Bill Herbert Archive

Writing Blog

Put the problem into the writing

The lesson came to me from the poet Sean O’Brien via a friend, who quoted him as giving the advice to “put the problem into the poem.”

So I did that.

The lesson had already come to me from my supervisor, when he told me, “There are doors here that you’ve still to open.”

It took me nine months to work out what he meant. And I’ve begun that.

The lesson comes to all of us, if we write. It’s one of the first lessons you are told. “Write about what you know.” How that is interpreted is often one of the most debated or easily thrown about dictates in all writing.

As if writing needs dictates. But if only we’d listened and learned.

I like O’Brien’s phrasing best. Because what you know are your problems. They are the anxieties that consume your day. Or your angers, fears, loves.

If you are a biologist, such as Barbara Kingsolver, you may fill your works with biological or scientific backgrounds (such as climate change in Flight Behaviour).

But what makes it literature is the energy. As Alison MacLeod says in her essay on voice and the novel in Writing a First Novel,

“And a novel, a good one, is a living thing. Its story is charged with the emotional, psychical and intellectual energies with which its maker has shaped it. As writers, those energies are ultimately all we have. The words might be our medium—our paint, clay or stone—but they’re merely marks on the page until those life-giving energies breathe them into being.”

That is, until our characters and scenes move. It is not Cormac McCarthy’s description of the mechanism of the trolley that the Man needs to fix in The Road, but the emotional energy of the despair and love with which the Man’s need is rendered through the precision of the work (the fixing, the words).

It’s interesting MacLeod leans on the metaphor of the breath. In ancient traditions, we are born without a soul, and our first act is to breathe in the universal life force, in an act of pneuma. When we die, we exhale it back out into the universal field. There is a kinship here with writing, when good writing works.

For the last week or so I’ve been working on this thought: put the problem in your writing. It’s closely associated with opening doors. To be brave enough to admit to your helplessness or struggle is the first thing (it’s the first thing in the AA 12-Step Programme too… admitting the problem has overwhelmed you, and has beaten you, although of course not everyone agrees with that approach.)

Because that’s at the heart of writing. If, as MacLeod says, the energy is all we have, and writing only comes alive with these energies, we have to find some way to channel them into our work (what Freud called sublimation; what, in a way, Keats called Negative Capability; what William James called ‘the vague’). It means being willing to live with uncertainty, a little bit of chaos, and finding a way to bridge the gap between inner fantasy/imagination and outer reality, without panicking, or giving up, or striving for perfection at the cost of never finishing anything.

It requires, first of all, then, admitting, the problem. As MacLeod notes of a review of her first novel, The Changeling, which said ‘In true 18th century style, [The Changeling] admits of other voices.’

Admits,’ says MacLeod. ‘Yes. One opens a door.”

So I sat down to write last week, and admitted, at least to myself, and now to you, dear reader, three things:

  1. cannot stop thinking about X (you don’t expect me to give away everything?)
  2. As his wife says of the author Nick Thorpe in the self-help narrative Urban Worrier, “he struggles when he doesn’t have a project”. Ditto.
  3. This veil that obscures my writing: the fear of meaning nothing

These admissions, and letting myself over to write, led to two of the most honest and fun to write pieces I’ve done for a while. Just scraps, really, scenes, ideas, but alive with energy. Alive with the energy that was missing from my novel, for much of the writing process. The energy that keeps a project alive, but is not, finite, either.  One of which, is included below.

Being then reflexive about the process was also, for me, useful, in seeing that what I was writing about, and what I have in fact written about for the five years, far more freely in my academic work and creative non-fiction than in my non-fiction, is this, perhaps the central problem (not just for me, but as D W Winnicott noted of Marion Milner’s concept of creativity, for everyone): the tension and conflict between fantasy and reality.

Or, to put it another way, of living too much in fantasy. Of letting fantasy grow too big, without a necessary drive of that fantasy into reality.

To put it clearly: my problem has been letting my imagination run away with me and, in some ways, living too much within that fantasy, rather than finding a way to sublimate, channel, deal with, make the most of… etc… the energies, conscious and unconscious, that could be used in writing, love, and life.


  1. Meeting someone and having so many conversations in your head with them that when the chance for a real conversation comes, you’re already convinced you’ve got some sort of relationship with them
  2. Thinking of the success that a published book will bring, rather than doing the real work to bring that book to publication
  3. Being afraid to be creative; pulling back from creative risk

There are more: always thinking the worst, for example, preparing in advance for threats that never arrive, is the base cause of so much anxiety in modern western societies. It’s a lag from our more primitive brains, where anticipatory alertness was evidence of natural selection working well. But we’re not at risk so much these days, and so those patterns are no longer beneficial (or wholly beneficial). Such fantasy thinking is the malaise of modernity.

