Literature 1-17-2005

Letters from a Writer: Now There’s a Metaphor

Jean Sramek finds tropes on a treadmill.

Jean Sramek

The script is done. Okay, it’s almost sort of completely done. Mostly. More importantly, my level of cardiovascular fitness has increased significantly in the last 12 months, thanks to my being a writer.

I know how stupid that sounds. Cardiovascular fitness, writer. Writer, cardiovascular fitness. It’s not quite right. I too have trouble matching up the words “cardiovascular fitness” with the mental image of a pasty, chain-smoking, beret-wearing poet who sulks over a cappuccino and eschews all things Patagonia™ because they don’t come in black. But it’s within the realm of possibility, especially if one is neither a very disciplined writer nor very dedicated to the goal of cardiovascular fitness. Also, I’m not a poet, I don’t smoke, and there is plenty of Patagonia™ stuff available in black. Vaclav Havel’s level of cardiovascular fitness probably sucks, but mine, in spite of my surname, is good.

I belong to a gym and one of the things I do there is run on the treadmill. It’s boring as hell and I feel like a hamster in jail when I do it, but due to an injury, I am unable to run on outside surfaces, so there it is. It could be worse. I could have an injury that prevents me from writing plays or causes me to vote Republican, or worst of all, an injury that causes me to write plays urging others to vote Republican. If you can get past feeling like a chubby rodent doing five-to-ten for armed robbery, the treadmill is quite the Zen Master workout. Sometimes I listen to public radio, sometimes I plan dinner party menus, sometimes I think about the meaning of life or center my inner self, but usually I write. I turn ideas over and over and over in my head. I play with words and approach sentences stealthily from different angles. I think of rhymes, and rhymes for those rhymes. In the last year, these turned-over ideas have mostly been for Phantom of the NorShor, a satirical opera for which I am co-writing the script and libretto.

Every town in America has a grand old partially-dilapidated movie theater from the heydays of cinema. Ours, in Duluth, is called the NorShor. This building is both the subject of and the venue for Phantom of the NorShor. At my gym, the hedgerow of treadmills faces downtown Duluth, where the NorShor is located. This configuration allows me to run on the treadmill and work on writing Phantom of the NorShor in my head—while looking directly at the NorShor Theater. Is that cool, or what? Wait, don’t answer that. The truth is that I’m not looking at the NorShor—I’m looking at the Greysolon Plaza, a grand old partially-dilapidated hotel from the heydays of hotels which is now a senior citizen high-rise. The Greysolon is right next to the NorShor and it’s a much larger building. It blocks my treadmill-eye view of the NorShor. So when I write Phantom of the NorShor in my head, I look straight at the NorShor, but I can’t see it.

Now there’s a metaphor.

And that’s the way it has been, writing this script: looking directly at it, but having a large … something … in the way. I suppose that’s true of most writing projects, especially one’s own. I’ve been doing some proofreading and editing for a client, and every time she sends me a new chapter, I whip through it with infinite clarity, because it’s not mine and I can see what it needs. Then I go back to Phantom of the NorShor and flail around like a blind farm animal, because it’s not mine and I can’t see what it needs because there is a large object between me and it.

Of course, that’s an excuse. The fact that I can’t literally, physically see the object of my artistic infatuation is not an acceptable excuse for having trouble writing about it. External stimuli, or lack thereof, are not inspiration and they are not blocks to it. If I were malnourished or clinically depressed, or simply lacked the time to make this art, that would be something. That would be a pretty good excuse. Not being able to see the NorShor Theater from my spoiled little princess location on the treadmill, on the other hand, is not a good excuse.

People in Duluth, especially artists, like to look at Lake Superior. Or at least they say they do. A lot of them say they’re inspired by it. Personally, I think most of them are assuaging their liberal guilt over having the jack to own a place with a view; furthermore, I think they’re jealous of people who can make art even though they live in a places without anything nice to look at. My spouse has often posed a question about this Cult of Lake: “How come Lake Superior always inspires people to do pretty, good, and altruistic things? How come no one ever says they looked at the Lake and were inspired to make pornography or write poems full of swearwords?” He’s never gotten a good (or any) answer.

I repeat: it’s an excuse, and we all have them. I can blame my lack of stimuli, or I can blame my stimuli. I can whine “I’m not inspired because I don’t have time to look at the Lake/meditate/eat right/sleep well” or I can feel guilty because, hey, I should be able to make more art than someone who works double shifts in the stockyards in Garden City, Kansas. I can attribute my increase in fitness to this opera, or I can attribute this opera’s ultimate success to my having the wherewithal to exercise.

It’s winter now. We’re almost done with the script (really). The ski trails are groomed, so my writing partner and I will get together this week and talk about the opera. We won’t be able to see the NorShor from there, but it’s a good excuse to go skiing.