Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 19 June 2011

I have nothing to say


“The most valuable thing we can do for the to let it rest…” May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

30th April

I have nothing to say. If that were true – and as much as I feel it to be true I doubt if it is – how do I feel about having nothing to say? Guilt is probably the first thing but then I feel guilt with greater ease than I feel anything else so I shouldn’t be surprised when I find that to be the case. So why do I feel guilty? Quite simply because I feel I ought to be writing. I like to call myself a writer but I only feel comfortable using that appellation when, as I am at this very moment, engaged in the physical act of writing. Having completed a piece of writing however there is a residual effect; I can feel like a writer for, oh, several days afterwards even though I have written nothing in that time and thought about writing nothing.

The last thing I wrote was about a week ago. I wrote a poem that pleased me and piece of flash which did not. The poem pleased me because it arrived out of thin air whereas I deliberately sat down to write the flash piece with submission in mind, not something I generally do, but Carrie said the piece was fine and so I submitted it despite my reservations. The poem made me happy and that was enough. But, as I’ve just said, a week has passed and I’ve not written anything.

That’s not true. I’ve written two book reviews but they don’t count. Even though the mechanics are the same, fingers clattering over a keyboard (this very keyboard), and I still get to try to do clever things with words, I don’t feel the same about reviews. I want to write something new. It’s not that long since I finished my novel. You would have thought that I’d be basking in that success for weeks but the glow I felt when I finished it didn’t last much longer than the poem I wrote last week.

I feel I ought to be writing. But I have nothing to say, nothing that matters to me. At the moment some of my friends are working on poems for a celebration of Ginsberg but I’m not. Had it been a celebration of William Carlos Williams I might have had a crack at it but Ginsberg does nothing for me. I don’t care about Ginsberg and I don’t care about not joining in with my peers. Caring is clearly important when it comes to writing.

I could pick a topic out of thin air and write something about it. Or better still, let’s try an experiment. There’s a book lying on the table next to my desk (The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock) and I’m going to open it on page thirty and pick the fourth noun (today is April 30th): the word is whisky; not something I’m fond of, but let’s give it a go:


He didn’t hide the bottles
it is true but then neither
did he leave them on display.

He drank to help himself sleep;
that is what he told himself
and us, his conscience and God.

God knew different and so
did we. I don’t know what his
conscience knew or thought it did.

I can’t stand the stuff myself,
whisky I mean, although I’m
not fond of the truth either

if I’m totally honest.

30 April 2011

Bells_Whisky_10clOkay, I cheated a bit. The fourth noun was actually ‘Dad’s’ as in ‘Dad’s whisky’ and so that’s why I started thinking about my dad’s drinking.

How do I feel just now? The answer is: better. I’ve written a poem. Okay, it’s not the best poem I’ve ever written but it works. It’ll get a number (#1055) and go in the big red folder.

So I did have something to say. And the truth is there is always something to say. So why is it we let ourselves feel as if we have nothing to say? The answer is because feelings are unreliable. We misread them all the time. Or if not exactly misread, we oversimplify them. I want to write another novel. Correction, I feel I ought to write another novel. I want to write one too. I like the idea of having written another novel. I imagine that I’ll feel more of a writer if I’ve written six novels as opposed to five. (Stupid, I know.) I like writing poems too. I actually like writing poems more than I like writing novels. But I still feel I ought to be writing a novel.

If I’m being honest then I’m disappointed that I wrote a poem and not the opening paragraph of a new novel. I never set out to write a poem. I just wrote the opening few words without much thought and the next thing I knew I was working on a poem. At what stage did I realise it was a poem and not prose? At the end of the first sentence, the only part of the poem not to be tweaked in some small way, I had an idea but by the time I’d written that second sentence I knew for sure, not that I paused for any length of time before drafting the third stanza.

Could this be the opening to a piece of prose? Let’s see:

He didn’t hide the bottles it’s true but then neither did he leave them out on display. He drank to help himself sleep, so he said; that’s what he told himself, us, his conscience and his god. God no doubt knew different and so, in time, did we. I can only imagine what his conscience knew or thought it knew. I can’t stand the stuff myself, whisky I mean, although I’m not fond of the truth either if I’m being totally honest. Lies slip down without any effort. Truths are harder to swallow and come back on you. There are consequences to both of course. It can be every bit as hard to live with a lie as it can a truth – I should know. I prefer lies diluted with just a drop or two of the truth.

