Living with a Writer

Blessed are the weird people: poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours, for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.

Jacob Nordby –author of Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives (2016)

Writers have been the mainstay of my intellectual life since childhood.

It’s safe to say that I know more about writers than I know about anything else. I know not only the breadth and depth of their literary canons (especially those writers whose works I enjoy and teach) but also the breadth and depth of their lives (even those writers whose works I do not enjoy and do not teach).

Taken as a whole, I suppose that writers are a hard lot to live with. (Taken as a whole, I suppose that we are all a hard lot to live with.)

But writers seem to be harder to live with than most of us, and they have more quirks and more eccentricities in their lives and relationships than most of us. Or, maybe it’s simply that they are more in our faces because they have achieved literary fame, the consequence of which is having the world look at all the foibles of their lives through painstaking, unforgiving, and unforgetting research.

A few examples of writerly quirks and eccentricities will suffice. Then you can decide for yourself.

One of the first writers to pop into my mind is Oscar Wilde. He had many eccentricities, but can you imagine living with someone who once walked down the street with his pet lobster on a leash, as he supposedly did on at least one occasion?

Or what about Lord Byron who, when at school, kept a pet bear in his room, walked it around campus on a leash, and even tried to get it a fellowship.

More alarming, still, is Mary Shelley who wrote with her 23-foot boa wrapped around her shoulders. Supposedly, she would write until the boa started to squeeze, at which moment she would stop for the day. Perfect timing, no?

Shelley and Byron and Wilde make Edgar Allan Poe look rather sane if not downright boring. So what if he wrote with his Siamese cat on his shoulder as a double source of relaxation and inspiration? No big deal.

At least two writers had a thing for apples and water, separately not together–the apples and the water, not the authors. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, claiming that the smell motivated him. And to keep from falling asleep while writing, he dipped his feet into ice water. For her inspiration–a century or so later–Agathie Christie chose to eat the apples rather than let them rot. She did so while taking a bath.

At least one writer wrote wearing nothing but his ideas and his underwear (John Cheever). Another exercised naked in front of the window (Franz Kafka) and enjoyed going to nudist camps. He always stood out in the crowd. Go ahead. Guess. Nope. You’re wrong. He was the only guy wearing swimming trunks.

Some writers stand out in other ways: their writing quarters. Dylan Thomas had a writing hut on his estate. Roald Dahl visited Thomas and was so impressed by the hut that he made one for himself based on the exact same dimensions. George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut was truly unique. It was built on a turntable so that it could be rotated to let in the sun.

And let’s not leave out some really strange quirks that writers use to achieve quotas or to meet deadlines. I am most impressed by Demosthenes who shaved half of his head, knowing that his embarrassment would keep him at home and on task. Victor Hugo was far less dramatic: he met his writing quotas simply by having his valet hide his clothes.

Unrelated to the preceding examples of writers having hard-to-live-with quirks are two writerly snippets too good to not snip and include here. I must. I can. Therefore, I shall. Did you know that John Steinbeck’s dog Toby ate nearly half of the first manuscript version of his Of Mice and Men? I cannot help but wonder whether that culinary delight is the origin of the student lament that educators hear over and over again, “My dog ate my homework.”

All right. I cannot leave you or me in such intellectual limbo. I will be right back to report my findings after I consult the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

I’m back. What a fun journey, though I confess that my speculation was in error. The phrase first appeared in print in the Manchester Guardian (July 1929): “It is a long time since I have had the excuse about the dog tearing up the arithmetic homework.”

While consulting the OED, I decided to go ahead and verify the second snippet that I am about to snip and share since I was not certain of its accuracy. Did you know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the following: selfless, psychosomatic, bipolar, bisexual, and suspension of disbelief?

All right. I was wrong about selfless. It first appeared in J. Godolphin Holy Arbor (1651): “I leave this Memento with all selfless Christians.” Coleridge did not use it until 1825 in his Aids to Reflections 112: “Holy Instincts of Maternal Love, detached and in selfless purity.”

