While I Ponder, Weak and Weary

let-it-poe copy

THERE IS NOTHING TO WRITING; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. This aphorism, well known among writers, holds a simple truth. In 1946, Paul Gallico explained it nicely in Confessions of a Story Writer.

"It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories."

Suffice to say, I would never churn out bad or phony stories just to make “rent.” Fortunately, quoniam propter art, I’m independently, well…well, okay; I’m on a modest, though adequate, fixed income. We live comfortably...within our means (more or less), and stately Sagamore Manor is owned (more or less), not rented. There are mortgage payments to be made, of course, but heady days lie ahead. We will really be living large here at Sagamore once my novels start flying off bookshelves the world over. First they need to start flying from my fingertips, before my world is over. 

Immediately after announcing my decision to begin work on a novel in my previous piece, all creative procrastination has been put on hold indefinitely. The novel is taking shape as a thriller—though subgenre isn’t quite clear yet—tentatively titled Small Animal NeedsThe project is consuming considerable amounts of time and intellectual resources, as I expected it would. I’ve been writing and editing nonfiction for the better part of 30 years. Turning to fiction, while liberating artistically, is tricky business if one takes it seriously. And I do. Some of today’s most successful authors have made a killing writing bad or phony stories. Obviously, the market for penny dreadfuls is still pretty hot. But I’m not that sort of story teller. Accordingly, these past months have seen me duly bleeding into my keyboard. And bleed I must. Because I’m haunted. The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe wanders the halls of this great estate. 

It’s true. I can feel his spirit hovering above and behind my threadbare Writing Chair, peering over my shoulder, glaring at my laptop screen, scrutinizing every sentence I assemble, and it absolutely terrifies. In addition to being a brilliant craftsman of poetry and prose, Poe was considered the preeminent American literary critic of his day. As a reviewer he could be quite harsh, to the point of ruthless. Poe was nicknamed "The Tomahawk Man” for his scathing critiques and literary squabbles with contemporaries. It is unnerving, knowing the spirit of the man who accused Longfellow of plagiarism is judging my work while still in progress. On the positive side, his presence keeps me honest, sharp…keeps me on my toes, but it also ratchets up the pressure of working in an environment that falls far short of ideal for my temperamental creative soul. 

The inspired, imaginative writer requires access to solitude, silence, and sanity. And high-speed Internet. I find portions of all said requirements in our study—the War Room—when I’m alone. Trouble is, the War Room's our study, a relatively small shared space, with two seperate work areas, in close proximity. (Hence, the “War Room.") 

Regular readers will recall that I’m married (30 years this past November) to the fair Donna Jean Ogilvie Rossetti Jingleheimer Schmidt. The "Jingleheimer Schmidt” part—as an aside—is a relatively recent addition to an already wordy name. I simply call her “Muffin,” in no small part because she's hopelessly addicted to Muffin Songs. And “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” a kiddie ditty I recall from grammar school, remains her all-time favorite. Whereas “Muffin" is given to whimsy, I am old fashioned and believe “Rossetti” ought to come after "Jingleheimer Schmidt.” 

My better half, in addition to holding the title "Director of Domestic Tranquility” here at Sagamore Manor, has been for the past 20 years gainfully employed with a New York firm (not affiliated in any way with The Restless Quill). She continues to work for the New York company but does so now from our new home, breathtaking Sagamore Manor, here in North Carolina. So she works on her stuff, I work on my stuff, we both work on our respective stuff, in the same room, frequently at the same time—same world...different planets.

That works just fine when I’m in leisurely TRQ mode, as I am now. In fact, I enjoy sharing our space during such times. But when I’m "on the job," immersed in, say, character-development mode, I should ideally be immersed in an isolation tank. We don’t have one of those. So what cannot be remedied must be endured, and so it goes, and so on. The Director, for her part, seems largely oblivious to my presence when we’re sharing the space and goes happily about her business. I, on the other hand, am oblivious to nothing and must struggle mightily to remain focused.

