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There is nothing more daunting than seeing “Word Count: 0” at the bottom of the page. It’s been six days since I got here and I haven’t managed a single word that I want to save. “Come to Arbor,” they said, “it’s the perfect place for writers.” Here’s my first word: Bullshit.
Arbor, Rhode Island is a tiny little town on the ass end of the Block Island Sound. My grandfather’s beach house is little more than a cabin overlooking the rocky end of the shore. What makes it worse is that it’s surrounded on all sides by gorgeous houses – many of which would be called a “mansion” if in another state, but here, they’re just called “beach houses.” The cabin is a two-room, 19th century home, built on a rocky outcropping too small for a lighthouse and too big to just be left alone. The worst thing about all of this is that the cabin was recognized by the Rhode Island Historical Society as a house that John Quincy Adams once spent a night in. That means I can’t modify it. I can’t modernize it. It is stuck in the 19th century.
I have to send you these letters because I have no internet. My phone died two days ago and I have no reliable way to charge it. I went to the local diner, which is twelve miles away, and when I asked to borrow an outlet they looked at me with an expression that’s typically reserved for road kill. So this is my first, hopefully of many. I had to retire my laptop, the word count still very much at zero, for this typewriter. I am staying here until I have the fifty pages my editor asked me for. I told him back in May I would have it to him soon. November is no longer soon.
Keep him busy for me, will you?
I’ll write you again soon.
Today I went down to the beach to explore a bit. The mansions to either side of me are empty. Most people don’t come to Rhode Island for the winter. The people that own these are the type to have a winter home in Florida, California, or New Orleans. A team of groundskeepers are raking dead grass and leaves off of the huge lawn to the left of my place. I asked one of them where the owners are. He said New Zealand. All I can think is one big break, one movie studio comes sniffing around one of my manuscripts and we can have a house like this. We can winter in Australia and summer in New England. Maybe even have kids?
I think the solitude is starting to get to me.
The beach isn’t so much of a beach, but rather twenty feet of pebbly sand beyond twenty feet of giant rocks beyond a guard rail. I could throw a baseball from my front porch and get it into the water. The cabin may not have much, but the view of the ocean is breathtaking – especially at sunrise.
A good way up the beach is an old lighthouse. The white walls have long faded and peeled with the assault of wind, sand, and salt. I spent almost a half hour staring at it, wondering what ships it helped guide to port, marveling at the things it must have seen in its time. I felt like I could hear it creaking in the autumn wind. Somewhere in the distance, I hear a bell ringing in the wind. It must be out on a buoy. Another relic from a long-forgotten time. Back when ships didn’t have radar and GPS to help guide them.
It’s a lot easier to ramble on in these letters than force myself to try to write. I’m going to try to discipline myself tonight. I have a bottle of red wine, an old jelly jar glass, and a fire in the hearth. Perfect for writing.
Come to me, o muse, and let me sing a song of America.
I eat every meal in town, because there’s no fridge, no stove, and nothing resembling a microwave. I wake up, drive to the little seaside cafe, have a bacon and egg sandwich and a strong cup of coffee, then come back, convince myself to try to write, sit and stare at the blank page for an hour, type a few first lines, cross out every one with a black pen, throw away the page, start again, hum the tune of every Beatles song I can remember, stare out the window, stare at the blank page, then decide it’s time for lunch.
Six mornings in a row.
I eat lunch at a little place called Captain Bob’s. It’s pretty much a bar, but they have the best clam chowder I’ve ever had. I have whatever their sandwich special is and a bowl of chowder, wash it down with a couple of beers, then head back home. The guy behind the bar is named Mario, but he has red hair and green eyes. Must be one of those Irish Italians. I asked him if he knew Captain Bob. He didn’t appreciate the humor.
The bar is pretty much empty when I go in. A few old guys sit in one corner playing cards, swapping stories about being out to sea. I could close my eyes and, if it weren’t for the television squawking in the corner, I could imagine myself in the 1800’s, listening to merchant captains talking about the trip from England. As it is, they’re just old fisherman complaining about how things are not what they used to be.
When I come home, that’s a critical moment. I park the jeep, tuck the keys into my pocket, and then I have to decide – go inside and try to write, or take a walk. Five out of six times I’ve taken a walk.
My word count is still zero.
Today, I sat and watched the lighthouse. Somewhere in the back of my mind a story began to stir. A small fishing boat returning home gets caught in a horrible fog bank. All they have to guide them is the sound of a bell and a single sweeping light off in the distance. It’s an allegory for searching for the American dream, that no matter how far you think you’ve come, it’s always out of reach. I will start writing it tomorrow.
