Write what’s on your mind

Even after a year and a bit of blogging (and many more years before that of Writing Stuff) I still haven’t learned to relax and trust the process. There is still the occasional day when I wake up and think Aaargh – nothing to write about!!! This instantly translates itself, via black and white, catastrophic thinking into Aaargh – there will never be anything to write about again!!!

Sometimes it then progresses into Aaargh – there never was anything to write about, I was deluded, I only thought there was, all my life therefore I have been wasting hours and hours in writing stuff that was totally worthless and uninspired!!!

On really bad days this progresses into My life itself is worthless, I am worthless, nobody loves me, nobody ever loved me, what is the point of me? Sorry, sorry sorry…!!!

No doubt I am not alone in this.

Most of the time I can retrieve the situation by reminding myself of something Pamela Frankau, a long-dead and mostly-forgotten novelist, once wrote of inspiration:

The tanks take longer and longer to refill… I cannot believe that I shall write another book. I remind myself that I have written thirty. And although, at fifty-two, I have far more to say than when I was young, I seem to have far less to say it about. At this gloomy stage, I am certain there’s no new subject for a novel and that, even if there was, I wouldn’t find it.

Then, mysteriously, I am past that stage. I am awake and prowling. The tanks have refilled…

And that is how it is. There are gaps, sometimes uncomfortably long gaps. Then, like London buses, three ideas come along at once.

Pamela is also why even now I have to weed out superfluous commas, inevitably missing some. She caught me at an impressionable age and her writing style became mine for a while. I now feel that by and large experienced readers can be trusted to know when to pause, and breathe. Less is more.

Often I convince myself I can’t write because I’m busy worrying about something, ie there is no space left in my head for inspiration. Recently it has dawned on me that what I’m busy worrying about is exactly the thing to write about. You have to catch – even recognise – thoughts while they’re still raw and unprocessed. It’s kind of ring-fenced but you have to unfence it.

So, ever since Saturday morning, like the Bunyip, I have been sitting-on-a-hypothetical-log biting my fingernails over a sum of money accidentally transferred to the wrong people by my solicitors. In truth, there was no urgency. No need to imagine a whole chain-reaction of worst-case scenarios. It’s me. I’m OK at this sort of thing, and can override Panic Mode if only I can act at once to put it right. Unfortunately, offices being closed over the weekend I couldn’t make the necessary telephone call until Monday morning. I just had to wait. Me and waiting (waiting and I?) don’t mix and the result was no fingernails and two sleepless nights in a row.

Nowadays when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the TV. Distraction is the only thing that helps. Unfortunately I only have to set foot on the top stair and the cats start charging about, assuming they are going to be fed even if it is pitch black outside.

If you’ve never suffered from insomnia you may not know what rubbish there is on television in the middle of the night. I watched the News, but it was the same news it had been several hours before. No unexpected celebrity deaths, no military coups, no presidential debates happening as yet; the elephant, and something that looks like an armadillo only prettier, whose name I have temporarily forgotten, may begin with K – urgh, commas again – are still endangered species.

I watched and I watched and I watched, wondering why it was perfectly easy even for a too-tall lady to fall asleep on a too-small charity shop sofa during the day, yet in the middle of the night the sofa seemed to shrink, and develop very hard arms. I watched Australians being just as pretentious as Brits on their own version of Grand Designs, and then I watched a programme about what could be done surgically/prosthetically for men who had had their prostates removed and were having trouble

The last thing I remember was some horrible thing being inflated

At least I got a little sleep.


Things that stop you writing. Pamela Frankau came up with these lists in the 1960s:

‘the devils outside’

…bright sunshine, cricket, the Times crossword, a luncheon date…

‘the devils inside’

…sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news…

I remember a sudden lust for new clothes striking a chord with me when I first read her book Pen To Paper, but then I was fifteen and clothes, at fifteen, are everything. That need to shop, right now – is that just a female thing? Something to do with our gleaning and gathering instincts. Lust is the right word for it. Luckily, the lust for new clothes tends to wear off as you get older.

