He had once described Arnold Schwarznegger (early on in his career) as looking like a brown condom full of walnuts. An interviewer once asked him how he thought up phrases like that. Clive James (apparently with a slight sense of panic) said, ‘I don’t know.’
I think that may be the clue to all this – writing. You can learn a lot and practice a lot and do it over and and over again, and you really should. But sometimes those flashes of brilliance just happen, and no-one knows why.
I think this may be what writers mean by writers block too – not that they can’t write, because they can just plod on, but that those flashes of perfection never come.
Clive jAMES could have got to it a different way. He could have started with ‘brown paper bag full of hazelnuts’ and worked his way up to the perfect phrase – but he didn’t. It just came to him (apparently without a flash of lightning, although that would have been perfect).
I’ve said before that brilliant writing doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t. It takes a lot of hard work. But the brilliant moments – the occasional phrase, or plot sometimes just seems to appear as if by magic. You type, and something appears on the page and its perfect – but you have no idea how it actually got there.
This isn’t actually confined to writers. We all have those moments when we suddenly think of exactly the perfect thing to say at exactly the perfect time. Everyone does it – politicians, business leaders, that bloke down the pub.
But when Clive James was suddenly inspired to describe Arnold Schwarznegger that way, he didn’t just say it at the pub, and get a laugh. It was part of a whole article that he worked on and rewritten and created.
I think what makes writers different is that we build a structure around inspiration. We take that one perfect moment, and build an entire story around it, and characters to say it, and a scene to set it in. That sudden, perfect phrase that appears in our head is not just a throwaway phrase, but a basis for an entire piece of hard work.