So you want a story, eh? My editor assumes that I am like the sort of conjurer who can fashion animals out of balloons. My hands will be empty; they will be suddenly flourishing a great sausage of a balloon; there will be an extended pause in which I am absorbed in some brisk, intricate handiwork, and then – ta-da! – I will be holding out my latest creation. In this metaphor, storytelling is a learned ability – virtually a procedure – and you would only lose the knack in the light of a stroke or some other damage to the brain.
In truth, storytelling is like calling a procession of animals out of a cave. Although you can to some degree choreograph the order of appearance at the mouth of the cave, you do not know what manner of animal will appear next from the darkness or when the line will finally end. The animals come swinging out of the darkness one by one, each different from the last. A big hearty elephant; a twitchy skulking fox; a pernickety little weasel. You are reduced to watching them pass. Stories are like wild beasts in the sense that you can never wholly master them or anticipate what they will do next. The idea that your story may have fascist connotations will never occur to you, until you are invited to speak at a literary festival organised by the BNP. Like an animal, it spins around in a flash and bites you.
Of course some writers – those who will produce, say, a series of formulaic crime novels – are calling merely a herd of sheep out of their cave, each one slithering after the next with its perfunctory bleat. For the artist, however, the perpetual crisis of calling forth their animals is that the latest one may be the last. There may be no more animals queued up in the darkness, or else only pathetic misshapen creatures, the crossbred descendants of earlier animals. Your creativity is even less immortal than you are and you are now retelling old tales.
There may be no more good ideas left in your skull. Those neurons in your brain may have fired every original thought that they possibly can. Indeed, those brain cells have been steadily expiring en masse since your creative peak over a decade ago.
The greatest of all writers seems to have announced his retirement with The Tempest, although he would live and write inconsequentially for another five years. Edgar Allan Poe had at least another decade of writing ahead of him, but his body had failed his brain. Sylvia Plath’s suicide was one of the most infamous acts of philistinism in the twentieth century…
But I can sense that my editor is growing impatient.