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On Not Being Neil Gaiman

I’ve been berating myself all week for not being Neil Gaiman.

I’m not bothered that I haven’t written multiple blockbuster fantasies – that’s past praying for. I’m just fed up with my inability to spot all the glorious weirdness I know is out there, just beyond my peripheral vision.

When Gaiman was writing American Gods, he traveled the U.S. by the back roads, stopping in the small towns, eating in the diners, and above all, visiting the “roadside attractions.” Genius that he is, Gaiman realized that in America, the loci of magical forces would not be intersecting ley lines, ruined temples or mysterious Templar manuscripts. They would be found in places like the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Now, I had a house in Ithaca, Wisconsin, for 9 years. I was less than 20 miles from Spring Green. For counties around, the sides of barns and old factories were plastered with ads for the House on the Rock. And I never went there.

Carousel, The House on the Rock, Spring Green, Wisconsin

I never rode the centaur on the “world’s largest indoor carousel.” (None of the mounts on the House on the Rock’s carousel is a horse.)

I never saw the doll collection, thousands of them, arranged on tiered platforms like a wedding cake (if you had a wedding where the guests ate the bride. Brides.) I never walked into the infinity room, suspended without support over the sheer drop below the Rock itself, a 60-foot column of stone atop which no sane person would ever, ever build a House.

Thoughtful people have reflected negatively on the House on the Rock. It contains a dusty collection without rhyme or reason, accumulated, it would seem, for the same reason that Hillary climbed Mt. Everest: it could be done. There was stuff in the world, so one Alex Jordan, Jr. built the House, bought the stuff, hauled it there and… that’s it. That was the point. If there was a point.

Gaiman is not a thoughtful, reflective person, he is a lunatic genius, so he knew what to do with the House on the Rock. In American Gods, the old gods of America’s immigrant peoples gather at the House on the Rock to debate the means of making a comeback. They ride the carousel. They quarrel. They split into factions. And then they are overwhelmed by other gods, who… but I won’t spoil your fun. Buy the book.

It happens that I spent the past week driving across America. Dope that I am, I did it the sensible way. I took the interstates. I ate at the same McDonald’s every day – it followed me around like a jackal. I read the same billboards over and over. The same jerk in the same Minicooper cut across the same three lanes of traffic every seven exits. Every mile of the northeast and the Midwest had exactly the same things on offer.

I tried, I really did. But when I reached my goal in the Rocky Mountains and toted up my score of weird-and-wonderful, it was pitiful. Three. That was my score: three.

Number One: Somewhere in Nebraska, above what looked like a warehouse, a billboard modestly touted its owner and his wares:

MAX I. (SOME-NAME-OR-OTHER).

CAREER APPAREL. FLOOR MATS. TOWELS.

Question: which careers?

Number Two: A woman sitting at a bar, her back to my table. Her heels – the real ones, not the ones on her sandals – are hooked around the legs of her bar stool. They are huge, perfectly spherical and smooth as cue balls. Her Achilles tendons could play a major part in a suspension bridge. If Achilles had built his up to the same proportions, he would have lived to sack Troy.

Number Three: A headline in the local paper. (This shouldn’t count, because when I read it I had already reached my destination. But I’m desperate here, people.)

Locals Become Leading Trout Semen Freezers

“John Riger and Barry Stout said that as far as they knew, they were the only ones preserving fish semen on their scale anywhere in the world.”

This was apparently good news for the Tasmanian rainbow trout.

Tasmanian Rainbow Trout (bottle baby?)

On the other hand, Riger’s and Stout’s teenage daughters ran away to join a convent the day after the story was printed. And I really shouldn’t claim a point for this find: the accomplishment recorded took place in 1987. The Aspen Times has a regular archival feature. Around here, history is measured in decades, not centuries.

So, readers, help me out here. You aren’t Neil Gaiman, either. What weird-and-wonderful thing has crossed your path lately? And above all, where did you find it?

Uncommonplace Quotes

I started keeping a commonplace book in college. I started trying to write fiction in my sixties. Why, then, is the book sprinkled with comments on writers and writing from the very beginning?

It’s a bit discouraging to find that so many of the writing quotations, early and late, concern the difficulties that plague me still: it isn’t good enough, it’s taking too long, and isn’t being a writer an excuse to sit around instead of doing something?

On the plus side, all the quotations point forward. “Pull up your socks,” they say, “pick up your pen and put it down on paper even if ‘it’ is the fact that you can’t get anything down on paper. Just do it.”

Here is some of my collection. I’m on the second volume of the commonplace book, with plenty of blank white pages. Please, send me you own favorites. There might be a book in this!

Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
— Henry James

On the other hand, I knew that my mother was constantly worried by my not having a proper job – “But what does your son do, Mrs. Clark?” To say, “He is a writer,” was like the old police court description of “Giving her profession as an actress.”
— Sir Kenneth Clark

Nothing would be done at all, if a man waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.
— Cardinal Newman

The artist must go at his own speed. His whole life is a painful effort to turn himself inside out, and if he gives too much away at the shallow level of social intercourse he may lose the will to attempt a deeper excavation.
— Sir Kenneth Clark

Do the best one can. Do it over again. Then still improve, even if ever so slightly, those retouches. “It is myself that I remake,” said the poet Yeats in speaking of his revisions.
— Margaret Yourcenar

The imagination is like the drunk man who has lost his watch, and must get drunk again to find it.
— Guy Davenport

It is in order to shine sooner that authors refuse to rewrite. Despicable. Begin again.
— Albert Camus

A poet is a penguin. His wings are to swim with.
— e. e. cummings

“The lyfe so short, the crafte so longe to lerne” is not an exhortation to hurry.
— Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

On writing: First, it’s a set of muscles. Exercise them. Second, don’t talk about writing. It takes the passion away and it angers The Word Fairy. And always, always remember: Writers and messiahs are generally self-appointed. No one else wants you to be a writer. They want you to get a job.
— author unknown

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
— George Orwell

There’s a very thin line between fiction and non-fiction, and I do my damnedest to erase it.
— Richard “Kinky” Friedman
Founder (inter alia) of the
Texas Jewboys country band

Art is made from fear, like a vaccine.
— an NPR commentator

At one point, Dr. Bustle turned up, with his reedy, self-satisfied voice, and gave her a lecture on the Lesser Elements and how, indeed, humans were made up of nearly all of them but also contained a lot of narrativium, the basic element of stories, which you could detect only by watching the way all the others behaved.
— Terry Pratchett

The consolation of imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.
— Roger Scruton

Sometimes it’s necessary to make the leap and grow your wings on the way down.
— Yoji Yamada

Writing a book is like building a house, if you don’t know how to build a house, and you’re not very smart.
— Andrea Barrett

That is really the power of genius – the force of will to make all the mistakes necessary to get the right answer.
— Michio Kaku

It’s only imaginary, anyway. That’s why it’s important.
— Neil Gaiman

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.
— William Stafford

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