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Writing can be an alarmingly fragile activity.  It’s all I ever really wanted to do, and even I was blocked for a decade and more. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It was something to do with confidence. i was like a horse refusing a jump (apart from the four legs, of course).

So one of the issues I’m aware of when working with other writers is how easy it is to put people off, by saying the wrong thing, or too much, or not enough. I don’t always get it right! Everyone will have something to say, even if they don’t realise it, and anyone with any sort of language has a tool for saying it, however crudely.

The issue came to mind recently. I’d been recalling a meeting with the poet R.S.Thomas (I recalled him as gaunt, grey and fierce), and that brought to mind my old friend and poetry mentor, Geoffrey Holloway, who died back in 1997. I wrote an article about Geoff, comparing him and Norman Nicholson: two poets writing in Cumbria when I was a young man, and who seemed a generation apart though they were only four years different in age. The essay is in Steve Matthews anthology Nicholson at 100 (Bookcase, Carlisle, 2014).

It was Geoff who saved me from that ‘block’. Shortly before he died I attended a celebration of his life and work, re-connecting after a gap of several years. He’d heard from mutual friends about my situation, and not quite metaphorically had me up against a wall. He talked about ‘back then’, and in the collection I bought that night, wrote ‘for Mike, and the old days in the vat bar’.

The ‘vat bar’, at Kendal’s Brewery Arts centre had, and may still for all I know, round tables and seats in each of two or three old beer vats. That was where our tiny audience had sat to hear R.S.Thomas read! That was where ‘the Brewery Poets’ met, to share their work. Your stuff, he told me, had been among the best.

You could interpret that, but I took at as I’m sure it was meant. It was the right time. Other prompts, life threatening, and life expanding, were already pushing me towards breaking the block.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to discourage, but equally a little encouragement goes a long way. (and having written this, I find myself reading that old collection once again. – And Why Not?, Flambard 1997)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor just over a decade, from the mid nineteen eighties to the late nineties, I suffered from writers’ block. I was writing poetry mostly back then, and beginning to get regular acceptances. Best of all I’d got into Jon Silkin’s Stand magazine, and Howard Sergeant’s Outposts. I’d published a small pamphlet with Howard, and he’d included one of my poems in the PEN anthology New Poems 1976/7, which he edited. I would wait more than  a quarter of a century for what I considered to be an equal ‘success’ (getting a poem into Acumen‘s 60th anniversary edition in 2012)!

During the early nineteen eighties I worked for the Probation Service, in a residential setting. That was what started me writing short stories, though I had barely written a half dozen before that block kicked in, and looking back at their remains none of them were worth a light

The years of writers’ block were frustrating, unpleasantly so. I never lost the desire to write, and never accepted (certainly not with grace) the fact that I could no longer do so. Notebooks full of first lines that disintegrated into fragments are all that is left of that decade. It was a corrosive period, and I’ve often wondered what caused the rot.

One article that shed a little light (sorry, but I can’t remember by whom – get that M – or where) suggested that writers block is a consequence of boredom. Ennui might be a better word. Disconnection, perhaps even depression, might be the best.

In the late nineties I came back to life, having been threatened, mildly as it turned out, with death, and probably more importantly, having discovered the potential doppleganger identity of my pre-adoption self. Since then I’ve written poetry and prose, along with critical essays and plays. The re-engagement has suggested I am not bored, and also perhaps, that the re-engagement has been built on a focus on content rather than form. The balance between these two has caught my attention in this blog several times over the past couple of years, and I expect I’ll return to it in the future.

I begin to think it’s one of those sheep and goats divides that we rarely straddle comfortably. We may try to get them into balance, and I’m wont to advise students that when you can’t discern which dominates, then a piece of writing has probab;y got it right.

There’s always a lurking suspicion though, that I’m fooling myself, if not them.

I recall a review of that Outposts poetry pamphlet, but the late Geoffrey Holloway, in which he said that I closed a poem ‘with a snap’. I liked that. He’d fingered the precise point. I wanted my poems to snap shut on you, the reader. I don’t do that now. Nowadays I want you to sense the lid inexorably closing, right from the start! Both of those options are to do with form.

With the short story too, I’m still hooked on the sharp ending, though I like a metaphor we came up with in a workshop a few months ago of it being like noticing, finally, a knife withdrawn rather than one being plunged in. Where does content come into it?

I wonder now if that writers block was to do with the detachment caused by the five years of sad stories I lived alongside whilst working in Probation. The people I worked with then were not so very different from myself: they were the other side of a well defined, but often arbitrary seeming line. More importantly they shared the burden of the answer to their problems lying fundamentally in their own hands. The Service, as I saw it at that time, was not wholly believing in this. I remember one lost youth, and not a fool, asking me where he fitted in, having had it explained to him how his upbringing was the cause of all his troubles. No doubt it was, but being assured of that left him somehow disenfranchised when it came to finding the solutions. The incident has stuck in my mind these thirty years, and it was a turning point in my perceptions of what I was engaged in. That writers block, I suspect, may have flowed from the sense of impotence I experienced in dealing with these wrecked lives, against the background of a society, and in particular a media, that seemed wilfully to misrepresent the nature of the problem – fictional crime is glamorised; actual criminals are either demonised. I never bought in to the concept of ‘lovable rogues’.

For twenty years after I left the service I could get very worked up recollected its stories – angry in fact – and it is only in the last few years that I have been able to go back to those events and fictionalise them. The Tab, in Talking To Owls was the first of such stories that I could regard as successful, and I was pleased when a writer friend of mine picked it out as his favourite from the collection.

That the writer walks a line between too great a detachment, and too close a connection might be a cliché, but it is one that assumes, I think, that it is the content, rather than form with which the engagement is made. What we write about, and why, to my way of thinking, even if it is not immediately apparent from the finished product, must trump the way we write about it. For today at least, I’m tipped toward believing that the form is in service of the content.