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Love Your Work

Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash

The life of a writer is a wild adventure you wouldn’t imagine simply by looking at the lonely figure in the black cloak sitting hunched in her/his niche in the cloister, scratching corrections onto the parchment with a feathered quill pen, but it’s true and someone really ought to write about this. At the moment, I am looking at a galley of a new book of mine as sent by a graphic designer named David and I am stunned by the elegance of it, which makes my own words seem almost of classical quality, which makes me want to revise the work to bring it up to the quality of the design, meanwhile my crew of overseers is firing off memos insisting the book be finished by Friday. This is what I’m up against: David’s graphic artistry has shown me how wonderful my work almost is while editors are banging on the door of my cell, threatening to withhold food until I turn the work over to them. It’s ugly.

The book is set in a small town in Minnesota and I feel that a good street fight, an insurrection of farmers versus townsfolk, with a lot of hacking and clubbing and shouting and cursing, would add some interest and maybe also a good gas explosion. I’ve written many novels and never put a major explosion in one and it’s appealing to me now, the chance to have people I dislike file into a building and then blow it up. Terrorists do this all the time, so why not novelists?

I think that with the addition of an insurrection and a gas explosion I could break out of my reputation for Midwestern nostalgia.

It occurs to me, too, that my previous graphic designers were named Butch, Buddy, and Misty, and their surnames ended with -sen or -quist, and David’s name ends with a vowel, same as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico, and my literary reputation has been hampered by poor page design and bad taste in fonts. I think that with the addition of an insurrection and a gas explosion I could break out of my reputation for Midwestern nostalgia and be taken seriously by critics for the Times and Post who majored in women’s studies at Bryn Mawr and Smith, especially if the old white reactionaries who stage the insurrection are the ones who file into the building that minutes later goes up in a cloud of flame and smoke, but meanwhile I’m in the hands of deadline enforcement officers who want me to stop and hand over the goods.

Did Dostoevsky work under these conditions? James Joyce? Toni Morrison?

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The real problem, however, is not only artistic but also my fear of finishing the book and dreading the onset of leisure time, which, in old age, only leads in one direction, brooding, mental deterioration, half-pound cheeseburgers, and watching MSNBC and Rachel Maddow, which leads to despair for the republic. I’ve spent the past year ensconced in fiction and was very happy most of the time. (I’ve never heard Rachel Maddow use the word “ensconced,” by the way. She might say “hopelessly trapped” or “barricaded” but “ensconced” is too comfy for her and she is not a creature of comfort.)

When the enforcers take possession of my hard drive and publish the novel, minus the clubbing and hacking and the gas explosion, I plan to take charge of my life and announce to my wife, who formerly was in charge of it, “My darling, I’m done with Manhattan. We’ve owned this apartment for twenty years and real estate values are skyrocketing and let’s clean up and move to Portugal.”

We spent a week in Portugal a couple years ago for her nephew’s wedding and we loved it. They are a sensible people, fishermen, farmers, sailors, explorers. When I told the nephew how I admired his wife’s ability to adapt to American culture and make friends and find her way around, he said, “Well, she’s Portuguese. She passes for Parisian but she’s her parents’ daughter.” Her father Antonio is an olive rancher and all-around handyman who stayed up all night dancing at the wedding and then drove us around the olive plantation showing off his trees and talking a blue streak in Portuguese. He is a happy man and keeps busy managing twenty or so unfinished projects. He’s a few years younger than I but he’s my model. I want to settle in his village and go to work writing unfinished novels.


A writer doesn’t need literary prizes to be happy, happiness lies in the work itself, sitting down in the niche with the quill pen and adding a few more curlicues. I am ensconced in my work. I don’t want to lose it and that means postponing publication as long as possible. They don’t teach this to MFA students but they should.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions