I keep coming back to the opening line of Patti Smith’s M Train: “It’s not so easy writing about nothing”. It spins round and around in my head like a mantra: it has something to teach me.
One of the things it brings to mind is that it’s actually quite easy to write about nothing, isn’t it? It’s writing about something that gives us the headache, when we have an idea of what we want to create; an ideal to match up to. And that might be a fully thought-out story concept, or it might just be the desire to write a novel, an article, a flash fiction. All of those create expectations within us that then plot against us. But writing about nothing – telling ourselves it doesn’t matter what it is as long there are words on the page – is a great tonic to the writer’s block. I do it all the time in my journal, just flowing free form about whatever comes into my head. Often it will be decent prose, too, not just trash. That natural, no judgement mindset is a pretty good writer.
The trouble is, you don’t have to write like this for long before you start thinking it’s not nothing at all, but something in disguise. That cathartic, almost meditative state becomes overwritten by our will to form narrative in everything we do. We start to think why we have written what we have, what its significance might be. We connect seemingly disparate concepts or assumptions and attach meaning to our brain farts. We start to broaden the scope, design settings and follow trajectories. And before we know it, we are writing a book.
Another of Patti Smith’s books I read recently, Devotion, demonstrates this perfectly. The first section is about coffee shops, food, trinkets, random books she sees, what is on the news, and journeys she makes. All completely ordinary, everyday parts of life. No one would accuse her of trying to write a novel there. But the second section is a story she wrote on the train during this period – a stunning short, actually, about the life of an immigrant who devotes herself to becoming an ice skater and ends up in the hands of cruelty. Having read about Smith’s ordinariness in the first section, the reader is able to pick up the root of many details. For example, she talks about perfectly circular eggs for breakfast, which become a perfectly circular pond in the story. Displaced people on the news become the main character’s background. A poet she reads about becomes enmeshed with the story through place names, a graveyard and a gun. The writer’s first-hand perceptions become one with their work. What started out as nothing is nothing no more.
I’m finding the same thing happening with my current project, Endless Circles. It has grown out of journal entries I made on a trip to London over a year ago. At the time, I had no clue what I wanted to write next, only that I wanted to back away from science fiction a little and lean into the experience of consciousness, so I was faithfully recording things I noticed, thoughts that cropped up etc. I saw some art shows, I bought some books I’d never heard of, I spoke to strangers, and I wrote it all down. Before I was even home from that trip, patterns were starting to form. I knew my character, I knew the locations, I knew the mood of the book.
I have journal upon notebook upon journal of things I have jotted down without thinking too much about it like this, and every one of them contains hundreds of story seeds when I look back. I think this is what the mantra means. Stop second-guessing, stop thinking it’s pointless, stop thinking it’s nothing.
For a writer, writing about nothing is near impossible.