You tell someone that you write, they immediately get this hypnotic Zen look in their eyes. Possibly imagining cozy little writing nooks with perfectly sharpened pencils and hardly used erasers, laptop writing near an Infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic amongst meticulously groomed gardens, koi ponds and fountains, or even the designated booth at Starbucks complete with endless foaming heady lattes passed to them.
I really don't say anything to quell their delusions, for the lack of something cool to say about my own writing style. I pretty much throw stuff at the wall, if it sticks, it stays... and there's nothing charming about that. I have always been intrigued by what motivates writers. After researching various authors, I find writing is not the starry-eyed euphoria their fans think it is.
Of course it sounds great to take a laptop to an Infinity pool or a Bali beach and tap out your next novel, but it seems writing is a state of mind more than a location.
I had fun Googling the habits of writers this week. As a rule, it appears that writers have simple personal preferences rather than all out superstitions. Coffee, no coffee, lucky pen, candles burning, bright light, no light, alcohol, no alcohol, music, absolute silence, writing when everyone in the house is asleep, covering the delete button with tape, writing in pencil until the lead is worn completely away, favorite slippers... you get the picture.
My desk consist of scribbled pages of disjointed sentences and one really stupid list titled "Words I Think are Cool and Want to Use." The areas of the desk that are not covered with the above are eclectically painted with coffee cup rings and wine dribbles. The wall next to my keyboard would confuse and disturb anyone but me. Color charts of saltwater and freshwater fish, a flyer from The Peanut Dude in Mt. Pleasant, a feather from a freshly killed turkey that Suzannah Miles plucked from its carcass as it hung over its murderers back (with permission of course) while we cruised back roads for stories one day... Also, pictures of family, friends, grandbabies, ya ya's mingled with senior porn birthday cards, printed pics of crafts and ideas, coasters from fun evenings, ticket stubs of events, cocktail napkins and finally... my favorite: mules.
I must admit that I stole my writing mascot from Faulkner. Although he did drown a whole team of mules in the river in his novel As I Lay Dying, I believe he had a fondness for their tenacity. He had a painting of one over the mantle near his desk. Faulkner knew his mules. My favorite line of his, "A mule will labor 10 years willingly and patiently, for the privilege to kick you once."
The last living Faulkner to the legacy was Dean Faulkner Wells (Faulkner's niece) who wrote Every Day by the Sun. After reading a few paragraphs from her lovely memoir, it wasn't hard for me to imagine Faulkner glancing up at his mule often for inspiration. Rick Bragg wrote, "Until I read her book, I didn't know that Faulkner struggled for years to pay the bills and win the respect of a hometown that largely ignored him and occasionally mocked him." I can only imagine their jealousy, their taunting and their snide whispers as he passed on the street. "Get a real job, one that pays, writing is a hobby not a career."
One such hater was his own uncle, a judge who said, "There's a black sheep in every family and Billy's ours, not worth a cent."
It wasn't until MGM came to town in 1949 to film Intruder in the Dust that the town began to take him seriously. So, yes... maybe a little satisfaction was warranted as Faullkner imagined his naysayers getting a swift kick in the butt from his painted mule.
I read an article a few years ago about how you know you've arrived as a great southern writer. Former professor Jerry Leath Mills, UNC Chapel Hill, concluded after studying 30 prominent 20th-century writers that there was indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature. "Is there a dead mule in it?" he asked.
I haven't found the right dialogue to insert a dead mule into my work yet, but I do rather fondly consider the ass my writing talisman. I clearly identify with the stubborn mule especially on the days my fingers sit idly atop the keyboard paralyzed, while I stare mouth agape at the sentence I wrote that I am supposed to expand upon. "Mama, there's blood in my cereal." When my fingers get to tapping again, I give a little nod to my mule.
It may not be grandeur, but life doesn't always inspire on demand. I've written a page or two soaking wet leaning out of a shower. And another with an eyebrow pencil in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. But the truth is, I write when and where I want to, because I like it and that "Little Ass of Mine" picture on the wall reminds me of that and helps me to keep it real.