Thursday, Aug. 22, 1996
I’m all alone! Not even a car! Ellen is spending a couple of days back in Boston for professional purposes. Nicole, Kent, and little Samuel Eli left this morning, with a flight tomorrow morning from Boston back home to L.A., alas. Rosie, George the man, Maurice the parrot, and the two dogs are back in Framingham until the weekend; George is at work, and Rosie is dealing with the rest of their menagerie and her strange duties as a Tufts veterinary student. (A few months ago, she helped electrically ejaculate a male gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo. A quick electrode to the prostate and he doesn’t know what hit him, like Woody Allen at the Orgasmatron in Sleeper. When the attending veterinarian in charge fumbled some instrument for a moment, Rosie accused him of performance anxiety.) And Biz, the youngest daughter, is in Boston with Ellen, making last preparations for becoming a Columbia freshman next week.
To the naïve, this privacy and quiet isolation might seem a writer’s dream. It is even a cool, windy day, the sky a little gray, removing any temptation to hike over the beach trail, reopened now, with the departure of the Gores from Marty Peretz’s house.
In fact, like many writers, as soon as I am free from distraction, I begin feeling bitter nostalgia for it. Despite all those cornball ParisReview interviews with writers that dazzled me when I was in college, with their talk about a thousand words a day, at the desk by 6:30 a.m., 20 razor-sharp Ticonderogas and all that, few people I know can write without a lot of procrastination, time-wasting, whining, and avoiding. I find that much of my life is consumed by two demanding, hellish activities, both requiring energy and self-control: Writing and Not Writing. Between these two vast, uncomfortable terrains, briefly dividing them, lies a thin, pleasant borderland: Having Written. Most writers are better at making excuses or self-indictments than at getting things written. We don’t always like to admit this shiftless behavior, and often create spectacular fibs to cover it.
The most famous example is Coleridge, claiming in a prose note to his poem KublaKhan that he had a much longer poem in his mind, all thought through, and was engaged in writing it out when a “person from Porlock” called him out of the house “on business.” The English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) sees through that smoke in her poem ThoughtsonthePersonfromPorlock, which begins:
Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?
He could have hid in the house.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.
He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
At this point in the poem, I find myself inclined to utter the syllable Biz and her friends use to indicate hearty agreement with something: Word! The poem is a bit too long to quote entire, but here is another bit of it, where Stevie Smith confesses her own attitude:
I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend
Often I look out the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
Modern life provides the perfect Porlockian escape: the telephone. With no answering machine here on vacation, I am its grateful slave, answering on the third ring at the latest. Mike and Gail Mazur invite me to dinner, good. And in California, with three more hours in which to write or not write than I have, Bob Hass calls. He has seen the review of my book; also he wants to have one of our mutual bellyaching sessions about things we have promised or intended to write but have not yet produced, manuscripts we have not yet read for people who asked us to read them, etc. The conversation itself is a valuable means of evasion: mutual Porlockism, coast to coast. Old troupers, we know which questions to avoid: What have you been working on? What did you do today? … and other violations.
In contrast, Ellen writes every day, regularly and intently and without fuss: an indication that in the (perhaps sick) sense I have in mind, she is not “a writer.” As a teacher and psychologist, she can use her journal as a way to think. Anybody eavesdropping on us might easily guess wrong which was the writer: her scribbling away energetically, me talking on the phone, reading every inch of the newspaper, reorganizing the spice shelf. She has many shoe boxes full of old journals, rarely consulted. The kids and I have instructions to destroy them after she is dead. Looking at those many pounds of laid-away writing I recognize my own shopkeeper’s attitude: what a waste! Maybe you could use some of that–sell it or keep it, or weave it into a comfy blanket of creation, to keep out the chilly drafts of self accusation: What did you do today?