Sebastian Shaw was a genius. When he was drunk, he was brilliant, when he was sober, he acted like a grumpy old man. Which he was. He was 58 and the little hair that he had left was all grey. He was an alcoholic and a degenerate gambler – the ones who end up dead in a parking lot or at the bottom of a lake.
He was richer than Elton John, yet he lived on less than 500 bucks a week, which he spent mostly on cheap wine and cigarettes. He slept during the day and drank and wrote during the night. He walked around the house wearing the same stained white undershirt and loose pants.
I was his chauffeur, his personal assistant, his secretary, his proofreader, his answering machine. He had never learned to drive a car, to answer a phone, or use a computer. If you stared at him from a certain angle, you could swear he was illiterate. Or homeless.
But Sebastian Shaw had one amazing gift. He would rub the back of his neck, scratch his temples or insistently touch his man tits, and then he would write something wonderful, something that would evoke all the feelings and emotions that his soul seemed to lack.
And all the critics and reviewers and fellow writers would go nuts and say he’s one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. Of course, none of them knew the truth, the terrible secret that would have made them hate him, truly hate him.
I think I’m pretty sure that I was the only one to see him write. Because of the nature of my job, I was required to live with him in what the citizens called “The Mansion.” A six bedroom house on Marmerry Hill, overlooking the entire town, with an enormous garden.
They said it was the most expensive piece of real estate in Rubicon. I just thought it looked like a prison.
Sebastian would lock himself in what used to be a dancing room, where he had set up an old desk, right in the center. He would put his gun, an old, old revolver, to his temple. He always put one bullet, just one, in the barrel. Technically speaking, the odds of him getting shot were slim. But he did this every night, just before he’d start to write.
Of course, he drank. One or two bottles of wine. Then he’d clench his teeth, close his eyes, and pull the trigger. By the time he opened them, his face was blood red, and sweat trickled down his forehead and cheek, droplets falling down from his chin. Breathing fast and brokenly, he’d put the gun down on the desk, stare out the window, and then he’d start writing in his notebook.
He wrote like it was no tomorrow. That’s the only way to put it, actually. He wrote as if the world would end the very next day. Furiously, in the handwriting of a doctor, he’d write and write until dawn. Sometimes he hit himself in the head with the butt of the gun. Often times, he’d come out of his office with his knuckles covered in a crust of hardened blood.
How I know this? Well, once he forgot to lock his door. When he noticed me, sitting there in the doorway, staring back at him like a frightened mouse, he went crazy. He wanted to fire me. The next morning, just as I was packing my bags, he walked into my room and apologized.
“I’m sorry, Johnny boy,” he said. “When I write, I like to be alone. I don’t want company, I don’t need an audience. It’s not pretty, Johnny, it’s not pretty. You have to be willing to die, to bleed, to suffer in order to create real art. Do you understand, Johnny?”
Then he told me more about what I’d seen, about his gruesome writing habit.
I think he respected me, in a way. Yes, he pushed me around, just like any boss, but he also respected me, mostly because he had known my father.
Also, I was a writer, just like him. Or at least I pretended to be. I tried to make him read some of my stories, but he wouldn’t. He said that he had stopped reading after he learned all that he needed to know about the written word.
“There’s nothing new for me to absorb, to learn. I know everything I need to know about what I’m doing with a pen,” he said.
If someone else had told me that, I would have taken it as arrogance. But not him, because, you see, there’s this thing that made me love him and hate him with equal conviction: all he wrote were first drafts. He never edited. He didn’t need to. I would check for spelling mistakes and all that, but his drafts were impeccable. Brilliant.
And they didn’t know. The critics. They thought that he was just like the rest of them, writing and rewriting, and deleting and going crazy about this or that character, about plot holes and stuff. But he didn’t. It would take him half an hour to write a short story.