Certainly that’s how it started with my father, innocently enough, just a wee nip to push him over the edge. A guy at work was selling the good stuff cheap, no questions asked, and Dad was never one to turn up his nose when it came to a bargain. Before that I’d never seen him touch anything stronger than Martini Rosso (it wasn’t as if he was teetotal or anything) but he never darkened the door of a pub and always handed over an unbroken pay packet. When that cheap source dried up though Dad found he couldn’t go back – he now needed his tipple before bed – so a bottle found its way into the weekly shopping – Tesco’s own brand – and when that wasn’t enough half-bottles started to find their way into the rubbish bin, no questions were asked. Lies grow in most conditions but one of their favourites is silence.

1st May

Not a bad start but I’m not sure how much farther I could go with this. For starters it’s too much like biography for my tastes, too reliant on the truth even though I’m not sure of all the facts. I don’t care about the truth. The poem is better. It is anonymous. I know I’m talking about my dad but no one else will. So who’s this next poem about?


She did not offer me any
nor did I expect her to
knowing it was her last.

Quickly I became aware
of my mouth filling with
clichés and platitudes
till I felt sick.

But I forced myself to swallow
and the truth nearly choked me.

28 September 1986

Actually it’s my sister. It’s also about drink but it could just as easily be about crack cocaine or cake. In the piece of prose the reader is reduced to voyeur. I give him all the details. He can do little more than watch. In the poems there is room for him to get involved, to speculate.

I said I felt as if I had nothing to say but those are the only two poems written as an adult that involve drink bar this one:


I drink so much
to drown the taste of myself
and to blur my vision of you.

21 July 1989

which is not about anyone. I’ve certainly never turned to drink in times of trouble. When my first wife left me I went to the corner shop and bought a box of Munchmallows. So why don’t I say more about the evils of drink? I think the real reason is that so much has already been said and I’m not sure I have anything significant to add, anything that would make a difference. No, that’s all rubbish. I don’t write for anyone but me – there’s nothing altruistic about my writing – I don’t write about the demon drink because I don’t care about it. I’m clearly capable of writing more about it – I probably gave that first poem about a minute’s thought before I started typing – but it’s not what I want to write about, not what I feel I ought to be writing about.

snowmanHow much could I have written about while I was sitting around waiting to write about what I ought to be writing about? Is ‘The Things We Knew’ a masterpiece? No, but that doesn’t mean that it has no right to exist. Masterpieces last. They will be playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a hundred years, in five hundred years. I’m not sure one could say the same about Howard Blake’s Diversions for Cello and Orchestra. Why? – is it crap? No, far from it. It’s a wonderful piece of music. Have a listen to a few snippets here if you want proof. I bought a copy in John Menzies on Sauchiehall Street. It was in a bargain bin and probably cost me 99p or £1.99 or something ridiculous like that. I personally think it is a masterpiece but what’s my opinion worth. Odds are The Snowman will still be around in a hundred years time (yes, he wrote that too) and as charming as that is I’m not sure it is a masterpiece; it’s just popular because of the film.

5th May

I’ve not looked at this post for a few days. I got caught up in a blog about voyeurism as it happens but I also found time to write another poem, this time inspired by a comment I made on one of Lis Hanscombe’s posts. I’m not sure it’s any better than ‘The Things We Knew’ but it came naturally and that’s how I like my poems to come. In that respect I do find the Internet a real source of inspiration: you never know what you’re going to read about next.

A body at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an external force. I wrote that down a few days ago at the end of this post. I’ve just stumbled across it again. I don’t believe in muses or inspiration, not in the way the Romantics did, but I am aware that we are the sum of our experiences and I can only draw of what I’ve been exposed to. And there is a randomness to all of this. If I’d decided to write that poem today and not on the 30th of April then my noun would have been ‘anyone’ and I’m sure I could have done something with that too.

(I just had a go and wrote a few lines about a killer sitting on top of a roof trying to decide who to shoot first since, according to the law, every life is the same. He finally decides to shoot the fourth person wearing a red top answering to the higher law of probability. The idea is okay but I didn’t like the poem and scrapped it. I may come back to it later. Perhaps it might work as a piece of flash.)

