Writing, in its broadest sense, is probably the last civilized tool to abandon a human being. I’m picturing here the educated prisoner holed up for decades in a dungeon, scratching poetry on the damp walls with a chip of stone.
Writing liberates; it gives a window beyond the present situation. It also gives substance to transient feelings, like love or despair. It’s the way the human mind gives shape to its thoughts, tracks them and gives them a certain permanence. It can stop people going mad and bring them back from madness, or sometimes it’s the outward manifestation of madness.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a prisoner, deprived even of scratchable walls, who composes pieces in his head and commits them to memory. I would love to know how it works. Would each morning consist of a review of all the finished material followed by creating new work? Or would there be some compartment in the brain where the finished parts were stored so as to be retrievable at a later date?
There’s a Spanish poet called Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer whose volume of poetry, finished and submitted to a publisher, was lost in a political revolution. Not something which ought to happen these days if things are backed up properly! Anyway, he wrote out all his poems from memory. I don’t think many poets these days, when set rhythms and rhyme schemes are unfashionable, would be able to do the same. (The original function of rhyme was in fact to make sagas memorable.)
People can achieve extraordinary things when they’re pushed into it. Like writing by batting an eyelid when the rest of you is paralysed. Or telling yourself stories when you’re supposedly brain-dead but in fact still very much alive in your coma and just not able to communicate.
The worst scourge to afflict anyone whose circumstances were so reduced would have to be Writer’s Block. There would be no alternative activity; nothing to distract. A person would surely go mad in such a situation.
But Writer’s Block in my experience is a mixture of boredom with the task at hand and self-generating demoralisation at lack of inspiration or success. It isn’t even because the job is too difficult; without the handicap of Writer’s Block multiple ways of circumventing the problems would present themselves.
To return to our prisoner, inspiration is like the plant which blooms in an adverse climate (for very sound biological reasons – the plant hopes its progeny will experience better times). Discomfort, loneliness, misery of every kind, can squeeze the best out of us. The important thing is to keep a spark alive because depression and dehumanisation are powerful enemies.
There’s another piece of Spanish literature – a medieval ballad supposedly written and sung by a prisoner who “doesn’t even know when night and day are except for a little bird which sang to him at dawn”. The bird has been killed by an archer; the ballad finishes by cursing him. There may be symbolism behind that bird and that archer, but I prefer to interpret them literally. Out of terrible, bleak circumstances has arisen the most beautifully poignant of poems which has survived down the ages and which must have accompanied many people through dark times.