Sheer listless reluctance Yes, that’s the biggie. You simply don’t want to write. You’ve written enough for several lifetimes and what have you got to show for it? A blog. Sheer listless reluctance is really a combination of writers’ block and laziness. They say the only way out of hell is through it: and the only way out of sheer listless reluctance is to write, write, write. It doesn’t matter what you write when you are in this frame of mind as long as you do. Start with a nonsense poem or a shopping list. If that doesn’t work type pangrams over and over again till you get so bored you find yourself writing something else

  • The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs
  • We promptly judged antique ivory buckles for the next prize
  • Cozy lummox gives smart squid who asks for job pen

Pangrams are called pangrams because they include every letter of the alphabet. When learning to touch-type that Quick Brown Fox becomes an old friend.

Freewrite. Just write what comes into your head, and don’t stop to think. You are constantly talking to yourself whether you realise it or not, or rather one part of your mind is talking to all the other parts. Just tap in on that and don’t stop till you run out of steam. Usually, by the time you do, you will have come up with several topics for writing, or you will have overcome the listless reluctance thing sufficiently to continue with your epic novel.

Pain It depends what sort of pain. If it’s migraine or raging toothache give up all thought of writing. Lie down in a darkened room or make a dental appointment. If it’s susceptible to painkillers, take painkillers and write till they wear off. You may actually discover that writing is a natural pain-killer.

Worry The best cure for worry is writing, if you’re a writer. It’s not writing per se it’s any creative activity – painting, singing, dancing, basket-weaving – simply because creative activities are absorbing. I remember reading in a book about Zen that to calm the mind, one technique would be to inspect each worry carefully, then imagine oneself placing it gently in a black sack and tying the neck of the sack, then putting the sack to one side. You tell yourself, I can worry about the contents of that sack at any time I choose, but just for now… just for now I will not. And it works, sometimes. Writing works always.

The flat morning mood – depression, really. And the difficulty of actually getting started on something. The thing with mornings is the long list of stuff you feel absolutely obliged to work your way through. Fascinating stuff like washing up, loading the tumble-dryer, making the beds, ironing, filling the bird-feeder up with peanuts, reading all your emails. Evening seems a long way off and it’s so difficult to get down to writing. Writing is hard. It’s wearing. It sucks the energy out of you if you’re doing it right, so you keep putting it off. You really don’t want to have the energy sucked out of you this early in the day. The thing is to get on with the writing – at least make a start – because until you do you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to be able to relax. You’ll be doing all those other things – ironing, bird-feeder-filling, email-reading with today’s undone writing in the back of your mind. Guilt. Frustration. Not-writing is an unnatural state for writers.

Deep melancholy – I’m not sure I agree with her about this. Sadness is one of the best sources of material. Gobble it up. Use it. However, shocking things like bereavement are best not written about for a while, mostly because what you write is unlikely to be any good. Writing uses two parts of your mind in tandem – the creative, emotional bit and the crafty, editing bit. You can’t write good stuff with the crafty bit turned off. You need them both. You need to digest sad and horrible stuff for a while. Wordsworth described it as emotion recollected in tranquillity.

Wild happinesspossibly worse than deep melancholy for stopping you writing. Almost impossible to write anything decent when first in love. Just enjoy it.

Bad news, good news – we’re back to the black sack thing again. Take a little while to think about whatever the news is. Take a deep breath. Freewrite.

As for the devils outside – the cricket, the bright sunshine, the Times crossword, the dinner date (does anyone have dinner dates anymore?). Make a plan. If you want to go to a cricket match, go, but get up early to write, or stay up late afterwards. If you are a Times crossword fan schedule in an hour in the evening after you have written, or cut out all the Times crosswords and save them in a manila folder for the weekend, or for your holidays. Imagine, lying on a beach in Spain with a manila folder full of aged crosswords and a large, sand-filled dictionary…

Probably the worst thing of all for writing is other people. Other people are a real pain and unless you have a very intimate friendship with them you will not be able to write. Fifty years of marriage would do it. By that time you will scarcely notice each other’s presence in the room and will have chatted about absolutely everything any two human beings could ever need to chat about. Frankau actually lists the sorts of people to avoid when writing a novel. Evasive action should be taken, she says:

The company of the devitaliser. That friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.

To be avoided also, she says:

…the swaddle of the Sunday newspapers, the opinions of agitated atheists, the gin-and-tonic before lunch, the reading of novels or book reviews. The correct literary diet alternates the Gospels with Whodunits.

And you know, she might be right about that.

I would also add, from my own experience, physical tiredness. You do need to look after yourself, as best you can, and allow enough time for sleep. Dreams, and the thoughts you have in that half-asleep, half-awake state, are the best inspiration of all.

