Paul Madonna, the well-known San Francisco artist who beautifully illustrated my book A Writer’s San Francisco, was recently seriously injured in a car accident. I am wishing him a very speedy recovery and wanted to share with you a few pieces from that book that he enriched so much.]
You walk into your kitchen. The coffeepot is there, the sink is there, the refrigerator is there. How comforting. You walk into your study, boot up the computer, stare at the blank screen. Nothing there. You leave your study. Another day of not writing.
You go to the bar. Lots of people there. Somebody orders champagne. Bodies dance in tight spaces. Very comforting. Between sips of champagne you wonder if you have a novel to write. No, nothing there. Another day of not writing.
Your arm is hurting. Maybe it’s tendonitis. Maybe it’s bursitis. Hard to say. But the pain is there, sharp as a nail. Something’s there. You go into your study, boot up the computer, but your arm is hurting. Nothing there. Another day of not writing.
Where is your novel? Where is it hiding?
Somebody says, “An angel will bring it.” You nod at that, because it reminds you of Christmas. Surely that’s where your novel is, coming with an angel. But your angel must be busy bringing novels to other people. You can tell that she’s not within a thousand miles of your townhouse. Nothing there, except more waiting.
Somebody says, “Your novel is at a workshop.” You go to the workshop, called A Novel Workshop. As you sit there, doing exercises, something like your novel darts by, quick as a mouse, so quick that you aren’t sure you really saw anything. Probably it was nothing. Back to the exercise, about your favorite adjectives. Nothing there.
Somebody says, “Probably you haven’t got a novel in you. Probably you’re sterile, like the rest of us.” That makes sense to you. You feel sterile, so that must be it. You haven’t got the egg, the sperm, the spark, the something. That’s it, of course. Sterility. It reminds you of the look of your hometown. As sterile as that. Nothing was there, so nothing is in you, period.
A little boy says, “Tell me a story.”
“About what?” you reply.
“I don’t know. Make it up.”
You make up a story. Something is there. But it is a story for children, lovely and tender but not your novel. Something is there, but is it more like something or more like nothing? Your stomach is churning. Something has been activated, but is it only stomach acid? You come up with a plan.
You go to a friend. You say, “Tell me to tell you a story.”
“Tell me to tell you a story.”
“No, no! Just ask me to tell you a story.”
“There’s a story you want to tell me?”
“No, no! There’s no story yet. But if you ask me to tell you a story, I think a story will come.”
“I have to leave for the hairdresser’s in thirty minutes. Will it be a long story?”
“I don’t know! Just ask me to tell you a story!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Tell me a story.”
Nothing there. Your friend is too impatient. She has only twenty-nine minutes left. Twenty-eight. You both look at the clock. Twenty-seven.
“You want me to tell you a story?” your friend finally says. “You know Adele, that really difficult woman at work? Just yesterday—”
“Well, all right. So, let’s have your story.”
You get up and leave abruptly.
You cry and have a bad month. It is a very bad month. You walk to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The roar of the ocean drowns out the squawking of the gulls. There are whales out there, and seals, but who cares. You do not jump, but you come very close. The fog rolling in sends you shivering back to your car. You decide to stop looking.
A week later you change your mind. You ask the Zen master down the block, “Where is my novel?” He replies, “When you are empty, you are full.” Could be. But he has never written a novel, and his dharma talks are incoherent. You try the master of Tao across the street. “Where is my novel?” you ask. “Every stage of the Way has its own Way,” he replies. Could be. But he has never written a novel, and you wonder about the gold fixtures in his bathroom.
You try the cognitive therapist across town. “Where is my novel?” you ask. “Let’s contract for a thousand words a day,” she replies. “A thousand words of what?” you ask. “A thousand words of your novel,” she replies. She is very cheerful. “But I don’t have a novel!” you persist. “Then a thousand words of anything.” “But I don’t want a thousand words of anything.” She smiles radiantly. “Would you like to pay me now, or shall I bill you?”
You take a jewelry-making class. “Maybe my novel is hiding in silver solder,” you think. You make a silver elephant pendant that is resonant and beautiful. But your novel doesn’t seem to be hiding there. That evening you rent a French movie. “French movies always move me,” you say. “Maybe my novel is hiding there.” You love the film, cry a little, and pledge to get back to Paris. But your novel wasn’t hiding in the movie.
A year goes by. Day after day, nothing is there. You’ve been busy, idle, sober, drunk, happy, sad, everything, except writing. Finally you meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.
“Where was my novel hiding?” you ask plaintively.
“What novel?” St. Peter replies.
“The one I thought I was fated to write.”
“The one you were fated to write!” St. Peter chuckles. “Didn’t you get the part about free will? You were free to write a novel, not fated to write a novel.”
“I still don’t get it,” you murmur, shaking your head. “Where was my novel?”
“Certainly not here,” St. Peter replies testily, shutting the door behind you with a loud click.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: Unsplash