When you’re a writer – and it doesn’t matter if you’re published, it’s down to the internal obligation to yourself to write (being any good at it is not a factor, either) – the worst moments come when you’re blocked. When there’s a great gaping whole in your head that’s usually filled with words, only now it’s just an absence. A very palpable absence. Something has been removed, and it’s that instinctive drive to think about what you’re writing, about things you can and should be working on, the ongoing mental activity that’s part of the iceberg whose tip is the words you put on paper or pixel.
You can always tell: when else are you driven to write about Block than when it’s the only thing in your head?
Somewhere in my pokey little flat is a book about Writer’s Block. It was the first book by Donald E Westlake that I ever read, it’s still my favourite of all his works, the Dortmunder Gang series notwithstanding, and it’s one of the few works I have ever read/seen that balances laughter and pain so completely. It’s called ‘Adios Scheherezade’.
The book, which appeared in 1967, is being told, or rather typed, by Ed Topliss. It is told in a series of chapters, each of fifteen pages in length, the majority of which are headed Chapter 1. Ed is a writer, officially, that is. Actually, Ed is a schlub.
You see, for the last thirty months, Ed has written dirty books for a living. Real, honest-to-god, cheap soft porn paperbacks, under the pen-name of Dirk Smuff (which encapsulates the entire, low-rent, cheesy milieu of the whole endeavour). To be frank, Dirk Smuff isn’t even Ed’s pen-name, it belongs to and was established by his college friend Paul. Now Paul is a writer. He wrote the first ten Dirk Smuffs for the money, to keep himself afloat whilst he pursued serious options, and now Paul has a career.
Ed, on the other hand, has no options open to him. He majored in English at college, emerged with no plans, no career, and married to Betty, his long-term girlfriend at college who never went all the way until it was nearly the end, and, guess what, she went and got pregnant. So Paul offered Ed an opportunity: take over the Dirk Smuff name, write a dirty book each month, collect $900 every month (Paul keeps 10%). And bear in mind: nobody can write this shit forever.
Ed wasn’t listening to that bit. Ed had his mind on Paul’s shit-hot girlfriend, or rather the thighs being unconcealed by her mini-skirt. As far as Ed’s concerned, it’s easy money, something to keep him going whilst he sorts out a real career for himself.
You see, there’s a formula to these things. There’s a limited number of plots, which you rotate, the books are 150 pages long, and consist of ten chapters, each fifteen pages long, one sex scene per chapter. Oh, and no dirty words: no f’s or c’s. Or even v’s.
And it’s easy work for easy money. One chapter a day for ten days, hammer it out, first draft only, you wouldn’t want to re-read this crap and then nearly three weeks to hang around. Once you learn the tricks of the trade to spin out those pages – and Westlake knows them all, having been in Paul’s position in the Fifties, when he was building his own career – the conveyor belt can roll.
So what if you’re just wasting those days off each month? So what if your wife and daughter are spending about 10% more than you’re bringing in every months? Ed’ll get down to doing something serious. Sometime soon.
But there was that thing Paul said, that Ed wasn’t listening to then. You can’t write this shit forever. Ed’s last three books have been delivered late. Progressively later each month. Ed daren’t deliver the next one late or he’ll be out on his ear. No income, no way of getting an income. Only, Ed needs those days off between writing sex scenes. And he’s ony just delivered the last one. He’s got something like twelve days to write the next one, or the house of cards collapses, not just himself but for his wife and his daughter too.
And Ed can’t do it.
All he can do is sit down at his typewriter and type, hoping to god that something, anything, will unlock that block, will turn into a publishable soft porn novel. And we’re reading what he is writing, as everything goes down the pan.
Because the first half of the book is funny but not yet tragic. Ed’s floundering around, splashing the water, equal parts telling us his life-story and spilling the secrets to writing cheap softcore porn, even to the extent of managing a complete opening chapter so we can tick off all the little tricks and tropes for ourselves.
But following Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 proves impossible, even before a casual lie cuts Ed’s life out from underneath himself, and there is a moment of extreme anguish as everything breaks down, as Ed tries to write a simple line but cannot get through it to the next set of words beyond, but it’s no longer possible.
And from that point on, we are following the tragedy, second-rate though it may be, of a man’s life spiraling out of all control, in which the only possible structure he has left is his compulsion to record things in chapters exactly fifteen pages long, though the need to supply a sex scene in every chapter has disappeared, along with the life he’s been leading all the time he could still write this shit.
There isn’t really an ending. Schlubs like Ed don’t get endings. His last chapter is typed in sections, fifteen pages built up on different typewriters in different places, before he vanishes, on something that you could maybe characterise as a quest. His last words are a variation on the title, adios and a word he can’t use in his books and that I don’t intend to use here. And he’s gone, and his story is essentially incomplete, we have to make up the ending for ourselves, and I don’t think any of us imagine good endings.
Adios Scheherezade is a fabulous formal experiment, and an incredibly successful one, despite its lack of any defined ending. Indeed, the nebulousness of it is a part of the book’s artistic success. It’s also virtually impossible to get hold of now.
It’s a book about Block, and doing what you can to get out of it, and it’s exactly what I’ve done: to write I’ve found something to write about, and the muscles are eased up, and the cavern inside feels less cavernous. I think I’m ahead of Ed right now. The proof will come later.