On Writing and Not Writing

For as long as I have wanted to be a writer, I have been on the verge of giving up writing. In the last five years alone, I have made time not to write: a collaborative prose ramble around London’s Victorian cemeteries, a play about sex, bombs and Dresden, a comic novel about coaxing coachloads of American teenagers around Europe, a slim, elegant study of Cleopatra’s Needle, one short story about a nineteenth-century rubbish dump in Essex and another on gate-crashing West End theatres, an elegiac film about the resurgence of the far-right in Rome, a villanelle on the catacombs of Santa Cecilia on the Via Appia, where I once joined a tour led by an irreverent Filipino friar, a pair of sonnets on Samuel Pepys’s fondness for parmesan, and any number of quasi-metaphysical poems inspired by stuttering relationships (the one about a runaway bicycle, the one about a snowed-in Peugeot, the one about hand-me-down kitchen utensils).

I have become an expert in the fine art of not writing. Anybody can play the busy fool for a morning or two, but it takes practice to tread water in the shallows of idleness until Friday afternoon and then muster the chutzpah to shut up shop for the weekend. The sheets need hanging and the coffee brewing and the bill paying. The news keeps rolling. And the legs, quite naturally, always want stretching. The supermarket aisles are calmer during the day, the food fresher if bought daily. Wordier pastimes, like skating between puns or diving into the dictionary for etymologies, can almost feel like work. I blame a four-year research degree (the blame game is a fail-proof ruse for squandering twenty minutes), which tricked me into forgetting that there could be any kind of research that didn’t already feel like a pastiche. A familiar, sickly sense of inefficiency used to creep up on me at lunchtime, but I can now conjure chores and diversions to last a whole day, and it’s normally not until late in the afternoon that I begin to detect some of the less elaborate palms and passes from my extensive repertoire of self-deception.

Here, since making lists is one of the most satisfying strategies for deferring writing, is another list that will give you an idea of the scenic route I took towards this piece: I set aside today to write it, but made sure to lay down the foundations for not doing so by staying out until four this morning, which meant waking on a friend’s sofa after eleven for a couple of hours of badinage and reading aloud Catullus, after which it seemed only natural to nip out together for a bacon sandwich, which necessitated a restorative tramp on Hampstead Heath, which stretched into an improvised pilgrimage to Keats’s house, where we decided to devise an alternative route back, which threw up an interesting Victorian Gothic church in Gospel Oak, where we lingered with the verger for ten minutes under the guise of architectural tourism. We made it back as our conversation turned to my forthcoming trip to Ireland, which provided an excellent opportunity for three performances of The Wild Rover in a makeshift arrangement for voice and guitar. I reached the British Library café at twenty to four this afternoon, immediately setting up a wireless connection to spend forty-five minutes indulging some of the potentially infinite digressions afforded by my platoon of social media accounts. The building closes in five minutes. Tant pis. It is Sunday.

It was Sunday. Monday went somewhere and it is now Tuesday afternoon, which means that my self-imposed deadline has slipped by and I’m now not writing this piece when I should not be writing something else. It’s at this point that the more diverting reasons for not writing give way to their malevolent cousins: rumination, self-chastisement, doubts and regrets, encroaching exhaustion, physical tics (such as twisting my hair into small dreadlocks that I tear out with grim satisfaction) and, eventually, a pervasive, frightening nausea, that only has one genuine remedy. And that remedy is writing.

A writer is someone who writes. A friend of mine once told me that a poet he knew had taped that motto above her desk, and the next day I copied it carefully in black ink on the first page of a new A4-sized notebook. The format seemed unwieldy and though I wrote one page in it about a dismal, sodden walk to Alexandra Palace, the other pages are inevitably still blank. For though it pains me to write it, it is just possible that I am a writer – where a writer is someone who writes very little, who goes to great lengths to avoid writing, who finds writing lonely, worrying, and even terrifying, but for whom all these things are preferable to a future that involves no writing. For me, giving this up takes place in an immediate future that always sounds ironic – where I am about to knock coffee over the keyboard, where I am on the verge of defenestrating the computer – but it never washes up in the remote future. There is, at this moment, no conceivable future perfect of my having abandoned writing, no imaginable time when I will have junked it.

Not writing leaves plenty of time for not reading. In this separate discipline, in which I count myself a hardy competitor, one of my long-running schemes has been not reading the works of Ezra Pound. In famous lines from ‘The Lake Isle’, Pound asks the gods to lend him ‘a little tobacco-shop / Or install me in any profession / Save this damn’d profession of writing’.  ‘Damn’d profession’ works so well because it knows how vulnerable the idea of a professional writer is and yet insists on it, as if repeatedly professing to be a writer were as fundamental to being one as, say, making a daily commute to the blank page or scrabbling for ways to turn words into money. All of the contributors to The Junket would, I think, profess to be writers in one way or another: we all work with words and we all want to write. But then work, or sluggishness, or other types of responsibility often derail our resolve. The Junket is first and foremost a forum in which we can nudge each other into writing.

The Junket has no default flavour. It will be flibrigo, powsidie, a hotch-potch or pish-pash, mondongo or mulligan, and the contributors are free to lob in whichever ingredients they fancy. It will strive to catch some of the delightful absurdity of daily life, with its irrepressible idiosyncrasies and its ordinary preposterousness. And of course, its sympathies lie with the diversion over the destination: the sixty-six emails exchanged while naming The Junket loop and jink to take in military insignia, equestrian jargon, Yorick and The New Yorker, anarchists on bicycles, and Vaucanson’s crapping clockwork duck. But it is now Wednesday morning, the first deadline overshot by two days, and no-one has filed any copy.

In a letter to Leigh Hunt in May 1817, John Keats wrote that composing Endymion felt like ‘a continual uphill Journeying’. ‘John Keats alias Junkets’, he signed off, as if to remind us that, however tortuous it may be to find oneself writing, writing itself has that rich and strange ability to disguise the graft of its making behind the impish mischief it continues to make. Just so, the idea of a junket, of an unabashed bean-feast carried off on somebody else’s time and money, craftily conceals its own more functional linguistic heritage. For, as the OED suggests, in spite of its ‘somewhat obscure history’, junket finds ways to reach back to the Pontine marshes south-east of Rome, to their fenland yield of juncus or rushes, to the medieval juncata, the rush-basket for catching and carrying fish, and to the creamy juncade or jonquette, the cheese named for the basket it was prepared in. If from there it becomes a sweetmeat or kickshaw, if it spreads to merrymaking and banqueting and more capricious jaunting, then it seems appropriate to let it represent what The Junket should aspire to: modest materials that are worked with care, before taking on an errant, boisterous life.

Thomas Marks