Hypnotized by the wings of the butterfly, and awed by the discovery of a terrible possibility in life, she sat for some time longer. When the butterfly flew away, she rose, and with her two books beneath her arm returned again, much as a soldier prepares for battle.

Virginia Would, The Voyage Out

I am experiencing writer’s block and am only forcing myself to put words down, one after another, in a vain hope that something will ‘happen’. It strikes me the trouble might be that a leading actor is the last category of human to be the central character in a novel: if engaged in theatre, he comes alive for two or three hours eight times a week as the same vivid character in the same plot, or in repertoire perhaps as two or three characters in two or three plots, all no doubt fascinating creations. He might be rehearsing as well. At any rate, he must achieve an off-stage balancing act, having to conserve his energy for curtain-up, at the same time as filling the rest of his day fruitfully with something to engage his mind and spirit and keep his body in trim. Hardly the stuff of drama though stuffed full of it.

I suppose one can imagine a farce involving such relentless repetitive routine, dedication and discipline, intruded upon by the logistics demanded by the secret arrangements of an illicit love affair. We might have read at least one kiss and tell autobiography and know that such a story line would not be farfetched and might even lend itself to Grand-Guignol or even tragedy. Such stuff is not the sort of thing I have set out to do, even if I could. So what sort of thing?

I am sitting under a sunshade on our south-facing terrace; there is a cool westerly breeze wafting up the Ouse Valley and the nearby border of lavender is being visited by butterflies. Just now there seemed to be a dead cabbage white lying motionless on the boards of the terrace with a second cabbage white taking an unhealthy interest, until the prone one stirred, they both fluttered close together for a second or two, and then flew off in opposite directions – the plot of many a novel in miniature, minus angst? One could write a sonnet about it.

This morning’s Radio 4 news had a feature about the attempt of a computer to write a sonnet: it had been fed with countless examples, which it no doubt counted in milliseconds. It got the iambics and the rhyme scheme correct but clearly did not ‘know’ what it was sonneteering about. I have always been impressed that computers can beat grand masters at chess – a game, because I am no strategist, I can’t play – though I can write a sonnet to beat a computer, and even on a good day bring tears to human eyes. l feel better about my brain since this morning’s news, bad as so much of it was. For all this talk of butterflies, I’m still blocked …

A sonnet now in praise of butterflies:

  • Jaenice Palmer

    Dear Person Who Wrote This Blog Post–
    No, that doesn’t scan.
    Dear Mr. Petherbridge–
    Better, but the salutation falls onto the page–the screen, rather–with an audible clunk. That said, it wasn’t and isn’t my plan to start out with “Dear Edward”, as though I’d known you for years (I haven’t). In for a penny, in for a pound: Let it stand as “Dear Mr. Petherbridge”, and I can take myself to task later for any lack of musicality.
    I just wanted to say, seeing this blog post (O frabjous day!), that I understand only too well about writer’s block. I’m not about to embark on yet another reminiscence of my literary misadventures from age eleven to the present–I would as soon spare you that–but I can say I know how it feels. I just went through it with the first draft of a play about Artemisia Gentileschi, and again with the second draft of a play which started out as a tribute to Tom Stoppard and somehow metamorphosed into a story about two young homeless women who love Tom Stoppard and fall one night into a discussion of Richard III and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. I’m going through it now with two plays almost in tandem–the first a biographical drama, the second a roaring farce. And novels are notoriously difficult beasts–a bit tougher, in some ways, than writing a short story.
    The spine of your story, that of a leading actor fighting to make the same character live and breathe night after night out there on the boards, sounds like something out of Noel Coward. It does have farcical overtones; you were right to pick up on that right off the bat. It could very well have a tragicomic touch, if you wanted to stretch it that far. And there are any number of emotional ranges from which to attack the story–apathy, grief, fear, covert hostility, anger, antagonism, cheerfulness, enthusiasm. Serenity, for your fictional leading man, isn’t appropriate unless and until he is A) certain of the exactitude he gives to the performance, B) riding the waves of applause that accompany a successful opening night, or C) both. You know better than I do the real-life examples of such serene self-possession. But! As I said, this romantic-heroic actor, this stuff dreams are made on, wouldn’t necessarily be sitting on a cloud during the weeks of rehearsal leading up to opening night. He’d be caught up in the throes of maintaining that delicate balance–sound mind, body in good trim–you referred to in the post above.
    Throw away for a moment any preoccupation with the story’s potential to tip over into farce. Try approaching it as a meandering slice-of-life portrait: Middlemarch in the theatrical world, perhaps. Or, another alternative, get the farce out of your system and then let it cool its heels in a drawer somewhere, while you write the story you want to write.
    I’m a fine one to talk! Giving advice, preaching away as though I had a right to do so, presuming to teach my grandmother to suck eggs. I’ve just been handed rejections from two playwriting competitions and have a better-than-average chance of yet more competitions turning me down flat because I’ve been so busy falling prey to every blessed one of the classic theatrical blunders. All right, so I’m exaggerating ever so little; my errors are surface errors, but if I was really committing every gaffe in the book, this wouldn’t be my natural job. (Recent example of learning from surface errors: Thou shalt not write a long and self-indulgent blurb next to somebody’s name in your character list. You’d think I would have learned this earlier. Eh–you win some, you lose some, and then some get rained out.)
    The weather here in California is atrocious–in Fahrenheit we’ve hit triple digits in some places, and where Celsius is concerned I’m afraid to look. I hope the weather back in England is treating you decently, and I hope your health is still coming up roses (as it were).

    Jaenice Palmer

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