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Creativity uncorked

Wine alone can't cure writer's block, but sharing with a neighbor might

By TD Mischke

Published on June 15, 2009 at 1:43pm

He tried everything.

He cocked his hat, lit a cigarette, and sat at the piano, fidgeting. He stayed up late, with pen and paper, allowing his mind to loosen and his thoughts to drift. He took a guitar to the park and stood in the shade of a willow. But he couldn't write a song.

He tried drawing on a sketch pad. He tried reciting poetry into a tape recorder. He collected scrap metal and tried welding it into art.

Nothing.

How the hell was it, he thought, that so much could swirl inside one man and there be no means to channel it? What was the purpose of inert passion?

He imagined there to be a dam in his heart, and many nights he beat at the mortar and rebar with alcohol until it softened enough to let him rest his weary head against its stubborn slope.

He was 31 years old, a tool-and-die man, and the only child of parents who had died in a house fire nine years prior. He was told he had an eerie intensity that made some uncomfortable, so he steered clear of people, preferring, most evenings, to sit by himself, surveying the neighborhood from the front steps of his apartment building.

He smoked Pall Malls, drank Australian wine from plastic cups, and often told himself that if he were patient enough, and sat long enough, taking in the natural world around him, letting every thought drift in that wanted in, the relevant answers would appear.

One September evening, with his cigarette pack empty and his plastic cup on its side, just such an answer woke him from a melancholy daydream.

"Quit looking for the thing," it whispered. "Ask it to look for you."

The words caught him off guard, and he straightened up and repeated them: "Quit looking for the thing; ask it to look for you."

His eyes narrowed. That can't be right, he thought, and he listened for some type of clarification. None came. He tried to ignore the words, but they returned even stronger. Finally, unable to sleep, he decided to heed the directive and move forward with a mysterious phantom faith.

For the next nine months he dispensed with his restless, earnest approach to living and operated on a kind of autopilot. Forgoing his lonely end-of-the-day ruminations, he instead made an effort to befriend a retired stump grinder across the street. Two, sometimes three nights a week he joined the gray-haired neighbor on a wooden bench outside the man's garage, where they watched traffic pass by or listened to ballgames on a portable radio.

Day after day he found himself slipping into an easy routine. If his mind wandered to thoughts of inadequacy, he recited the words like a mantra: "I'm not looking for that thing anymore; it's out there looking for me."

In the ninth month it found him.

On a day off work, as a warm June breeze teased his living-room curtains, he sat at his upright piano and wrote his first song in a decade. He called it "Annette." It was a six-chord ballad about a middle-aged Midwestern waitress who receives a $1,000 tip from a businessman, walks off her job, and takes a Greyhound to the West Coast to see the ocean for the first time in her life.

He didn't know where the song came from and didn't care. He finished it in half a day and, the next week, played it at an open stage in a neighborhood coffeehouse. Just five people were there to hear it, but one was a woman named Mary, who told him she went by her middle name, Annette. She appeared thin and frail as she thanked him for the performance. He invited her to join him at his table for tea, and in the hour and a half they conversed, he learned she was dying of cervical cancer.

Back at his apartment that night, he carried in his shirt pocket a photo of the woman's 22-year-old son. From his kitchen window he could see the stump grinder working in the garage across the street, and he decided to stop over for a visit. In his chest he felt no heaviness, and in his hands he carried two crystal wine glasses and a bottle of Yellow Tail. 

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