Finuala Dowling

Nice job for the sad and wounded

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.

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Michael Rolfe says:

I’m clearly not from around here.

My late father, famous for always been gloomy and yet never wrong, gloomily said, as I was leaving home to go study at UCT, “Find yourself a woman before you leave campus. I’ve never figured out where the clever ones go after that.”