Sunday dinner eaten, time for tea.
Sunday dinner eaten, time for tea.
The Writer’s Block
Wendall Palmer lived alone in an attic apartment above Betty’s Bakery in Greenwich Village, New York. Wendall was a poet. He’d had one collection published by a small publisher, and had come second place in a prestigious prize in the New Yorker Magazine, but he hadn’t written anything in eighteen months. At first he just shrugged off his writer’s block.
‘It will happen’ he had told his friends in the Village Café, when they had asked how his new collection was coming along. ‘I just need to find the right inspiration, you know what I mean?’
His New York friends nodded and told him not to worry, but something in their eyes told him they didn’t believe it, that they’d seen this kind of thing before, most of them being failed artists of one kind or another.
Wendall consoled himself daily with his own words, ‘it will happen, it will happen’ as his dry spell continued. However, after six months without a new poem he was starting to get a little worried. He’d never had this trouble before, not since he’d moved to New York. But now he felt constipated. Stuck inside. Infertile. He began to fret when he was alone. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. So he visited his doctor and friend, Bert Stansel, M.D., over on the East Side of the Village. Bert had moved to New York a year before Wendall to set up his practice. They were old school friends from Wyoming.
‘Get some exercise before you go to bed’ was his advice, ‘this will help you sleep. With some good sleep then you’ll be able to write again.’
So Wendall took his advice and found himself wandering around the neighborhood till the early hours of the morning, night after night. This went on for weeks but to no avail. He still couldn’t sleep and he still couldn’t write. After his walk he’d return to his room and sit the rest of the night staring at the blank white sheet of paper in his typewriter. It began to terrify him.
Eventually, Wendall gave up wandering the streets after he saw an guy get shot during a mugging. The shock started him drinking again after two years sober, but even that didn’t work to get the juices flowing.
He then decided it was stress related so he sought out alternative treatments. He tried massages, and Chinese acupuncture, meditation and hypnosis. He even had his aura cleansed, free of charge, by a transsexual called Suzie, who lived in the apartment under his. But even that didn’t work. So he changed his diet to vegan, then pescetarian, then carnivore, then back to vegan, but that didn’t work. Eventually he began to blame his surroundings.
‘It’s this God-damn city,’ he told his best friend Bert. ‘I love it but it’s just too noisy. I need peace and quiet to think, like I had back in Wyoming. Poet’s need solitude, wide open spaces to explore the Inner Life. That’s how I got my first collection completed back home, I used to spend hours out in the wilderness wandering on my own, writing poems in the sky.’
‘So what you gonna do?’ Bert asked.
‘I don’t know yet.’
But later that night, while Wendall watched a documentary on TV, a solution presented itself. The BBC narrator spoke in rich and knowledgeable tones:
The South Pole is a fortress of solitude, a desert of ice, where life itself struggles to gain a foothold. Being here is so isolating it feels almost like a mystical experience…
Wendall booked his ticket at a travel agent on Washington Place the next day.
When he called his friend Bert afterwards he thought it all sounded a bit extreme.
‘It sounds a bit extreme’ he said. ‘Are you really sure this is a good idea? Maybe sleep on it?’
‘NO, I’ve made up my mind Bert,’ then Wendall hung up the phone
Two weeks later, after numerous buses and boats, trains and planes, Wendall eventually found himself walking on the frozen desert of the South Pole. It was glorious, endless miles of white ice and snow stretched out in all directions. The air was crisp and cool as it entered his lungs. He could feel its oxygenated power revitalize his body and brain with each breath. Surely here, he thought, his mind could stretch out and find a new poem, maybe even a new collection?
He walked for hours in a daze, unable to speak or think. He was awed by the supreme majesty of nature. His mind filled itself with every inch of the pure white newness that surrounded him. The possibilities seemed endless. At that moment he was reminded suddenly of his undergrad philosophy lectures with Dr Jones, and his favourite quote from Heidegger: “higher than actuality stands possibility”. In there was the germ of a poem, a poem about snow and possibility, but…
Behind him there was the sound of footsteps crunching snow.
Wendall turned around to see if there was someone there. But there was no one there, he was all alone on the ice.
He continued walking and returned to his previous theme. Snow. Possiblity. The Inuit he had heard, had a hundred different words for snow…
Again he was disturbed by the sound of footsteps behind him.
Wendall turned to check, but there was no one there, he was still alone.
He returned to his theme. Snow. The possible. The emptiness within. Snow wasn’t just white, not if you looked close enough. It had shades of blue and grey and black…
Again he was disturbed by the sound of footsteps following him. He turned to see, but still he was alone. Wendall began to panic. He began walking faster, trying to keep ahead of whatever was chasing him. What if there was someone here? Someone invisible? Or maybe I’ve finally gone crazy? His thoughts became clouded and distracted again. He completely lost the thread of his theme. He could not return to it. Even here he could not write. Some daemonic force was following him. Perhaps I am cursed? Wendall thought.
