Monday, 13 October 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you have writer's block

This is one of my favourite ever books. I've loved it ever since I first read it as a teenager, and I love it still. It's a wonderful story -- funny, moving, tender, intelligent -- and brilliantly constructed in the form of a diary, that manages to move effortlessly between the past and present tense (a clever balancing act that Dodie Smith makes look easy, though it's actually a difficult technique to get right). It has an excellent opening sentence -- "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" -- and an equally pleasing ending, which I won't give away for those of you who haven't yet read it.
One of my most inspiring former editors -- actually, make that a mentor -- gave me a beautiful first edition when my first novel came out; the handwritten name inside the frontispiece is Brownie Heinemann, who I assume was one of the publishing family (Dodie Smith was published by William Heinemann Ltd).
Anyway, I could rhapsodize for hours about 'I Capture The Castle', but here's a little column in the Sunday Telegraph instead.

There are many good reasons to read Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle”: it provides excellent advice about dressing on a budget (dye all your clothes sea-green); how to cope when the man you love falls for your older sister (keep a diary) and your stepmother dances naked in the rain (ditto). Given that most teenagers believe their parents to be mad – and vice versa – the novel also serves as a helpful guide to recognising the fine line between eccentricity and outright insanity.

The 17-year-old narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, lives with her family in a dilapidated castle; the household is sliding into penury, as her father, the author of an unusual book called “Jacob Wrestling”, has suffered from writer’s block for years. After serving three months in prison a decade previously – for brandishing a cake knife at his wife, and hitting a neighbour who was attempting to intervene – Mr Mortmain has become reclusive, veering from silence to occasional violence with little in the way of warning.

Eventually, Cassandra and her younger brother decide that their father is sufficiently unhinged to need psychoanalysis, but given that none is available in rural Suffolk, they lock him up in a nearby tower, in an attempt to start him writing again. “He may be a borderline case,” says Cassandra, “madness and genius are very close to each other, aren’t they? If only we could push him the right way.”

When I first read the novel, I was the same age as Cassandra, and similarly preoccupied by my own father’s eccentricities. He, too, was a writer, and it occurred to me that if only there was a handy tower, it might be the best place for him. Now that I am a writer myself – older than my father was then; and doubtless older than Mr Mortmain – I understand the difficulties of trying to start a new novel, let alone finish one, and how the whole business can drive you crazy. In fact, I often long for a convenient castle in which to retreat, where I could dye my clothes green, commune with nature, wield a cake knife, and possibly – just possibly – get on with my next book.


Anonymous said...

I shall have to add this one to my TBR pile. I saw the film a while back, and it put me off the book, but perhaps there is a lesson in that, usually the book is perhaps better?

oxford-reader said...

I love this book, and that first line runs through my head at moments of writerly crisis.
I know of no castle towers to lock you up in, but if all else fails you could apply to live in the folly at Faringdon!

*oh my aunt jemima!* said...

I LOVE this book! I read it when I was a little girl and I must have read it a zillion times since :P

Rob Hardy said...

I loved I Capture the Castle, and Cassandra is one of my favorite first-person narrators. Have you read E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families? It also has a very engaging teenage narrator.

I've had writer's block for about two years, except for blogging. What I need is to be locked up in a keep without internet access.

Justine Picardie said...

I definitely need to be locked up in a castle tower, but if I was, I wouldn't be able to catch up on fellow-fans of Dodie Smith.
PS. You all have such good pictorial tags. I haven't yet worked out how to do one, but if I did, it might be yet more displacement activity...

Clare Dudman said...

One line I remember from this book - which my mother bought me when I was a young teenager - was that the narrator had neat features. It seemed an odd thing to say to me, and it has stayed with me ever since (a long, long time now). Your description tempts me to read it again because I think I might get even more out of it now.

As for the 'avatar'(new term for me and I'm showing off I know it at every available opportunity) - it won't take you 2 mins:

(i) Click on 'see my complete profile' - if you're signed in the 'edit' profile box will come up.
(ii) scroll down on the 'edit user profile' page to 'photo URL'
(iii) put in the address of a picture from your computer desktop or web
(iv) save at bottom.

After reading DAPHNE I was inspired to buy my own writing shed - partly to get away from the you can see this is not working particularly well at the moment!

Yours, geekly, Clare...

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for the instructions, which I will attempt to follow, though I fear I may fail. And please do try the book again! I hadn't been struck by neat features until you mentioned it; though I always think of Jane Austen characters as being neat-featured...

Steve Augarde said... comforting to find this post on an afternoon when I can hardly bear to even look at my laptop, let alone attempt to write anything. Thank you.

Primrose said...

A truly great book and one I often buy for young and older girls! I think I read that it's also Nigella Lawson's favourite book so we are all in good company! I cannot wait until my daughter is old enough to enjoy it.