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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Saun­ders

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.

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