Finuala Dowling blogs about God, stuttering, aptitude tests and the paradox of writer’s block.
Which of the following would you rather do all day?
- Fix cars.
- Make people feel welcome.
- Write poems.
- Add numbers together.
I can’t remember the exact wording of the career aptitude test I took in the last year of junior school, but I have never forgotten my elation when I saw option c). Write poems all day – here was an official aptitude test placing “poet” alongside the respectable vocations of receptionist, accountant and mechanic! I no longer doubted my future. Someone would pay me to write poems all day; somewhere, somehow, it would be possible to acquire the qualifications necessary for this splendid job.
As I ticked “write poems all day”, I thought: How crazy are these people? Surely everyone in their right mind will tick this option! It’s like asking us what we’d like for supper: lark’s vomit, offal, syrup of figs or vanilla ice cream!
For the psychometrists, I imagine, the important phrase was not “write poems”, but the implications of “all day”. Because I often want to spend all day writing, I take it for granted that others do too. People tell me that they want to write but that they “don’t have the time” and I know it’s a lie. They have time to drink coffee in Wi-fi spots, train for marathons, watch sports matches on TV, have their hair cut and styled, bottle jam and wander around design indabas. I don’t have the time for those things because I’m writing.
Part of me wants to say that to write all day is noble and an example of the kind of self-sacrifice, self-discipline and inspired commitment that only the gifted few evince, but it’s probably more true to assert, as Nathan Heller does in an essay I enjoyed reading this week:
“Writing as a vocation tends to attract control freaks, pathological introverts, and uneasy narcissists—the sort of people, basically, who don't mind spending hours alone at a desk, trying to make their own ideas sound good on a piece of paper”
I can’t say the broadside didn’t ring a bell. If the shoe fits, etc. Interestingly, Heller’s excellent essay isn’t even about writing as a career – it’s about The King’s Speech. In the course of his essay, Heller points out that many stutterers have turned to writing as a way of circumventing what John Updike called “this anxious guilty blockage in the throat”.
I love this paradox: a blockage leads to an outpouring. Updike uses the word “manoeuvre” to describe the action of getting past the blockage. That’s a perfect way to think about the act of writing. Writing is an over-coming. And in the process of becoming a writer, you may utter the fuchshitbloodyhell of a stuttering king whose nation depends upon him.
You write in order to get past the stuff that wants or tries to block you – the fact that you’re short, poor, sick, abandoned, legislated against, unfairly tried, put-upon. Joyce Carol Oates is apparently working on a book about this -- "The Writer's (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration". I always knew about this nexus between woundedness and inspiration, even in the precocious moment of my epiphanic aptitude test. Yes, there is a job called “poet”, but the entry qualification is to lead a “felt” life, a life of acute sensitivity that raises ordinary knocks to the level of suffering, and transmutes suffering proper into passion.
Soon after ticking option c), I got down on my knees and prayed: “Dear God, I want to be a writer. I know that writers need to suffer, so please make me suffer. Also, while I’ve got your attention, please send me a boyfriend. The boys around here don’t like clever girls.” God, my dear readers, is an economist.