One Novel In The Life of a Writer’s Desk

by Leonard Bishop

About 20 years ago, Boston University approached me with an offer to establish a  “Leonard Bishop collection.” It would be placed among the other writers, artists, stage and screen  performers  they considered distinguished enough to be exhibited. I was flattered, but reluctant.

I did not want my grubbily handwritten manuscripts–the writing, rewriting, and re–re-re-re-re–writing of scenes put on display. I would seem stupid to the public. They would see my Mongoloid script and comment, “If he’s such a hot-shot writer, why couldn’t he get it right the first time? Goodness, look at his spelling! Is that English, or Trans-Carpathian?”

But Boston University knew how to appeal to me. They indicated that whatever writings, notes, lectures, reviews, essays, stories, I sent them, would be appraised for value and I would be allowed to use it as a tax write-off. I immediately accepted.

I have just completed another novel. All the pages, notes, re-writes are in a grocery box. I am now cleaning my desk of material I collected on it in this year and a half of writing the novel. Whenever I do this chore, I always envision what will not be carved on my tombstone. “His profession was writing\His talent was in being orderly.” But it must be done. I must find every scrap of paper–three lines might be valued at 40 cents; an unused verb, 7 cents; a succulent metaphor could bring as high as 17 cents. While I am not a miser, neither am I a spendthrift. Here is some of what was on my desk:

  •  Three quotations I must use in the novel: “He became mellow before he became ripe.” (Woollcott); “Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.” (Faulkner); “Never invest your money in anything that eats or needs repairing.” (Billy Rose).
  • Fourteen unfinished New York Times crossword puzzles. Colored push-pins for putting up “Notes to Myself.” Frayed, faded, and useless typewriter ribbon. Two balloons I forgot to blow up for Luke. A large magnifying glass I must send to my mother. Note reminding me to address a writers group in April. Small Palm-Palm Sachet I meant to give Celia for Christmas. Brown vitamin pills, gender unknown.
  • Some scenes I wrote and did not use and why:
  • The central character in the novel–a young writer working for scandal magazine–must interview a former policewoman who has information about the murder of the nun. The policewoman is hostile. He leaves feeling the nun is more mysterious than before. (Note to Myself: the scene may not have enough relevant facts to justify 16 pages. Make more interesting or substitute another scene.)
  • The young writer is attacked by two men who warn him off his investigation. He staggers to mother’s house to be treated. She is not home. He knows she is out drinking and probably with some man. He sits on the steps waiting and remembering his past.  (Note to Myself: the flashbacks are too long. They impede the on-going pace of present story. The material is static. While it motivates the character it does not deepen him. The scene is good, but ineffective. Eliminate flashbacks and filter material through a narration and quickly written recollections.)
  • What was under those notes: A bent file for cleaning fingernails. Some dried tangerine seeds. A safety deposit key–whose key is it and what might it contain? Two cigarette lighters without flint or fluid. A cup with hardened and moldy coffee-leaving at the bottom. Small barber’s scissors for cutting scenes and editing. Two 30-amp fuses. Photograph of me when I was much fatter.
  • Notes for the next novel: Develop prose style to re-create the impression of 13th century speech. Research backgrounds of Knights of Templar: find authorities (Durant, Fraser, etc.) who delve into their cultic practices. Find events about last Crusades: write in-between– the periods of history that remain unrecorded–this will offer historical liberties that cannot be disputed by recorded fact. Research costuming, armaments, methods of warfare, court intrigue of the time, activities of the French nobility. Research life and times of Gypsies–their music, traditions, morality, from a cultural level.
  • What was on the top left portion of the desk: Strip of tangled cellophane tape. Fourteen dried felt-tip pens. Thin finishing nails for use on molding. Two eyeglasses cases. Three tape cassettes of country-western music. A short letter written by a former California student telling me that Carol Wildavsky was struck by a motorcycle in England–she is in critical shape– “Write to her, Leonard.” Another letter by same student informing me that Carol is dead.
  • Note to Myself: Write an article about Carol Wildavsky. Tell of her warmth, her sensitivity, her splendid talent for writing and the fine novel she did not finish. Tell how she opened her home to all students for writing classes; her courtesy; how she mothered people and fed me bagels and cream cheese and wore violent red stockings. She was quick of the witticism and often I had to admonish her with, “In this class, I’ll tell the funnies.” Bluntly state that you cared for and respected her, and ignore those who call you sentimental. Send an accompanying letter to Margaret Allen, the book editor, requesting that she allow the article to be published though it might not be of interest to anyone in Kansas.

I have always advised that writers should keep hidden. Don’t go public. Whoever reads what you write may admire your talents–but when they meet you in person they might burn your books. If the literary committee at Boston University ever learned what other writers keep on their desks while writing, they might disband the “Collections” department and relegate it to “Janitorial Services.”

© Leonard Bishop

(First published Sunday, March 31, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury )

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