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

The writer Anne Enright at home in Bray Co Wicklow. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


Geoff Dyer
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.

Anne Enright
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.

I read with Russell Banks last year, in Toronto, and he built his paragraphs like a goddamn wall. He laid those sentences down. I said, “Next time I am going out as a bloke, no uncertainty, no giving with one hand and taking away with the other, no messing.” And, actually, the book I am working on has much of the punctuation rinsed out of it – or one section does (the section narrated by – yes! – a man); the rest is the same old same old. My God, look at the dashes and parentheses in that last sentence. If you could call it a sentence.

Feel my pain.

Flaubert spent much time taking metaphors out of his work; he said it was like picking lice. That’s what I do all day, only with typographical lice. I take the commas out, and put them back in, and take them out again. And after two or three years of this, I notice I have written the same story yet again. It is often the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: this when I am sure I am doing something entirely new. I really puzzle it out each time; I can’t find my way through. I reach for the shape of Proteus or King Lear, and feel such a fool for doing all that work when I should have known it was the same thing, all along, it was the same thing, after all . . .

Joseph O’Neill
One of the reasons I do fiction is to escape the difficulties of doing nonfiction, such as this piece, which requires me to produce (1) valid thoughts; and (2) a valid counterpart in words of the valid thoughts. This is very difficult. Thus, doing this paragraph has cost me a day of work; and the paragraph contains word counterparts of thoughts the truth and/or pleasure value of which is minimal, indeed dubious. This persistent asymmetry of cost (to me) and benefit (to me and the world) produces the thought that gives rise to this statement about nonfiction by me: doable but not worth it. (The fact that doing it isn’t worth it doesn’t mean that I don’t do it.)

The escape to fiction is not entirely efficacious. In doing fiction, the above described two-step is replaced by a two-step by which I am required to produce (1) words whose validity is contingent on whether the words have valid counterparts in thought; and (2) thoughts about whether and to what degree this validity exists. This too is very difficult. The difficulty is complicated by the maxim, which I like to think I seek to apply to my own doing of writing, that it is only worth writing fiction that one cannot write.

Bearing in mind the cost-benefit analysis contained in the paragraph that cost me a day of work, I will not write more about this maxim or about the difficulties of liking to think that I seek to apply the maxim to my doing of writing. I will only say that I privately accord an asymmetric truth and pleasure value to my fiction-writing that leads me to state about it: doable and worth it. (The fact that doing it is worth it doesn’t mean that I do it.)

This brings me to poetry. One of the reasons I do fiction is to escape the difficulties presented by doing poetry. When I began to do “writing”, what I did was writing poetry. I wrote three or four poems a year until the age of 23 or 24. Then I escaped into fiction, because doing poetry is very, very difficult. Writing nonfiction about the difficulty of doing poetry, though doable, is not worth it. I will only say that I think that the aforementioned maxim is all the more applicable to the writing of poetry, and that although I can write fiction that I cannot write, I cannot write poetry that I cannot write. I very much wish I could, as poetry promises an escape from the above-mentioned two-steps and the word-thought distinction that serves as the dubious dance floor.

This promise is one reason I privately accord to writing poetry a pleasure and truth value even greater than that which I accord to writing fiction. This produces the following thought/statement about me writing poetry: not doable but worth it.

Ruth Padel
“You’ve done it again! I’m translating an image and find I have to translate another, spinning off the first. This is another of your double images, Ruth.”

Cordoba. A rooftop. Spring. The Andalusian government has brought British poets to work with Spanish poet-translators on Spanish versions of our poems. I’m paired with Alvaro, a fine poet (I’m told; I can’t read Spanish) and acute critic. In the city, Alvaro shows me the tomb of the city’s great poet, Luis de Góngora. In my writing, he shows me a tendency to be unclear at the heart of the very thing that is supposed to clarify. “You pivot on the image and begin a new one. It’s hard to find an equivalent.”

He’s not complaining; he’s sharing insight into how something has been put together, as a potter copying structure and pattern of a basket in clay might point out knots in the wickerwork to the basketmaker. But I connect what he’s seen to something bigger: a dangerous rush, which I’d like to be in control of and am not, towards too-muchness.

I write too much because I can’t not. I had to cut 100,000 words from the first draft of a prose book on tiger conservation. I had visited forests in 11 Asian countries and wanted the historical context of each, to illuminate what the tiger means in every landscape. I had to write 100,000 words too much, first. I wish I could be the kind of writer who plans every paragraph perfectly and economically. But I’m not.

Teaching poetry, I sometimes compare different stages of writing to different sorts of sculpture. The first stage is like working in clay, gathering malleable material into the precinct of the poem where you’re trying to turn problems of feeling into solutions of form. The second stage is like working in stone. Michelangelo releasing the image from the marble. Chipping away. But many poets don’t work like that. Elizabeth Bishop’s words for The Moose waited 20 years on the wall for the right new ones to complete the poem.

Self-doubt is an important part of making because you’re on the edge the whole time; it’s the only the only interesting place to be. “I wanted a strangeness,” says the sculptor Maggi Hambling about beginning Scallop at Aldeburgh. “Until Scallop was installed I was full of nerves and doubts.” I suspect I sometimes deal with crucial self-doubt by covering it up, layering it with more. More images, for instance. I wanted to cut a poem called Nocturne from The Mara Crossing because I thought it was too indulgent on the imagery front, but my editor loved it and it stayed in. It does read powerfully to a live audience, but I’m still suspicious of it: I feel it’s on the brink of overdazzle. Too much imagery: is there something in me that wants to confuse, so that I end up with two images for the price of one and the poem becomes not mysteriously resonant but overdense and obscure?

The Mara Crossing is about migration, therefore about losing and finding home. It also interweaves prose with poems. In the seven years it took to write, I think I was trying to find a new form in which to reconcile two of my writing homes. A perceptual conundrum, a dancer’s rotating silhouette supposed to differentiate between right- and left-brain thinking, is knocking about the internet. If you think she’s rotating clockwise, you’re a right-brainer; if anticlockwise, a left-brainer.

I think this is simplistic rubbish, but I know I veer between two kinds of voice home. Not just poetry and prose: knowing and intuiting. The feet-on- ground researcher part of me loves discovering beautiful facts and wants to communicate them in prose. The migratory part of me wants to junk the known and find new flyways. My too-muchness can interfere with either, but at least with facts – the history of tigers in Laos, for example – it’s clear where to cut. It’s more complicated when too-muchness clutters up the imagery. Not just when I pile one image on another, as in Nocturne , but this double-image thing Alvaro identified. I suspect the second image of being an internal saboteur, taking away the power of the first. Your faults are part of your writerly capital. The trick is to be aware of, use and control them. Thanks, Alvaro. I must get down off the roof and find new ways of using this.

These pieces are extracted from the 50th issue of the Dublin Review.