Maybe out of my subtle intimidation or just pure strength of character, Joe Black decided to write something about his writer’s block, as he calls it. It’s vintage Joe; wonderful prose, scintillating sentences that rise out of paragraphs like a disgruntled landlord; abruptly. This particular gaunt-faced article is rich with his bravado spurred by youth and cheek and that smoky “voice” that made us love his work the first time he made a debut here. My favourite sentence in this piece made so much sense to me I almost felt like I wrote it in another life.
“Every sentence you try putting down on paper feels leaden, the rich prose and elegance of the plots of the classics haunt you, paragraphs take hours to put only to be later wiped clean off the screen, for their utter mediocrity.”
Oh yes. Mediocrity is the ghost that relentlessly haunts us writers, and any professional really who gives two shits about their body of work. Quite often you trudge onto a blank word document and you find him (mediocrity) seated there rocking from a wooden chair, grinning widely with a big cigar burning from his lips. Sometimes we fall into his open arms and acquiesce, other times we pluck courage and we stare him down and win.
Joe stared him down in this piece.
By JOE “BLACK” MUNUVE
I’ll come clean and explain my hiatus. It has been so long since I was last on this platform. No, I haven’t cracked and started meditating in the sun (yet). Or gotten rich off a tender. I am not frolicking in sandy, Caribbean beaches with Boricua honies building sand castles on my chest either. Yeah, I’m in campus now but there isn’t anything particularly interesting here to keep me from the pen; the lectures are mild, the bureaucracy crass and the chics don’t pay me no mind so I pay them in kind. There are a lot of stories packed in those few opening lines but hold onto your knickers, those are stories for other days.
What has been plaguing me …… drumrolls, is an acute, nasty case of writer’s block. I can’t write shit. I can’t write to save myself from piles. I have run out of juice. I am like a car whose fuel ran out so long ago the only thing that can revive it, is wildebeest piss, straight outta the Serengeti. Hell, I couldn’t even write to right my roaring wrongs. That’s why I resort to inane rhymes like that. I have been reduced to a rapper and with all my puny skills; I might as well as put on a wrapper. Every opener sounds corny in my head and more banal when put down. I’ve taken to striking most of them off quick but sometimes, I vow to stick with a story to the end and try to force the words but then I digress a lot and lose track of the plot, or the flow trickles down and putters out somewhere, not from lack of words but from an emptiness of will and purpose.
It is so easy to get disillusioned by writing as one grows up.
Now, I know that it is easy to belittle writer’s block, dismiss it as a sentimental triviality. It is the vogue to throw around idealistic notions like “it is all in the mind” and “what the mind can conceive it can achieve.” I know they are in good stride, harmless phrases to spur action but one has to become pragmatic and dwell on the matter-of-fact rather than abstract assumptions at times. Well, yes, it might be all in the mind but it is not the only thing in there now, is it? Writer’s block is like erectile dysfunction. By their very nature, both afflictions strike at the epicenter of manhood, the culmination, and indeed justification of maleness- the ego- and deflate it quicker than punctured silicone and the more you think of them, the more unlikely they are to launch. That the gravity of such a sensitive situation should be reduced to lame generalizations is further insult to injury. It is not all in the mind. Some of it may be in the elbows, ashy and dry as they are. Wherever else it might be, it all nuts down to the fact that Muse has deserted me, the bitch. Spiders hold court in the yellowing pages of my notebook. My pen lays dusty on the shelf; I cannot get it up (no pun).
I have had my fair share of writer’s block before but none this severe and intense. I do not know any writers’ intimately. I am often in the company of blokes who don’t give two shits about writing, who don’t care for any type of book much less writer’s block. As long as it doesn’t prevent me from doing my dishes, my roommate is cool with it and if I can show up for class, if it isn’t too much weight on my shoulders to cause me to miss eight lectures in a row my lecturers are unruffled as well (once they get back from the strike, that is). It isn’t skin off anyone’s nose, except mine and my nose’s pretty thin as it is, you might think it’s on a diet.
I have a feeling it has something to do with the heavy reading I’ve been doing lately.
