How Does One Acquire a Deadly Vice?

I’ve finally figured out the root of my current writer’s block: I need to start smoking! I recently watched a movie about one of my writing heroes, Shirley Jackson, and that ol’ gal smoked like a chimney. As a matter of fact, it seems like any movie I’ve ever watched about writers (barring Beatrix Potter) shows the literary types puffing away as their brows furrow in the pain of tortured genius and angst of brilliant creation. So that must be it; I need to start smoking! Then I too will be great!

Oh, and I guess I need to start drinking, too. So many of the literary giants appeared to be constant guests on the slick liquor train–Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe–the list goes on and on. I can almost see myself tottering around in a filmy gown and marabou-lined slippers, a cigarette smoldering in one of those long black cigarette holders clenched between my teeth, a squat glass filled with amber scotch and ice sloshing around in my hand as I slur, in a golden-whiskey-throated growl, “Gimme a pen–I’ve just had a great idea for the next chapter.”

(Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that image is a little more Sunset Boulevard and less authorial. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille . . . .”)

Hold on a tic, though–all those writers I mentioned had miserable personal lives. Some of them committed suicide (a la Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Hemingway); some of them just drank themselves to death, and Shirley–well, unsurprisingly, a heart problem blamed on her weight and cigarette use got her in the end. 

Hmm . . . as Fagan sang in the movie Oliver: “I think I’d better think it out again.”

Because here’s some flies in the ointment. One: I’ve never smoked. I tried ONCE and ended up coughing and gasping for ten minutes, then using the cigarette like a sparkler to draw shapes in the dark sky with the glowing tip. I just don’t get it. (It burns us, Master!)

Fly number two: I’m not a big drinker either–I like a rum-n-Coke now and again, but mainly it’s the Coke I like. And I could n.e.v.e.r ingest scotch on a regular basis. Or even on a non-regular basis. Okay, not even one sip. (Again with the burning issue).

And buzzing, poop-dwelling vermin number three: Neither do I really fancy wandering into a rushing river with my pockets filled with stones or sticking my head in an oven. It’s a hard old world, to be sure, but I’m still curious enough to see what’s going to happen next. I’m not quite ready to check out just yet.

Dear me, my options have suddenly shrunk. Perhaps if I begin drinking Coca-Cola by the gallons and chewing gum, I may be able to at least achieve mediocrity in my writing. I might never get to “great,” but at least I’ll get to stick around and see my kids grow up to become geniuses. That seems better to me right now. But oh, what will all that Co-Cola do to my ever-expanding girth? And do I really want massive jaw muscles?

Patron Saint of Mediocrity

Writing is such a tricky business . . .

Shimmering Silence

I was watching my daughter (now a fourth-year med student—almost done, thank the LORD) write something for class, and I marveled, not for the first time, at how she listens to music while she writes. I just cannot do that—when I’m writing, it has to be absolutely, entirely silent. Not only can I not listen to music, I also cannot have the television on in the same room or be near any conversation at all. I become hypersensitive to sound—ticking, thumping, the silent buzz of the phone when a text comes in—all of it becomes as loud as a train whistle near the tracks. (Ironically, we live quite close to a train track and I rarely notice the whistle. But you get my point.)

This is not true of when I read. A bomb could go off in the room where I’m reading and I won’t notice until shrapnel hits me in the eye. My kids have, more than once, shaken me to get my attention after they’ve said, “Mom. Mom. MOM!” repeatedly and I haven’t responded because I honestly didn’t hear them. This has been the case since I was a child—I clearly remember being dragged back into the real world by my bemused parents or aggravated sister, who apparently had been trying to get my attention for awhile to no avail. When I am in a book, I am IN a book.

It’s the opposite when I write, though. John Gardner, in his fantastic book The Art of Fiction, speaks of the “fictional dream” a writer should create for the reader, and it’s a perfect explanation of where I go when I am reading a great story. When I am writing the story myself, though, I fall into a fictional hole rather than a dream. Once all distractions are eliminated (emails read/responded to, laundry folded or ignored, snacks eaten, phone off and away from my writing space) and I’m in “the zone,” it’s like slipping into a dark chasm. The chasm becomes a cave where I have to navigate around pits and slippery spots with my characters, and I only have a sentence at a time to light my way. If there is any sound in the outside world, my characters melt into the darkness and I’m yanked out of the hole, blinking against the harsh light of reality, sputtering with irritation at whoever or whatever pulled me out. It’s so hard to find my way back when I’ve been pulled out this way; if I come to a natural pause or am really stuck, then leaving the cave of my own accord is fine, but being disturbed when I’m in the groove—hoooo.

Not good for me; not good for the cause of the disturbance.

I tell my composition students to set themselves up for success when they write, to find the environment that works best for them. Many admit that writing propped up in their beds is a bad idea because they often fall asleep. So some need a busy coffee shop. Some listen to music on headphones; others, like me, need perfect quiet, and they retreat to the second floor of our university library. I try to take my own advice. If anyone is home, I announce, “I’m going to write, so don’t bug me unless it’s an emergency” before heading upstairs for writing time. I take my Westie, Jock, out so his bathroom needs won’t interrupt my cave time. I leave my phone downstairs so it won’t bother me. I settle myself in my favorite writing spot , sit on the edge of the hole for a minute, then drop into the cave. It takes a bit to find my character friends, but not too long—they’ve been waiting for me, after all, and I’m the only one who can unearth them. I shine the light of that next sentence in front of me, and together, we start moving again. If all goes well, the world outside is silent while the world inside is a mass of noise, and I plunge on like a dwarf in a fairy-tale, trying to pick gems out of the cavern walls.