Why you (sometimes) can’t write: the thin old man in a bespoke suit

Disequilibrium is a potent, if pernicious, force.

My recent bout with vertigo — not the Hitchcock thriller but actual dizziness —  lasted a few days until Dr. Google diagnosed a mild case of dehydration. A glass or two of Gatorade before each carafe of wine seems to have done the trick. My brain’s not spinning anymore but still, I’m thinking about vertigo. Not just the vertigo associated with heights. I’m also thinking about the vertiginous aspects of thought, particularly for artists.

Inert yet volatile, the capacity to represent our thoughts and ideas in literary or physical form is fraught with its own peculiar unsteadiness and the agony that we will never get it exactly right. There is a reason Samuel Beckett’s words are scrawled across the notebooks, Post-its and desktop memos of frustrated artists across the cosmos: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Read out loud, on the right day, Maya Angelou’s “a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” will guarantee your return to the page and a triumphal feeling of artistic entitlement. This will pass. It’s one thing to have the courage and confidence to tell stories, but it’s quite another to sculpt the language and form through endless revisions.

One of my favourite quotations about the struggle to write is a bitchy one, by Alexei Tolstoy (Leo’s distant cousin): “writing comes easily only to those lacking in self-criticism: in other words, the ungifted.” I’ll wait for you to read that again. I know you want to.

Those of us who struggle to write well (or paint, or draw or …), who want our work to be recognized and appreciated by other good writers and critical readers, are never content with the gulf between ideas and our sincerest efforts at representation. The inner critic is a thin old man in a bespoke suit with the power to crush new thoughts with one raised eyebrow.

Thanks to untethered for permission to ...

Thanks to the editors of untethered for permission to republish this piece in abridged form. “Staggering,” the original title, was first published in the inaugural issue of untethered, in August, 2014. You’re invited to their next launch! Cover art above by Lorette C. Luzajic.

But it doesn’t have to be an inner critic who leaves you winded. When I first discovered Letters to a Young Poet, I gasped when I came across Rilke’s line that goes something like, “unless you’d rather die than never write again, you are not a serious writer.” That’s a paraphrase. I refuse to look it up online and give that egomaniac any more hits.

Kafka said that writing is a form of prayer, but he also said, “every word first looks around in every direction before letting itself be written down by me.”

Getting a story or painting right is hard because it’s almost impossible. Or maybe it is impossible. Alice Munro said, “the writer always fails to get as close as you intend to in the beginning – and maybe this is a good thing because if you could get all the way you would demolish something.” She says that the point of writing fiction is “not to dissect people but to come as close as you can and to celebrate… the essential mystery of people.”

I like this idea and I think it’s an important one – that writing and art is a celebration of the mystery of what it means to be human (yes, a cliché, but I can be forgiven because it is the original cliché and therefore always fresh, or something like that). It helps explain the artist’s anguish: when we sit down to write or paint or compose, we are trying to express the mystery within us, that dwells among the mystery that surrounds us, that is borne of the mystery that is us. It’s enough to give anyone vertigo.

We do sometimes reach the dizzying heights of satisfaction – in that moment before we kill our darlings. Less often, but the reason we keep going, we achieve a felicity of mystery and representation; a transport of delight. Those are the moments we are full of discovery and the urge to share it with others, rather than the ego-tied belief that we have accomplished something that proves our tiny talent. Of her long writing career, Brenda Ueland said, “at last I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had.”

The biblical expression, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” was probably written in the third century, BCE. Now factor in four more centuries and the Internet. This realization will either help you feel more integrated into the genuine awesome mystery of it all, or, if you’re young, it will inspire you to prove it wrong. You can’t, but you will try. And why the hell not? Kurt Vonnegut said, “we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” If you don’t run off what you think is the edge, then you’ll never earn your wings.

There is something profoundly comforting in the knowledge that everything has been said before. It suggests our struggles are historical, ancestral, inherited: innate. That we are still compelled to tell stories and make paintings, in an attempt to reveal what is precious, suggests that we haven’t quite got the hang of these struggles and we’re trying – gawd how we’re trying – to understand.

No wonder we’re anxious, uncertain, fickle and preposterous. We are the story still being written, the one that may never be accepted. We are the magnificent painting that will sit, alone, in an attic.

We are the writer, the painter and the cracked carafe of wine.

We are the delicious wine.

Marvellous we are.

Wobbly, dazed and freefalling.






For C.K.



3 Responses to Why you (sometimes) can’t write: the thin old man in a bespoke suit

  1. Carole Hughes

    Love your article…

  2. Lesley Kenny

    Thanks, Carole. I’m sorry to hear that. (heh heh!)

  3. Linda Leone

    Nice to find a Lesley Kenny blog in my inbox (:

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