Carlo Gébler: On not writing

Why has the spontaneous creativity of my early career gone? Does the psyche age or tire? Is it the world’s woes or overwork?

Carlo Gébler: my psychic economy was a mixed one, happy to come up with content of its own accord, and happy to fulfil any commission

Carlo Gébler: my psychic economy was a mixed one, happy to come up with content of its own accord, and happy to fulfil any commission


At school I found essays difficult: presentation was my problem. As I wrote I’d make mistakes. I was always writing the wrong word, which meant I would have to cross the wrong word out and write a new one above. My mistakes were so frequent my pages were blizzards of corrections. I would also make blots. Lots of them. That was the problem with writing with a fountain pen as children did in those days. They splattered and spluttered no matter how careful you were.

My messy pages upset me. Why couldn’t I produce page after page of clean, fair copy like the other boys and girls amongst whom I sat in classrooms that smelt of chalk dust and wax floor polish? These paragons seemed to have no difficulty covering page after page with their lovely flowing handwriting, often rendered in turquoise or emerald or other exotic colours and always unblemished by blots and emendations. But I couldn’t. It just wasn’t fair.

Then came the day when I read one or two of these essays whose appearance I longed to replicate. A clean page, I discovered, was no guarantee of quality. These essays didn’t read well. The writers clearly hadn’t bothered to revise their texts when they hadn’t exactly said what had to be said. They hadn’t rewritten at all. On the contrary, they’d just written with lovely neatness whatever first came in to their heads and left it at that.

Now my essays were messy, oh yes. But what I realised once I’d had a shufti at the opposition was that they were messy because of my struggle to match what was inside my head wanting to be expressed with what I actually wrote when I put pen to paper. Getting ambition and output to align demanded endless emendation and generated endless blots. Once I’d grasped this I dimly realised I should worry less about appearance and focus on substance.

And coinciding with my beginning to think in this way (and by the way my adolescent thoughts were far muddier and less coherent than as described here) by happy accident something happened to reinforce the tendencies already in place.

It was my first term at Bedales, a co-educational boarding school outside Petersfield, in Hampshire. This would be September 1968. I was 14. My English teacher, who was probably in his twenties (we were all tremendously impressed by him because he can’t have been more than 10 years older than us) was called Mr Hetherington and the text we were studying in his class was D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

Mr Hetherington gave us an essay title. I don’t remember what the essay was about. However, I do remember sitting in the school library and looking out the window (small panes in lead frames) and feeling, swelling up inside, a sense of what it was I wanted to say, and then, scratching with my pen on the pages of my copy book as I ground (with the usual calligraphic infelicities) the essay out.

I handed my work in and then came the class when our marked up essays would be returned. Holding the sheaf of essays, Mr Hetherington made some general comments. Then he said he was going to read one of the essays. Then, to my enormous surprise, he announced it was mine – and off he went. Listening to Mr Hetherington reading my words did two things: it mortified me; it also gave me a sense of perspective that I’d never previously experienced with regard to something that I’d made. I saw how I had tried to generate words that corresponded to something inside me and I saw more clearly than ever before that all the crossed-out words and the blots were the byproduct of this struggle. I also realised I might actually write professionally one day.

I spent a good part of the next 15 years scribbling away and honouring, in my own cack-handed way, what I’d glimpsed in Mr Hetherington’s class, and the upshot of all my effort was that by my late twenties I understood my creative process well enough to describe it. It was as follows.

The first intimation something was coming would be, having slipped in to a dreamy fugue state (fugue, as defined in psychiatry, a flight from one’s own identity, often involving travel to some unconsciously desired locality) that I’d feel something stirring or – Nabokov’s preferred term – throbbing in the unconscious, an experience for which the best analogy is the feeling one gets in a line when a fish nudges a submerged hook. Something was there, unknown as yet.

Following this intimation of imminence the unconscious would churn away, sometimes for months, gathering materials. I’d be aware of this and I’d help the process by feeding things in. As time passed I’d sense rising internal pressure and eventually it would arrive, the moment when I must start writing and although the analogy for the beginning of the process was an unseen fish nudging a hidden hook, by the time I got to this part of the process my sense rather was that all those words that I needed were literally just there above my head, out of reach and out of sight, lined up like aeroplanes over a landing strip (the work of the unconscious, all done over the preceding months), and all I had to do was land them one after the next in the right order and then I’d have my draft. It wouldn’t be perfect. I was never a writer who could produce flawless copy first time. But the material would be a starting point and by combing the prose through, by cutting, revising, editing, polishing and burnishing, by drafting and redrafting, by rewriting and re-rewriting, I could turn it in to something of modest virtue, something readable.

The more I wrote the better I became at the second part of the process, the rewriting part, and so, over time, as I became more knowledgeable and experienced, I got quicker and better at it. The first part of the process, on the other hand, the fugue state with its mysterious intimations, that did not change. Not an iota.

