I have a very wise friend who is in his mid-eighties. I love my talks with Max because he always seems refreshed with new discoveries and the spirit of youth. He is a wonderful role model for a guy who has always feared old age and death. I often ask him how he retains such energy and optimism. He works at it. He refuses to allow himself to become mired. One day he told me this story: He was in his late sixties and feeling depressed. He had no energy. When he went to the gym and looked in the mirror he saw a tired old man. What is the point in working out? That's what the image in the mirror said to him.
Then one afternoon when he stepped into his elevator, there was a young woman he knew, waiting to go up. She had worked part time for him in the past and now worked for other tenants in the building. But she was wearing different clothes, a fitted skirt and tight sweater that revealed her shapely body. She was looking at my friend differently than during afternoons when she had cleaned his place. She got off the elevator at his floor. They chatted in the hall. She said that she found him attractive. But he could feel this even before she said the words.
Max was leaning against the wall, chatting a little, when she turned and put her hands on both sides of him, pressed her body against his. They held this embrace for a little while, ten seconds or perhaps a little longer. Then Max drew away, smiled at her, and said goodnight as he walked to his apartment. This was the beginning and end of their romantic encounter. Except my friend felt different, lighter on his feet. He was energized and motivated for the first time in weeks. He soon returned to the gym and felt renewed passion for his work. Their brief interlude swept aside negative thinking and he regards it today as an instructive moment.
Like my elderly friend, Max, I am not immune to beautiful women. A chat with my favorite girls in Starbucks, Lorraine, Cassandra and Lola, with her quirky gorgeous smile, inspire my afternoon sessions at the computer after my nap. I rely on them as much as caffeine. I have had many muses. When I can't find answers I often read a section of my book to one of several friends I trust. Just reading aloud to a smart friend sometimes gives me a new angle on the narrative and a burst of energy. More than anyone else, my brilliant wife Bonnie points the way when I am lost. I am often jolted by her insights and can't wait to get back to my manuscript. Is it plagiarizing when you use your wife's ideas without attribution?
As a writer, the key element for me is energy, which is another name for inspiration. If I have energy, I can write the paragraph. If I am feeling inwardly exhausted writing is a waste of time. I am always looking for tricks. Riding my bike to my office along the river is a great morning tonic for me. For years, and particularly during anxious periods, I meditate for a half hour before moving to my desk. At other stretches, particularly during the football season, I'll listen to sports radio before looking at my pages. But never if the Jets have been losing. Stalling sometimes helps raise my energy level -- really!! If the morning has been a shut-out I try staying away from my computer until it is nearly time to leave for home or for a lunch appointment -- that building urgency seems to make the words gush out.
When I was beginning my novel, The Dream Merchant ($24.99, Thomas Dunne Books), I had a sense for the kind of woman that I wanted to be the great love of Jim, my central character. I was thinking of the girl friend of Eddie the pool shark in the unforgettable Paul Newman movie, "The Hustler". She was played by Piper Laurie. I wanted my character to be beautiful but a little worn down from life and love, accessible but somehow even more desirable for being tarnished and "easy."
But I had never known such a girl. I hired a talented actress to help me visualize scenes with Ava. Maya was thoughtful, intuitive, and gorgeous like Marilyn Monroe -- and she was game for taking on this very complicated self-destructive character. For almost a year and a half I would send Maya long emails suggesting what I had in mind for my next chapter. She would come to my office and we'd block out the scenes. After a year, I hardly needed to tell her anything--she was composing many of the lines herself. Maya had become Ava. For many months Maya inspired my writing days.
My most reliable mistress and muse for more than fifty years has been the Gulf Stream. Whenever I am on the verge of starting a new book, that's where I go. I love to troll big baits in the ocean from my old boat, and sometimes when I'm lucky, I troll up ideas. Anchored off an island, the evening sunset fills me with sadness and yearning -- it pulls the past into the present and makes me feel like writing.
I like to say to young writers, there are many places to find the girl in the elevator.