Have you ever had to talk a writer down from a ledge?
No? Neither have I, at least not literally. But I have had to calm down some of my writing brethren on a few occasions, as well as prop up their spirits on other occasions, just to keep them from leaping into some figurative abyss.
In the winter issue of our literary quarterly, Genesis, we printed a short story titled “Another Christmas Eve” by Harry Foster. U.S. 1 printed it originally in the 2010 Summer Fiction issue. I reprinted it now because it seemed the perfect counterpoint to all the radiance of the “joy to the world” and “star bright” sentiments we hear at this time of year. (The writer, sadly, wasn’t around to appreciate it — he died in a car crash in July.)
To me “Another Christmas Eve” was a reminder why we have this annual festival of lights. Somewhere close to the darkest day of the year a writer, beset by rejection letters, made his way to a ledge on the fifth floor of a building in what seemed to be a heartless city. A cop on the beat made his way to the ledge and summed up the situation:
“A writer? Well, that explains a lot. Writers spend a lot of time at their desks, alone, isolated, caught up in their own little world.”
I will let you read the story to find out how the cop talked the guy down. But suffice it to say some of us writers have our dark days, and they don’t always coincide with the darkest days of the year.
I was able to take an inventory of some of the greatest writers through a book I just received in our office secret Santa gift exchange. My Santa, advertising sales representative Jacqueline Barrett, gave me a book, “Odd Type Writers,” with the subtitle “From Joyce to Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors.”
The writer, Celia Blue Johnson, a former editor of fiction and nonfiction books, obviously did a lot of Google research for this 198-page book. A little obsessive and quirky myself, I didn’t read the book just to see how psychologically impaired writers are, though that was on my mind. The greater incentive was summarized in an exchange between Philip Roth and Princeton’s own Joyce Carol Oates:
Philip Roth recalled an observation from Joyce Carol Oates about authors and their work schedules. Oates noted that when writers ask one another about their regimens, they really want to know, “Is he as crazy as I am?”
Roth added, “I don’t need that question answered.”
I don’t need to make the comparison since I live comfortably in the knowledge that I am not in the same league as any of the celebrated but “Odd Type” writers in this book. But I still take a little solace in knowing that some of the great writers are indeed as crazy as I am, or even more so.
Even as we fight the darkness in our lives, many of us nevertheless insist on getting up before the sun to begin the daily grind. On the shortest day of the year, as measured by sunlight, I find myself awake even before the alarm sounds at 5 a.m. and fastened to my desk by 5:15 or so. But if we were all alive at the same time, I would be in good company. According to Johnson’s book, the early bird club includes Sylvia Plath, who rose at 4 a.m. to begin her writing (and get a head start on the rest of us); Toni Morrison, Jack London, and Katherine Anne Porter, up and about by 5 a.m.; Kurt Vonnegut and Anthony Trollope, 5:30 a.m.; and W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Victor Hugo, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton, and even the writer some of us think of as the ultimate party man, Ernest Hemingway, all of whom tried to be bright-eyed and somewhat productive by 6 a.m.
Of course, as I sit here close to 7 a.m., the day still dark, I am also finishing off my fourth or fifth cup of coffee. Too much? Well, as I wrote above, I am not in the same league as the literary lights, not even in the consumption of coffee. Johnson’s book reveals that Voltaire routinely knocked back 40 cups of coffee a day. Really too much? Ask Honore de Balzac, who drank 50 cups a day, according to Johnson’s research.
Walking has been my favorite (and only) exercise for years now. I’m in good company, according to “Odd Type Writers:” Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Aldous Huxley, Wallace Stevens (who didn’t know how to drive and had to walk two and a half miles to work), and Charles Dickens, who claimed he could walk at 4.8 miles an hour. Wow. My pace is just a little over 4. Dickens and I aren’t in the same league, as walkers or writers.
I have a quirky habit of editing stories printed out on 11 by 17-inch pages, with extra wide margins to allow plenty of comments and corrections, always made by a No. 2 pencil. Balzac insisted that drafts of his work be printed on large pages with wide margins — the resulting “marked-up proofs frustrated and confused his typesetters.”
In the pre-computer days of my writing career, I carried a pair of scissors and a small container of Trenton-made Best-Test glue in my briefcase. It was my control-V key back in the day. Jack Kerouac knocked off his landmark novel “On the Road” on a continuous scroll of paper that he had taped together so he wouldn’t have to keep replacing pages in the typewriter. One editor looked at the manuscript skeptically, wondering how it would be revised. Kerouac got angry, took it instead to Viking, which published it in 1957, selling some 5 million copies in the U.S. In 2001 the 119-foot long scroll sold at Christie’s for $2.43 million — a world record for a manuscript.
Sometimes the quirks and obsessions lead to more severe mental distress. Johnson reports that Evelyn Waugh attempted suicide after his first manuscript was rejected. Jack London, after some 650 rejection letters, considered taking his life. And some of the leading literary lights had the darkest moments: Virginia Woolf, who took her life in 1941 at the age of 59; Ernest Hemingway, 1961, age 61; and Sylvia Plath, 1963, age 30.
I am not a candidate to follow in that path — once again, I am not in their league. I also have important things to do, including wishing everyone a happy and enlightened holiday (emphasize the light), and a healthy new year (emphasize the health).