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Tom Eaton

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Terrified by a blank page

Where does this fear come from, this terror of writing things down?

I had forgotten the horrors that haunt the blank page until I announced my creative writing course a fortnight ago. For me writing is a career, a job, even a chore, sometimes a joy and always a compulsion. But in email after email I found the same tension: I want to come, I’m dying to come, I will come…but I’m scared. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but it seems that words reduce us to gibbering blancmanges.

For the blancmanges who do come to my course (and let me punt it shamelessly by mentioning that there are plenty of places left and that the Book Lounge’s couches are unmatched in comfyness) there will be a chance to transform into less wobbly puddings, perhaps even to discover something resembling confidence. For the rest, thought, there remains only the horrible white expanse of that first page, that awful seething mass of black letters, ants rushing about on the tiny carcass of a good idea.

So what is this fear of writing? Is it the anxiety that comes with exposing ourselves, the dream where we’ve come to work naked? I’m not convinced, simply because not all writing is painfully autobiographical (especially not the stuff that sells). Can if be fear of ridicule? Again I doubt it: most inexperienced or anxious writers show their work to people whom they can trust to be, if not gushing, at least kind. Of course, there is a worse fate than ridicule: silence. Perhaps we fear the mortification of standing alone in the silence – grown 7-year-olds to whose birthday party nobody has come.

This conjuring of childhood horrors is significant for I suspect childhood, or more specifically childhood schooling, lies at the root of our fear of writing. It is possible that our anxieties have been heightened by adult literary snobs and aloof grownup writers but I believe that the damage has been done long before we encounter those cobwebby killjoys.

When we are five or six creativity is a smear of primary colours on a piece of paper. If our parents and teachers can muster enthusiasm, our efforts are praised, put in drawers, framed and generally smiled upon. (Sometimes we branch out with a doodle in crayon on a wall although this work is generally less well received by adults.)

As our hands and eyes get cleverer so do our drawings and paintings. And then, somewhere around our ninth or tenth birthdays, we intuit a new reality: somehow we decide that Painting Is For Babies and it is time to evolve. The crayons and paints are quietly packed away and the letters of the alphabet (whose forms we have been dutifully squeezing out of leaky fountain-pens or sticky ballpoints for years) step forward to claim hegemony.

Suddenly creativity is no longer a process of adding colours and shapes but of removing or denying mistakes. We begin to rub out words, Tip-Ex over entire lines. Creation now implies anxiety; of being exposed as a bad speller, of not knowing Grammar, of having ugly handwriting. We have left the Eden of pictures and entered the wilderness of writing.

(This eviction from creative Paradise might account not only for people’s fear of writing but also for their child-like confidence in critiquing the visual arts. Our intimate relationship with pictures ends long before we have learned either aesthetic self-doubt or critical thought, perhaps the reason why so many intelligent adults are so easily dismissive of visual arts. When your last drawing – of a windmill, done in exciting tones of blue and red, when you were eight – was met with universal adulation it can be extremely difficult to acknowledge that you don’t know what you are looking at or that the artist you are critiquing knows more than the eight-year-old you. “I could do that,” we say, giving voice to a part of us never damaged by adulthood.)

Even the word describing the creative act became fussy as “art” gave way to “Composition” (somehow implying a dark twin, Decomposition). I always disliked that word, perhaps because my writing was anything but composed and was usually a variation on a theme by Sellers and Milligan or a one-paragraph report on a showdown between a time-travelling Spitfire and a battalion of Roman balista-operators. But if I disliked it my little classmates feared and hated it. And little wonder as they were stood up against a wall (those pretty pictures of stamens and the planets and rearing horses spelling out the alphabet could just as well have been bullet-holes) and told to read the sad huddle of word-refugees cowering on the page in their shaking hands. Short of reading to an empty room there can be little that can crush the delight in words more efficiently than reading to twenty or thirty bowed heads in a room smelling of anxiety.

How sad that this should be the case; that so many people should be frightened of something as simple and natural as transcribing the conversations or describing the pictures in their heads. What a pity that so many will never meet one of their closest friends – their writer’s voice – because they are too frightened to sit quietly and listen.

On Thursday evening I had a glimpse of what writing could be if we allowed it to become a normal, even banal, part of our everyday lives. At the Book Lounge the venerable Contrast was celebrating its fiftieth year in print and contributors and benefactors were reading extracts from the new issue; outside in Roeland Street the city was going home. The noise of rush-hour mingled with the poetry, and the poems survived, thrived. They did not need to be protected or read to aficionados in a hushed and sound-proofed auditorium: they were part of the modern world, like raindrops on a windscreen. A meditation on the crucifixion was combined with the revving of pimped Hondas at the traffic lights. An ode to a lover was briefly accompanied by a man on a cellphone saying, “No well then that’s just tough shit if she can’t get it down, I told her…”; a delicate observation of a grain of sand was almost drowned out by a group of young labourers running past in a clatter of unlaced shoes hurrying to get the train. Writing in the world, in the city, on a street corner, being enjoyed or ignored depending on one’s tastes and circumstances.

If only writing could always be thus; as free and uncomplicated as a newspaper blowing away down Roeland Street.

For more on my writing course to be held in March, click here.


Recent comments:

  • ar
    February 1st, 2011 @21:10 #

    New decade's resolution is to stop wishing I'd been there and bloody well get there. This goes for Book Lounge things and writing courses too. And I am getting there, slowly. Like, I used to wish I could go to Ireland and now I'm going. That my going happens to be during your writing course, Mr Eaton, is so tragic it’s funny. I don't know yet which scares me more, a writing course with blank pages in it or an eleventyhundred hour flight. I'll only know the answer after I've attended your NEXT writing course. All courage to the lucky blancmanges who get to attend this one.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 2nd, 2011 @01:56 #

    Hello ar! Happy elevenses. I am torn between sympathy, amusement and delight at your quandary. It's a very Irish situation to be in. Ireland has ridiculously happy memories for me; may it be kind to you too. And lucky blancmanges, too.

  • ar
    February 2nd, 2011 @17:11 #

    Hello Helen! Funny old world hey. Dastardly lucky blancmanges, yargh.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    February 4th, 2011 @09:41 #

    Ah, the wonderful, puckish brilliant mind of Tom Eaton. (I'm an unashamed groupie).

    I love this:

    "Suddenly creativity is no longer a process of adding colours and shapes but of removing or denying mistakes. We begin to rub out words, Tip-Ex over entire lines. Creation now implies anxiety; of being exposed as a bad speller, of not knowing Grammar, of having ugly handwriting. We have left the Eden of pictures and entered the wilderness of writing."

    So true.

    I have been running creative writing courses for years, simply to help people to get past that crippling inner critic and to be able to write freely again. It's a wonderfully empowering process. Next one is at the Hilton Arts Festival (as always).


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