Pick up a ballpoint, grab a piece of paper, start: “milk; bread; cheese; sausages; cat food; loo paper; lettuce, toms etc …” Easy. I can do that. Try something a little harder: “I’ll be back about ten – dinner’s in the oven.” That’s a whole sentence, no problem. Maybe I can manage two sentences – you know, joined up, one after the other, making sense: “Molly stumbled over the crossing. The heel of her shoe caught in the tracks and she heard a sudden urgent blare as the train swept around the corner.” Easy peasy.
But I don’t care about Molly and her stupid shoe, I want to get started on this much more enticing business of writing about this book, or that event, or this story, or that project. But four decades of writing, hundreds of thousands of mostly published words behind me, and I can still approach a writing task with a thumb between the teeth and a ridiculous sense of inadequacy. I know I can do it, and the proof is there in black and white, literally. So what’s the problem?
It’s a problem that writers and artists of all kinds know very well: self-doubt, and a conviction that, in spite of past achievements, this time it’s not going to work. That isn’t logical, but we all do it, even the best. New Zealand painter Dick Frizzell has said that he still has to trick himself out of self-doubt: “At least, after all these years, I’ve figured out how to do it – how to ambush myself into picking up the brush and having another go.”
All this angst has arisen because I had a hard time getting started on a job I have done 94 times before. I write notes for a nation-wide book discussion scheme. It involves reading the book, then writing a kind of essay making the book more accessible, or expanding upon its themes, or explaining the background, or discussing the characters, or anything else that might make the reading experience more enjoyable, interesting and meaningful.
Maybe it was the aftermath of Christmas but it took me ages to get started on this latest job. I have now finished the rough draft of the notes; in fact I romped home after struggling so much at the beginning. I’m wallowing in that “it’s OK, I can manage the rest” feeling that all writers know when the summit has been reached and overcome, and the rest is a joyful canter downhill. It’s such a relief. And it happens every time. Um, nearly every time. Mostly.
In future I must remember Ray Bradbury’s dictum: Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.