I love you and I miss you. I finally have a good idea. Every word I type is one step closer to coming home.
Mario opened up to me today. I was the only one in Captain Bob’s this afternoon, so we started talking. I told him I’m an author. His response was, “No shit, you’re THAT William Brandt?” Yes, yes I am. Welcome to my writer’s block. He said his teenage son likes my books, but he’s never read them himself. He doesn’t go in for all of that “Robin Hood and King Arthur shit.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. I told him I was trying to write something different this time, but was having a hell of a time getting started. I told him about the sailors and the lighthouse. He said it sounded like that was something he’d like to read.
He went on to tell me he was a native. He grew up around here. He even remembered my grandfather. We swapped stories about the old man. He told me how he used to take tourists out on afternoon fishing trips, but would never catch a thing. I told him how, when he was home in New York, he would throw rocks at the kids that rode their bikes on his stretch of sidewalk. We drank a toast to the miserable bastard.
Today’s sandwich was his mother’s tuna salad. I have to say, this was the best tuna I’ve ever eaten in my life. I’m used to cracking open a can, plopping some mayo on it, and stirring it until it’s uniform white. This sandwich was the best aspects of restaurant seafood and mom’s picnic basket. It had celery chips, carrot shavings, a bunch of different spices and seasonings, and tiny black flecks that he said was a sort of local caviar. It was heaven.
When I got home, I still couldn’t write. I started seven different books starring seven different trios of sailors on seven different boats. It jumped from the 18th to 21st century, then back to the 12th. They were Rhode Island fishermen, they were Viking marauders, they were pilgrims looking for religious freedom, and they were summering tourists bitching about their lack of fish after a two hour junket. None of it fit. The floor around my desk is littered with scraps of paper, pieces of story torn into shreds, tiny confetti pieces of my best idea yet.
Maybe I should put myself in the boat. The lighthouse is my novel. The bell is my phone ringing, my editor on the other line, ready to scream at me that I owe him fifty thousand words. The fog is the primordial soup that all creativity springs from.
Am I writing the great American novel, or just my own story wrapped up in plain brown paper?
I finished a bottle of wine while I wrote this letter. A good night’s sleep and I’ll get started in the morning. I promise to finish a full page before I rip the paper out of the typewriter and start again. The first paragraph is always the hardest, isn’t it? By the time the page is full the ideas are starting to flow. If I can just finish one page, it’s a matter of course that I’ll finish a second.
This time it’s for real.
Three sailors on a boat. They just want to get home. But where is home?
As they say, Wendy my love, home is where the heart is.
I just want to go home.
It’s 4 a.m. I’m sitting here, my desk lit by a single candle, typing this letter, because a lighthouse that was decommissioned almost seventy years ago was lit, and the beam shone right through my bedroom window. The beam of light was so intense I could swear I felt the heat from it on the side of my cheek. I tried hiding under my blanket, but the damage was done. I was awake.
By the time I got out of bed to peer, bleary-eyed, out of my bedroom window, the light went out. I couldn’t see anyone moving in the darkened windows. There were no cars parked in front of it. As I stared out at it, it was as it has been for the last seven days. Alone. Silent. A sentinel on the wall of the past.
I can only surmise that I dreamed the light, that my own subconscious kicked me awake in the midst of my nighttime bliss. I remember dreaming about my story, about the fishermen in the fog, but it’s gone now. Maybe my mind is telling me it’s a bad idea. Is that why it conjured a spotlight from the past to shine into my bedroom window and rouse me from my visions of sugarplums?
It’s a terrible idea. It’s completely derivative of Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Old Man and the Green Light. Tired symbolism, weak premise, and reflecting values of a bygone era.
I can hear the bell ringing, tolling in lamentation for my discarded idea. It’s a dirge, sung somberly over the funeral of my concept. I’m going back to bed.
It’s now 2 p.m. I slept until 11. I woke up covered in sweat, wrapped so tightly in my blanket that it felt like a cocoon. I would have thought I dreamt waking up in the middle of the night except I found this letter still in the typewriter, next to a candle that I allowed to burn all the way down, covering the wooden holder with a thin puddle of white wax. Note to self, next time invest the extra fifteen cents for the “no drip” variety of candle.
I went back to Captain Bob’s to see about another tuna sandwich. Mario said he was out. Always sells out of that, he said, his mother’s secret recipe. I had a basket of fried clams instead. The old fishermen were back today. One of them bought me a beer. I bought them a round in return. I asked Mario about the old lighthouse. He said it’s been empty for as long as he’s remembered. I let it drop. It must have been a dream.
