My pencils are sharpened. I have a dozen erasable pens at hand—six blue and six red. A stack of legal pads is within an arm’s reach. The first is sitting, blank and inviting, in front of me on my desk.
My coffee is percolated. There is a cup at my left elbow with exactly the right combination of cinnamon, milk, and sugar to tantalize my taste buds. My cup is far enough away from my pages (hard won experience) so that if I make a wrong move, it will spill on the floor instead of onto my deathless prose.
I take a sip.
I put down my cup
I pick up my pencil.
I poise it over my empty sheet.
I smile at the infinite joy of being able to partake in the creative process. And then…
I fall asleep.
Hey. What’s going on here?
I am a writer. I kiss the rings of the greats who came before me: Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and those brilliant and completely improbable Brontës…all of them nineteenth century authors who wrote under impossible conditions and turned out book after book after book (okay. Forget the Brontës…they turned out an average of one book each and then promptly died).
Consider this: Quill pens. Ink pots. No central heat. NO HEAT AT ALL!
I imagine Charles Dickens in his writing room on an icy winter day, dipping his pen into his inkwell with nearly frozen fingers, scribbling a few lines, dipping again, putting down the pen, rubbing his cold hands, picking up the pen…and back to work again!
Dickens wrote dozens of novels, histories, stories and plays. He gave lectures, performed on the stage, went to debtors prison, survived a deadly train crash, and had ten children and a full time mistress before he died of a well-earned stroke while, of course, in the process of writing yet another book.
Emile Zola, under similarly frigid conditions, wrote twenty novels. He also managed to have two children with his wife’s housemaid, protest injustice, be convicted of libel, be sent to jail, escape, and flee to England. After he returned to France, he worked in rooms heated only by coal-gas fires, asphyxiation from which eventually caused his death. He, too, no doubt, was in the middle of writing a book.
Also writing with a quill pen, Victor Hugo produced over sixty books, poems and plays. He endured the death of one daughter, the insanity of another, and fifteen years of political exile in Guernsey. Regardless of the obstacles, however, he wrote, and wrote, and wrote. And who knows? Maybe his devoted mistress (viva la France!) blew on his hands to warm them during cold winters of scribbling on interminable white sheets.
Then we have the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, who taught themselves to write in minuscule script on tiny pieces of paper while sitting around a kitchen table, in a cold, cold room. Despite growing up near a cemetery where rotting corpses polluted their drinking water…and despite the inclement weather, poverty, a cruel father and a drug-addicted brother, they managed to write great, great prose.
Which brings us to me. I have heat in the winter and a pleasant cross breeze in the summer. On hot days, I can go to an air-conditioned library and stake out a table to work. I have retractable pencils, ballpoint pens, and computers to do research, to cut, paste, copy, edit, print out manuscripts, and simplify my every need.
As I writer, I do not live on earth. I live in heaven, with every comfort and convenience easily within my reach. And yet…
If any of my heroes were standing before me today, engulfed in the sublime glow of their literary achievements, I would not ask them how they came up with story ideas; how they coped with prison and exile; how they handled criticism; or even how they juggled their mistresses and wives.
I would merely stare at them in awe, and plead with them for an answer:
Summer, fall, winter, spring…how did in the world did you stay awake?
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.