After having fallen for the allure of eBooks, I’ve been reading a lot. A lot more than I used to and that’s saying something because I used to read a lot. I never consciously believed that reading a lot could have any negative effects, not even when I used to read novels under the locker during math lessons but I stand to be corrected. I’ve been pining for my writing to reach a point where it mutates into a cohesive, therapeutic, soothing balm to my soul so that every word I pen is, and can only be referred to, in the superlative. And why shouldn’t it? After reading literary marvels like the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, peering deep into the depths of human nature, the lengths to which men would go to seek excellence and perfection and the allegory build up by philosophical nuances and rhetoric; after delving into the intricate Southern society- their values, culture and tight kinship ties- through the eyes of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, and the subsequent disruptions of their orderly lives by the American Civil War, until the death of a way of life; tracing Ifemelu’s experiences in Chimamanda’s Americanah, watching the events of her life that lead her to America and back to Nigeria, the circumstances she had to fight against, the internal demons she had to overcome in her quest for self discovery, you cannot help but feel compelled to bring forth works of the same glorious standard or forever hold your pen.
Madame Bovary’s witty prose has a perfection to it that makes it stand almost alone, a down to earth subject tackled with the mastery of poetic language, a pure masterpiece of narration. I will have to learn French just so I can read Gustave Flaubert’s original works. Anna Karenina on the hand is another classic that makes me want to learn Russian. It is such a flawless piece of art, allowing us to peer into the Russian society, and the fate of doomed love, told in such a gripping narrative that envelops you in its richness and scope. Tolstoy takes his characters seriously and explores all aspects of their lives, emotional, physical, spiritual, philosophical, leaving you with no questions but a profound will to live, and to love life. Henry Miller’s coarse Tropic of Cancer is a moving, accurate depiction of the life of the true artist- a renegade, an outsider, a sufferer. The novel is cloaked in a strange yet satisfying oddness of style and frankness of narration that always blows me away. It is as formless as it is excellent, setting the gold standard for graphic depictions and language, which made it to be banned for a generation.
There are books- good ones, average ones, interesting ones, shitty ones, disturbing ones, long ones, factual ones, fictional ones, trashy ones- and then there are great books. I’m not talking about your average interesting novels, or even bestsellers, those are a dime a dozen. What I am talking about is a rare gem, one you stumble upon accidentally, as you would upon cow shit in a drunken haze. A book that transports you into its world and holds you captive, body and mind, so that you share in the pain, joys, anxieties, disappointments, dreams, fears and frustrations of the characters. A book that seeks out the best and worst in men; reaching into the crevices of your being and tearing you out mercilessly, answering questions you would have never thought to ask. One that has you tearing into its pages, wanting to read as much of it as you can while at the same time wishing it does not come to an end, that the pages will keep on mutating, the words weaving into more words because you do not want to let go of such magnificence, afraid of what lies beyond the unparalleled penmanship. And when it does come to an end, it does so with dignity, tapering off to the essentials, giving you time to soften the blow but when you finally flip over the cover, there is nothing to fill up the resulting void. It leaves you high and dry, taut and trite; plagued by a harrowing emptiness that hangs around like damp air, or the missing link to your life’s essence. Have you ever finished a book that moved something deep in you, bruised your sentimentalities, left your mind in such a turmoil that you needed a drink, a scalding shot of vodka to calm your nerves? Tony Mochama can relate.
Tell you what, show me a book that leaves you pining for a drink or whatever your choice poison is and I’ll show you a great book.
Biko referred to the feeling as a ‘book hangover’. Apt, but not quite so. You can shake off a hangover with aspirin and the good ol’ marondo soup. The feeling is more like an abrupt end to a wild, passionate relationship. A hard hitting breakup. You move about sullen and angry, putting the book on a pedestal of its own; confident that no other book written will ever surpass it, right until the next one comes and knocks the wind out of your sails and takes you to the same depths. A great book humbles and belittles you; it leaves you in awe of the writer and shifts something in your core. A great book goes right to your head like a heroin hit to a relapsing addict.
If you are nursing writer ambitions like yours truly, you’ll want to live out your talented writer’s fantasy and then try penning your thoughts. Every sentence you try putting down on paper feels leaden, the rich prose and elegance of the plots of the classics haunts you, paragraphs take hours to put down only to be later wiped clean off the screen, for their utter mediocrity. You take to feeling angry at the authors. Nothing lives up to the awe of a beautiful book. Or to put things in context, the indomitable aura of a beautifully written book. A great book can either take you to the harrowing depths of writer’s block or elevate you to wuthering heights of writing excellence where you’ll feel deserving of either.
Now that you know what ails me, I must mention that I am working on it and I’ll soon be back on the grind. I hope to dazzle you but meanwhile, grab a great book, won’t you?