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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Solitary Confinement

May 1, 2001

At a non-negotiable six hundred fifty dollars, Madonna’s Sex Book is not the most expensive book on the shelves of Mac’s Fireweed Books – a 1912 copy of Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metalica, written in 1512 and not moving too fast at twelve hundred dollars per, has that distinction – but it certainly generates a lot of attention.

Faced high on the shelf behind Chris Alderson’s desk in the sanctum sanctorum of Mac’s Fireweed Books, the Antiquarian Book Room, the provoca-tive volume fairly moans to be taken and browsed and all the Mac’s staff and not a few customers have answered the siren call. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, the tough Mylar wrapping prevents any unseemly lingering and the lascivious images rumoured to be contained therein may only be surmised. A small tear has begun in one corner of the plastic, no doubt the work of a frustrated voyeur.

"Starting to look kind of ratty, Chris, might as well take it right off and be done with it." It’s sound advice, well-intended, the good look of the store foremost in speaker’s mind. With clear eyes, Chris sees past the less-than-genuine intent to the prurience behind it and slowly shakes her head. The images will remain inviolate for the serious bibliophile who will eventually plunk down the six hundred and fifty smackers.

Seems like a lot of money for something you could see on the back of your eyelids on a lazy afternoon with nothing to do but let your imagination run amok. Especially when, for a paltry $550 more, you could have De Re Metalica , not a sexually explicit picture in the car load, nothing but thoughts and information, all beautifully formulated and carefully transposed. What a bargain! What an author! I sit in awe of his intellect and wonder about his state of mind.

The thing is, you see, according to a 15-year study reported in Psychology Today, 43 percent of writers have some degree of manic-depressive illness as measured against a comparison group matched for age, education, and sex.

Well, shoot. I knew that. And it didn’t take me fifteen years of study to find it out, either. All I had to do was look around my circle of writer friends: one out of four of us definitely whacko, or fast approaching the point of no return. It’s an occupational hazard, we all agree.

It’s the strain, of course, of having to come up with an idea that has not already been done to death; the pressure of meeting deadlines and of putting our opinions on paper for all the world to see and approve. Or not. Much more likely, it’s sitting down to share a thought and not having one to share.

Most of all, it’s the forlorn isolation of the exercise… just us and our blank little pieces of paper and our blank little minds, staring fixedly at the wall and letting the rest of the world go by.

I suppose there are more solitary occupations than writing.

Maytag repair, for instance, or herding goats on the high summer pastures of the Swiss Alps. A clerk on evening shift in the Returns department at Mac’s Fireweed can make the Lone Ranger look like party animal by comparison. And no one doubts the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

But, for sheer, unadulterated, excruciating desolation, creative writing gets the nod and, in the end, it makes us all just a tad depressed and, yes, just a little bit nuts. It’s not just the writing, or more to the point, the non-writing, however, that makes us a statistic in an article in Psychology Today. The following is a list of thorn that tend to raise havoc with our tender hides.

  1. Getting a letter from a reader brimming over with praise and enthusiasm and finding, near the end that he has mistaken you for someone else.
  2. Certain family members who call for help in entertaining visitors, saying, “I’ll just call the Old Lady… oh no, she’s not working, she’s just in her office, writing.”
  3. Hearing about some other writer who has received a million bucks for a  movie script that will star Mel Gibson AND Liam Neeson, both in and (Oh, be still, my heart!!) out of their kilts.
  4. People who took exception to your last column.  And say so.

  5. Being one paragraph from being finished with a great story about a local hero and reading the same story by another journalist.  And it’s better.
  6. Fellow writers who don’t drop everything when you  phone for reassurance and companionship during a dry spell.
  7. Fellow writers who expect you to drop everything to pamper their anguished egos during a bout with the dreaded Block.
  8. A spouse who, when invited to “Hey, listen…whaddya think of this?” doesn’t fall on the floor, laughing and proclaiming it’s the best thing you ‘ve ever done.
  9. Waking up at 4 in the morning with a head full of story: opening, body, zinger of a closer, and remembering nothing of it when you sit down at the computer a few hours later.
  10. Intending to write a repudiating letter to the editors of  Psychology Today and don’t, because you can’t reach your keyboard from a fetal position. 

You know what?  I’ll bet Madonna never had that problem.

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