I was right about the other words. Psychomatic first appeared in Coleridge’s Shorter Wks. & Fragments (1834): “Hope and Fear..have slipt out their collars, and no longer run in couples…from the Kennel of my Psycho–somatic Ology.” Bipolar appeared in 1810 in his Friend: “Philosophy being necessarily bipolar.” Bisexual appeared in 1825 in his Aids to Reflection. 252:   “The very old Tradition of the Homo androgynusi.e. that the original Man..was bi-sexual.” And my favorite of all–suspension of disbelief–first appeared in his Biographia Literaria II. xiv. 2: “A semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (1817).

Obviously, I am fascinated by writers’ quirks and eccentricities. What is not so obvious is the fact that I would have been able to tolerate and be amused by the quirks and eccentricities if I had actually lived with a writer.

For better or for worse, I never had the opportunity.

But I have been blessed to live with one writer for most of my entire life, 24/7. Vicariously.

That’s exactly what I have done with Robert Frost since 1955 when he took up his residence with me, vicariously: heart, head, home.

It’s been easy living with him as I have done. In fact, I would say that I have had the best of all possible Frostian worlds. I have enjoyed all the good. And I have been spared all the drama–mainly a thread of depression that seems to have plagued the entire family. I have been able to read about it rather than live with it. 

I started living with Frost when I was in the third grade. My teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me to literature, and she started with Robert Frost. She hooked me with his poem “Birches.” I still recall reciting the entire lengthy poem–59 lines–not only before the entire class but also mid-air, alone, as I too “subdued my father’s trees / By riding them down over and over again / Until I took the stiffness out of them.” It did not matter to me then that I had not caught the deeper meanings of the poem and that I had missed the ambiguities. I simply liked the sounds, the word play, the associations. And I wanted more. My teacher obliged, not just with poems, but also with Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes.” I dare say that very little of the essay made sense to my third-grade mind, but I warmed up from the start to Frost’s notion that poetry, like a piece of ice on a hot stove, should ride along on its own melting.

From that point forward, Frost has served as my own literary touchstone, constant companion, and friend. Every day, at least once a day, sometimes more, something always seems to happen that reminds me of something in Frost’s poetry. And off I go on my poetic flight. Or perhaps it is that every day, at least once a day, something in Frost’s poetry reminds me of something else. And off I fly. Whichever way it happens, it’s a journey of constant joys and surprises and poetic feats of associations. 

On more than one occasion, Frost has been my dream companion.

It’s usually the same dream, over and over, capturing the stereotypical–and erroneous–image of Frost, the farmer poet. Frost and I are always in a garden. It’s always summer. I’ve always worked up a heavy sweat, always pushing a hand plow, always tilling the soil between rows of plants while he always sits all relaxed and all leisure-like on a stump as he recites some of his poems.

That recurring dream started when I was in grade school. I still dream the dream from time to time, and I love it because I am always young and thrilled to be laboring in the presence of my very own poet.

I try, as best I can, to forget the one spat that I had with Frost. Thank God, it was a vicarious and momentary falling out, a literary lovers’ quarrel of sorts. I remember the details vividly. They still pain my memory.

It was the morning of January 20, 1961. Robert Frost had been asked to write and read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration. For the occasion, Frost wrote “Dedication.” I watched as televised Frost entered the homes of Americans and others throughout the world. It was an historic occasion. Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected at the age of 43. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. And Frost was the first poet to be invited to read at a presidential inauguration.

It was a cold, blustery, snowy day and the sun was shining so glaringly on Frost’s manuscript that he fumbled and fumbled and fumbled. Yet he kept trying. Finally, he decided–wisely–to abandon the manuscript of the poem written for the occasion and instead to recite from memory his “The Gift Outright.” Both poems are so similar in spirit that I am not certain the shift in text mattered.

Frost was clearly embarrassed by the turn of events and his struggle, but the audience roared with approval and Frost stole their hearts.

He made my heart fall. I remember commenting to my parents, who were watching television with me, that the crowd cheered simply because they were glad that the fiasco was over and that laws should exist to keep old people from embarrassing themselves in public that way.

To this day, I cannot believe my youthful unkindness on the occasion. I have shared my reaction down through the years, hoping that open confession would lessen the pain of my thoughtlessness.

It has not.

On a more positive note, on more than one occasion, I’ve nearly brushed up against fleeting moments of Frostian fame.