In the early eighties I published short stories and in 1985 I published a novel. These were spontaneously offered by the unconscious: these were its ideas. But in order to make a living I also had to take commissions for many other kinds of writing and go to the psyche and see what it offered. I was never disappointed. The faculty was extraordinarily co-operative and seemingly happy to work in what ever form I asked it to work in. So, though having started as a writer of short stories and novels, as the years rolled by I extended my range. I wrote film scripts. I wrote plays. I wrote travel books. I wrote history books. I wrote children’s fiction. I wrote libretti. I wrote poems. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote reviews. I wrote articles. I wrote profiles. In fact, I wrote just about every kind of thing there was to write. In career terms it was probably a mistake because it confused readers. Nobody knew exactly what it was that I did. But from my personal point of view it was extraordinarily pleasurable. Writing right across the spectrum I was never bored because I was continuously having to think my way in to different modes of writing and then produce work that fitted with the demands that must be met in order to write in a particular mode. And when I wasn’t working to a commission, my unconscious was still generating content spontaneously. In other words, if you like, my psychic economy was a mixed one, happy to come up with content of its own accord, and happy to fulfil any commission.

From the early eighties to the recent past this was the situation. Then I began to notice a change. If I had a commission to fill and I turned to my unconscious the process was as it had always been – fugue state, nudges, the sense I was gradually filling up with content, and finally, once the moment to write arrived, landing the words in the right order to make a first draft, which I’d then comb the kinks out of. But what I noticed I wasn’t receiving were those spontaneous offerings by the unconscious. This was very puzzling. I was still fulfilling commissions, yet the self-germinating side for some reason had stopped.

Why has this happened to me? One reason may simply be age. It’s something that happens to you because you have aged. The unconscious is tired. The unconscious is old. And the unconscious doesn’t feel like being productive, or is no longer as productive as it once was. If it must it will come up with something but it is no longer inclined to make its own spontaneous original offerings. Can the deep psyche age in the same way that the rest of the body ages? I have no idea but I do wonder if that is a reason.

A second explanation for what’s happened is that it isn’t age, or the fatigue that comes with age but may simply be part of kind of a natural sequence, an evolutionary step that must be negotiated. Once upon a time I had a capacity and now this has stopped but there’s something new coming to replace what’s gone because in nature that’s how it always is. When I think about this I find myself wondering whether in place of what I had I’m going to get a truly marvellous new gift. Perhaps, I don’t know, I’m going to discover in myself I’ve a new facility for learning languages. Or I’ll be able to pick up the flute, which I once played very badly, and suddenly be able to play anything I want by ear. Something has gone but something is going to come in its place. But then I remember. Something hasn’t actually gone. If I’m asked, the creative faculties work normally. It’s just self-germination that’s on hold.

A third, more troubling explanation might be pressure. I have clear memories of the writing of each of the chapters of the first novel I wrote back in the 1980s: I can remember when and where and how I wrote each one and what I learnt as I wrote them. But when I look back at what I’ve published over the last 10 years the when and the where and the how are gone. And the reason I can’t remember anything specific about the actual writing of these recently published books is because the recent writing was squeezed in to the tiny little gaps of my own time which lay between those periods when I was doing the ancillary literary activities, the teaching, marking, judging, lecturing and so on and so forth that had become such a major part of my working life over the last ten years on top of all my other activities. So in the face of such a crowded itinerary, my thinking goes, my unconscious has decided to make no further voluntary offerings. Until I shrug off the harness, the fish will keep well away from the hook.

A fourth, final explanation might be the world’s woes, the catastrophes in the Middle East, Brexit, Trump and so on. My disposition tends to the anxious. I am a worrier, a serial fretter, a catastrophist, a glass half-empty rather than half-full kind of guy, and, as even optimists must agree, in the world, Europe, these islands, things don’t look exactly rosy right now. On the other hand, even I have some insight. I know I’m incredibly lucky: I’m not a Damascene stuck in a field on the Hungarian border facing a quasi-Fascist police force which delights in beating non-Europeans. I have fresh water on tap, a roof over my head and where I live is subject to the rule of law. But this tide of bad news washing over me that suggests I’m now on a slippery incline that may turn in to a slope down which I might slide to an unlovely bottom, is it really possible it explains what has happened? Even a miserabilist of my hue knows the world has always been in chaos, even if it’s more than usually chaotic at the moment, and that we ride the disasters out, I just like the next man, though in my case with little grace and a lot of angsty hand-wringing and that my internal resilience is stronger than I think.

So what do I call this? It isn’t writer’s block. A block hobbles or impedes. I’m not. Under certain conditions the psyche continues to offer its bounties. But under others it won’t. The internal natural balance has changed for reasons I don’t understand. The lake waters are full. But the fish will only approach if there’s a commission. They won’t come of their own accord.

