The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for writer's block


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Writer's block

Cure: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

For an ailment that can hit at any time, and persist for years – if not a lifetime – if left untreated, it is a travesty that modern medicine has so far failed to come up with a reliable cure for writer's block. Those afflicted will know only too well how its onset triggers a host of other ailments, including shattered dreams, marital tension, and financial ruin – not to mention the loss to the world of what might have issued from your pen. Do not despair, however. A simple but effective cure can be found in the pages of this charming novel of genteel eccentricity, set in England between the wars.

As his name suggests, Mortmain has been unable to put pen to paper since an unfortunate incident involving a next-door neighbour and a cake knife landed him behind bars for three months. While his three children and ethereal wife Topaz struggle to feed and clothe themselves, and the castle crumbles around them, Mortmain drifts around reading detective novels and staring into space. He has ditched all his friends and more or less stopped talking to his family. Eventually, responsible Rose, the elder daughter, decides she'll have to marry her way out of poverty and becomes engaged to a man she does not love. It's the younger, wiser Cassandra who realises that the solution lies not in self-sacrifice, but by forcing their father's writing hand.

Her complicated cure works like a dream. We can't disclose exactly what she does, for to do so would be to give away the plot. And in any case the remedy she inflicts wouldn't work if you knew it was coming. But read between the lines, and a fuller picture emerges of how Mortmain's creative juices are gradually unstemmed. Finish the novel, then gather around you the ingredients for your own blockbusting kit: among other things, a person of like mind, someone else to do the cooking, and an Encyclopaedia Britannica. Trust us.