Under a Spell

apejpeg.jpgTwo weeks into intensive revisions on my novella and every distraction, everything that pulls me away from the fictional world I am in the process of creating, is infuriating. The mundanities of life require attention—paying the bills, attending parent-teacher meetings—but I am resentful of such “trivialities”. When I’m focused on a project, my solipsism becomes downright scary. I forget to eat, wear the same clothes, grow a beard, drift through the house like a blind cat (present, but unseeing). Hour after hour up in my office, leaving only to use the washroom or grab something (anything!) to eat. I suffer withdrawal symptoms when away from my imaginary creations for even short periods of time. I pine for my characters. I miss their voices. Often find it difficult to follow dinner table conversations, occasionally forced to feign an interest in what my wife and sons are saying. A hard admission to make.

I am utterly immersed in this novella. For eight to ten hours a day I walk around in it and breathe the same air as its inhabitants. When I’m not working, I get the feeling that my characters remain in limbo, awaiting my return. There are divided loyalties, a sense of being stuck between two realities, the disorientation that results from that, confusion, my office door opening to a hallway I don’t recognize at first…

apollojpeg.jpgDuring these times, I have no interest in interacting with the outside world. I care little for consensual reality, ordinary rules and conventions; sometimes I go days without leaving the house. That is my entire universe and, believe me, it’s a whole lot bigger than it looks from the outside. My office is maybe 10 X 12 but its physical specifications are irrelevant. It is a cramped space capsule and time machine all rolled into one.

Viewed dispassionately, I lead a pretty dull and ritualized existence. I do nothing outside of reading and writing and hanging out with my family. I have no social life and a limited circle of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I’ve known for a long time. I challenge any future biographer to scrape up enough worthwhile material to fill a short article, let alone a fucking book. Good luck concocting something of interest with daybook entries like this:

Slept poorly (siege dreams again)

Into office immediately–Coffee


Break for lunch

No decent mail

Good progress today

Boys home/ Sher home

Supper (shepherd’s pie)

Few more edits

Crash with book/ in bed 11:00 p.m.

And that goes on for pages and pages and pages

That’s my life. And that’s why I need that ability to project myself into the worlds I fashion one word at a time. Because my daily routine is so unbelievably fucking tedious and boring, it would kill a sane man. Retreating into fantasy is coping behavior, plain and simple. If I didn’t have this crazy, vivid imagination of mine I would’ve gone off my nut ages ago. I’d have never made it out of childhood.

flaubertjpeg.jpgBe regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Thanks, G.F., and I appreciate that, but I also recall writers like Lawrence (T.E. and D.H.) and Isherwood and Graves and Grahame Greene and Anthony Burgess, world travelers and brilliant diarists, leading fascinating lives and growing vast reputations. Their long shadows still touch us today.

Is this it for me? Sitting in this room day after day, composing sentences, stringing them into stories or novels, producing vast reams of paperwork to little actual effect? A recent journal entry touches a sore point, my terror of being a man of no consequence. Making no mark, leaving nothing noteworthy or commendable behind me. As faceless and anonymous as a body tangled in a mass grave.

There’s a sense now that I’ve got to break out of this rut, seek new experiences, engage with the big, wide world and see what that inspires. Inevitably this brings up thoughts of travel. Are my fictional settings becoming too constricted and too familiar? Would some exotic backdrops lend a little something extra to my tales? Is this cloistered, claustrophobic existence I’m leading stunting my growth as an author and artist?

mertonjpeg.jpgThe clouds change. The seasons pass over our woods and fields in their slow and regular procession, and time is gone before you are aware of it. In one sense, we are always traveling and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense, we have already arrived.” (Thomas Merton)

I need change. I crave it. A door opening. Opportunity knocking. A thrown bone. A crumb of praise. Signs of hope. A phone call out of the blue. Something completely unexpected and scary and exciting. To make my heart race. To break this terrible thrall


  1. Jörn Grote

    You’ll never know whether you leave a mark or not during your whole life. Some writers who were very famous, whose books sold tremendously well, have been completely forgotten. Others who were never famous during their lifetime became big after their death. Sometimes it’s the other way round. You’ll never know. Best thing you can do is to write the best thing you can. I, as a reader, will always appreciate that.

  2. Pingback: exotic traveling » Blog Archive » Under a Spell
  3. Annalise Russell

    I know what you mean, Cliff. And only others of the creative persuasion would understand.
    For me, even doing all those mundane daily chores, cooking, dishes, laundry…they are acts of repetion – my thoughts are inevitably inside one of character’s heads, inside some intricate formula of the story or plot.
    I know it’s gotten particularly bad when I fuss at the dog (and he’s only being a pest because he is trying to get my attention to go outside) and I call him by one of my character’s names. Annalise

  4. erithbabalon

    The urge to travel is simply the creative itch. The lust for what we haven’t experienced yet. A desire for something different: a change of vista; of point of view; stimulus.

    A vivid imagination can take us to those places in mind’s eye – all the more possible now through the the Net and multimedia – but still, I think to actually make the effort to go out there and do it, just go travel to somewhere you have never been (thank you Mr Cummings) even just once a year, even just for a few days, is worthwhile.

    The strange encounters with unfamiliar people, customs, settings… it’s all fuel for the creative.

    I’d heartily recommend the odd trip to somewhere new, with the family, you never know what new novella may be born out of the experience…

  5. blakejohnson

    I posted a response to this blog here:
    This one touched me quite a bit. Made me want to ask if you’d accompany me to Australia…only trouble is…I’m not going to Australia any time soon. But I’m sure your family would love a vacation. I know I would. Thanks for the words, they gave me comforting knowledge that I’m not completely alone in what happens when I’m entrenched in incomprehensible emotion. Hope things look up. I know I’ll buy the novella when it comes out. Hope my post isn’t too depressing, but I don’t know other than that what I hope it might do. Thanks for the words and the shared soul. That was slight warmth to read.

  6. blakejohnson

    That’s what makes it so hard, when it seems ritualistic or banal, just routine, that we’re not treasuring or reveling in the beauty, the “gobsmackingness” of taking that breath, or being alive. Maybe I’m just tired of not being uplifted by ordinary life like it seems people often are in movies and in books. Or like some people are in real life. My dogs are whining like crazy, gonna go let them out, then it’s off to homework for me. And there’s the ordinary, non-uplifting life that’s always so boring and testing, so ordinary that it hardly seems worth it, like we’re lacking ourselves, our own presence, in our lives.

  7. carrie

    Hi Cliff,
    I think you basically have 2 choices… One, you can come to my house and feel completely amazing about your own life to just be thankful that you are not living my nightmare. Or two, take the fam or just your wife down to Costa Rica for a week or 2.

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