I’m going to try to write now. One word at a time, right?
I miss you.
I see the light again. This time it’s making the whole cabin glow. Somewhere in the distance, I hear music, like an old phonograph echoing across the water, turned up just enough to know it’s there, but too quiet to make out what it is.
What if the light is my book? I have to go to the light to find the story. The music is my muse, sitting in front of a harp, plucking at the strings, trying to encourage me to type these words. Tap tap tap I hit the keys, trying to keep time with the music. The three sailors aren’t trying to get home, they’re trying to get away. They’re escaping the mundane trappings of their lives. One is an accountant. Another is a judge. The third is a stock boy in the local grocery store. The light shows them the path they have to travel to get away.
The American dream isn’t to find peace at home, it’s to explore. The American dream withered on the vine when all of the maps were finished. It died when they defunded NASA. We’re not sedentary people, we’re pioneers. Explorers from Europe came looking for spices and gold. People set out in covered wagons to find a better life out West. Astronauts want to see the wonder of space.
The sailors want to see the ocean. Not the Sound, not a lake, but the real ocean. It’s not about being safe at home, it’s about throwing off the shackles of their lives and being free. “Home of the Free” is an oxymoron. Being home means you’re chained to it. We’re free because we’re willing to leave home. Because we’re able to leave home.
The light went out.
Holy Shit, Wendy.
I woke up again wrapped in my blanket, shivering against the winter wind coming off the sound, drenched in sweat. I got up to start the fire, and I saw this page in the typewriter. I swear to God I thought it was another dream.
Am I sleepwalking now? Is sleep writing a thing?
I think I should come home. I know I said I’d stay until the book was done, but I think the solitude is getting to me. I’m going to pack up now, let you read this when I hand it to you.
The car won’t start. The battery’s totally dead. I must have left the headlights on yesterday when I got home from my dinner at Captain Bob’s. Maybe that was the light I was dreaming about? Either way, I’m stuck. I went to fifteen houses, hoping someone might be home, or that a door would be unlocked and I could get to a phone. They’re all locked up tight. I’ll let the mailman know what’s going on, have him call a tow truck for me.
I’ll also hand him this letter. At this point, why not? It may get to you before I do.
At least I still have my leftovers from last night (half of a swordfish steak and a cup of chowder in a Styrofoam bowl) and another bottle of wine.
Maybe being trapped will help me write? Maybe the lack of choice will force the words to come.
One thing I have to say about using a typewriter, there’s no deleting my rambling thoughts. I could black it out with my editing pen, but then it would look like I’m mailing you excerpts from some CIA folder on Russian Missile Silos in Cuba. I can’t redact my letters home.
These are my thoughts, unedited and unadulterated. Take them for what they are.
I’m going to give it a day. Maybe get Mario to deliver me food each night after he closes up.
Ironic that I want to write a book about freedom when I’m trapped.
But maybe that’s the secret, right? It’s a lot easier to truly want something when it’s no longer in reach.
Whatever the crazy, sleep-writing version of me has to say, I think he’s on to something. The sailors are trying to leave.
I can feel the words coming.
I love you.
I know it’s been three days, but I’ve never been more productive. The words flow from my fingertips like water from a faucet. I haven’t been sleeping so much as taking naps between chapters. In three days I’ve written over a hundred pages.
I’d tell you all about it, but I don’t want to ruin it for you. You always were my best editor, and I need you to read this one with no pre-set notions.
Mario’s been bringing me food, gallons of water, six-packs of beer and bottles of wine. The car’s been towed and fixed, but I told the guy not to bring it back until I told him to. This cabin has become a prison of my own design, and the only way I can forge a key is to keep writing. It’s the perfect set up. I have no choice but to keep writing.
Mario said tomorrow’s lunch is another tuna salad sandwich.
I have to get back to work. At this pace I’ll be home in a week.
I love you and miss you,
What’s it like being married to the biggest buffoon in New York? Bill, I hear you say, don’t be so hard on yourself. But you have no idea what I’ve done.
Last night I was typing away. I have no idea what time it was (my watch stopped two days ago because I forgot to wind it), but it was late. I was typing by candlelight. Page 374. I’ll never forget that it was 374 because I initially typed 375 and was reaching for my pen to cross it out. My hand, uncoordinated from lack of sleep, shaky with the adrenaline of pure creation, knocked over the candle. Do you know how fast a stack of typing paper catches fire?
By the time I got the basin of water from the kitchen, jangling with dirty silverware and glasses, there was a minor inferno on my desk. I dumped the water onto it, but it was too late. There’s bits and pieces left, but not much else.
