Writer’s block. The dreaded two word sword of Damocles hanging over the head of every author. Those of us who decide to inflict ourselves upon the eyes of others via the literary word all fear its appearance. There can be no more awful fate for an author than to sit in front of a blank page that steadfastly refuses to fill itself with meaningful words. For those who don’t write, imagine the sneeze that just refuses to happen, the squeezed spot that liberates nothing at all or the long lonely sit on the loo when the digestive system refuses to say “goodbye”. Writer’s block is normally related to inspiration. The author knows that something should be described but can’t quite put their finger on what that something is or how they should go about painting their literary picture. There are many and varied explanations for the condition. Wikipedia cites some interesting cases. I quite enjoyed that of George Orwell’s character, Gordon Comstock, who struggled to write a poem about London as it was “too big”. I’d have sorted him out in no time at all. A pair of binoculars turned the wrong way around and he’d have been good to go. It gets a bit more serious when you consider William Shakespeare, who suddenly stopped composing great plays and sonnets. One minute he’s banging away productively at his scrolls. The next minute, nothing. All inspiration gone, a complete lack of words, a load of relieved geese. After much investigation I found out that this was down to the fact that he had died which came as a relief. There was me worrying that a form of scriber’s cancer existed, able to afflict even the greatest of writers. So what hope for a mere scribbler like me?
I haven’t written a blog post for well over a month. So clearly I have fallen victim to this terrible affliction. There is no doubt that I have been suffering terribly from writer’s block but in my case the block is of a different nature from the norm. I’ve a head full of ideas and inspiration, that’s never a problem. Surreal experiences never cease to find me whilst I’m out cycling. For example, the dead badger lying peacefully by the side of the ride on a loop I ride twice a week. After a few rides I noticed he was putting on some weight. A week later he was clearly pregnant, then a couple of days after that he was flat. He’d exploded in a massive post mortal attack of flatulence. It made me almost glad to be human, partly as I won’t be gassed for getting a bit of a cough near cows, but mostly down to the fact that even if I do pass on in some hilarious fashion my dignity will be returned after I’m scraped up and gently placed into wooden box. I’d hope that my mortal remains will not end up being publicly defiled by a fart from beyond the grave.
Anyhow, all this talk of exploding badgers does nothing to explain my block. As stated, it is not an inspirational blockage, it is simply down to the Babylonians who proposed the 24 hour day. In hindsight they made a bit of mistake by not including quite enough hours. If they’d added say six or seven more per day I’d be able to get all of my stuff done and find some time for a nice bit of blog writing. This Babylonian foresight would have ensured that the world had a much greater understanding of exploding badgers than it currently does. My writer’s block is down to stuff that I have to do which is preventing me from writing. This stuff falls into three distinct categories; work, my UK route guide and things I commit to do that I really shouldn’t.
Work has been particularly stressful as it is currently unpaid. My friend Andy and I have been beavering away at a technology start-up based around mapping. It all sounded so easy when we drew a few diagrams on a bit of paper. All we had to do was import some data, fiddle with it a bit and chuck out some maps and stuff on screen. Customers would then flock to our door, awe stricken by the maps we had created and hand over their account/sortcode details. I decided to focus our minds by booking us into a conference where we could launch our product. In September that conference seemed a long way away. With less than three weeks to go we’ve upgraded our business plan status to “actively shitting ourselves”. Andy and I have a conference call every day at 9am. It usually goes along the lines of:-
Andy: ”Here’s the list of things you broke yesterday that I have fixed. I’ve added to it the list of things I didn’t get done as I was fixing the things you broke yesterday”
Dave: ”Thanks, I’ve had this new idea do you think we could….”
<screen goes blank, call disconnected>
<Dave reinitiates call>
Dave: “OK, message understood. What needs doing today?”
