Writing and not writing

At the moment I’m in something of a career vacuum. I’ve stopped doing my regular freelance work but I have no idea how to turn my skills, experience, and massive internet fame into a regular, well-paid job that gets me out of the house and fulfils me creatively. And a lot of people have told me: “Oh, don’t get a job! You’re a writer. You should write another novel.” 

Aside from the fact that sitting at home for six months writing a book would drive me insane (I am not good at managing my time) I don’t do a great deal of writing these days. I’d love to write constantly, to churn out novels and screenplays, but it’s not something I’m capable of doing. And one of my key frustrations is that the kind of thing I enjoy reading is not the kind of thing I enjoy (or am capable of) writing. 

When I’m reading a novel, I enjoy a large dose of escapism. I’m more than happy to read books set in ridiculous places, with hammy dialogue, unrealistic characters and unbelievable plots. I am not a book snob: as long as a book doesn’t bore me I can read it. 

Whereas when I am writing something, I need it to reflect life as I see it; I expect it to be realistic: and not in the sense of urban, kitchen-sink drama where the realism is a surface texture. I expect it to be realistic in that it follows the patterns, thoughts and mood of my internal life. So I can only write about a life in which there is very little plot, where the dialogue is mostly internal monologue, where the mood is one of entropy and anger, where there is no visible link between cause and effect and where there is only one important character: me. 

As you can imagine, this makes writing anything other than short navel-gazing pieces quite difficult. 

Over the last few weeks I’ve been watching Sherlock, the entertaining but slightly schlocky BBC TV drama that updates the Holmes and Watson characters for the present day. And my experience watching it gives me a good insight into what happens when I try to write something. 

I think: Hmmm, I enjoyed that show. A good, distracting romp. I’d like to write something similar. But of course, there aren’t really geniuses like Sherlock; most deduction is a painstaking slog through hours of evidence, with as many false leads as there are revelations. And the killings wouldn’t be done by serial killers, they would be senseless, stupid murders by kids in gangs who don’t know what they are doing and end up stabbing someone in a dispute over crisps. And it wouldn’t be set in central London because no-one can afford to live there, so it would be set in Edmonton or Neasden or somewhere. And most of the time the detective would just be filling out paperwork. And he wouldn’t be recognised as a genius; in fact he wouldn’t be in charge of the investigation at all – he’d be a desk clerk or something. And most of the investigations wouldn’t be resolved in any kind of way, they would remain unsolved. And a lot of the time the detectives would get it wrong. And if there were a genius, he wouldn’t be skinny, he’d be fat and bald and socially inept, and not in a cool way. Just in a smelly way. And the London it was set in would be an anxious, dysfunctional but middle-class London, rather than either posh London or council estate London, which is all you ever see on TV. And most of the time the central character wouldn’t do anything at all. In fact, he wouldn’t leave the house most days. He wouldn’t see the point in a job. He’d get bored and start asking why he was doing things. In fact, he’d be aware that he’s a fictional character and would constantly be questioning his role within the drama and railing against its restrictive conventions. He’d start deconstructing the narrative and trying to resolve it from within.

In other words, as soon as the plot enters my head it starts to deconstruct itself: first of all on a superficial level, but then very quickly on a deeper level. The basic template of my life is this: clever but not genius man, emotionally conflicted and unsure, self-obsessed, refusing to engage emotionally with real life, constantly picking away at the boundaries of his existence. And at the moment I project this template onto everything I write. I take a perfectly healthy specimen of a story and inject it with my own faulty DNA until it’s some horrible shambling Greg zombie, unable to walk any way other than in circles before collapsing on its knees and expiring.  

The way I’ve gotten around this in the past is to write very short pieces. I managed to get a decent novel (which just yesterday got a new ONE STAR review on Amazon.co.uk, with the subtitle “Worst book ever” on it) out of this. I know I’m a decent writer. I’m capable of a good turn of phrase and I’m very good at coming up with funny, original ideas, but I can only sustain them for a few hundred words before they start to eat themselves. This results in lots of tiny, implausible paragraphs with very little plot or character interaction, which I can get out of my system quickly before my big, nasty brain starts applyting its corrosive acid and everything starts to deconstruct

And that is fine, but I’ve already written one novel like that, and I don’t think anyone (myself included) wants to read another. So I either have to find a different way of writing or I have to resolve my worldview so that it’s not as plotless and self-obsessed. Either way, I can’t see myself writing that hit TV series in a hurry.

p.s if anyone in advertising, PR, film, newspapers, media or porn wants to offer me a job, get in contact.

6 thoughts on “Writing and not writing

    1. But what about Kafka?

      Most of his stories were ones where the mood was one of entropy and anger, where there was no (immediately) visible link between cause and effect and where he was the only important character.

      And the guy has a freaking adjective named after him.

      As for plot, can’t you use metaphor to dress up internal struggles as external ones? Wasn’t Siddartha just a book about a chap who didn’t really know what to do with his life/weekend?

      I mean, I know you’re actually a writer and you don’t need some internet busybody like me telling you all this stuff, but I’m just trying to make sense of where you’re coming from.

      If you don’t get the urge to write, then fine, but if you get the urge to make things, to create things, but you somehow don’t think they’re good enough or worthwhile enough then maybe you’re just lacking confidence or discipline.

      Okay, I went to see Ian McKellen in Waiting For Godot recently. There’s no plot in that (“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”), but it was one of the most wonderful plays I’ve seen, because it was funny and because it was tragic and because the very claustrophobia of nothing happening was powerful and made me think things about my own life that I wouldn’t have thought if I hadn’t seen it.

      I haven’t seen Sherlock, but shows like that are entertainment, diversion, and I’ll wager that the only reason you can’t write that is because you’re smarter than the person who did. I’m not trying to flatter you, but I think that it is very likely. People might read for diversion, but people don’t write to divert themselves. They write because they have ideas and they want to turn them into something tangible, meaningful.

      People love your tweets, right? I’d say people love the humour, the sadness and the way you have of making mundane things poetic. So take that and run with it, or am I wrong?

      This is all incredibly pompous. Sorry.

  1. Hi Greg,

    Great piece, I sympathise.

    I think this is part of a modern condition of very critically aware writers that feel pressure to deconstruct rather than edit. That find it easy to identify flaws and hard to acknowledge positives.

    Perhaps it’s a fear that to give up cynicism is to be duped into something painfully obvious.

    I often think it would be nice to live a slightly more obvious and uncomplicated life.

  2. Start a Pay Per View of your tweets. You’d make a fortune. Charge double for the privilege of retweeting.

  3. A very interesting post that uses your deconstructive nature to deconstruct your writing struggles! Love it, but am sure that I was heading into a black hole constructing my last sentence.

    The problem with writing from your own imagination is that you have to suspend your own disbelief whilst writing. I think this is much easier to do when you are the observer/reader. Suspension of disbelief is something that doesn’t come naturally to me when I am doing my blog so I can only write about me and how I feel. This is a good thing as my blog is about real life so is a valid approach. Your blog is similarly about you, your feelings/opinions but fiction, drama, anything else may need the approach of just write it, don’t analyse and then see how it comes out?

    Easy for me to say of course, so please feel free to tell me that I am writing out of my ass, it sure feels like it to me most of the time:-)


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