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On Being Interrupted; or, The News from Porlock

1. This is a piece about interruptions. And about how they—

2. Let's try again. One morning, brushing my teeth after breakfast, I got an idea for a story called "The News from Spain."

I could see it whole — the shape of it, its trajectory, its voice. No details yet, but the entire thing was illuminated and visible in the distance. I didn't know how — or if — I would ever reach it; it might run off, it might lie down and die, it might turn out to be boring; but for the moment, anyway, there was a live current running between me and it. We exchanged a promise. I would shove everything else aside and sit down and wait, and either it would come to me or I would go to it — somehow the two of us would get together.

But not today. My schedule was full of things that couldn't be shoved aside. A magazine deadline. A parent-teacher conference at my son's school. Dinner with a friend who'd recently reproached me for breaking several lunch and dinner dates in a row. So, standing at the bathroom mirror, full of the sudden electric thrill of the story, I knew I wouldn't be able to start it right away. In some ways this was a relief. A story always looks easy before you get in and start wrestling with it. It hadn't disappointed me yet. And I hadn't yet disappointed myself. I walked out of the bathroom feeling terrific. I swaggered, even. See you later, I said to the story; while the story, dejected, was already packing its bag and calling a cab to go to the airport.See you later, I said to the story; while the story, dejected, was already packing its bag and calling a cab to go to the airport.

The next morning, as I brushed my teeth, I suddenly remembered that I'd had an idea for a story the day before.

It was gone.

The idea, the story, the electricity, everything. The only thing left was the title. Oh, why hadn't I written something down? Just a few scrawled notes, some brief phrases recording the idea, would have helped.

"The News from Spain"? What did that mean? Why would I think to call a story that?

3. Even if you haven't read Coleridge, you've probably heard of the Person from Porlock. He's the mysterious man who interrupted Coleridge's attempt to put down on paper the poem that had just presented itself to him, magnificently whole, during a deep, druggy nap. Coleridge was feverishly writing, the Person from Porlock showed up, Coleridge and he talked business, and by the time they'd said goodbye and Coleridge had returned to his manuscript, the embers of the poem — "Kubla Khan" — had cooled.

It was Coleridge himself who first told this story, in an essay he wrote to accompany the publication of the "Kubla Khan" fragment. And writers have been retelling it ever since, fascinated and appalled by the idea of this Porlock person whose interruption is fatal to the work. Whether or not the story is literally true, we all recognize it as the truth. The idea is there in its sudden, beautiful, burning entirety, and then we go to answer the phone or the doorbell or check email or buy cat food or take a shower or sleep, and the idea is gone. Are we the victims of these interruptions? Or are we unconsciously wishing for them, hoping that something will come to take us away from the work — from the labor of it and from responsibility for its inevitable failure to be as good as we had hoped?

What might that poem have been? is Coleridge's implicit, desolate question.

But what really matters in that story of a lost poem isn't the poem. It's the loss.

4. Dinner.

5. But you get it already. I don't need to keep demonstrating all the interruptions — you get that there have been a lot of them as I've worked on this piece. There always are, for every writer, with every piece. Stuff gets lost all the time.

6. After "The News from Spain" disappeared, I tried frantically to recover the idea. Standing there in the bathroom with toothpaste foaming at the corners of my mouth, I thought about the one time I'd been to Spain — a week spent in Mallorca with my boyfriend after my freshman year of college. It was the first (and only) time I met his family. They owned a house on the island and treated me like the girl from the other side of the tracks. As the week went along, he began to see me through their eyes. Although I hadn't thought of it in years, I found that it was all still there — swimming with him in the silky warmth of the Mediterranean at night; the noisy, tiny rented SEAT; the parched, twisting roads; his uncle's sneering way of saying the word dégoûtant.

So was this my lost chord of a story, magnanimously returning now to remind me of its desire to be written?

No.

It didn't even interest me much, right then, as a story.

But as I put it aside, I was already thinking of a third story, which could also be called—

7. In one of the brief prefatory essays threaded throughout the Penguin edition of Coleridge's Selected Poems, the great biographer and scholar Richard Holmes writes about what he calls "the Coleridgean fragment," which "often contains the idea or seed for some much larger construction."

Coleridge's own preface to "Kubla Khan," for all its chagrined sense of maddening loss, presents the story of the poem's appearance and disappearance as a "psychological curiosity." Coleridge wrote essays to accompany the publication of other poems and prose pieces, explaining how their composition had gone astray. "Alas!" he says, but you can also feel him saying, "Wow." He's interested in the way things get written: visions, interruptions, accidents, wrong turnings, misguided plans, what gets lost, and what is left.

His fragments, presented as bereft remnants of some greater, irretrievable work, may have originated in losses — but they are also works about loss, haunted by the elusive shadow-works that never made it to the page. For all its solemn cadences, each fragment-and-essay combination is also playful and quite modern, frankly confessing to its own brokenness and thus underscoring the point that brokenness is what it's really about.

"Like the carefully designed 'ruin' in an eighteenth-century park," Holmes writes, "it is a powerfully Romantic form of architectural suggestion or evocation, in which the visible part suggests the invisible whole."

8. I built a book around that lost story — around its absence. A group of seven pieces, each of which was called "The News from Spain."

They were all asymmetrical, thwarted, elusive love stories; they were all called "The News from Spain"; none of them had anything to do with the week I'd spent in Mallorca; and none of them was the other, original story, the one that had first occurred to me and then gotten lost.

9. Whether or not I eventually remembered what that first flash of an idea had been, my job was to not find it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joan Wickersham was born in New York City. She is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe; she has published essays and reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune; and she has contributed on-air essays to National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Suicide Index: Putting My... New Trade Paper $14.95

  2. Selected Poems (Penguin Classics) New Trade Paper $16.00


Joan Wickersham is the author of The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story

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