The Difficulties of Writing a Novel (in a Zeppelin Fortress)

Currently, there is a scurrilous and deleterious vein pulsing in popular thought, a vein that declares the gentleman’s profession of novel-writing an easy one indeed—simply, as the late Douglas Adams said, the matter of getting a hundred thousand words in exactly the right order. Nothing, declares this humble scribe, could be further from the truth.

This author acknowledges that every writer has his own method of taming the muse. Some write only at cloistered desks, in backyard woodsheds or in mountain cabins, in hidden monasteries devoted to the Pulp Pantheon, in secreted Shangri-las in the Heirophantic Himalayas. Others seek popular intercourse, bringing their tablets or “notebook computers” into the public realm, there to display the glorious, glorifying process of birthing stories, of generation pure and simple, such as was once the province of the gods. Some authors demand stimulation from caffeine, nicotine, or ethyl alcohol, while still others require music, candlelight, animal’s milk, or bombardment from rarefied tachyon streams. But this author demands no such trickery. All I need is pen, paper, and my zeppelin fortress.

Some say it is elitist to soar above the Earth, scorning to tread the polluted soil. However, I maintain that this is the only way one can produce real art. The scribblings of minor artists like Emile Zola, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce, and Faulkner show a distinct deprivation of zeppelinity. This lack pollutes their work as thoroughly and irrevocably as misplaced apostrophes, marring otherwise fine books with earthbound clumsiness and stupidity. I knew by my first page of Hemingway that the so-called “genius” never had the intelligence to invest in one of your finer dirigibles; his books reek of it. I can open any tome and instantly determine whether the work was composed in the course of lighter-than-air travel. The works of Phineas Q. Thrushengruppen are a fine example, as are those of Zebediah Gradgrinder; W. Somerset Maugham and Sir Conan Doyle, it is known, both worked in zeppelins, and their books are stronger for it. Dostoevsky, that great, woolly Russian bear, had the misfortune to be born before the advent of Atlantic airships; he worked in the basket of a Montgolfier-style balloon, the best one could do in that time and place, and every day he passed down reams of lucid prose, fairly glowing with brilliance and erudition.

But—I caution you, dear reader!—ownership of a zeppelin, or zeppelin fortress, is not a guarantee of artistic excellence! Gertrude Stein invested heavily in mid-war German zeppelins, sinking all her ill-gotten fortune into a certain LZ 129, popularly known as the Hindenburg. I cannot read a single page of her drivel. We are fortunate to have gotten away with only thirty-six dead.

Once aloft, you may expect your mind to soar along with your two or three million cubic feet of helium, and for words to fairly leap from the inkwell. This is a fatal mistake, dear readers! Discipline is still required. Though you are in a better situation than when plodding along on the ground, on your stupid feet that are not remotely like propellers, you will find yourself besieged by an entirely new set of distractions.

For instance, there are matters of international airspace to consider. Preposterous as it may seem, the “sovereign” nations of the world occasionally object to being overflown by my humble forty-five-ton writer’s getaway. It is true that for my own security the Xanadu (forgive the fanciful name—Coleridge was a pioneer in aeronautic poetry, you know) is armed with a complement of thirty-millimeter miniguns, as well as nine to twelve biological warheads capable of obliterating a mid-sized city. Necessary, too, are air-to-air countermeasures; so many would-be novelists complain of distractions when writing, yet do not take the simplest steps to ensure that they can work uninterrupted!

Ennui is another danger. I remind you of Verne’s Nemo, conqueror of Earth’s oceans, who surrendered himself to the maelstrom. (A cheap creative shortcut—Verne famously wrote from the ground.) Do not fall into this trap. The Xanadu carries, for my private amusement, a cellar well-stocked with bottles from Chateaux Letour, Lafite, and d’Yqueum, as well as a minimum of nine hundred thousand grams of Columbian cocaine and four canvases by Fra Angelico.

I warn of the peril of surveying illimitable Arctic or Antarctic landscapes, where the unbroken stretches of ancient ice may hold an unflattering mirror to one’s soul; likewise the raging sea. You will find, perhaps to your surprise, that the pastoral lands of North America, Argentina, and even some stretches of the Russian steppe have a soothing effect in times of Weltschmerz, to which we writers are too often prey. Contrariwise, when mania grips, the majestic Canadian Rockies or the Hindu-Kush will prolong and enhance your fits of beatitude. I do my best writing when skipping above the jagged peaks ringing the Tibetan plateau, awake and attuned to what the medievals called the musica universalis, what the Hindus call the Shabda. The best writers have their finger on this pulse. Steinbeck’s East of Eden came from a pan-Asian dirigible tour, and Melville’s Moby-Dick from a circuit of the Indonesian volcanoes in a homemade Rozière balloon.

But the life of a writer is a solitary and weary one, and the pressures of publishers, critics, and air traffic controllers are ever hemming one in. It is a hostile environment for the true individualist. The next generation of prosesmiths must seek a new frontier. I have purchased tracts of land in the desolate reaches of Arizona, where a man can build a three-stage interplanetary rocket in peace; who knows but my next manuscript may come via satellite?


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