“Writing is easy. All you do is just stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
— Gene Fowler
I owe it all to Eileen. That’s what I tell people when they ask me what motivates me as a writer — specifically, what makes me get up in the morning and try to do it all over again.
Some people think there must be a magic ritual, or a formula or a secret prayer that makes the words come, but I tell them no, it’s all because of Eileen. Haven’t seen her in 30 years. Can’t even remember her last name, but she keeps me writing.
Most writers have much more exotic stimuli to get themselves stoked.
Hemingway wrote standing at a desk. Norman Mailer preferred to write in a loft which he could only get to by clambering, Tarzan-style, up a rope. I know a guy who writes mystery novels and claims he has to do the first draft longhand on pads of yellow legal paper using a fountain pen and green ink — while lying in bed surrounded by pillows. Loony? He’s written four best-sellers.
Victor Hugo was weirder. The author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the novels, not the sappy musicals) started his working day bare naked in a room with only a desk, a sheaf of paper, a pen and a pot of ink. He forbade his servants bring him food or clothing until his writing for the day was finished.
Maybe he was just working up to sappy musicals because some composers make even loopier demands on their muses.
Richard Wagner employed his pet dog ‘Peps’ as a musical coach. Wagner would hit a difficult patch, summon his pooch to the piano and play until the dog howled in anguish. Wagner would take the hint and change the tune to Peps’ taste.
The famous Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen was inspired by hatred — hatred of his rival August Strindberg. Strindberg really was a tad insane but that’s another story — the point is, Strindberg attacked Ibsen in print, branding him a plagiarist among other things.
Ibsen responded by buying a painting of his enemy and hanging it on the wall overlooking his writing desk.
“I cannot write a line,” Ibsen said, “without that madman standing and staring down at me with those crazy eyes.”
That rings a bell for me.
Decades ago, when I was starting out as a writer I had a comfy little gig delivering a weekly radio commentary for a CBC radio show that played to rural Canada.
My contact was Eileen, a sweet and thoughtful editor/producer on the radio show I worked for. She greeted me cheerily every week and invited me into the studio to record my piece.
It paid well and all I was required to do was fill two minutes and forty-five seconds with a few scripted words and remember not to burp when the mic was on.
Then, one week, I couldn’t think of a topic. The words wouldn’t come.
Well, so what? It happens, right?
Eileen would understand.
At air time I ambled into the studio, Eileen looked up and said “Hi Arthur — what have you got for us this week?”
Nothing, I said. Couldn’t come up with an idea.
Somebody must have turned up the air conditioning. The studio became suddenly very chilly.
“You’ve got nothing?” hissed Eileen.
But it wasn’t her words, it was her eyes. They had gone from a blissful blue to gunmetal grey. From Anne of Green Gables to Adolf Hitler.
At that moment a message was imprinted in my DNA: If you ever want to see these eyes again, just miss a deadline.
Haven’t missed a deadline since.
Arthur Black is a regular columnist. He lives on Salt Spring Island.