It is, of course, a structural problem too. We live in, and attach ourselves to such fantasies, and are encouraged to attach ourselves to such fantasies, by neoliberalism, the state, advertising, consumer corporations, as they are highly beneficial to the rich, ruling elite. The American Dream, perhaps the most infamous fantasy, which Katie Stewart has written about so eloquently in her essays and in Ordinary Affects, can be a nightmare. Or as Lauren Berlant puts it in her book Cruel Optimism, “That the route is a rut matters not” when the alternative to the rut of modern living is to fall in between the cracks.

Fantasy works. But it can also overwhelm us, keep us stuck, keep us from doing things that might change our situation.

Coming back to the creative process, and this question—how do we work better as writers?—what I have discovered by putting the problem into my writing, is that many of my stories are structured around this problem:

  • a man wants to recreate the Ancient Greek civilisation and fraternity in his mansion just outside Lewes, Sussex, and it all comes crashing down around him with the reality of the First World War
  • a young man wants to publish his book but realises he is not the great writer he thought himself to be
  • an old man builds a boat on the roof of a tower block, unable to give up his past

In all of these, the passage from giving up fantasy to recognition of the reality is the heart of the conflict. It is what is at stake. That each of the character’s lives will only move forward from their stuck point when they sacrifice the comfort of the fantasy for the gritty and humble, but real, reality of who they are, or where they are in their life now.

What has changed for me? I have come to the end of writing one of these novels, and realised, yes, life has not changed for me, that the reality of finishing this novel was not the same as the fantasy I’d concocted in my head, and which I had lived in more than I’d realised. That I imagined it much better than I’d made it. That publishing did not automatically follow. A reality that I have now faced, felt, hurt, and accepted. Or, admitted. Some of those doors inside are now open.

So two final points

1)   First, clearly, my unconscious was at work in these stories, anyway, to have structured them around my own major ‘problem’.

2)   Second, I feel I am a little further along the road of what the poet Bill Herbert the road from ‘self-consciousness’ about one’s writing to ‘self-awareness’.

This second point is critical. And teachable. Or rather, educable. Education is, after all, to lead out. To help the student open the door, and show them a way out of their problem. And that problem, as with most Buddhist and Eastern thought, is not the obstacle, but is the way.

And so in a way this is a little thank you to my teachers (directly or vicariously) for helping me admit of what it is that is important for me to write about, another slap in the face to Kureshi’s idea that creative writing cannot be taught.

And here’s one of the pieces I wrote this week by putting the problem(s) into the writing, and it felt to me one of the most ‘energetic’ in MacLeod’s sense of my recent pieces.

40before40, Writing Blog

Leave it in the drawer

What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering this weekend as I keep considering the question: how can we work better as writers? It’s an essential and common piece of writerly advice. Once you’ve written a complete draft of a work, put it away. Leave it for as long as you can.

Although perhaps not for as long as Vivian Maier, who never developed a single photograph she took during the 1950s and 1960s, and whose work was discovered (not even re-discovered) by a historical hobbyist John Maloof, when he bought her negatives at an auction, and uncovered one of the great street-photography artists of the 20th century. I’ll come back to this later.

The manuscript of my novel was put away last June/July, after also sending the manuscript out to around a dozen agents (eight rejections, four non-replies).

I’d spent just short of seven years working on this one project. The idea for the novel that I have written and submitted as my PhD thesis came to me in July 2007, as I was working in a pressured editorial role in London. I was becoming fascinated with neuroscience, and what seemed to be an explosion of popular and mainstream news and ideas about what we were learning about psychology via the neurology of the brain.

The original novel idea was both more simple and complex than the book that I’ve ended up with. It began as a split narrative in the 1930s and the 2010s, a little like The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry.

Over the next few years I was, in some way, was put off the idea of the split narrative. The Secret Scripture captures the woman’s historical voice so well, but fails so miserably to do the same with the modern doctor’s voice. (Perhaps I should have stuck with it. The film version of The Secret Scripture is now in production, starring Vanessa Redgrave.) But I was also deterred by the complexity of the narrative; also that Ian McEwan was writing about neuroscientists in Saturday, and also that the 1930s portion began speaking to me far more loudly. These were the characters I wanted to write about.

And so I did. For the next five or six years, and properly for the last three, I invested a great deal of time and effort in the book, through the PhD process. And then it was completed to PhD standard, a year and a half in advance of the deadline, and so I considered it ‘done enough’ (not quite ‘good enough’) but for this academic process, finished.

Having left it aside for six months now, I have returned to it to complete the very, very final copy edit for soft-submission to the initial examining team for my viva.

As I’ve written about before, the novel has not come out as I hoped—a combination of much to do with my own craft skills, and a little to do with the PhD process. And that was even clearer this weekend, as I copy edited. It was a hard task. I can see all the flaws, weaknesses, and flatness of the plot and development.

