I was recently asked a question by Goodreads – one of their automatic questions, I might add, about how I deal with Writer’s block. I suggested doing some “observational writing”. Start with your desk, look at the top lefthand corner and describe what’s there, how it got there, and try to appeal to all senses. I’ve posted below my first attempt at this exercise. Note that the point is not to make total sense, not to write a literary masterpiece, but just to get writing and open the writer’s eye. Having completed this exercise, imagine your characters, where they are, and what they are doing. It may be that you don’t use what you have written, but writing is a skill. You need to practice for it to get better.
I’m sitting at my desk. I’m at an askew angle. I’m writing using my laptop while my desktop computer whirs next to me, performing some performance-enhancing task. I need to concentrate, but somewhere in the background, the cacophony that is the X Factor is intruding, jumbling my thoughts, broken only by the tuneless whistling of my daughter. My study is chilly. Not normally a problem, but my right hand is cold and the aches across the back of my hand are becoming more acute – having spent the day writing an article, I don’t know if it’s RSI, or something more serious.
My desk is a mess. There’s a small pile that’s made up of photocopied articles, notebooks, weighing scales, and a virtually unused I-Pad. The pile is crowned with a copy of Writers’ Forum magazine, still unopened since I bought it. No time to read. There’s also a curled-up envelope which I’d planned to put in a milk bottle last Friday. It’s not even organised chaos. I’ve got some used rail tickets – where’s the logic in that? I’m midway through a couple of projects so there are piles of materials for each of them. Before I start a project I clear my desk, physically and metaphorically. I know I can’t take on any more if I can’t see the desk.
There’s a copypaper box lid in the corner. Its sides have been bent out of shape now. I put the lid there to encourage my cats. Encourage them away from my computer screen, that is. We have four cats and there’s normally one of them in the box. Sometimes, one will leap up onto the desk, find the box occupied and hiss in disgust as she leaps away. One of the cats will try and squeeze in next to the occupying cat and eventually push her out.
The room smells stuffy. The desk blocks the access to the bay window, so it involves gymnastics to open it, or even to open the blinds – the slats are closed on one side, open on the other two. You don’t even know I’m in the study unless you start walking round to the back of the house. I opened all the windows over the weekend, so my wife didn’t complain that the house smelled like a bachelor pad. Sat shivering all weekend. She still complained. And now there’s a lingering smell of tonight’s roast dinner, and I can still taste the sweetness of parsnips.