So what do I do? How do I get myself out of this? A stroke of good fortune might do the trick. If so, the words will be written. The book will be made. And in the time it takes to make that book, and possibly because of the act of making that book, something will be catalysed in the unconscious. A shift will occur. And suddenly, joy of joys, I’ll be sensing those little unsolicited creative promptings again on which I’ve relied all my writing life.

But to rely on good fortune alone to get me out of this jam isn’t enough, I fear. What if the good fortune doesn’t come? For my future to be determined by the determinations of others is wrong. What ever happens, I know that I need to be cultivating my internal allotment. But in order to get to that point I need to be proactive. I need to find something in myself out of which I can write. I need to find an energy in myself that I can harness and connect to the production of a text. How do I find this secret propelling energy?

One answer could be rest. Is it just that I’m exhausted? Is that the problem? Or is it the slightly more complicated problem of fatigue precipitated by the waste of energy? Have I been wasting precious energy doing ancillary literary things that are not, when push comes to shove, that important? And is the consequence of wasting precious energy that my unconscious has gone on strike? Has my unconscious determined it won’t co-operate anymore until I stop with all the quasi-literary stuff?

In the past I have always managed to operate across many fields simultaneously. I have always managed to teach and write. So the pragmatist and the realist in me reject this idea. The pragmatist and the realist are also wondering how, if I stop these ancillary activities, I am going to earn a living? Maybe my inner pragmatist and realist are in denial. Maybe they won’t accept that my ancillary activities are to blame when they are. Or maybe they aren’t. Maybe something else is going on my unconscious. I don’t know. I can’t see a way through in this respect.

Right then, what of myself? What of the interior world with which I have had such a deep and productive relationship for so long but which, for the time being, seems not to be continuing. What do I do? One part of me believes patience, kindness, generosity towards the self is the answer. I should wait this out is the counsel I am hearing in this regard. I should read. I should nourish myself. I should fill myself up with art. And the Irish landscape. And the Irish weather. And music. And all those many things the experiencing of which give pleasure and succour. And if I do this, so this counsel goes, change will occur in the psyche, because change must. The psyche is dynamic. It is always in flux. Those promptings and murmurings, they will be back. They have to. They must. And I must not worry. I must wait. And wait. And wait. And trust that they will.

When I ponder the patience solution I vacillate between calm and terror. Yes, I think, at one moment. Just wait. Everything will be fine. Of course. But don’t expect a miracle, at least not a quick one. Give your self the time your self needs to regroup, to consolidate, to grow. You’ve been going full tilt for years. Now is the time to slow, even to halt for a while, but worry ye not, your patience will rewarded.

I can sustain a belief in this programme for a bit but then another part of my nature, the busybody, can-do side pipes up. What? I hear. Are you mad? You think sitting around and doing nothing is the answer. Nonsense. Nothing ever came out of nothing. No, what you need to do is take control. (The Brexiter mantra!) Set yourself some literary task. Go to your desk every day and get down to it. Grind it out. And you know, you know very well, you can do this. You have always had the capacity to generate words. Don’t worry about their not being a spark. Don’t worry about the text being pedestrian. Or seeming forced. Just put down one word after the next. Make them come. And then, when you get to the end, you will have something, something you can work with. And then, given your technical skills you will be able to augment and extend and improve that literary something and no matter how bad it is you will be able to make it in to something.

This argument is powerful. And persuasive. Yes, I say to myself. Go to the desk. Grind something out. Anything. Rubbish. It doesn’t matter what. But then, even as I am persuaded, the other counsel is there whispering, Don’t be ridiculous. There is no point forcing yourself like that. Be patient. Wait. Watch. Nurture.

And that’s where I am, today, as of this moment of writing. I am oscillating between these two, between the counsel which advises calm, patient acceptance and the counsel arguing for agency. These viewpoints are equally balanced. The arguments carry equal weight. The result is a kind of paralysis – although it isn’t actually paralysis so much as a kind of dynamic stasis. It’s not that I’m stuck – oh no. You see I am moving, I am in flux, but I am moving between two contrary programmes and I can’t settle on one or the other. I’m really like a compass at the north pole, whizzing around and unable to determine north because it’s actually at the north and north everywhere around it.

So what is to be done? Well, what I did was this.

I went in to my fugue state, felt the tremble, allowed the unconscious time to gather what it needed and then, when the moment felt right, I landed the words, these words in the right order, then combed them out. I have done what I first did when I wrote that essay for Mr Hetherington in the school library in 1968. I’ve assembled words in to an order which reflects something in me. The words are about something that troubles me deeply, a strange alienation I’m currently experiencing from my own creative capacity. In other words, an impasse has generated a text about itself. Out of non-writing has come writing. A paradox. I’m not quite certain where I go from here but at least I have the consolation of knowing I have produced something.

Carlo Gébler’s latest work is The Wing Orderly’s Tales (New Island)

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