All photographs of The Endurance caught in the ice: Frank Hurley
Back in 2000, I wrote a radio play for BBC Radio 3’s then experimental strand, The Wire. Lives Out of Step was set in Antarctica and used actual wild track recorded on the continent from the BBC sound archives. The play juxtaposed excerpts from the letters and diaries of the early Polar explorers with a fictional narrative highlighting the contemporary exploration (and exploitation) of this frozen desert for oil.
During my research, I became consumed not just with Ernest Shackleton’s South, his extraordinary account of making his way back safely – with all his men – from a glorious but disastrous attempt to get to the South Pole, but also Frank Hurley’s haunting photographs of The Endurance, the expedition’s ship, caught fast in the Weddell Sea, eighty five miles from their destination.
Long after the play was broadcast and the project was filed away and all but forgotten, the images lingered on in my mind. I made copies of Hurley’s iconic images and blu-tacked them above my desk, not quite sure why. As someone who makes their living through being creative, I have learnt to trust my often illogical-seeming impulses, knowing the process is sometimes instinctive and the reasoning will come through, eventually. It was only many weeks later when going into my study with a friend that I saw this overly-familar place afresh, with all its superstitious objects and clutter and mountains of capsizing books – and on the wall above my desk a potent visual metaphor of the process of writing. And enduring. And, despite all the odds, surviving.
At risk of inviting hubris, I have to state I do not believe in writer’s block. Like Russian-American director/actor Michael Chekov, I believe that the potential of the imagination is infinite and as such, can be endlessly resourceful. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. It needs to be developed and harnessed, fed and nurtured, alternatively shaped and let grow wild.
In my interactions with writers experiencing this ‘block’, it has inevitably been caused by several possibilities, some of which I list, below:
Tiredness. We need to rest and feed our imaginations just as we have to rest and feed our physical bodies. After a period of intense activity, our energy and stores are depleted, so we need to input as well as output. But before I start trying to stoke the fire of my imagination with further fuel, I rest it by having a day looking…. at a horizon, whether seascape, landscape, or cityscape; at art (my personal favourite is to sit in the cool, dimly-lit environment of Rothko’s gallery at the Tate); at a huge cinema screen; at some other vista which seems to satisfy my hunger for seeing and absorbing. Find your own panacea, but be truthful in how long you need to rest. It is possible to rest for all of your creative life.
Research. Or lack of. The one common criticism I’ve heard from directors working with new writing is they feel playwrights don’t research their characters or the world of their play enough. I’ve also found when mentoring writers who are writing naturalistically, if they have come to an apparently insurmountable block and have begun to doubt themselves, the solution invariably lies in the work, as that is where the problem is, not in the writer. A few choice questions about the rules of the world, or the needs, motivations, or backstories of the characters often illicit a loosening of the obstacle, a thawing of the ice, with fresh material to pursue.
But this research needs to be carefully handled. Chekov warns: “Dry reasoning kills your imagination. The more you probe with your analytical mind, the more silent become your feelings, the weaker your will and the poorer your chances for inspiration.”
Chekov’s advice is to actors and embodied imagination, and so needs to be adapted for use by writers, but the overall sentiment holds true.
I think we need to keep juice in our work, especially during the dehydrating process of revising and rewriting. We mustn’t cook it so dry our work becomes unappetising or inedible. It’s wise to leave the work alone for a while when the material becomes too familiar, as we all know familiarity breeds contempt.
But most of all, my advice to writers is never give up.
Shackleton and his men were assumed dead, lost at sea or in the Antarctic wilderness…
Take inspiration, and above all, endure.
For Frank Hurley’s photographs and Ernest Shackleton’s memoir, see links below: