A favorite anecdote that I’ve often shared with other writers dates back to college when my good friend Andy staggered into my room equally exhausted and exhilarated to announce a breakthrough on his senior thesis about Thomas Hardy.
He plopped onto my futon, then followed a big sigh with the most telling question: “Wanna go see a movie?”
We burst into laughter simultaneously, as at a punch line that had no joke leading up to it and thus was all the more enjoyable.
I’ve witnessed that same laughter more than once over the years when other writers have heard the anecdote. Why is it so funny? Because it’s so truthful. For all our coiled efforts that keep us plowing forward in this (or any other) craft, often what we are really striving toward is the kind of progress that will allow us to stop.
To stop and take a break in good conscience, feeling momentarily liberated from those coiled efforts when breakthrough is truth and the truth sets you free.
So with great delight I found myself reading to my children another brilliant installment in the Mr. Putter & Tabby series written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard. I can say without reservation that despite its being a children’s book, Mr. Putty & Tabby Write the Book is surely one of the greater works in that cottage industry of how-to books for the aspiring or struggling writer.
In fact, maybe this is the case because it’s a children’s book.
Mr. Putter is an old codger most of whose time is spent inside with his old cat, Tabby. His housebound ways only grow more entrenched come the big snows of winter, and in this particular winter Mr. Putter has an idea: he’ll write a book!
He had everything a writer needed: a soft chair, a warm fire, and a good cat. And he had a pen and plenty of paper.
Thus begin his efforts at a mystery novel, starting with his use of a portion of that paper to light a fire in the fireplace. Oh, boy. Something tells me those efforts may be doomed from the get-go.
But after much thought on a title, Mr. Putter has a breakthrough: The Mystery of Lighthouse Cove.
And what does he do? Forge ahead to compose an opening sentence? Not this writer.
Mr. Putter was so pleased, he decided to fix a snack. He went into the kitchen and fixed a big apple salad, a pan of corn muffins, some custard pudding, and a cheese ball. Mr. Putter spent three minutes on his title and four hours on his snack. Then he took a nap. Mystery writing was not easy work.
God bless Mr. Putter.
For God can probably sympathize, even perhaps relate, according to the record of his own creative experience in the first chapter of Genesis: on the seventh day, he rested.
Not on the first day, as Mr. Putter surely would have had the whole wide world been in his hands instead. But still, where these disparate stories overlap is in their common recognition of the fact that the end of creation, as with all creativity, was and is rest.
Therein lies the revelatory portal to such an outburst of laughter when my friend Andy parlayed his breakthrough on the Hardy thesis into the chance to kick back at a movie.
It’s the fact that we’re “running to stand still,” as U2 sings, or ceaselessly exploring, as Eliot writes, in order “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
And how does Mr. Putter fare forward in the face of all these numinous truths that undergird his endeavor?
On day two of the writing life, he gets no further than the heading Chapter One before the sight of a rabbit outside and the chain of associations (Easter, boiled eggs) lead him back to the kitchen to fix lunch.
But on day three Mr. Putter has at least an epiphany, if not a kind of resurrection. And this is where the book’s being a children’s book puts it leagues above many more surefire how-to guides on writing aimed at adults.
Amidst all his thinking and looking around the room from his soft chair—seeing the warm fire, his beloved cat, the blue sky outside—Mr. Putter starts a list of all the good things in his life:
And it sets him off on a writing streak, morning until night when he finally sees fit to step outside and visit his neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry, where he reads Good Things aloud to her.
Mrs. Teaberry’s rave review helps console his sense of failure for not having completed the mystery novel, and her simple wisdom probably rings more true than many a writer like myself would care to admit:
Mrs. Teaberry told him not to worry. She said the world is full of mystery writers. But writers of good things are few and far between.
Presently, I’m in need of breakthrough creatively. The project is a screenplay, so it will be all the more rewarding if I head for the movies once a breakthrough takes place.
In the meantime, though, it would do me well to start my own Good Things list as I think and look around the room in which I sit:
And there’s the kicker: only by writing even an off-the-cuff list such as this one ending with “sunshine” do I realize that the record of creation as told in Genesis is in and of itself a list of good things as God created them and responded to them, sunshine included, with the observation again and again that “it was good.”
The rest, pun intended, is up to me.
Bradford Winters is a screenwriter and poet, and works for The Levinson/Fontana Company as a producer and writer in television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.