Andy: <reels off list longer than Lord McAlpine’s lawyer’s list of potential defendants>
The small portion of day that remains should be a time to relax and write blogs. Sadly every hour of that is commandeered by the quest to finish my proper book. Nearly two years ago I set out to write the bloody thing (within a year) and still I haven’t finished. To be fair, the writing is done. It’s the detail that takes a huge amount of my current minimal spare time. The book has forty chapters (the next one’s going to have two). Each chapter has descriptions, maps, route instructions, photos, diagrams and statistics. Many of these are produced by a computer programme, but it all needs to be checked. Route instructions are particularly hard as I read through my notes whilst following the map on screen. Each turn has to be described accurately, often in tandem with Google Streetview to make sure the directions are correct.
I spent one evening cursing the Google van that had gone down a back road in Wales and picked up some leaves on its camera. These leaves blocked out a road sign that I needed to check. I noticed a pub on the road and nearly called them to go out and confirm that the sign really did say “Cymtlyingpwthdoggrty”, however a leaf was covering up its full name. A chapter takes me nearly ten hours to complete. That’s four hundred hours required that the Babylonians failed to account for. Fortunately my publisher has been patient as the book arrives with them in stages. We’re so nearly there, a week or two more and it’ll be done. In fact it’s morphed into a family production with Helen aiding on the maps and routes along with Holly helping out on graphics. Two years ago I announced that I was leaving my job to write a book. Not many “we’s” in that sentence.
Then there are the things I simply don’t have time for but commit to anyway. A review of GPS units for a magazine that sounded easy but took several weekends to complete. My objectivity was tested to the limit by a manufacturer who shall remain unnamed but could be referred to as “FagAshLil” limited. The test unit they supplied had clearly been used by the smoking department to track down cigarettes. On opening the box I was reminded instantly of my Dad during his sixty a day phase. The unit was superbly protected by a liberal coating of nicotine, as an ex-smoker I fought hard against the urge to lick it all off.
Finally, there’s the Barrow Central Wheelers. They are a Lakeland cycling club who must surely be described as slightly unhinged. Earlier this year they asked me to come and speak at their annual dinner. For some reason they imagined I could vocalise my passion and knowledge of the Cycling Year Record in a manner that would befit their Christmas do. At the time of asking I was pretty keen. I actually enjoy giving presentations, mainly because it is formalised showing off. Inadequate forty something males like me need to grab as many showing off opportunities as possible. Once past thirty they are pretty thin on the ground. I can’t wheelie, my guitar playing is awful, the only joke I can remember starts “knock knock” and everybody has seen that silly hand thing where it looks like your thumb is split in half.
The week of the presentation was prefixed by months of procrastination. I reassured myself that everything would be fine and it’d only take an hour or so to knock up some good looking slides. Three days before the event I opened up my presentation software and realised that it hadn’t seen light of day for years. I had completely forgotten how anything worked. It took thirty minutes to find the “New slide” control and as for adding in photos, how had I ever managed that? The next few evenings were spent mostly shouting “Why? How? Please Help!” at the computer. It patiently obliged by doing everything it was told to do, and nothing more.
In other families, Mum has a word with the kids to advise that “Daddy is finding it tough at the moment as his manager has loaded him up with an unfeasibility large amount of work so cut him some slack”. Mine simply acknowledge that the bloody idiot has left it to the last minute again as a smelly, unshaven wreck storms about the place banging cupboards whilst ranting about projector screens.
Preparation for the big day couldn’t have gone worse. A particularly difficult work problem converged with a number of other external factors pushing my stress levels over the edge. My body reacts brilliantly to this by switching on the insomnia button. This is why evolution has to be a load of old bollocks. Surely the best way to react to a mental crisis is a good night’s sleep. We’ve been on this earth for quite a few years and I cannot believe that those who had only 30 minutes sleep the night before were able to best dodge the sabre tooth tiger. Hunters look for weakness, and if I was hiding in a bush spotting the best human to nibble on, I’d pick the yawner. He’d still be rubbing his eyes as I jumped out whilst his mates had legged it into the jungle.
