In the middle of the night Grendel arrived in bloody fashion, slaughtering sleeping warriors slumbering after the feast. Beowulf confronts the night-lurker and grapples with him hand-to-hand. The Geat rips off one of Grendel’s arms, who flees into the night.
There comes a time when you finally have to knuckle down to it – the Great Task. You have summoned the Hero (within) and now you must step up to the mark (or to the desk, unless you are of the Hemingway persuasion, in which case you can stand). This will be your defining moment as a fledgling writer – as you really one, or was all that talk just hot air?
Virginia Woolf talked of the importance of a ‘room of one’s own’. Wherever or whatever it is – be it a boatshed like Dylan Thomas’; a garden office frequented by Philip Pullman; a cork-lined Parisian apartment resided in by Proust; or pottering in an Edinburgh café like JK Rowling, for the time you spend writing there, it is your Heorot. See Hrothgar’s hall as a metaphor for your imagination – vast and majestic. This is your special place – the place you go inside yourself when you write – utterly unique to you: ‘the famous mead-hall was finished and done./ To distant nations its name was known,/The Hall of the Hart…’174 This ‘hall of the heart’ is a precious place and deserves protecting – like Beowulf, Hrothgar’s retainer, guard it jealously.
And yet, be prepared to go through Hell while you’re there. You will face your demons. You will gnash your teeth and tear out your hair. You will sweat, bleed, and weep.
Writing is a lonely business. No one else will write that masterpiece for you (unless you pay a ghost writer, in which case – get out of here, you’re a celebrity). Doris Lessing wisely said: ‘Literature comes from a man or woman sitting alone in a room with a phone off the hook, probably a cup of coffee, and in the good old days, a cigarette.’ Don’t make excuses, make it happen. Steinbeck wrote: ‘This is the writing job, the loneliest work in the world. If I fail there is only one person in the world to blame…’
Although we should be wary of ‘spontaneous house-work’ (the compulsive sharpening of pencils, obsessive desk tidying, and other random displacement activities) there is something to be said for an orderly writing space. I love the description of Blake’s room, from a letter of Samuel Palmer’s (1860): ‘his rooms, were clean and orderly; everything was in its place. His delightful working corner had its implements ready – tempting to the hand. The millionaire’s upholsterer can furnish no enrichments like those of Blake’s enchanted rooms.’ Your study, if you are lucky enough to have one, is your Heorot. Yet imagination is the ultimate upholsterer – with it we can re-enchant the mundane. And so, we do not need a fancy ‘garden office’ with perfect views, however enticing that would be. All we need is a knee and a notepad. With our imagination, we are free – wherever we are, as Shakespeare so eloquently put: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space …’175 The chilling caveat here is ‘…were it not that I have bad dreams…’ but as writer’s we can turn those ‘bad dreams’ into prose, poetry, and plays.
Like Beowulf, you are going to give Grendel – a bad dream incarnate – a run for his money. Hero and antagonist finally clash in a spectacular melee, and in that conflict (between Higher and Lower Self; between our dreams and our nightmares; our fears and desires) the most exciting, muscular writing is created – sentences with frisson fly off the page. However difficult circumstances can be (and writers over the centuries have endured the worst) from such creative tension the best work can be produced. A place of safety, of comfortable happiness, of artistic complacency, can produce bland results. Writing from our comfort zones, we have artistically ‘snoozed off on the couch’. We have regurgitated TV dinners and soap operas. But if you are prepared to take risks and make yourself vulnerable – as Beowulf does, stripped down, armour-less and weaponless – then something good might result. Writing with an edge. It is terrifying, grappling with our demons in the night – but if you can hold your nerve you can produce something of true worth.
This is what I call the ‘unflinching gaze’. If you can stay with that which you find most challenging, most unbearable – you will produce writing of real authenticity and power. You will find the voice in the shadows. It takes a warrior’s heart to endure this:
‘A terror fell on the Danish folk
As they heard through the wall the horrible wailing,
The groans of Grendel, the foe of God
Howling his hideous hymn of pain,
The hell-thane shrieking in sore defeat.’176
Withstand this and you will be a true hero. Burn the midnight oil – metaphorically, or literally. Stay with it. Wrestle this beast into submission – and when you finally come up for air, perhaps returning to it the next day with a cup of coffee, a bit wiped out, you’ll be unspeakably satisfied, as was Beowulf: ‘he was happy with his nightwork/ and the courage he had shown.’ Somehow, against all odds, you have managed to wrench this ‘dirty first draft’ – like Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm. It’s not the whole beast, but it’s one helluva start:
This bloody stump is your first draft, plucked from the abyss. It is raw and dripping – ugly to all except its creator – but you have rendered it with your own hands. Your night in Heorot has produced results. You have showed what you are made of. Perhaps you are a writer after all (many fail this first test of courage). As Hrothgar had said in his parting saw:
‘Be mindful of glory, show forth your strength,
Keep watch against foe! No wish of your heart
Shall go unfulfilled if you live through the fight.’177
Writing can redeem the worst experiences and celebrate the best. It is essential we face our demons in the dark, share our hard-won wisdoms, and sing our journey’s song. The personal is powerful. Go where the pain is – that’s where the power is. In the next installment we’ll examine this bloody stump in more detail.
Extract from Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest
by Kevan Manwaring, Compass Books, 2014