There’s also perfectionism. You can’t be perfect. Even if you are perfect, no one will notice. And if they do notice they’ll hate you for it. The thing with writing is to write gloriously badly in the first place, then look at what you’ve got and make it better. You will always be able to see how to make it better – it will come to you. And after that you will be able to see how to make it better still. It happens in layers, in stages. The thing is, no one is ever going to read the gloriously bad stuff you began with, because all that’s screwed up in little white balls on the study floor, or donated to Mr Dusty Bin on your computer, so you needn’t be inhibited by how bad it is.

Work – I have found throughout my life that paid work stops me writing. Any arrangement that means I have to be somewhere from nine to five and paying attention, and can’t go anywhere else, escape or daydream – and the writing goes out the window. But, money being necessary work too is necessary. And I have never solved this one. Work, the toad work:

  • Why should I let the toad work
  • Squat on my life?
  • Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  • And drive the brute off?
  • Philip Larkin: Toads


So wild beasts in captivity may forget their forests, grow tame, lose their fierce habits, and learn to endure the control of man. But if a little blood touches their hot lips, their rage and ferocity return. Roused by the taste of blood, their jaws distend, and they hardly refrain from springing on their frightened master. Lucan, IV, 237

The only thing that worries me about this blogging lark is whether I will be able to stop, or even take adequate rest, once having started. For instance, I’ve got a heap of ironing to do today and I need to complete that form from the Council asking me whether I’m still the person I purported to be last August, for voting purposes; and it’s time for Mum’s weekly letter…

And then there are all those books – a lifetime supply of books to worm my way through which, as Mum once pointed out, I’m unlikely to be able to do since I’m running low on – actual – life. Picture me in six months’ time, red-eyed, round-shouldered, with hair like Struwwelpeter, hunched over my word-processor or scrunched up in a heap on the bed, clipboard in hand, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling… Wasn’t it Gollum who was got to by the Ring? Writing has ring-like aspects, for me. Thinking back over my life only shows me what a sad, possessed, bedevilled little creature I have always been. Trying not to write. Trying, trying, trying not to write, trying to hold it together so as to hold down a job; so as to pay the bills and feed the cats; so as to seem something akin to a proper person …

My Precious, My Precious…

I love the way Gollum speaks: Thief, Thief, Thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever! Language is like mercury – it’s hard and yet it’s soft; there are strict rights and wrongs to it and yet – it flows into all the corners, our personalities shape it, our minds mould it. Hearing strange speech is a kind of flight – it’s like prison walls melting.

What am I talking about?

This was supposed to be a simple update to my earlier four-post sequence PEN TO PAPER re my ‘imaginary writing friend’ Pamela Frankau. I just got the post: a second-hand book has arrived via Thrift Shops, America: Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater by Milly S Barranger. Margaret Webster and Pamela Frankau were partners in later life. An ex-library copy, the book is still wearing its plastic jacket and inside is a Chapel Hill Public Library bookplate. I’ve just looked up Chapel Hill. It’s a town in North Carolina and is in some way connected with the University. I need to know stuff like that. I don’t know why. It’s a curse.

Writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, or thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory. Anita Brookner: Look at Me (1983)

Well, obviously, I haven’t read the book yet – it only arrived an hour ago – but I did look at the pictures. Treasure trove! A picture of that house on Martha’s Vineyard, which doesn’t look too different from the way I envisaged it all those thousands of years ago when reading Pen to Paper. The photo was taken ca. 1940 and the caption says it overlooks Menemsha Harbor which, according to Google, is the highest point on the island. It also has a picture of PF taken ca. 1940. I have never seen one of her this young. The tortoiseshell specs are missing but you can just about recognise the nautical lady (ca 1950) pictured in Pen to Paper. She reminds me of Mum as a young woman, although she would have been born earlier.

The book seems to be part of a series, and there it is on the inside cover: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theatre/Drama/Performance. Why does this make me uncomfortable? It’s not like you can catch lesbianism from a book, and it’s not as if it was something I didn’t already know about her. Am I actually afraid the local postman might have somehow, possibly employing his postman’s x-ray vision, been able decipher those words through the yellow plastic postal envelope, the book’s hefty cover and two thick A4 pages? Would I have been at all embarrassed if the book had been about a gay male actor? No, I guess probably not. How strange we all are, inside our ‘bone-bound islands’.

Through my small, bone-bound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all and sensed all. As much as possible, therefore, I employ the scenery of the island to describe the scenery of my thoughts, the earthquake of the body to describe the earthquakes of the heart.

Dylan Thomas: Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson (November 1933)

Anyway, when I have got round to reading it, or at least used the index to extract the bits about PF – to be honest the rest of it looks like major heavy going – I will no doubt be able to add another post to my IMAGINARY FRIENDS sequence.

Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (4)

She tells another story – the vineyards reminded me – where she is (again, no details supplied) in Martha’s Vineyard in America. It is the winter of 1950 and she is writing one or other version of a novel at a kitchen table ‘littered with scattered foolscap’. A certain Mr Butler enters, bringing with him ‘the clean clothes on their wire hangers and a certain amount of snow’. He asks her where her typewriter is and she tells him she doesn’t have one. As she speaks, it strikes her that for each 100,000 word novel she must in fact be writing 200,000 words. Mr Butler stumps back out into the snow, with this parting shot:

‘Henry Beetle Hough, the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, – he has two typewriters’.

This caught my imagination on several levels. Presumably in America they delivered dry-cleaning to your door? Could anyone really have the middle name ‘Beetle’? What exactly was Martha’s Vineyard?

Re-reading the passage itself as opposed to my paraphrase, I realise I absorbed more about the art of storytelling from the way Pamela Frankau wrote in Pen to Paper than I ever did from her more straightforward instruction in the matter. I learned that you didn’t have to fill in the gaps, in fact to leave them was often more effective, because the two imaginations involved – yours and your readers – then started to work in tandem, creating the scene together. She told me nothing about Martha’s Vineyard except that it was sometimes snowy. I pictures this Mr Butler – a small, bald man – getting out of some sort of black sedan, struggling with an armful of clothes and wire hangers into thick, white snow – no footsteps as yet, he being the first visitor – into a clearing surrounded by pines – except that didn’t quite go with vineyards and stuff. I imagined a kind of log-cabin, cosy and warm, a big American kitchen, that eerie pink kind of light you get when it’s snowing… None of this she tells me, and yet she does.

Without actually instructing me she showed how to edit a book as if it was a film, that is was possible to zoom in and out of locations and back and forth in time, that you could cut out a lot of stuff. She taught me the value of an arresting sentence and the power of précis. We had been made to ‘do’ précis in English, of course, but no one had ever told us what for. This was what for.

Martha’s Vineyard brings me to the third surprise. First I had learned that Pamela was not exactly alive. Then I had had to accept that her actual novels were not really to my taste, although they might have been, had I been her contemporary. And then a year or two ago I learned that the other person with her at Martha’s Vineyard was not so much Sacha Distel as (gasp!) a lady. Suddenly the slightly nautical air, the twisted cigarette, the severe cut of the shirt in that photograph, all fell into place. It was like that moment in every single episode of Stargate where the massive heiroglyph thingies clang into place in whatever mysterious sequence, the stargate opens to reveal…watery stuff… and in rush the aliens. Pamela was bisexual. If you had mentioned the word to me and Lydsay Barwell wandering around Woolworths that day, we would have imagined…well, I don’t think we could have imagined. Now, of course, it is not shocking at all, just another detail.

Of course Pamela Frankau has not been my only writing buddy. Over the years I have been lucky enough to bump into one or two more. There’s the Dylans – Bob and Thomas – who remind me that words have their own magic, an intrinsic weight and a whole string of resonances aside from any information they might happen to convey. And then there’s my mate Michel (de Montaigne) who dispenses acerbic French advice, not so much on writing as on how to live and how to grow old amusingly. Sometimes, in the wee small hours when the horrors strike, I turn to him and find myself Laughing Out Loud. And as for me and Pam, we have weathered a number of awkward injections of fact into our fantasy friendship. When dusk is falling you’ll still find us out in the Rec, scuffing our shoes, twisting the chains of the swings and yattering about this and that.

By chance I happen to be the only one left this side of the veil, but we don’t let that bother us.

Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (3)

There were a couple more shocks in store, aside from Pamela’s being un-alive. As a post-script to her death, or rather my belated discovery of it, I decided to read one of her actual novels for the first time. It was easier to get hold of a copy at that time than it would have been in my youth, thanks to Amazon. I cannot now remember which novel it was. Suffice it to say that I gave up trying to read it about a third of the way through. It wasn’t badly written, not at all. A best-seller in her day, and from a very young age, she had dated badly. What must have sounded darkly sophisticated a couple of years before I was born now came across as stiff and mannered and oh, there was so much of it. It reminded me of matinée films of that period: the feeling that the action was taking place in a tiny black-and-white bubble far, far away from the real world; the excruciating accents; the overwrought moral havering over stuff that wasn’t important any more. I kept wanting to smack her characters, the women for their brittle wit and the men for their sexist smuggery. And yet it was well-written – a polished, professional performance. And how could it have been otherwise from the author of Pen to Paper?

One thing that had made a big impression on me in Pen to Paper was its black and white photo-illustrations. There was her father, the playwright Gilbert Frankau, with whom she seems to have had a difficult but instructive relationship. Since at the time I was having a difficult relationship with my own father, this was another bond between us. The two central pages fascinated me. The left-hand side showed an actual page from the Rough of Road Through The Woods and the right-hand side showed the corresponding page from the Smooth. I had seen, of course, the various versions of my own school essays. I had not shown them to anyone else as none of my friends seemed to go in for ‘drafts’ at all – they just sort of filled the fountain pen and went for it. If you made a mistake you just ignored it and kept on going, the general idea being to waste as little time on schoolwork as possible. (A couple of years later, I am almost certain I was the only pupil to suffer essay-writing withdrawal symptoms after leaving to start work.) This was the first time I had seen somebody else’s manuscript and I was so pleased – it looked like mine, or mine looked like it – in fact it looked worse than mine! Such a splattering of exclamation marks and X’s and wiggly ballons with arrows.

Until that moment I thought I had invented my own method – writing on the right hand side only, insertions and afterthoughts on the left, stars, dots, squares and arrows to differentiate between one insertion and another, corresponding symbol in the text, ‘ins’ in the margin – and here was someone else doing more or less the same thing. Maybe what I did was actually how writers wrote. I loved her handwriting, too: those tiny, sloping words, the giant gaps in between. One’s writing tends to get smaller and smaller the closer you get to creative ‘critical mass’ and I guessed she must have been totally absorbed and writing really fast at the time. By showing both versions, she was letting me see her thought-processes. It sounds foolish now, but I felt privileged.

The photo that drew me most of all, of course, was the one of Pamela. So that was what an actual writer looked like. There she was, in her tortoiseshell glasses (I was always trying and failing to find a pair like that), her hair cut short and brushed back from her face in a series of unlikely quiffs and waves. She was lighting a cigarette with a lighter, frowning slightly, her mouth twisted sideways a bit to bring the tip in contact with the flame. She looked kind of nautical, vaguely mannish and yet glamorous. You could see she would not be a sufferer of fools. She looked brisk, competent, exotic. I noted that she was right-handed – a disappointment since I was left-handed and was hoping this might be a signifier of artistic talent. The photo was sub-titled One cigarette, or two cigarettes, first. I spent a while brooding over the placement of those commas, and whether there should have been a question mark. But this was a direct quote from Pamela (page 96) so it had to be right. She was very particular about punctuation.

Pamela called it Protecting the Rough – and I knew what she meant. Whilst writing the first draft, in particular, you have to keep yourself in a certain state of mind – tuned in, as it were. If you tune out for too long, if you un-obsess yourself, the whole thing just sort of fizzles and dies on you. The Smooth doesn’t need protecting in the same way – it’s merely hard, painstaking work. In one classic passage (I came to know many of her phrases and anecdotes by heart after a while) Pamela claims to have successfully accomplished this ‘while flying the Atlantic, while driving across France and meeting may beautiful interruptions on the way’. What beautiful interruptions? She doesn’t say. I had never travelled further than Westgate-on-Sea for the day – in a hired car, with my friend, her mother, her aunt, various other young people and the friend’s demented granny in the back asking what time it was every five minutes, and in between times informing me that one of her toes had fallen off. I was entranced. I pictured Pamela/myself in a red sports car, driving round twisty mountain roads, as in the movies, stopping at some rustic café for a glass of vin on the terrace, overlooking a vineyardy French valley, or being steamily courted by some Sacha Distel-looking lothario but never for a second failing to Protect the Rough.