He looked out now at the vast desert of snow and all he could see was the terror of the blank white page.
His footsteps quickened as he tried to escape his pursuer but so did those of whatever was behind him. Was it Frankenstein’s monster? Risen from the pages of Mary Shelley’s book?
He began to cry, sobbing uncontrollably, and it froze on his face. He ran now as fast as he could in the snow but so did his pursuer. The crunch of footsteps kept pace with every step, and every stumble he made.
Eventually, he could stand it no longer. His body gave up and he crumbled to the ground. His heart felt as if it might burst it was beating so hard. He turned around to see once more if there was anyone there. And this time he finally saw who it was.
Before him stood his writer’s block, personified as a being of solid ice, a monolith-man. He had eyes but no mouth. He stared into Wendall as if to shout ‘WHERE YOU GO, I WILL FOLLOW.’
Wendall fell to all fours in despair, there was nothing left to do, so he crawled toward his writer’s block and kissed and licked his feet till they started to melt.
Your mind’s wallpaper
Is second-hand bloody rolls
With small brown crosses.
She is an absence
In your life – the shape of love
Without the feeling.
Traveling by train
Somewhere strange like this you must
Submit to waiting.
I recently reviewed Jason Johnson’s new novel, Sinker for Issue 2 of the Incubator journal. Incubator is a new online journal with a strong focus on contemporary writing from NI / Ireland. This is my second connection with Incubator as my story ‘Saint Perpetua’ was published in their first issue.
You can read Issue 2 of The Incubator Journal here. As well as my review it also includes:
Interview: Cherry Smyth, interviewed by Claire Savage.
Review: Orla McAlinden on Malcolm Orange Disappears, by Jan Carson.
Plays: Paula Matthews. Jamie Guiney.
Fiction: Marie Gethins. Laura Cameron. James Meredith. Aoibheann McCann. Tom O’Connell. Deirdre McClay. David Braziel. Lynda Tavakoli. Paul McCaffrey. D. Joyce-Ahearne. Eve-Marie Power. Chris McLaughlin.
The review is reproduced here:
Review: Sinker by Jason Johnson
Set in an alternate present day, where drinking alcohol to excess is a professional sport, Sinker drops us head first into the life of Derry born law dropout, Baker Forley, a new recruit into this reviled and controversial sport. He’s not an alcoholic though, he doesn’t even like to drink socially, he’s just there to make some money and do something with his empty life. He teams up with an arse-groping American drinking coach called Ratface and heads to sunny Mallorca for the infamous Bullfight drinking battle.
It’s all going to plan until the heat gets to Baker and he stares at the wrong woman in the crowd, a mysterious Arabian beauty called Crystal and is knocked out by her Saudi oil-baron husband’s heavy, a bodyguard called Nap.
Afterwards the alcoholic Saudi feels guilty about Baker losing out in the Bullfight and to make amends he invites Baker and Ratface to his Gaudi-designed home so they can teach him how to drink like a professional. And he’s willing to pay handsomely for their services.
But this is not the real reason they are invited over. Others in the background are conspiring to use Baker for more than his drinking skills. As he drinks to excess in the hot sun hidden lust surfaces, Baker learns the truth about why he’s been invited and must escape before he loses everything.
This novel is described as, ‘inspired by the power and complexity of addiction, Sinker is a thrilling, irreverent yet often joyful take on a hopeless but changing male drinking culture.’
The story opens strongly and hooks you in. At the start of the novel Johnson builds his world well; we get the history and rules of the sport of Professional Drinking. You can sense he really enjoyed creating this aspect of the story. We hear the commentary on it from a liberal media which hates the sport and wants it banned.
‘Sink has been called ‘the most disturbing so-called sport on the face of the earth and the one which prove most concisely that mankind is mad, self-destructive and, worse, likes being that way.’.’
‘Protesters wave placards calling for a ban and shout statistics about the sport and the lifespan of livers and the empty, endless void of death, and stuff like that.’
An interesting aspect of Sinker is the way it explores drinking and modern masculinity by pushing it to its most extreme. It’s a hyper-real version of the way thousands of people behave every weekend in pubs throughout Ireland and Britain. The first half of the novel is explores this deformed male drinking culture really well. For example, when Ratface gives Baker advice on how to perform at the Bullfight: ‘He says, ‘Besides, you’re a man, M-A-N. Tough and mean and dick muscle and rising to the occasion. Alpha it up, okay? Control your environment, got it?’ To be a real alpha male, with a big dick your must drink. Sex and drinking are here exposed as intertwined. It exposes the pressure on men to drink hard to show how manly they are.
Johnson is also a good at continually creating fresh and unusual images. The house where the Saudi lives is an absurdist, Dali-esque nightmare. It’s so odd one character even dies by water fountain. Another example is at the end of the novel when they are on the run from danger and head deep underground, ‘It’s like we’re stuck now, nowhere, in the middle of zero, dark as the inside of a horse, right on the edge of some sort of hell.’ The house is a warped labyrinth of danger.