So why has evolution invented insomnia? What is the point of it other than to thin us out by getting rid of the worriers? It’s surely the product of a vengeful God who sees it as a nice opportunity for us to get in a little more praying as we lie there begging to be overtaken by a little sleep. I reckon I had about two hours the night before my big performance. The drive up to the Lakes was taken slowly and carefully with biblical downpours fuelling stress levels further.
I tried to convince myself that all would be OK. Many years previously I’d been asked to present at a postal conference in Prague. Myself and a colleague took advantage of a foreign travel T&S policy that did not appear to have an upper limit. The night ended with us trading blows in Wenceslas Square before making up and retiring back to the bar. We were put into a taxi and got back to the hotel purely by mime. On arrival we didn’t have enough cash to pay the fare so Richard sent me to my room to get some more. I managed to open the door and woke up the next day on the floor. Richard had no idea how he had paid the remainder to the driver and didn’t want to know. At breakfast we were the greyest men walking the earth, zombified by our excesses with livers desperately googling for instructions on what to do next. We commandeered all of the free water in the conference centre and cuddled it until it was our turn to speak. I have no idea what I said but the resulting minutes thanked the British contingent for “their interesting contribution to the event”.
So with this track record I’d hope to muddle through. I made it to the hotel unscathed and met Allen and Glen from the club. They fretted for a while about projector screens whilst I stressed further over the enormity of my task. Speaking at a cycling club dinner is a different league to a business presentation. You’re supposed to inject some humour, chuck about a few anecdotes, give out some pearls of wisdom and tell the audience a few little snippets that they didn’t already know. I had some slides along with a fatigued brain that was just about managing to keep bodily functions to spec.
Fortunately, Barrow Central Wheelers are an incredibly welcoming bunch. Allen and Glen went out of their way to make me feel relaxed and at home. We settled down to dinner and bantered about cycling as us cycling types do. I kept my alcohol consumption in check and did my best to eat with elbows in and not lick peas off the fork. I’d almost managed to relax when the club chairman, Mike Speight, announced that it was time for the guest speaker.
A microphone was placed in my hand and I arose to a sea (well fifty) of expectant faces all awaiting an hour’s worth of witty, informative cycling based entertainment.
Not a good moment for the mind to go completely blank.
My brain decided to go on a mini-lock down just at the time when I needed it most. Information was drip fed to my mouth which began to talk. But I felt like a detached observer to the proceedings wondering when the presenter was going to get into some sort of flow. I’d prepared loads of notes, a few jokes and some interesting little snippets but many of them refused to appear. Fortunately I had my slides as prompts and managed to navigate myself down this verbal canal with the presentational boat lurching from side to side.
The audience were either too kind or too pissed to point out my predicament. It may have been that the words came out in some sort of order and made some sort of sense. I’m terribly self critical and halfway through was keen to stop and request that I start the whole thing again. It was like one of those races where you’ve put in a big effort to prepare but on the day it just doesn’t translate. You want to get off and go home but there’s a crowd, people who aren’t riding but are looking at you expectantly. You have to keep going, you have to make it to the end by letting each expectant look nudge you a little further down the road.
I made it to the end, a quick check of the head showed no bottle impacts and I hadn’t spotted any sleepers. Everyone was very kind and appreciative, I even got to hand out the trophies to the year’s prize winners. Like all good cycling clubs almost all of them were won by the same bloke. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of conversation, Peroni and whippets. Actually, I made the whippets up but was very disappointed to be in such northern company without even a sniff of one. The Barrow Wheelers blew away all of the northern stereotypes as they were generous, humorous and all drank lager. The evening ended with me very much buoyed up by their company, more than adequate payment for the ordeal.
Late that evening I collapsed exhausted onto my hotel bed and fell into another deep bout of insomnia.
Dave, November 2012 - sometime after midnight..with wine