11 March 2011

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There are many books on writing, all filled with writing about books, which sounds tiresome, and often is. Only some of this writing is in books. The rest is in desk drawers or filed in the cloud, as we call the place where words are when they aren’t actually in your computer but appear to be.

This afternoon I was reclining in a comfortable chair, first mistake, polishing off a deep book by Umberto Eco and struggling with the urge to take a nap. When I awoke two hours later I realized “I’ve got nothing” as in “I have no idea what to write and it’s pretty much time to come up with something.”

Idly I turned to “Lessons from Late Night” by Tina Fey, an amusing article in the current New Yorker. In the first two sentences she’s funny, and that’s why they pay her the big bucks. Why would I care that Fey worked for glamorous Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels for nine years while I sat on a chair in the unheated back office of a rural bookstore?

“In 1997, I realized one of my childhood dreams. (Not the one where I’m bring chased by Count Chocula.)” I told you she’s funny.

The urge hit me to write something cute, funny, and paid by the word. I jumped up, scared the cat, and spun into a nearby computer chair. Tina fires the starter pistol. I react.

This is the point where I wish I could write with pencil and paper. Pencils do not have to be turned on and warmed up. They don’t have to ask themselves if everything is connected, monitor, keyboard, hard drive. They don’t ask for a password, and they don’t buzz like frogs in winter.

Pencils don’t ask you to rename last week’s file and figure out the date three days from now. Pencils smear, but that’s a small inconvenience.

When you’re finished how do you email your smudgy pages to hundreds of people’s spam folders? It can’t be done with pencil alone, I’ve discovered.

All week long I worry about what I’m going to write on Thursday night. Worry throbs like a low-grade toothache. When the family vehicle dies half-way out of the drugstore parking lot, worry throbs. Especially then.

Unlike Mozart and his famously facile creative process, what I want to say has not already taken shape when I sit down to write. Unlike Mozart I hardly know what key I’m in, let alone what page I’m on. Instead, I channel my inner Miles Davis and make it up as I go along. Blow smoke until the bass player subtly signals G minor, and away we go.

“Confessions of a Young Novelist” is the latest book by the 77 year-old young novelist Umberto Eco (his ironic joke, not mine). It’s deep and entertaining, being pretty much the transcript of his Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature delivered at Harvard University, a place I once applied.

As a philosopher and semiotician, Eco spent a career parsing the meaning of meanings of words. Asked to contribute a detective story to an upcoming anthology, Eco “hunted through my desk drawers and retrieved a scribbling from the previous year – a piece of paper on which I had written down some names of monks.

“It meant that in the most secret part of my soul the idea for a novel had already been growing, but I was unaware of it. At that point, I had realized it would be nice to poison a monk while he was reading a mysterious book, and that was all. Now I started to write ‘The Name of the Rose.’”

Eco has a lot to say about The Empirical Author and the Model Reader. His confessions are absorbing, and much easier to absorb, I would think, in book form than in a lecture hall.

My confession is simpler than Eco’s: Remember to push Save every couple of minutes or you’re in trouble.


Umberto Eco – Born in Italy in 1932 and named after the inventor of a plug-in hybrid vehicle that Mussolini ordered destroyed? The author’s homepage in English

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