About halfway through my latest novel, Jim Dooley, a dangerously unhinged literary stalker finds himself in the study of his idol, Scott Landon, a famous writer. Although Scott has been dead for nearly two years, Dooley is overcome with awe. "He deserved a nice place like this," he tells Scott's widow. "I hope he enjoyed it, when he wasn't agonizin' over his creations."
Lisey Landon spent 25 years with Scott, and knows a thing or two about that creative process: She "thought of Scott at the desk he called Dumbo's Big Jumbo, sitting before his big-screen Mac and laughing at something he had just written. Chewing either a plastic straw or his own fingernails. Sometimes singing along with the music. Making arm-farts if it was summer and hot and his shirt was off. That was how he agonized over his smucking creations. But she . . . said nothing."
She keeps her mouth shut because Jim Dooley -- like Annie Wilkes in Misery, another book of mine that touches on the writing life -- is a walking land mine. But even were Dooley an English professor (as is the man who winds Dooley up and sets him in motion), I think she would have held her peace. Because some things simply don't bear much talking about, and the writing life happens to be one of them. Although Lisey could probably have done a better job on that subject than her late husband, if it came right down to it. Most writers are actually pretty punk when it comes to explicating what they do or how it makes them feel, and why not? Does a barber cut his own hair, for God's sake?
Quotes do come to mind, however. One of them is Gertrude Stein's famous bon mot concerning Oakland, Calif.: "There is no there there." Another is Otto von Bismarck's on the legislative process. "Laws are like sausages," he said. "You sleep far better the less you know how they are made." Knowing the process by which novels are written would not keep many readers awake at night, but it certainly wouldn't sell many papers . . . and the next editor to propose an essay on the subject would probably be advised to think of something more interesting. Essays on how paint dries, maybe.
There's a mystery about creative writing, but it's a boring mystery unless you're interested in this one small animal, sometimes quite vicious, that makes its home in the bushes. It's a scruffy little thing with fleas and often smells of whatever nasty mess it's been rolling in. It can never be more than semi-domesticated and isn't exactly known for its loyalty. I'll speak more of this beast -- to which the Greeks gave the comically noble name musa , which means song -- later, but in the meantime, believe me when I say there's little mystery or tragic romance about the rest of it, which is why they never show the working part in movies about writers, only the drinking, carousing and heroic puking in the gutter by the dawn's early light.
Dig this: The so-called "writing life" is basically sitting on your ass.
You have to have a place, but it can be anywhere, really. You have to have some time, but it can be anytime. Early this summer, while my wife and son were doing a joint reading at the public library in Portland, Maine, I got stuck with dog-duty. Our dog is Frodo, a plump and cheerful Welsh Corgi. He makes no trouble. I took him to Deering Oaks Park, found a bench in the shade and wrote four good pages on my new novel in the notebook I carry around. Frodo kept an eye on the ducks. Those four pages weren't perfect -- far from it -- but they were words on paper, and they marched.
People walked past, and no one gasped, "Oh, look! That man is caught in the cosmic godhead fire of the writing life!"
One woman did ask if my dog was a Corgi. I said he was. She informed me the Queen has Corgis. I told her I knew that. Then I went back to writing my novel, and Frodo went back on duck patrol.
It's nice to have your own place, I will admit that. And it's nice to have your own time because you can keep people from calling you on the phone and breaking your concentration. Of course, what they're really doing by breaking your concentration is scaring that scruffy little fleabag back into the bushes.
That part of the romance I really believe. There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer's imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It's drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one's study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn't call it; that doesn't work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.
There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it. This may explain the extraordinarily long pause between Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 and the follow-up, years later. That was called Something Happened . I always thought that what happened was Mr. Heller finally cleared away the muse repellant around his particular clearing in the woods.
On good days, that creature comes out of the thickets and sits for a while, there in one's writing place. If one is in another place, it usually comes there (often under duress; most writers find their muses do not travel particularly well, although Truman Capote said his enjoyed motel rooms). And it gives. Some days it gives a little. Some days it gives a lot. Most days it gives just enough. During the year it took to compose my latest novel, mine was extraordinarily generous, and I am grateful.
Okay, that's the lyric version, so sue me. You'd lose. It's not untrue, just lyrical. It's told as if the writing were separate from the writer. It's probably not, but it often feels that way; it feels as if the process is happening on two separate levels at the same time. On one, at this very moment, I'm just sitting in a room I call my writing room. It's filled with books I love. There's a Western-motif rug on the floor. Outside is the garden. I can see my wife's daylilies. The air conditioner is soft, soft -- white noise, almost. Downstairs, my oldest grandson is coloring, and cupboards are opening and closing. I can smell gingerbread. Laura Cantrell is on the iTunes, singing "Wasted."
This is the room, but it's also the clearing. My muse is here. It's a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That's the other level, and that's the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it's a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level -- the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread -- fades even more. This is a real thing I'm talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it's good, it's better than the best pill.
But there's no shortcut to getting there. You can build yourself the world's most wonderful writer's studio, load it up with state-of-the-art computer equipment, and nothing will happen unless you've put in your time in that clearing, waiting for Scruffy to come and sit by your leg. Or bite it and run away.
I'm often asked if writing classes are any help, and my immediate and enthusiastic answer is always, Yes! Writing classes are wonderful for the writers who teach them and can't make ends meet without that supplementary income. They are also good places for unattached people to meet, talk about books and movies, have a few drinks and possibly hook up. But teach you to write? No. A writing class will not teach you to write. The only things that can teach writing are reading, writing and the semi-domestication of one's muse. These are all activities one must pursue alone.
Aspiring writers are told these things over and over again and constantly push them aside. They want something quicker. A magic bullet at Breadloaf. A secret passageway at Iowa. They are desperate for someone to tell them it's not what you do but who you know. And when I tell aspiring writers I didn't know anybody, I see the light go out of their eyes.
I'm going to save this now to the hard drive and go out for my afternoon walk. Three and a half miles. For about half of that distance, I will look at the trees and the sky. For the other half, I will think about the book I'm currently writing (a novel called Duma Key ). My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does. There's a doll named Noveen in Duma Key , and I don't know what that doll's about yet. I need a visit from my muse to tell me because I'm stuck there. But I'm not worried. We've got a good working relationship, she and I.I've also got my share of bite marks, but you can't see them. Because, as Gertrude Stein said, there's no there there.
- Stpehn King, 'The Writing Life', The Washington Post, 1 October 2006