It’s bittersweet of course—only now, as I have developed so much as a writer, am I able to look back at this book and see its flaws, become aware of what it lacks. But it is hard to have invested for so long in something that remains relatively unfinished, and will not yet get published (even though it’s as competent as many other novels on the market, especially first novels published through small publishers, and vanity projects… oh, the bitterness!).

But what I realised—after getting down on the floor, certainly my best location for gaining perspective (‘this is as low as you get, Alex’)—is that this novel still matters a great deal to me. And that since tucking it away in the draw (with all of the previous drafts, notes, versions – I’d say around two million words of sheer effort over six years) the bursts of energy and enthusiasm I’ve had for the novel are not false dawns; they are real, and exciting. And that they explain to me, as part of the craft of being a writer, which is also the craft of listening to your body and unconscious about what it is that is important to you, that I will come back to this novel. That it is far from finished. That is was in fact not complete, only on schedule for a preliminary deadline that was laid down by the PhD process.

And so what I’m most intrigued by in this renewal of an engagement with this novel is the clarity on the importance of story. The writing of the novel is very good—technically my writing has always been very good. But in terms of both craft (story telling, structure, weaving) and imagination (opening doors, pushing further, saying what hurts) I can see how to improve the book’s story. It will probably mean a huge amount of what is there, and what is also there in the background of those two million words, will not make it into this book.

But that’s okay. That was just practising.

So back to the opening question. What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

What you leave there is, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, work that needs to compost, ferment, break down, and grow again. And there’s a companion drawer in the mind where the psychological imprint of that book is doing the same work: composting, breaking down, going over the ground to become fertile again.

But what you leave there is also a little part of your old self. And particularly the part that attaches your ego-driven wants to the book you’ve just written, and which, in the writing, are death for your book. It’s the desire to get it out and published before it’s ready. It’s the need for recognition after working on a project for five years without any public reaction. Joseph O’Neill writes well about this in relation to his novel Netherland, which took him seven years to write. What sustains you as a social creature when so much of your imaginative and emotional life is lived in a private world? This is when you need your loved ones and social calendar to compensate—if you are that type of social animal (or in degrees, which we all are, understand where your needs lie). It’s why Steinbeck, in Journal of a Novel, both curses but ultimately blesses the social engagements his wife organises for him. It pulls him up out of the den, gives him good cheer.

So leaving the manuscript in the drawer for as long as you can is an exercise in patience and good craft: I realise now what I have is a first draft. And what Hemingway said is true: all first drafts are shit.

But it is also an exercise in personhood, in freeing oneself from the social self and conscious ego’s needs, which can ruin writing, any art.


Which is why it’s valuable to come back to Vivian Maier. Imagine taking thousands of pictures on an old film camera and never getting any of them developed. Not only not getting recognition for the art you are making, but never even seeing it yourself. There is something incredibly powerful in this story—which is why so many people have written about it, have dedicated blogs to Maier’s story, why it resonates with us, why so many stories of posthumous fame and success resonate with us.

Because posthumous fame is of absolutely no use to the social ego. And in that I think we sense a vital lesson for our own life and work. As Jung put it, the ego is useful for the first half of our lives when we need to establish boundaries, strategies for sustaining ourselves, relationships. The ego helps us build the containers that we then go on to fill with our life’s work. But the ego is not the container. And nor is the container our life’s work. Or should not be.

What Maier’s story, what putting a manuscript away in a drawer, is all about, is, I think, some sort of recognition that to do our life’s work will not be driven by, or even of much benefit, to the ego. There are higher, wider, deeper callings and powers we must listen to, to find and complete our life’s work. The recognition of others—and I know how much my novel was written with this goal in (some sneaky part of my) mind—as a stimulus to work will never result in great art. Not even for Warhol.


And so a double report on my 40before40 utopia of writer’s habits, as I forgot to do it last week. And in some ways, it has become more difficult, now I’m a month or so into the challenge, because old patterns, energies, etc. are starting to take hold of my behaviours. For example, not going to a play I’d already paid for as my companion for the evening was ill, and I took the opportunity to be tired, and a little lethargic. My continued running injuries (spasms in my soleus and calf muscles now) are still getting me down… And yet I definitely see the benefits of challenging myself to create new habits, and how much easier now I can do things I feared before (even ‘wasting time’ watching films, for example).

So this past fortnight I read Coetzee’s mainly-disappointing The Child of Jesus (although not everyone agrees it’s that disappointing), and have nearly finished Bill Herbert’s excellent Omnesia (the remix), I spent an afternoon doing nothing (great!), entered my novel into the Dundee Book Prize, also entered the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction prize, listened to a couple of albums, Liquid Metal and Girls Names’, wrote a new poem based on learning about Picasso’s Minotaur, listened to a couple of podcasts, Our Hen House’s Episode 216 and the Animal Rights Zone 79, bought K a lamp, read two random journal articles ‘We all Kill Whales’ and ‘Environmental EMOs’, and committed at least three hours to pilates. Not bad going.