, too: he was in the shop to buy the paper on which he would write the episode about which they were all speculating.
It’s unfair to compare any writer with Dickens — he was relentless, a great Victorian locomotive powering ahead with fiction, journalism, acting, with social philanthropy and with being an entrepreneur — but it’s difficult not to admire the way he just got on with the job, impelled into action by the implacable demand of the deadline.
By contrast, his great contemporary Anthony Trollope was positively relaxed, clocking in at 5.30am every day and writing for three hours with a watch in front of him so he could be sure he produced 250 words every quarter of an hour. Then he went off to his day job at the post office.
In other words, these guys knew nothing of that peculiar 20th- century American affliction known as writer’s block. Sue Woolfe, however, though not American, knows a lot about it and, having published her novel The Secret Cure , has given the world a book about how blocked she was while trying to write the thing.
Baffled by her creative processes, she tells us, Woolfe turns to neuroscience, but it’s not at all clear how this is supposed to help.
Does a study of anatomy and physics make you a better athlete? Perhaps not, but writing is different, isn’t it? Yes it is, because if one writes, one is a creative person, and creative persons are different. They don’t get up early to write, they don’t turn in a set number of pages every day; they agonise and trouble over the ineffable mysteries of their creative processes.
When it comes to the nature of these processes, Woolfe is not an uninteresting reporter. What is striking, though, is how uninformative a lot of this is.
We learn, for example, that research conducted in the 1990s revealed creative skills learned in one task are not always transferable to another. Poets, it seems, might not be good at writing stories.
Well, I suppose it’s useful to have this sort of thing down in scholarly black and white, but,
really, who ever thought they would or should be? We learn that creative people ( there we go again) are big on the coining of metaphors but, given that seeing something as something else is essential to a lot of writing, it’s not clear that this knowledge is going to help you finish your novel.
It all ends well, of course, as we always knew it would. Woolfe learns that she should avoid ‘‘ tight construing’’: in other words, she should not seek prematurely to impose order on the ideas in her mind. The ideas flow, the music ( one can’t help thinking) wells up.
She could have got it from John Keats, who in the early 19th century was talking about the importance of what he called negative capability ( which, essentially, is the opposite of tight construing). But Woolfe seems reluctant to take advice from a poet when she could get it from a neuroscientist. And here, perhaps, is the point: there’s a decided ‘‘ whatever gets you through the night’’ feeling to this whole thing. She turns to scientific explorers of the brain, I go for romantic poets, and who’s to say that either of us is right or wrong?
A more telling question is whether the rest of us need to hear about ‘‘ my search towards understanding my own creativity’’.
I’m not convinced. There are plenty of good books about neuroscience — few of them written in the first- person singular — and if you really want to read what a literary person has to say about not getting on with the job at hand, you might try making your way through Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria , one of the longest excuses in literary history and one of the best written. Alan Saunders presents By Design and The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC Radio National. His first novel, titled Alanna, was published by Penguin in 2002.