Writer’s block, the creative curse, the bard’s bane: it’s something that a lot of us get, especially bloggers. In Marina Morpurgo‘s novel, The Criminal Author (La Scrittrice Criminale), it’s the piece of grit that makes a pearl. In the excerpt below, we first meet the Promishing Author, a celebrated literary debutante who has considerable trouble following her first act…
“Your stories are so cute! And now when are you going to write a nice novel?”
The Promising Author, treacherously collared by a neighbor in line at the supermarket check-out, winces. Even doing the shopping has become too dangerous—which is why she usually tries to avoid peak times. She mumbles something indistinct that could be “Quite soon” or “I’ll die soon”, so that the neighbor is surprised (a professor of languages and has taught English Romanticism, she’s actually rather alarmed, since she believes that authors are very sensitive and inclined to rash acts).
The Promising Author returns home at a trot, hugging the walls, hoping to meet no one, absolutely no one. Not even the security dog that patrols the grounds between eleven pm and six am, when the streets are dark and pedestrians rare.
She’s been going on like this for months, ever since her first work was released—well, everyone calls it her first work. She alone knows in her heart that it is the first and last—a cute little book of cute stories (who the fuck was the bastard who invented that adjective? She thinks angrily in her worst moments). A slight, slim book, so cute and so slim that it shrinks in the presence of real novels. Even if she dares to place it on the ‘Italian Fiction’ shelf she gets scared—bloody Alberto Moravia! How could he fill page upon page describing a room, among other gloomy stuff? – and she jams her book onto a lower shelf, among the pariahs and wretches.
Last time, she tried to make it look better by putting it between a small volume (free) of turkey recipes and a brochure (free) on fifty ways to use saffron. Then she pulled it out gently, a bit painfully, and put it between Beppe Fenoglio and Luigi Meneghello, who are very thin and sweet.
Shutting herself up at home is unfortunately not enough, because there are phones, chat, social media and e-mail, all ideal ways to be painfully reminded that the duty of a writer is to write. To write novels. Scenes. Vivid representations. Memorable works. Noble things, worthy of leather binding (although perhaps that’s too ambitious, even a hardback cover would be nice).
Her mother calls her every day, offering some suggestions for the next novel, that it definitely shouldn’t be an ordinary novel—too easy, eh—but it should sell as many as those by that woman richer than the queen, the one who wrote Harry Potter, what’s her name? Rowling. That’s it, Rowling. Meanwhile, she hears her father in the background, telling her to write in a concise, direct style like Oriana Fallaci. A Harry Potter by Fallaci, then.
When they go on like this, the Promising Author can absolutely understand why Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in a river. But at least Virginia, before immersing herself, had already had some noteworthy fluxes of consciousness. The Promising Author’s fluxes of consciousness always veer off into the most banal topics—“What could I make for dinner? Where did I leave my driver’s license? I could have sworn that it was here” – and so they’re useless as literary material. They’re not even enjoyable. It would be so nice to be able to look out of the window with a faraway look and come up with two or three hundred pages at will, which everyone would read going “Oh!” and “Ah!”
She’d need a really great story, heart-breaking, bold but a little ironic too, with plenty of death, love, travel, industrial strife, revolution, war. A real badass story. But all she can see is a pathetic rectangle, empty and white, A4 size.
Someone told her in an accusatory tone that Jews must per force have stories to tell. Shaking his head, he nailed it: “Laziness”. It’s her fault for not being born in Galicia or in Bukovina, and for growing up in a family absolutely indistinguishable from the Gentiles, except for the lack of a Nativity Scene, a Christmas tree and other minor ornaments. Honestly, a bastard of a family! Not even one tiny pogrom to write about. At least some relative could have died—but everyone got saved, escaping just in time. But even when they escaped, they didn’t go very far. Just to Switzerland, where the only escapes involved dogs and pigs. When you have people crossing all of Russia and then Japan to arrive in New York, how are you going to compete talking about escaping to Switzerland from Milan on a nice northern rail train?
Everyone says, don’t you have something new in mind? A love story? A detective story? Science fiction/fantasy? The Promising Writer clutches her head, weak and desperate. She’s making a long list in her own defense, celebrated authors who had writer’s block—she really likes the case of Henry Roth—he’s her favorite—for forty years people asked him, “So, when are you writing another novel?” and all he could produce were some skinny little stories. She should be able to stall for forty years citing Henry Roth (if he did it she can’t I?), and with a little luck in forty years she’ll be dead or so obscure she can ignore them, what the hell are they doing bothering a poor old woman!
She stares at her big bookcase with hatred. Five by six metres. Stuffed full. Stories, stories, stories, stories. Accusations. A little boy once told her that he didn’t read because all books are the same. Back then, the Literary Expert for Young People (she was not yet burdened with the role of Promising Author) glared at him disapprovingly—just making an excuse for wasting his time on PlayStation!—but now she has to admit that that little illiterate snot was on to something.
Everything’s already been written. Everything about everything. Maybe there’s nothing left, no virgin territory, except a few highly improbable themes. A lesbian romance during the Thirty Years’ War? She’s not a lesbian and she doesn’t know anything about the Thirty Years’ War or what civilians did before, during and after it. A Communist kidnapped by Martians? No, too dated, too political. A twilight romance, a mature woman’s passion? (that would be easy enough to research to collect some psychologically valid and convincing details, it can’t be that hard to find a cooperative young man–but hell, Francoise Sagan’s already done that. A story where the cooperative young man dies? Right! Dies? The hell with it.
The phone rings. It’s her editor. He’s setting up next year’s book list—and her tiny little book—that cute little thing—is selling pretty well, so the public is waiting for her with open arms. She doesn’t want to disappoint them, does she? Onward and upward!
“Hey beautiful, how are we coming along with the novel?”
“Oh really well,” she lies shamelessly. “I’ve already written a hundred pages.”
“What’s the plot?” he asks.
She slams the telephone down. The phone lines are so unreliable these days.
If only she hadn’t been paid in advance. Then again, she ‘d been way behind on her condo payments, and the neighbors had been giving her the evil eye —although maybe that was because in the cute little book she’d used a little poetic license describing them as a pack of murderers.