Stardust and Inspiration

I spent much of this past week trying to work on the book and it just wasn’t coming together. I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve accumulated enough years of experience as a working writer to know that it’s not all stardust and inspiration.


I started out with the idea that this was a certain type of book, and therefore the characters, the narrative, and the conceit had to fit a particular genre. Well, the book had other ideas. It doesn’t fit that genre and it isn’t going to. Trying to force it to fit was making me angry and frustrated. It was making my characters angry and frustrated, too. I’d written a scene where I made them behave as I wanted them to, and it fell flat. It was completely false. I should have known that the book always knows. Perhaps that sounds a bit too airy-fairy, but this has been my experience. The book always knows. It knows what it wants to be and what the story is. It knows where it’s going. My job isn’t to force it into a particular shape, but to let it reveal its shape to me in due course. This requires patience, something I’m not good at.

Writing is work. Writing is a job like any other. Yes, there are times when I honestly feel like I’m channeling something outside myself, that I’m a conduit, that I’m taking it down and not making it up, like I just have to listen on the page, as writing teacher Julia Cameron says, and it will all fall into place. I love when it’s going that way. 

Then there are the times when getting the damned thing to work out is hard bloody graft, when I sit for hours and get nothing more than a handful of sentences, a paragraph or two. I hate that. That’s when all the fear and self-doubt rise to the surface, when I step back and look at what I’ve made and start thinking that this is crap, it’s no good, no one will ever want it, why am I wasting my time and all the rest of that poisonous psychological soup.

I know instinctively when something isn’t working, and that’s not a scary feeling at all. It’s a calm, measured response that says you know what this doesn’t feel right…I think I need to change that part in the first paragraph where the donkey eats the man’s straw hat….  It doesn’t scare me at all. That other feeling, the horrible fear that everything I make is rubbish? That arises when the work is harder than I expected it to be, harder than it’s been in recent memory. That alerts me that I need to step back, slow down, drop the pen and nobody gets hurt. I get to feeling that way when what I’m making is good, and somewhere deep in my subconscious I know it’s good, so I’m terrified of screwing it up.

When I was younger – a lot younger – I committed to the idea of being a writer. I had a notion that ‘being a writer’ meant sitting in dingy cafes on long, rainy nights, with pen and paper, surrounded by cigarette smoke and a low babble of voices, writing my fingers to the bone and creating a masterpiece, before going home to my rat-infested garret apartment and starving to death. With wine.


In those days I didn’t live in a garret exactly, but I lived in a pretty crummy apartment building and I was so poor I existed mostly on potatoes and couldn’t afford to put the heat on. I sat at my kitchen table wearing all my clothes and with a blanket wrapped around me for good measure and wrote longhand wearing gloves. But it was all good, because I was writing. I think such privations are easier to endure when you’re twenty years old.

Home sweet home back in 1987


La Fée Verte

So Friday night traditionally marks the beginning of the weekend, and we usually have a couple drinks to unwind and appreciate what we’ve accomplished during the week. His tipple of choice is beer or whiskey, and tonight he’s having a Crown Royal with some ice-looking things floating in it, topped with a splash of fizzy drink.

Me? I’m getting cosy with la fée verte – absinthe, the green fairy.


Until I was forty years old, I’d never tasted absinthe in my life.  I grew up with no alcohol in the house at all (my father is a pastor) and the only drink I ever came into contact with was the sherry my grandmother sneaked into her Christmas trifle. I only knew absinthe was very strong, and made you crazy if you drank too much of it – and I’d read about the famous poets and artists of fin de siècle Paris who indulged, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin and others, and who were utterly destroyed by its fearsome power to rot the human mind. Then, during a trip to New Orleans in 2010, shortly after ‘real’ absinthe (containing the oft-disdained wormwood) became once again legal for sale in North America, I bought a bottle on impulse.

(Paul bought mescal, the one with the worm in the bottle. The least said about that, the better.)

I really like absinthe, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. It doesn’t make me hallucinate, although I’d think as a writer, a few genial phantasms might add something to my creative process. Taken sensibly and in a measured fashion (i.e. not gulped straight out of the bottle or in too-rapid succession) it is a lovely drink. The first sip is warming, sliding down the throat to pool agreeably in the stomach. Wait. Allow the heat to disperse throughout your being. Then take another sip. Surrender to the gorgeous lassitude this wonderful drink bestows: God’s in his heaven. All’s right with the world.

To enjoy absinthe properly, you must approach it with due reverence. Unlike pouring out a glass of wine, absinthe requires preparation, a ritual. Use a proper glass. A dedicated absinthe glass, with that handy little reservoir in the bottom, if you can get one. If you can’t, any short, cocktail-type glass will do. (See the photograph, above.)  Absinthe must be mixed. For God’s sake, don’t ever drink it straight; depending on the brand and country of origin, it ranges from about 90 to 150 proof. Drinking it straight will make you very sick if it doesn’t outright kill you.

The water you mix with your precious green libation must be ice cold. I’m afraid there’s no wiggle room on this point. I suggest pouring some cold water over ice cubes in a small pitcher and keeping it in the refrigerator until you are ready to drink.

Put no more than an ounce in the bottom of your glass. If you don’t know what an ounce looks like, a standard shot glass will not lead you astray. Measure one shot glass full into the container of choice. Now lay across the mouth of the glass your absinthe spoon. If you haven’t got an absinthe spoon, anything with holes in it will do. Since I broke the handle off my previous absinthe spoon and am waiting on a replacement, I used a fork. Whatever gets you through the night.

Place one or two sugar cubes (they must be cubes and not granular sugar; you really cannot compromise on this point) across the holes in your chosen instrument. Absinthe contains no additional sugar and is therefore very bitter. Although some heathens prefer it this way, those of us in the civilised world take ours with sugar. If you prefer your drinks medium-sweet, use two cubes. I find two to be exactly right.

Now take your cold water and drip it slowly over the sugar cubes, so that the water melts the sugar and sends it down into the glass. Here is where the magic happens.

As the cold water drips into the absinthe, it changes color, from a deep emerald green to a dense milky shade. This process is known as la louche, or ‘the loosening’. (It also means ‘ladle’, which I don’t recommend as a suitable vessel for absinthe drinking. Consider yourselves warned.) You have summoned the green fairy, and your absinthe is now ready to drink. Do not, under any circumstances, put ice cubes into your drink! Doing so will dilute the alchemical magic you’ve just created.

Some people find that absinthe heightens the creative powers. I find that it relaxes me to the point where my native neuroses obligingly disappear, and if I decide to write while I’m in this state, words seem to flow more easily and I’m less likely to judge my work. (This isn’t to say you should drink in order to write. Therein lies a slippery slope.)

If you drink in company, say at a bar or party, you may find your conversation takes a wittier turn and you are a most charming interlocutor. Or, you’re drunk. Either way, your companions are likely similarly impaired, so que sera, sera. And if you happen to catch sight of yourself in a mirror or other reflective surface, be sure to smile. You are among the blessed of the earth. The brightest stars of antiquity have appeared in the firmament, and we are all going to Heaven.

(Written while I was drinking absinthe, all of it. You shall be the judge.)


It Won’t Stay Still

"The Frustrated Author" by Sean Bieri, DeviantArt
“The Frustrated Author” by Sean Bieri, DeviantArt


The book is driving me nuts. I feel for the most part I’m wading in a swamp through heavy fog, squinting at something – a light, possibly – that I can only just make out in the far distance.  Insofar as there are sensations attached to making this thing, they are almost all unpleasant, apart from the temporary breakthroughs that happen now and then, like a ray of sunlight splitting open heavy cloud to reveal a patch of blue sky no bigger than the palm of a hand.

I’m used to struggling with the material. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I didn’t have to wrestle with it somewhat. With certain books I can identify the point at which it started to writhe away from me, when I lost patience with it, kicked a metaphorical foot through it, and smashed the whole thing to pieces with an imaginary hammer.

It was going so well a few days ago. Nothing changed; it just stopped cooperating. I try to pin it down (Tell me what you mean! What am I supposed to put here, just here, between that and this?) but it slithers out of my grasp. It’s like dropping soap in the bathtub. You grab for it and think you have it, only for it to shoot out between your fingers.

When it works, it works so well. Hums along, in fact, like the proverbial well-oiled thingy.  When it’s not working so well, when there’s grit in the gears, well… I spend a lot of time staring out the window. What comes next? What is it? This hinges on that, so what’s the connection? 

It helps if I can do something else, something that’s not writing. But I have the kind of personality that feels guilty about everything, so if I’m not working I’m a lazy slob with no motivation. There’s very little in-between for me. Days when I’m in a steady ‘normal’ mood are the exception rather than the rule. Either I’m bouncing off the ceiling and bursting with great ideas and the means to bring them to fruition or I’m lying face down on the floor, communing with the dust bunnies.


I’m eager to have this book finished, at least the first draft, because there are other projects I want to work on. But it keeps resisting me. It won’t stay still, no matter how hard I try to stab it. I think the only thing to do is to drop a metaphorical anvil on it by taking it in an unexpected direction OR to set it aside and write this tiny little historical thing that’s been niggling at me for the past several days.

We’ll see.