I brood over my keyboard, stare off at nothing in particular, tug at my mustache...reduced to a single large, raw, shrieking exposed nerve as I labor to capture my own elusive, short-lived thoughts and delicate ethereal ideas. These thoughts and ideas quickly pop into and out of existence in the vacuum of my cranium, much like quarks or virtual particles wrought by transient fluctuations in empty space. (What a wonderful metaphor.) The concept of virtual particles arises out of the perturbation theory of quantum mechanics. My own perturbation theory of literary mechanics holds that any external disruption of a writer’s ability to maintain focus at work creates a dangerously unstable environment that invariably threatens Domestic Tranquility. To wit, it leaves me perturbed. But I’m all about keeping the peace.

Establishing, maintaining, and preserving Domestic Tranquility requires will, cooperation, compromise, and forbearance  I do not have a private study (though, a virtual study could be created in an area of the second floor I’ve had my eye on), but I accept circumstances as they are and am neither unrealistic nor unreasonable. The little angel perched on my right shoulder whispers, “Deal with it, George!” into my ear. And I try. So, while the dissonant cacophony of ambient office sounds—the “kachunk" of a staple-gun's bite, the shuffling of paper, ransacking of files, the pitiful groan of a corkboard suffering multiple thumbtack stabs—is maddening, with practice I’ve learned to adapt. Now, it simply fades to white noise and is ignored. Conversation, however, cannot be ignored. ”Do you want a banana, George?” 

Do I want a banana? A blunt interrogative like that requires that I engage, that I respond. And that shatters my concentration...it makes me cranky. It sends ripples through the otherwise peaceful Sea of Domestic Tranquility. Because it makes me wonder. Do I look like a man who wants a banana? What does a man who wants a banana look like? When other people see me, do they wonder too if I want a banana? Look at that man over there, I’ll bet he wants a banana. Apparently I don’t look like a man who just wants to work on his novel. Wait...I’m working on a novel?! When did that happen? I remember, vaguely…I was typing…typing something…wasn’t I, Edgar? Yes…yes, you’re right, Edgar; we need some new rules here. 

New rules. You remember that scene in The Shining (1980) when Jack Nicholson had to explain to his wife the importance of not interrupting a writer at work? No? Then you must play the video embedded below. Play it even if you think you remember. It is instructive, and rated R for language (it would be rated PG-13 today). Play it now!

Jack Torrance (Nicholson) explains the new rules.

One gets the sense, at least I did, that Domestic Tranquility for the Torrance family was becoming a little strained at the Overlook Hotel. If you’re unfamiliar with The Shining, Jack Torrance, an author, is hired as winter caretaker for the mountain-isolated Overlook Hotel. With wife Wendy and son Danny in tow, he plans to take advantage of the peace and quiet offered by the hotel's solitude to write. It doesn’t really work out for him, though; despite all the typing, he remains a blocked writer to the end. But it wasn’t for lack of solitude. It ended badly because of the ghosts, or the insanity, or both…or neither. (It’s really hard to tell.)

Sagamore Manor is cramped and claustrophobic compared to the Overlook. So, you can probably appreciate what I’m up against here. Not to worry, though. The only ghost we have is named Edgar, and I’m more or less sane. No ugly unpleasantness, such as that depicted in the creepy scene above, would ever take place at Sagamore Manor. It simply wouldn’t do to let matters get so out of hand here. Largely for my sake. I can out-Nicholson Nicholson when it comes to throwing scary, unhinged tantrums, but I can’t cue eerie background music, and not for nuthin’ is my beloved called (behind her back) Frau Ilsa Jingleheimer-Schmidt, Direktor of Domestic Tranquility, She-Wolf of the War Room. (I didn’t marry Shelley Duvall.) 

THE TROUBLE WITH WRITING ABOUT WRITING, as I’m doing right now, is that it takes precious time away from your writing. But as we know, all work and no play makes Jack an axe murderer. So I decided to step back for a moment, remove the creative millstone from my neck, and enjoy a little bit of wacky fun by cranking out this meandering, stream-of-consciousness piece for my cherished Quill and the bemusement of my treasured readers. Scribbling away for TRQ is play, not work. And, frankly, I’ve felt a little guilty of late...about neglecting the Quill. But I can’t linger. I am deeply committed to the novel, interesting things are starting to happen, and I really should get back at it. Time, for me, is always a concern. Oh what the heck! I can spare a few minutes more.

