Notebook + overdrive pedal
I decided to get away for the weekend. Wanted to go somewhere and write lyrics. My girlfriend Erica was in Italy, and my roommate Frank was bartending at the Belmont Stakes. I decided to finish some songs in a motel room by myself.
Part of the plan was to find a motel room near a weird cool place, so that I could write all weekend and make one trip if I needed to clear my head. What’s a weird cool place? My first choice was the Boxing Hall of Fame, which is in upstate New York. When I looked it up, I was shocked to see that this very weekend was their induction ceremony. What luck! Marvelous Marvin Hagler was going to be there. Wait, Rosie Perez was going to be there! She was even going to be the Parade Marshal on Sunday. I didn’t know what Parade Marhsal means, but Frank reminded me that Rosie Perez has, from time to time, made appearances on the Ivan Anderson Top 5.
Until 4 days ago, I never really understood how big upstate New York is. When I looked up the driving directions, I learned that the Boxing Hall of Fame is a 6-hour drive away. I’m gonna spend the whole weekend driving, I thought. That would normally be an attractive idea, but I’d recently lost the car I most love in the world. I cannot get into the details of this now, but since I lost that car, driving has been an altogether different experience for me. Going to the Boxing Hall of Fame would put me back in mourning—it was too far away, too adventurous, too perfect. I knew somewhere over the course of those 6 hours I would look at the odometer of Erica’s car (mine while she’s in Italy) and break down.
Besides, the thought of trying to meet Parade Marshal Rosie Perez, the pressure to flirt with 48-year-old Rosie Perez, was already exhausting me. I would get zero writing done.
Instead, I discovered Gillette’s Castle in Connecticut, built by William Gillette, a guy who played Sherlock Holmes on stage 100 years ago. It was only 2 hours away. It looked medium popular. I booked a nearby Econolodge for 2 nights.
I brought a composition notebook and my guitar. I picked up a bunch of fruit snacks and Zone bars on the highway. No computer. I took 2 books: The Spooky Art, by Norman Mailer, and The Forty Days of Musa Daghh, by Franz Werfel. I am, as of this writing, 300 pages into Musa Dagh, which represents the first significant fraction of this 1,100-page book about the Armenians. I am currently at one of the book’s hard parts. The not-hard parts depict Armenians taking to the mountains with guns and ammo, preparing to hold off the Turks Alamo-style, drawing battle plans, building forts, and practicing Rambo maneuvers in a way that is rousing and hopeful for the reader. But then, inevitably, new Armenians enter, telling grisly stories from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, stories that are completely horrifying and go on for pages. These are the book’s hard parts. And even though I have been more than gamesome for 300 pages of Rambo, then genocide, then Rambo, I am currently between Rambos. So before I left, I decided to bring along another book. Hence The Spooky Art, which is just Mailer rhapsodizing about writing and beyond.
When I got to my room at the Econolodge, the full weight of what I had decided to do came over me. My motel room smelled like smells. The deadbolt didn’t work. The phone didn’t work. With all the lights on and the TV blasting (also the remote control didn’t work), my room was still dark. It was a bizarre, impossible darkness. I had not been prepared for the loneliness of what I was about to do: write by myself for 3 days, in a dark motel room, with 1 trip to a castle. It was going to be fun, but also lonely. On my bed with my guitar, looking at an Econolodge parking lot through the window, I was lonely.
But it made me feel closer to Norman Mailer. I took his advice seriously about the importance of committing to writing for hours on end no matter what. He says you must do this so that your subconscious has a reason to trust you. Only after days of staring at a blank page, gaining weight, accomplishing nothing, will the subconscious bequeath one of its gifts. Looking around at the Econolodge and all its drab adversities, I felt eligible for that.
Moreover, I felt receptive to the full size and complexity of Norman Mailer’s superstitions: that everything in the universe is a plus or minus on the soul of the writer, whose true mission is to nudge the sum of all things toward plus by writing novels. I was ready to believe that as never before. I was ready to believe that books and lyrics mattered in ways I didn’t even know. Recall, again, the uncanny persistence of Econolodge darkness. I’m telling you, my room was dark against all odds. Even on Saturday, with the curtains open and the high-noon sun shining directly into my room, it was dark. So there was that—something to take seriously in an account of the mystical forces around me. Recall also that I had chosen not to go to the Boxing Hall of Fame, boxing being one of my bonds with Mailer. I had declined an invitation from Rosie Perez—I had exiled myself to the Econolodge Den of Darkness. Surely this too was part of the cosmic algebra of my weekend.
Part of me wondered if I was courting something really bad. I had chosen to visit an old castle; I had made the lonely choice, maybe the haunted choice. I was setting in motion events similar to those that began The Shining. I was actually worried about that: before I left, I sent an email to some friends with the phone number and address of the Econolodge where I was staying. “If you never hear from me again,” I wrote, “start here.”
Fortunately, there was no Shining. Gillette’s Castle was quaint. No real occult to speak of, just a bunch of kids with braces running around. I was there as Alone Guy, carrying around my notebook just in case anything spooky happened and lyrics appeared to me. At one point, I carved “IVAN + ERICA” into a wooden picnic table when no one was looking. Sorry, Rosie Perez, I said. Then Sorry, Erica, for saying sorry to Rosie Perez.
After that it was back to the Econolodge for more writing. I unplugged the TV. Consumed fruit snacks. Wrote. Procrastinated by practicing guitar bullshit. Wrote more. Consulted the rhyming dictionary. I forgot to mention this: I had brought the rhyming dictionary my ex-girlfriend Jeanne gave me 10 years ago, back when me and Jeanne were still me and Jeanne.
After 1:00 AM on Saturday, I noticed that my compact MW rhyming dictionary was missing an entry for words that rhyme with savage: cabbage, baggage, etc. I forget why I needed rhymes for savage, but the omission affected me. I spent several wee-morning hours trying to find where the dictionary had hidden savage et al. I never found it. The dictionary had failed. I began an argument with Merriam-Webster in my mind. This is no time to make grave mistakes, I said to my book. Not now, when the Internet has its foot on your throat. You can’t be making unforced errors at a time like this. Do you think I’ve never heard of RhymeZone.com? Do you think the Internet isn’t teeming with words that rhyme with savage, and not only that, but RhymeZone lets you include near rhymes in any search result? Do you have any idea how powerful that is for the young author?
I am willing to believe in the eldritch power of print. I believe in the spookiness of The Spooky Art, and that the Internet is a species of plastic, something that is destroying the mind-world of Norman Mailer. Yes, I am a person who will spend money to be in a decrepit motel room away from the noise and the honking of all that. But when Merriam-Webster leaves out important rhymes from the print edition, I have to wonder if my side has already surrendered. Keep in mind: I don’t know what happens on the fortieth day of Musa Dagh. I know how the Armenian genocide ends, of course, but I don’t know if this guy Bagradian makes it or not. This is why, at 3:00 AM, hunched over on my EconoBed, realizing that my rhyming dictionary contained at least 1 horrible failure, I wondered seriously if all was doomed. I kept writing, though.