Writers’ blocks: ‘The book I am working on has much of the punctuation rinsed out of it’
Writers can be their own worst critics, so what do they most loathe about their work, and what do they wish they could that they can’t?
The writer Anne Enright at home in Bray Co Wicklow. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
How can I possibly bemoan my failings when I owe everything to them? There are so many things I can’t do. Think up stories and plots, for one. Never could and never will. I wonder sometimes if my indifference and/or hostility to plot in books I read, or used to read,
is the product of an inability to think up plots of my own or whether my lack of interest is, as it were, entirely disinterested. In the plotless realm of my fiction, plenty of other failings become immediately apparent. There is, for example, a lack of interest in almost everything that lies outside my personal preferences and habits.
Novelists always blah on about inhabiting the skins of their characters even when those characters are in circumstances remote from their own. I favour the opposite approach. Because I have always hated smoking in real life I don’t permit smoking in my fiction. Why should I pollute my own world? Go elsewhere if you want smoking; your presence as a reader is not only not desired but actively discouraged from my books.
By the same token, the main male characters in my novels are always tall and thin and they are attracted to tall, thin women. I guess it’s possible that there are a few short, fat smokers somewhere in the bleachers of my fiction; but if they are there I certainly don’t remember them.
If a story is considered crucial for fiction then some kind of competence with facts would be the equivalent in nonfiction, and I really struggle with facts. I find it so difficult to get the facts right and so boring to coax them into some kind of narrative. As for dates. Lord, dates are difficult. In my book about the first World War, I kept all the facts and dates to a minimum; ditto with my history of photography, which had a lot of dates in it. I kept checking and rechecking and the dates still seemed out of whack, right up to the final round of proofs. I hope the dates are right in all the nonfiction I’ve done, but I am struck by the way that I have the opposite of facility in this department.
I know that we’re meant to be writing here about things that really trouble us, but I just don’t see how that can ever be the case. A writer’s only possible relation to his or her failings has to be one of gratitude. First because there are hundreds of other writers out there whose strengths lie precisely in these areas of weakness. Second because these weaknesses oblige us to concentrate on the one or two little areas that are uniquely – and, as far as every other writer is concerned, undesirably – our own.
I once had a wonderful English teacher called Theo Dombrowski, who required essays to be written on every second line so he could fill the other with comments, endearments and exclamations, all in red pen. The school was in Canada, and when I left I took the wrong folder home with me, so these dovetailed texts are now gone. I would love to see them again. I suspect the problems Theo fulminated against in 1980 are as intractably there today.
“Run-on!” he would write, spattering the page with red semicolons. “What are these worm droppings doing here . . . ?” was his response when I drifted into a lyrical, open-ended series of ellipses . . . He was, I think, fond of the trochee (“Nice trochee!”), though, these days, I get irritated by my use of three heavy, single syllables at the end of a sentence. Not yet dead, goes the incantation in my head.
I also chase and eliminate the final phrases “after all” and “at all”, not to mention the pathetically redundant “not at all”. (Nice trochee!)
I detest my use of “Because” to open a sentence that is at a knight’s move to the previous one, where causation is not linear or, strictly speaking, “causation” at all, at all. I am tormented by my need for commas, writing, as I do, sentences that are endlessly qualified, internally undermined, self-contradictory; sentences that are put out of their misery by a fake full stop. Only to be taken up again in a new line. In fact most of my sentences are paragraphs that have been broken up in the interests of looking respectable. I wish I could stop this. I wish I could stop tripping the rhythm with short sharp sentences and with sentence fragments. I wish I could stop dancing and just go for a walk.