As I mentioned earlier, writing fiction is…well it’s very different. While it is indeed liberating, it’s a very demanding discipline, if one hopes to produce something remarkable. Mediocrity is never an option. So in a very real sense, I’m starting something new relatively late in life. As such, I’m heartened by the fact that Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until age 78. Hell I’m only 58. Fortunately, creative writing is a vocation for me, not a gig. While I appreciated my livelihood, and enjoyed a certain level of satisfaction during my career, I never really liked what I was doing. It was honest work, it paid quite well, and I developed an exceptional reputation. Recall Paul Gallico’s words from the second paragraph, “...there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.” And so I did. Now I’ve set my sights on the sort of writing I can love.

I’ll be back on these pages from time to time; The Restless Quill will live on, perhaps as long as I do. Hey, Grandma Moses made it to 101. The prognosis isn’t quite that optimistic for me; I haven’t been able to buy life insurance since 2004. Make of that what you will, but my take is I need to remain focused if Small Animal Needs is ever to see the light of day. At least one good novel is the immediate goal. It’s possible. Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone with the Wind in 1926 to pass the time while recovering from an automobile accident. It just so happens I have some time to kill as well. What’s more, Gone with the Wind is the only novel Mitchell published during her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the book in 1937, and in 1939 it was adapted into a major motion picture. One book was all she needed.

I hold no grand illusions regarding the potential of my magnum opus. We’ll simply have to wait and see. But if it’s ever going to happen at all, I must at last wrap up this piece and get back to it. And this is as good a time as any. It happens I’ve just lucked into a little “me” time here in the War Room. Our eternally lovable, ever-restless Director decided that now, right now, would be a good time to fire up the leaf blower and vanquish the fallen from our property. Not much daylight left, I noted, but what a marvelous idea. A worthwhile outdoor project that would be very…time consuming. I’d nearly forgotten, however, that if I don’t fire up the damned blower, she'll try to do it, which scares me to death. 

Sure enough, not wanting to disturb me I suppose, she went outside and commenced to yanking the blower’s start cord, over and over, to no effect. I was plan B. One of my many responsibilities here at the Manor includes starting and operating loud machines powered by two-stroke internal-combustion engines…leaf blower, weed whacker, lawn mower, pressure washer, whatever. Not a problem for me; in fact, I prefer it that way. All she need do is ask. And barely 20 minutes ago, she did...broke down and asked for help starting the blower. But one must parse the Director's words carefully. She’s headstrong and proud. When she asks for “help," it doesn’t necessarily mean "will you do it for me?” No. More often it means “help me do it myself.” But our little rituals must play out. As did this one:

[The Director, dressed for outdoor yard work, standing just outside the War Room.]

Gewage (rhymes with 'sewage’), can you tell me how to start the leaf blower?

Sure. Let’s go."

No. Don’t get up. I can start it! Just tell me how.

Well…the instructions are on the side of the blower; but it’s a little complicated, and the engine can be temperamental when cold.

Just tell me. I can do it! I almost had it going once.

Yeah, well you keep pulling the cord, and as soon as it sounds like the engine's about to catch, you quickly need to flip the choke lever about a quarter inch… Look, it really is tricky. Give me a second. I’ll have you filling the neighbors’ yards with our leaves in no time." 

“But I can do it if you just show me.

“Fine. I’ll start the blower. I’ll show you how it’s done. You just watch what I do."

“But I want to start it.

“And you can start it next time. Next time you’ll know how to, because you’ll have watched me do it this time. Right? As soon as today’s demonstration is over, you’ll be in business. As for who starts it today, the leaves won’t know the difference…trust me. Shall we go?

Do you want a banana first?"

Cut it out! You’re trying my readers’ patience."

Well I got her up and running. And from the calm of the War Room, I sit alone...I can hear the deep roar of that game little two-stroke engine out back, which tells me she's having a merry old time. Merry wife, merry life! And how perfect is that? 'Tis the season to make merry! We’re almost through Christmastide. The New Year is here. The old is out, the new is in, the holidays are over, and it is time to get back to work. I have characters to create, arcs to plan, subplots to plot, turning points to turn, veins to open, and a very demanding ghost to please. 

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