As an undergraduate, I decided to prepare a concordance of Frost’s poetry. Without consulting anyone, I spent two years building the concordance on index cards. At that point, I was emboldened to propose the publication to Frost’s publisher, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston. Their reply brought a crushing blow: they had entered into a contract with Edward Connery Lathem to develop a Frost concordance. It was published several years later in 1971.

Another close brush with Frostian fame came a year or two later when I reached out to the United States Postal Service suggesting a Commemorative Postage Stamp on the one hundredth anniversary of Frost’s birth: March 26, 1974. Unfortunately, work on the commemorative stamp was underway already. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm earned me a Frost Commemorative Postage Stamp Poster, and it has graced every office that I have occupied since then. I always hang it so that it’s the first thing anyone sees when they enter my office. Measuring three feet by four feet, it is commanding, and it makes a commanding statement. To the right of the crusty old bard’s portrait–seated and writing at a makeshift desk–is a quote from his poem “Mending Wall”: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”

I value the poster not only because of my personal–albeit ever so slight–connection to the commemorative postage stamp but also because the quote captures a critically important lesson in human relationships and gives each of us an ongoing admonishment about the folly of building walls that separate us from ourselves and those around us.

Decades later, I brushed against Frost in the flesh, if you will, when I had the honor of introducing his granddaughter, Leslie Lee Francis, as part of a 2002 Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College. She spoke on “Education by Poetry.” It was a special treat for me to meet and chat extensively with Dr. Francis, daughter of Lesley Frost, the eldest child of Robert and Elinor Frost. When the evening ended, she gifted me with an inscribed copy of her book The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim (University of Missouri Press, 1994.) In the book, Dr. Francis traces the family’s adventures from their years on the Derry Farm in New Hampshire through their nearly three years in England, bringing Robert Frost to the brink of recognition as a poet. Her gift brought me to the brink of tears.

Who would have ever dreamt that a third-grade teacher in the mountainous coal fields of West Virginia would have turned me on to a poet with such fervor that he would become my constant companion for life? But she did. I have never forgotten the magic that she worked, and it’s that same kind of magic that I hope to perform whenever I enter a classroom to teach a literature course. I always have in mind certain goals, objectives, and outcomes that I hope my students will achieve. But deep down in my heart I have one goal that surpasses all of the pedagogical ones.  And I share it with my students. My hope for them is that somewhere during the course they will find a writer—a poet, short story writer, playwright, novelist—any writer who from that point forward will serve as a touchstone in their lives—a friend; a companion; someone who will be there with them always; someone they can live with forever.

Living with a writer, especially vicariously, might just be the best of all possible worlds.

10 thoughts on “Living with a Writer

  1. You are a published author that continues to educate and amuse us on a weekly basis. I’m sure we would all love to know what your quirks and eccentricities are when it comes to writing?

    Adding to your list of writer quirks, I believe Charles Dickens preferred blue over black ink as it dried quicker. Truman Capote never left more than 2-3 cigarette butts in his ashtray when writing. The others he would slip into his coat pocket. I always wondered how many holes his jackets sustained over the years….

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    • Thanks, Janet, for such a teasing invitation! My quirks and eccentricities are probably far too extensive to be revealed in a blog post. But now that you have imprinted the idea on my mind, we shall see!

      Great snippets re Dickens and Capote! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I admire and envy your ability to see what lies behind or beneath the placid surface of people and events. And your ability to reveal it in the most engaging and charming fashion.

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  3. First, I’m sharing your author quirks with my freshman class. What a humorous way to break the mystique of “writing must be done at a desk in silence” when thinking about how to approach composing.

    Although I knew of your draw to Frost, I don’t recall you sharing your story about his granddaughter. That is AWESOME! Please tell me there’s a picture to go with this!

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    • Delighted to know that you plan to share the writerly quirks with your students. Excellent idea!

      Yes: the evening with Frost’s granddaughter was AWESOME! Photo? I’m sure that one exists somewhere. I was so overwhelmed by it all that I paid no attention whatsoever to photographers!

      Thanks for your comment!

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  4. Pingback: Take Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities | The Wired Researcher

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