The narrator and protagonist Baker Forley is utterly unlikeable, with not one redeemable feature. He is a cynical, self-obsessed loser who punctuates every idea with an expletive or ‘some shite’. He is the modern anti-hero, he’s laconic, laid back, to use his own words he doesn’t give a shite. But the problem with this is at times he feels so laid back he’s not even interested in the story he’s telling or his own life.
Hi coach is a man called Ratface. He is an American expert of the sport of Professional Drinking. A sort of alcoholic Mr. Miyagi. He has a nasty habit of grabbing Baker’s arse without permission. This is supposed to be funny but is overused. Ratface is his nickname because he looks like a rat. I have a problem with this way naming of a character. It’s too reductive. It seems a cool thing to do for a generation raised on Tarantino movies; and while it can work on screen where we see the character not just the name, on the page of a book it becomes repetitive and reduces the character to a simple idea: this character is a rat, he cannot be trusted.
Baker and Ratface are the two most developed characters and their relationship exposes a truth typical to many male relationships. They constantly argue and insult each other; they never permit themselves to get along. But the other characters and relationships are underdeveloped. Women in particular don’t fare well. The only real female character is Crystal, whose only role in the story appears is to be an object of Baker’s desire and to deceive him. She is the ice-cold femme fatale. We learn very little about her and why she acts as she does. The only other women in the story stand around looking sexy and serving beer. The Saudi oil-baron and Nap the Bodyguard are even more undeveloped. The Saudi is a rich alcoholic while Nap is a bodyguard with a heart of gold who can’t hold his drink.
Overall Sinker, to use a sporting cliché, is a novel of two halves. When I first started to read the novel it read as an interesting comment on the male drinking culture, but this aspect disappears. It could have done a lot more with this idea. Midway during the novel the story shifts and transforms into a warped revenge thriller when a crazy ex-associate of Ratface’s shows up and starts killing characters at with his ice-cold femme fatale at his side. By the end it feels like a missed opportunity.
Literature for teenagers?
I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a literature for teenagers. Is such a thing possible?
Whenever I visit my local bookstore I see lots of books aimed at teenagers. They are usually termed YA. They seem to be presented in perfect packages filled with stories of interest to teenagers. Fantasy. Love. Adventure. School. Crime. Romance. But they often seem too deliberate, too knowing, too cool, too well packaged. The authors have no doubt written a great story and worked hard but they seem too thought out. The author set out to write a YA novel.
Literature always strikes me as being less deliberate. More organic. A thing that grows out of the author without their consent, like a wonderful weed. A thistle maybe. It pricks at the writer and forces itself onto the page.
The two novella that I am working on presently both have a teenage protagonist. I’m not sure why, their stories came to be most clearly. They shone bright in my imagination. Maybe it’s because my teenage years were difficult. Whose weren’t? Does that make these stories YA? I never set out to write YA. I don’t aim write in a genre really. I write the story as it arrives. I make no concession for the reader as I write.
This brings me back to my opening question. Is a modern literature for teenagers, that isn’t deliberate or knowingly written, possible? Would teenagers want to read it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of stories lately in an attempt to find out the types of stories I want to write. I’m an eclectic reader and never favour one genre. I’ll read almost anything. Why should we be limited by genre?
Should stories teach a lesson? Should they lift the human spirit out of the gutter? Should they be political? Should be be a mirror to the world? Are they Art or Entertainment?
I’ve decided to ignore categories. For me stories and films have always been about escape. Whether I’m watching Star Wars or reading Chekhov it is always a moment of escape. I leave my own limited existence and for a while I live another life.
There’s a great episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 5:The Inner Light) in which Jean-Luc Picard is psychically linked with a probe floating in deep space, and while he’s linked he lives another life through the memories of a man who had lived a thousand years before on a dying planet. While there Picard is a father, husband and scientist, and dies. He lives a complete other life, he even learns to play a Ressikan flute.
It’s a great episode and encapsulates what I’d like to create in my own stories. Another world for readers to escape into.
I’m an eclectic reader, but whether I read Homer, Roald Dahl, Carver or Asimov I escape.
Why do you write stories? Does genre really matter?
Understanding ourselves and the world we live in.
Musings on poetry, language, perception, numbers, food, and anything else that slips through the cracks.
Experiments in the Art of Mastering None
Rhymes and Reasons
Vibe alone for a while
writes one short story every week
Aspiring to be the best at writing. Poetry lover, haiku and free verse to be precise, I hope to one day master
Daydreaming and then, maybe, writing a poem about it. And that's my life.
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Dabbles in writing, loves music and nature. Sierra Leonean
Philosophy Professor & Philosophical Counselor - Dr. Elly Pirocacos
Stories of Adventure & Friendship