Tuesday, May 1, 2007

My War With Socrates

I am at war with a Daemon.

His name is Socrates.

Socrates the Daemon first appeared to me as a child. "Hi," he said in a Tennessee Valley drawl. "Name's Socrates. I've been appointed as yer muse."

After a moment of stunned silence, I told him he looked like Pan, the ancient goat-god.

"Yeah," he said, "I git that a lot." He pointed at the typewriter in front of me. "Now, I believe you was workin' on sumthin?"

"I want to write a novel," I said. "But so far, it's not as good as I thought it would be."

He picked up the thin stack of pages. "Chapter One," he read. "The nuclear war was over. Were they the last people on Earth?" He stopped reading aloud, muttering instead. Then he dropped the stack back on my father's desk and said, "They're in a submarine? Tell the truth, son, you're just rippin' off On The Beach."

"That's only the setup," I explained. Actually, I was more inspired by the novels Alas, Babylon and Canticle For Leibowitz. My story was set in 2020, the submarine was like the "Seaview" on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the crew was about to discover an island like the one in H.G. Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau.

I told him as much.

He stroked his goat beard, puffed his cigar, and nodded. "Okay. A collage of ripoffs. That could work, I guess. But what are you doin' right now?"

"Well," I said, "I'm kinda stuck on the next chapter, so I'm playing Mah Jongg..."

"NO," he said sharply. And he stabbed his cigar at me. "Git to work, boy."

That is Socrates for you: direct and uncompromising.

That happened when I was ten. Fast-forward now to college, when I wanted to write everything: plays, movies, novels, stories, poetry, articles, everything.

And I did write them.

I wrote a two-act science fiction play, a short fantasy movie, and half a novel about two college kids being chased through the Smoky Mountains by a killer.

"You'll never make a living as a writer," said my professor. "You can be a writer, and you can be published, but you won't make any real money at it."

"I don't want my daughter dating a writer," said my girlfriend's father.

"You ought to choose a real profession," said my advisor.

"Don't listen to them," Socrates warned. "I won't go away just 'cause you stop writing."

I joined the Army.

I had a family.

I stopped writing.

Socrates never let up the harassment. He would appear beside my bed at night, muttering: "You should be writing. What about that idea for a graphic novel? The one with the genetically-engineered animals who revolt against their enslavement by mankind? You should be writing that one. Or the story about the Confederate soldiers marching home after Appomattox who fall through a portal into a world just like their own, except it's a fantasy world with magic instead of bullets. Or what about..."

I won't say he haunted me.

I'd say he hunted me. I was like Frankenstein, running from his monster.

I got out of the Army and started college again.

"Get a useful degree," everyone said.

"Make your writing pay," my adviser said. "What about law school?"

Dad said I should do what I wanted to do.

Socrates said that was a good idea.

"So, what are you going to do after graduation?" My fiancée asked me.

So I got a degree with a career track I liked, or thought I liked... And discovered I didn't like it.

"Write," Socrates said every night. "What about that one story..."

But I had responsibilities. I couldn't spend all day and night banging out fiction -- no one pays you to be a fiction writer, even if you're the best. You get paid after the writing, and the rewriting, and the re-rewriting, are all done.

So I went into sales. It didn't last long.

To be a writer trying not to be a writer is awful. It makes you sullen and depressed. Socrates didn't help... He kept badgering me, making me miserable.

Not the sort of person that anyone would want to be around.

My ex-wife was long gone. My fiancée was now living with my former best friend. I was moved back into my parents' house, a thirty-something single parent.

"So write," Socrates said. "Whatcha got to lose that you ain't lost already?"

So like Ged in Wizard of Earthsea, or Frankenstein in Shelley's novel, I turned on the monster -- my Daemon -- and pursued him.

Which is how I found myself tied to this chair.

"Time to write that there novel," Socrates said, putting the Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera in the stereo.

A bubbling cauldron sat on the desk in front of me. Socrates dropped in a book, making the water bubble.

"Lynch on Lynch," he said. "And a Twin Peaks boxed set. Surrealism, set in the south." He hummed to himself, stirring the cauldron with a giant spoon.

My fingers touched the keyboard, hesitant.

"Only way to get out of this is to start writin', son," the Daemon said. He dropped a copy of Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories. "Southern gothic fiction. There."

Visions filled my mind: a scene, a character, a situation.

"Write, son," he said, sounding almost sympathetic to my plight. Then he dropped in a whole collection of Pine Hill Haints music. "Alabama's ghost country," he said. "Always has been."

A blaze of ideas. My hands began to type, fast and furious, without a pause.

Last, but not least, Socrates dropped a map of Florence, Alabama into the mix. "Small towns're inherently scary, you know."

The cauldron boiled over, pouring into the keyboard and over my hands, but it was not hot... There was no burning, save the searing heat in my imagination.

"WRITE," he said in an unholy new voice.

And I did.

God help me, I did.

...for more Drive-By Truckers, click below


  1. Well, you certainly have a fine gift, so why not pursue it? I must have a billion story fragments on my PC and laptop, none of which will probably ever get completed, but I lack the discipline to just sit down and work at it, which is what I need. For me, just finishing a story would be the goal. Getting published sounds like a pipe dream at this point. I majored in Philosophy and minored in English, and my professors always encouraged my literary development, and one professor even suggested that a paper I submitted for her class should be sent in for publishing, but I never got past my procrastination and eventually somewhere among my many moves I lost that story. Oh, well. Just keep listening to Socrates. I think my muse is Mediocrates.

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