Wednesday, 11 November 2015

In Praise of Panic - Catherine Butler

In last month’s piece for ABBA I attempted to persuade you that “Atropos too is a weaver” – by which I meant that we must be prepared at last to let our long-mulled-over books go into the world, and bid them a warm farewell (being careful though to hide our tears) before turning back into the empty mansions of our minds, where the only sounds now are those of echoing expectation, and the slow, steady hiss of a post-flush cistern.

I might have added that Atropos has a counterpart. She is the tenth Muse, whose name is Panica. Panica deals with the obstetric side of book-rearing and is especially handy with the Caesarian knife. Many’s the writer who has called out to Panica to bring their books to term, just as Roman matrons were wont to call on Lucina. Indeed, I know of several who build panic explicitly into their professional schedule, aware that without the adrenaline rush of a looming deadline (and nothing looms better except Clotho herself) they will be unable to wean themselves from the tube-fed opiates of the Internet (that plentiful source of gas and air), and finally deliver a full-length novel. Then, imagine the excitement in the delivery room:

“Is it for boys or girls?”

 “What does it weigh? 60,000 words? What a bonny manuscript!”

“Well, as long as it has healthy sales, that’s all that matters.”

Hmm. How far can we push this laboured metaphor? Have I dilated upon it sufficiently? It’s an old one, at any rate, and especially popular (as has more than once been observed) with male poets. Four hundred years ago, Sir Philip Sidney expressed his difficulty in writing a sonnet by complaining that he was “Great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes”. Fifteen hundred years before that Horace (drawing in turn on Aesop) talked of writers in similar terms:

Don’t start like the old writer of epic cycles:
‘Of Priam’s fate I’ll sing, and the greatest of Wars.’
What could he produce to match his opening promise?
Mountains will labour: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!

Is there an element of over-compensation here? I have heard at least two writers-who-were-also-mothers scoff slightly at this way of describing writing. “You should try giving birth for real, then you’d know the difference!” was the burden of their song. Personally I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of the comparison (perhaps you are?), but I need not shrink from praising Panica, the Muse of deadlines, who has thrown so many writers a vital lifeline.

Indeed, this small but perfectly-formed post was largely written at her dictation.


Joan Lennon said...

Loved this romp through madly mixed medical metaphors - and truth comes a-borning!

obi duatilu said...
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Nick Green said...

'Looming deadline' - my favourite of the puns.

If only I could produce a book in as little as nine months. Mind you, books have smaller diameters.