Anyway, how do I feel today? Do I feel I ought to be writing? Not so much today. bc_milligan_tnNow I have two blogs on the go and I’m nearly finished reading The Book of Lies which means I’ll have a book review to write. What I really should be doing is editing Milligan and Murphy if I want to get it out by this Autumn. It’s all good.

Writing is like weight training. I did a bit of that in my early twenties. My first wife had left me and so I set up a bench in the living room and trained most nights. Now it would kill me to do a dozen push ups. The thing about weight training is that it is a process, a sequence more like: you eat, digest (very important), exercise, rest (equally important) and repeat. The resting also includes healing. You cannot just exercise day after day. Well you can because I did but you don’t exercise the same muscles two days in a row. You have to give them time to rest. It’s easy to resent the resting bit. It feels like wasting time because you don’t feel like you’re doing anything. But you are. And it is important that you recognise that you are.

Now I really ought to read a few chapters of that book.


Isabel Doyle said...

Interesting reading about your wrestle with yourself over writing that 'counts' and that doesn't.

I have also found that putting the pen to the page or fingers to the keyboard can unlock thoughts and meanings I was unaware of. I think this may be true of all writers.

I don't understand why it is so difficult to begin sometimes - is it guilt, or fear, or pride?

Jim Murdoch said...

The irony is, Isabel, I never have problems starting, and that was partly what I was illustrating here, that, at the drop of a hat, I could sit down and write a poem. Or a paragraph of prose. Caring about what I’ve written is becoming an increasing problem with me. I was lucky this time in that I managed to tap into something meaningful that I felt deserved to be kept. I have scraps of poems all of the place that have failed to keep my interest, some in a folder on my laptop and others in notepads dotted around the flat. When I was young and had written hardly anything I rarely let an idea get away. Now, when I’ve written hundreds upon hundreds of poems, the urgency isn’t quite there, to see if I can write a poem. I know I can write poetry. I know I can write good poetry. I’m not cocky about it. I’m well aware that I might never write another poem but that doesn’t matter so much these days. I just find I have to dig a little deeper to find things I care enough about to devote time to. It’s why I’ve not jumped into a new novel. I know I’ll be living with whatever I decide to write about for years and I don’t want to waste my time. An idea will come. Or it won’t.

litrefs said...

"how do I feel about having nothing to say? Guilt is probably the first thing" - Whereas Freud might have said that the loss of urge to write is a promising sign, a hint that there were no unresolved issues.
I'm sometimes a bit irritable if I've nothing on the go, but I don't/can't force anything out. I write at work, which satisfies some of the simpler urges. I once met a poet who said he went through a year or so of writing nothing, then wrote a book of poems in a few weeks. This consoled me. If I do a poem and a story each month or so I'm on schedule. If I fall behind I'm not worried.
I too keep scraps - as many as I ever did. More of them remain as scraps now - I flog fewer dead-horses.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Litrefs, I didn’t write a poem for three years and then sat down and wrote two novels back to back in a few months and since then I’ve written some of the best poetry in my life. That was twenty years ago. In all seriousness it doesn’t worry me if I’m not physically writing anymore. I’m acutely aware that writing is a way of life and that I’m constantly working on something if only subconsciously and after writing my review of Incognito I’m starting to have a much greater appreciation for what my brain does without my conscious intervention. I’m with you: if I write something once a month these days I can live with myself.

Art Durkee said...

You know what I think about fallow periods and creative crop rotation. I think they're an essential and natural part of the process. I also feel strongly that writing comes first, editing, judging, and revising come later. My first duty as an artist is just to get out the way, get myself out of the way, so that whatever it is can come through. Sometimes I surprise myself.

I hadn't written a poem in many weeks. I've been focused on song lyrics. But then, a night or so ago, suddenly there's a new poem. Surprise! And the form revealed itself, as usual, in the writing.

Sometimes just free writing, like what some teachers call loose writing or morning pages, where you just spew, can loosen things up. it doesn't matter if it's any good. It doesn't matter if we have anything to SAY. The point is just to write, and that seems to get the rest of it going.

I never worry if I never write another poem. Crop rotation. I'll always be making something, art or music or words, whatever, and I have utter faith in that. I also know that there are times when it feels stale, and then I go off and do something else. Papier-maché is a great way, for me, to go off and do something else, because it's simple and easy, and it just sort of seems to happen, things come together during the process.

