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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #22: Writer’s block


Rosamund Kendal - 2010-11-24

Five thousand words into my third novel I have hit writer’s block. It is a huge block, an insurmountable block, a behemoth of a block that I am completely unable to budge. I have tried all sorts of suggested remedies to shift my inertia. Instead of writing in my usual, very mundane, study, I have sought out quaint coffee shops hoping that they will provide an atmosphere conducive to reigniting my muse. I have spent a fortune on original Moleskine notepads praying that the soft, velvety pages might inspire me. Instead, the emptiness of the clean folios fill me with dread. Their virgin purity is proof of my incompetence. I have followed the advice of various experts and forced myself to write five hundred words a day. I understand that the theory is that if one writes enough, eventually the writer’s block will shift. I have disproved the theory and produced page upon page of poor writing. I am completely uninspired; unable to conjure up that elusive x factor that gives soul and spirit to writing. What I have managed to write is so flat, so lifeless and lacking in originality that I have stopped writing completely.

Perhaps it is my background in medicine that forces me to look for the underlying cause of my problem, instead of simply attacking the symptoms. The first thing that comes to mind is that I have succumbed to that poorly defined entity burnout. But I know that this is hardly likely. With two children and two jobs I simply don’t have the time to write enough to have “outwritten” myself. In fact, writing is my reward; a luxury. It is what keeps me sane. When I eventually manage to figure out the cause of my inability to create, it is blindingly obvious. The writer’s block has nothing to do with me and everything to do with what I am trying to write. I have changed genre: instead of writing another medical drama I decided to challenge myself by writing a non-medical drama. The reasons for making this change are numerous and complicated, but the end result is that I have reached a dead end, a cul-de-sac, in my writing.

I begin to panic. Perhaps I am not a good enough writer to write outside the genre to which I am used. I tentatively decide to scrap my current novel and start a new one, set once again in a hospital; but before I delete everything I realise that the problem is even more complicated than I had originally thought. It is not the genre that I am struggling with, it is the fact that I have decided to write a novel the sole purpose of which is to entertain. That is the cause of my writer’s block: I am unable to justify writing a novel that doesn’t offer some sort of social commentary.

My hesitations are reasonable. Historically, South African writers have used their craft as a means of making political statements. Resistance writing was one of the most influential tools levelled against apartheid and much of the literature that came out of South Africa in the seventies and eighties centred on the inequalities of a white supremacist society and the resulting struggle for freedom. Subsequent writing in South Africa could almost be divided into “post-apartheid” writing and “post-post-apartheid” writing. The former was the inevitable fall-out after the bomb of apartheid exploded. It was the trying to pick up the pieces of a ravaged society, an attempt to heal, by narrative, almost forty years of trauma, injustice and human rights violations. The literature that I have labelled post-post-apartheid writing, for lack of a more coherent title, is the writing that is coming out of South Africa now: the novels that deal with the plethora of social, economic and health problems that face contemporary South Africans. With this as the context in which I am writing, how can I possibly produce a novel that does not raise awareness of at least one relevant issue? Am I not obliged, as a South African with a social and moral conscience, to use my writing skills in the same way that my predecessors have, to highlight some of the inequalities and social injustices that face South Africans now, fifteen years into democracy?

One of the reasons I chose to write within the medical genre initially was that I wanted to raise awareness among the reading public of the crisis in South Africa’s health care system. In the same way, I wanted to use my writing skill to shake up some of the denial and ignorance surrounding the AIDS pandemic. I felt that I was able to bring about more change, to reach more people, as a writer than as a doctor. How frivolous now, then, of me to want to write a purely fictional drama with no political or social commentary!

I do not know the answers to the questions that my probing has raised. Do I scrap my five thousand words and begin a new novel that satisfies the demands of my conscience? Do I have an obligation, as a young South African writer, to lever some sort of social commentary? Or am I allowed the luxury, the flippancy, the frivolity of writing a novel just for fun? Perhaps one of the freedoms of a truly democratic society is the freedom not to be bound by the cultural, social and artistic restraints (including those that are self-imposed) of the past.

I can feel the tiniest twitch in the right side of my brain. My creativity is stirring. Writing a novel purely for the sake of writing must surely be one of the most beautiful, one of the truest, expressions of democracy.

At last I am able to put pen to paper again.