April 20, 2012

“Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning”

Writing never comes off in a particularly satisfying way in movies. Or, if it does, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Wonder Boys is one of my favorite films, and it is patently absurd. When Professor Trip (Michael Douglas) tells his colleague Q (Rip Torn) that prize undergraduate student Hannah (Katie Holmes) already has two stories in The Paris Review, I snorted with contempt. Often in films, a writer walks around stewing madly, pacing back and forth, then sits down in front of a Smith Corona typewriter and manically starts pounding the keys (“You’re the man now, dawg!”) until genius is poured out onto the pages of the next Great Novel.

This, of course, rarely happens.

Writing is often staring off into space, usually frowning, for an indefinite amount of time, then writing a single sentence, then looking back up and staring for a while. I probably look pissed off when I’m writing: whatever the word, gesture, sound, and so forth that I’m after might be, it never comes easily. Even in those rare times when I sit down and I’m flying through a scene, there is a thought in the back of my mind that this will all be reshaped and revised and reimagined several times before I’m remotely happy with what is on the page.

The making of art is probably not that interesting to observe. I think Will Self did this once, writing his book in a performance art exhibition where viewers could swing by and watch him working. In film and television, the image is usually the same thing: genius bubbling over like a geyser.

Which is why I found the this past week’s image of Ken Cosgrove, a character from the television show Mad Men, so incredibly charming.

Like so much of Mad Men, when taking a step back, I often think that the show is fairly manipulative, moving from what was a Technicolor exploration of sadness in the 60s to something more like self-satisfied melodrama. Maybe I spend too much time overthinking it. That’s very possible. Anyway, whether or not your fan of the show isn’t really important (digression: favorite shows around TMR are “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” and “My Two Dads”).

Back in season two (roughly four years ago in the timeline of the show) Ken Cosgrove, who seems like the happiest and most easy-going man alive on a show that is drenched in unhappiness, published a very Atlantic Monthly sounding story in, well, Atlantic Monthly: “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” Cosgrove is a minor character on the show, but the writer in me always wondered if he was still writing.

The answer—yes!—finally showed up this week. In the opening scene, Cosgrove is caught by a co-worker sitting down with an editor from Farrar Straus (there wasn’t a “G” yet) about converting his short stories into a novel. Then, at a weekend dinner party with his colleagues and their wives, Cosgrove squirms as his wife heaps praise on him, knowing what comes next: getting upbraided by his boss the following Monday for not keeping his head and heart on his advertising job. Cosgrove promises to give up his secret hobby.

But, then, this. Ken Cosgrove, his wife asleep next to him, sitting in bed in his underwear (even has his black socks still on!), notepad across his knees, a look of dazed concentration on his face as he writes his new story, “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra”:

He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.

I love this. Ken Cosgrove absolutely has to write. It’s like breathing. He can’t quit. He can’t give up writing his stories: he sees them around him all the time, and when they grab him, he has sit up late at night and get it down on paper. Maybe it’s nostalgic, sentimental, trite, whatever. I don’t care. It’s a delightful image to me, a terrific capture of the urge to write. The story sounds pretty terrific, but the masterpiece on the page isn’t what is so wonderful about this moment. It’s not trying to do what so many films and shows push about art-marking, the whole lonely genius angle. This moment is about the need to do it, despite the entire world telling him he shouldn’t. Ken Cosgrove just can’t stop writing.

I’m the same way. I’m guessing many of you are, too.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and New South, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

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