The truth is, I have more art coming out of me, on a daily basis, than I know what to do with. My biggest challenge, to be blunt, is marketing what I've already made. I make something literally every day. Some days it's a photos in the garden. Other days it's music, or writing. But literally every day something ends up being made. So I never worry about fallow periods, or running out, or whatever. It's like scratching an itch that needs to be scratched every day.

litrefs said...

When Camus had writer's block, his mentor, Andre Gide, said "you mean you can stop writing yet you still complain? What's up with you Albert?"

Terry Heath said...

It stood out to me when you said you like the idea of having written another novel (and I don't think it's strange to want your canon to have a nice round number). Often, I'd rather "have written" something than actually doing the writing. I don't enjoy the writing part as much as you might expect, but I love having written something. That's probably a real insight to my psyche.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m much the same, Art. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if I never wrote another thing. I can’t see that happening because it would be going against my nature not to respond to what I see by the use of words. I’ve never been a great one for free writing. I’ve had a crack at it but I prefer to wander aimlessly through life and see what I bump into. If I bump into something and it resonates with me then I might give it another dunt and see where I go with it. I’ve tried to artificially stimulate ideas but most times I’m unhappy with the results. I’ve written a few poems to prompts which is basically what this was. Prompts I quite like as long as I don’t have to write a poem. I think of prompts like a word association test – something unexpected gets shoved in front of my face and I come up with something equally unexpected in response to it. Or sometimes I just come up blank. And the blanks are the really interesting responses.

That’s a good response from Gide, Litrefs - I hadn’t heard that one before.

And, Terry, I think we might both be surprised by how many writers don’t particularly enjoy writing. It’s a job and I don’t care what anyone says, when something becomes a job some of the joy always gets lost along the way. When I was thirteen there was real pleasure in getting words onto a page. It didn’t matter if they were good, bad or indifferent, they were my words. Nowadays that joy is harder to connect with because I have standards. I’m no longer happy with anything other than greatness. I was always that way, the only difference in the past is that my idea of what constituted greatness was well off the mark. I look at some of the ‘great’ poems I wrote in my teenage years, poems I remember being seriously chuffed about, and I simply shudder.

Sangu said...

I don't think any writing can NOT ' count', though it is so easy to think it doesn't! But everything hones a skill, inspires new ideas, helps you get into a rhythm - so I think all wiring counts, even if you never again use a certain piece or idea.

The Tame Lion said...

Vigorously nodding my head in agreement with Sangu.

Jim Murdoch said...

Maybe it’s an age thing, Sangu, but so many of the things I start writing are just things I’ve written about before. In all seriousness I’m not sure I have anything new to say about ‘the truth’ and yet it keeps finding its way into my poems and boring me. I often feel I’m just parodying myself. In that respect the writing doesn’t count. There’s only so much honing one can do. What you need to do is develop new skills not bask in former glories.

And, Tame Lion, nice to see a new name in the comments. You are, of course, perfectly welcome to agree with Sangu. I’ve just got to a stage where I’ve tackled most of the really big things that bother me about this life. And once you’ve faced your demons what else is there to do? Keep calling them back for a rematch when it’s obvious you’re going to wipe the floor with them?

Dave King said...

I think having something to say (or not) is a habit. I have found that having a deadline and/or setting myself a target - say a poem a day - made nonsense of my former belief that I was not a prolific writer. (I'm leaving quality out of the discussion!) Then I took a week off, having first scheduled poems to appear throughout my absence. Now I'm really struggling to come up with texts.

Incidentally, there is some synchronicity here: I have scheduled a poem concerned with drink for tomorrow.

Jim Murdoch said...

I try and avoid deadlines, Dave. I have them but I make sure they’re as far in the future as possible and then act as if I’ve got to get the thing done by next week. That’s why I have two dozen blog posts written and ready to go. I still write one on average every five days but I never have to get one ready, the Aggies and Shuggies being the exception but I’ve never spent more than an hour writing one of them, usually half that. I noticed you never commented on my post Concentration not that either of us is obliged to but since it was your good self that inspired it I get the feeling you missed it what with you being busy of late. Anyway, I just thought I’d let you know it was there if you did miss it.

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