373 pages of the best writing I’ve ever done literally up in smoke.
I have to start over.
I told Mario to bring me triple the food and not to bother me for three days. I think even his arrival, the short conversations we have, the wine we share, it’s too much of a distraction. The warden of my prison was going too easy on me, and I proved to him that I cannot be trusted with that kind of freedom. I am now in solitary confinement.
I’m not going to start until Mario has left. I’ll begin in the morning. I’ll get a good night’s sleep (the first I’ve had in a week), and start fresh. At least I still remember my first line.
I took the piece of paper with 375 typed on the upper right hand corner out and put it away. That piece of paper will be a relic, a reminder of the obstacles I had to overcome to produce this labor of love. My page 374, forever incorrect. One day the New York Public Library will have that piece of paper on display, next to the editorial copy of the manuscript and the charred remains of my first draft. The greatest novel of the 21st century, and it almost never was.
Yes, I’m that confident in this story.
Your loving husband,
I think I’m coming down with something. I am sitting in front of the typewriter, wrapped in two wool blankets, sweating through my clothes, shivering. I don’t have a thermometer but I’m sure I have a fever. I slept like the dead last night, but woke up feeling like this. I have no appetite. My thoughts are a jumbled mess. I have written my first line over and over, trying to rekindle the spark of creation.
Kindle. Spark. poor choice of words, Billy.
Mario will be back in three days.
I just have to sweat this out. I have to spend every lucid moment typing, trying to get my mind back on track. I can endure any illness as long as I’m writing. I’m going to nap, and then start again.
I hear the bell ringing constantly. While I was writing the sound of the typewriter drowned it out, but now it’s a constant reminder of my failure. I can’t concentrate because every clang of a steel clapper on a brass case somewhere out in the water makes me want to drive a knife into my ear. I can’t stop sweating. I’m either freezing cold or boiling hot. My clothes smell like low tide. It must be all of the seafood I’m eating.
It’s dark. I see the lighthouse in the distance. It’s dark too. No light. No music. I find myself wishing it would flare back to life. It was that light that inspired me the first time. It won’t even light in my dreams.
I moved my desk under the window, so I can gaze out over the blank page at that lighthouse. I stare at the darkened windows at the very top, trying to make the light come on with the power and intensity of my thoughts.
I wrote 373 pages of genius, and now I can’t write a single paragraph.
I fell asleep in my chair. I wished the lighthouse would wake me, that the beacon would shine through my window and against my sleeping face, and the torrent of ideas would return to me. My fingers feel heavy. My hand is clumsy against the keys.
I hear a noise like a thousand frogs chirping in the moonlight. I imagine them surrounding the base of the lighthouse, chanting up at it as if in prayer, beckoning to their silent god to bathe them in the light of salvation.
I can’t even hear the bell anymore because of the frogs.
Maybe they’re calling to me.
I’m going to the lighthouse. The American dream is one of adventure. That’s where mine leads. My grail rests atop the lighthouse.
I’ll bring the typewriter and a ream of paper, and sit in that lighthouse and recreate my masterpiece.
The stars. That’s what beckons. I see the night sky and walk along a beam of light into the stars. From great distances I hear the music. Pipes playing in some forgotten corner, echoing from the center of the universe. A hundred tunes played by a hundred pipes. A cacophony of noise to lull a great beast to remain in slumber. The dream is to find him. It is not American, this dream, but the dream of all humanity, of all Earthbound life seeking its origins and its destiny. We come from nothing, we end at nothing. From nothing came the primordial nothing, and in that nothing came something, and something became everything. Eventually, everything will become nothing again. The light has found me, and I have found the light.
Three sailors, the mind, the body, and the soul, set off from their familiar shores to seek the ultimate truth. The light guides them beyond the light of our sun and moon, into the depths of the cosmos. The dream of all life is to become more than what it is, to break the chains of order and cast off their shells of pus, mucus and bile. These bodies are a prison for our minds as much as this world is a prison for our bodies.
The frogs were here. They grew silent as I approached, turning their great golden eyes to me, watching me walk to the door. When I touched it, the light came on.
I scratched at the door with my claws. I felt the wind in my feathers as I perched upon the rock. The ocean flowed around me as I swam to shore. All life was one in me. The lighthouse, the gateway, the door to eternity.
I hear them now. They call. I have to go, Wendy.
It’s time. It may look like a long way down, but the light will catch you.
The body is a prison for the mind. The mind is a prison for the soul. The soul is a prison for the truth. Set the truth free.
We are insignificant. We are omnipresent. The universe is us.
The only eternity is within the stars.