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This is My Substitute for Pistol and Ball

Sully Pilot Whale
Sully Pilot Whale

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I’ve had the passage above stuck in my head for most of the day.  It has been a challenging week at work, which, combined with the discomfort of late summer, its constant social obligations, and a baby that stopped sleeping through the night, has put me into an asocial mood.

Last night, our neighborhood church threw a fabulous foam and water balloon party for charity.  As our windows continued to rattle from the DJ’s bass through our dinner, dessert and bedtime, I turned to my Beloved and asked him when we became the kind of people that hated a party.

“Since we had a baby,” he said sensibly.

“I wouldn’t mind*,” I whined, “but on a Wednesday? Who hires a DJ for a Wednesday?”

* this is a lie

When I woke this morning, after two overnight interruptions, I found that I walked with Ishmael. When one of my neighbors gestured angrily at me to back up my car so that he could pull a completely illegal u-turn in front of me, I considered pulling forward.  When the train was crowded, I considered leaving my bags on the seat to discourage a neighbor.  When I needed to buy some breakfast — having rushed out the door this morning without any — I considered skipping it because the idea of a polite interaction with a cashier seemed far too difficult to manage.

Just call me Ishmael.

I think Melville could have rewritten the opening of Moby Dick for writers; Ishamel writes about going to sea to solve his funk, but I turn to writing.  I suspect Melville did too.  When I find myself exasperated by the crowds of people that I wade through each day and fantasizing about moving to an isolated mountain top — possibly without my family — I know that it has been too long since I’ve done something that’s creatively satisfying.

And it’s true.  I haven’t written any new fiction since May, and I can feel the tension of my ideas building up in my neck and stuffing themselves down into my trapezius muscles.   I haven’t neglected my writing, but my efforts have been focused here on the blog and in revising my portfolio of short fiction.  The drafts that I wrote over two years of graduate work have been read and revised and revised and read again until I can barely stand to see the same paragraphs even once more.  At the same time, I feel the pounding in the back of my brain of the story that I want to write for Baba, the pressure of the novel that’s screaming for an ending.  I am bursting with creative energy, but trying to be responsible and finish what I’ve already begun before giving in to the urge to burn everything to the ground and start again.

I stretch my neck to try and relieve the tension that grows there every day, but there’s really nothing to be done for it other than to finish revision, send out my portfolio and go back to inventing the ornate lies that soothe my soul and make me a reasonable person again.

Balance is hard.  Throw in my job and the responsibilities of motherhood that limit my writing and I feel like I am going to burst out of my skin.  Add in all the other people and mundane  errands that are demanding my time and attention and I can well understand why Ishmael wants to knock off people’s hats.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball, he says.

I know exactly what he means.

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  1. Burn and begin again is for the stronger than us, but don’t feel too responsible to the past.

    Oh, and I’ve had the passage above stuck in my head for a quarter century.

    • Charlotte Charlotte

      It really is one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever read!

  2. Have you a room of your own? Virginia Woolf had it right, I think. We writers need a room of our own, and time of our own, so we can feed our creative spirits. It can be difficult in the modern world when we have so many other obligations, but even an hour a day could be helpful. I can relate to your impatience and frustration with the world outside one’s door — and now you’ve also made me want to read Moby Dick since I have yet to read it! Cinda

    • Charlotte Charlotte

      My “room” is very portable — it’s the train I take to work, which is great for weekdays. I haven’t figured out how to be mother and writer on weekends, but it’ll come, I think.

      That would be an interesting blog meme, wouldn’t it? A writer’s “room”…

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