There are times when I tremble before a blank sheet of paper, but it is not usually beginning that plagues my writing life. In the mornings I tootle off to my shed, and sit down on my stool with the sort of flourish you might expect from a concert pianist: flicking back coat-tails, raising paws over keys, breathing in – slowly, deeply, before concentrating the entire body for the first note or word. On a blank paper day, one word will lead to another, a page will fill and then another. The first word is immaterial and the last is a surprise. But these days are rare. Most days are not blank page days.
Beginning is not a problem, but continuing is. What yesterday’s Mole wrote may be unfathomable to the Mole who returns to the shed today. Or today’s Mole may be utterly immobilised by the plethora of choices inherent in the writings of yesterday’s Mole. Or perhaps not immobilised, but fired with enthusiasm for some small secondary thread, some chance aside that will (so thinks the euphoric and delusional today Mole) lead to some brilliant narrative scenario. Tomorrow’s Mole will then be seen, head in paws, trying to unravel the mess.
When I am stuck one of my greatest sources of solace is the Paris Review interview series. In the winter of 1986 D L Doctorow told his interviewer that writing was ‘like driving your car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I imagine a little black Morris Eight with running boards snailing along. The night is misty, but the road is straight, defined each side by poplar trees. There are no crossroads. Perhaps it is Normandy.
This is not the road I am on. Imagine a spaghetti junction. Outside Los Angeles, let us say. This Mole is quailing on Uncle Ratty’s old Velosolex, hedged in by thundering semi-trailers and smart Cadillacs. Night-blindness casts all signage into fuzzy obscurity. And were it not obscure, timidity would still prevent the Mole from launching into the carbon-dioxide haze of traffic to change lanes. Instead the Velosolex and its rider are swept off course for miles and miles and miles, with no hope of return. Not like the little Morris Eight in Normandy gently chugging to its destination without distraction.
The trouble with quotes is that they are always out of context. When I went to re-read the original interview I saw that yes, it was a country road Doctorow was imagining, but it was not without its hazards. He acknowledged that the car might veer off ‘into culverts, through fences into fields, and so on’. And you mightn’t notice you’d gone off course, not for ages. Then you have to flounder about, retrace your tyre marks and try to get back to the road. I imagine – no, I know – this can sometimes take days, weeks, months.
It is a hazardous way of working – Doctorow acknowledges this, but there is a lesson here to be learnt. If I can ever extricate myself from this spaghetti junction, I shall commit to myself to sticking to country roads from now on. Even when I lose my way I shall be able to feel the dew under my paws, the breeze on my pelt and fill my molelungs with great gulps of fresh air as I retrace my steps.