I loved him for being the first person to encourage me to write. My mother never cared, my father, well, I never got to know my father well enough to tell him what I did in my free time. I wanted to, I really did. Just before he died, I wrote him a letter but never sent it.
All Sebastian did was tell me to write. I was hungry for advice, hungry to know the tricks great writers employed in their stories. I wanted to know it all, do it all. I wanted to become so good at writing that my fingers would stroll effortlessly across the keyboard.
But the truth was that I was a young writer, and the thing about young writers is that they spend more time thinking about writing than they do writing. They’re waiting for the right time to write, they want to live, to accumulate enough experience and knowledge before they set out to write their stories. Sometimes young writers would like for someone else to do the writing for them. They’d like to go to bed one night with a jumbled mess of chapters and wake up the next morning with a finished product.
One day we went for a stroll through the garden. The smell of summer flowers was travelling on the sluggish breeze, reaching us in waves of colors and emotions. It all felt elemental and profound, and yet so simple. We sat down on a bench.
“It’s such a struggle to write. It’s driving me crazy,” I said.
He laughed. “Don’t worry, kid, that only means you’re doing something right.”
“Does it always have to be like this? So painful?”
“I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t,” he replied.
“You don’t struggle with rewrites. You never fail.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Look, kid. There’s always a price to pay. There’s no way to avoid it. The question is whether or not you’re willing to pay.”
“What about talent?” I asked. “Talent and hard work?”
He smiled shyly. “Writing is not complicated. It’s all about how much of yourself you’re willing to let the reader see. If you’re reluctant to let the reader in, if you don’t sacrifice a part of your soul, then all you write will feel empty and cold. Just words.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “The only advice I can give you is this: don’t worry. It will come to you. One day you’ll realize what no course can teach you. Writing comes from the inside, from that place of truth we’re so scared of.”
We sat there for a long time. We didn’t speak. The garden glittered wild under a mist of golden rays.
Suddenly, Sebastian said, “You know, this house was built by a colonel back in the 1850s.”
I nodded. “My father told me about it. It’s said that the colonel sold his soul to the devil.”
“They say he used to kidnap painters and poets and singers and keep them locked up in the cellar. Force them to sing or paint or whatever.”
“I can see why your father liked this story.” He turned to face me. “What do you think about all this?”
“Not sure. I grew up in this town. Everyone was talking about the Baron, as they used to call him. Crazy, crazy stories. We liked to believe, we liked to go up to the door late at night and knock, hoping someone would answer. This was our haunted house.”
He glanced around, smiled. “You never went inside?”
“No, I’ve never been that brave. Besides, the guy who owned it before you kept a close eye on things. After a while, he hired a guard. ”
“Do you want to know what I think?” He scratched his beard. “At first I didn’t think much of these stories. But then I saw the library.”
He frowned. “The books. Some of them can’t be found anywhere else. I couldn’t even find evidence that the guys who wrote them ever existed.” He groaned. “It’s like… it’s like this Baron had his own press.”
“Maybe he did have his own press. He was a really rich guy, this Baron. Some folks say he was the richest man in North Carolina.”
Sebastian stood up. “Just go and see for yourself. There are over ten thousand books in that library. Try to find one that you’ve heard of.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the library. I started off by going from shelf to shelf, trying to decipher this mystery, but I soon found myself skimming through the books whose titles caught my eye. With every page I turned, I felt less and less alive, less and less part of this world. I sat down on the couch and began to read.
The more I read, the more I fell in love with the books, with the faint aroma of old, of dust, of paper slowly dying on bookshelves, the more I despised the cruel reality of the outside world. Of the real world.
You see, people search for happiness in the stories they read. They search for something that can’t be found. That’s why I love stories so much. They’re so close to reality and yet so far away. Like the Sistine Chapel. God and Adam’s fingers are so close, but nothing can make them touch.
We’re always one inch away from finding out the truth about ourselves.
This post was sponsored Benjamin Lee.
I CAN DO…SO CAN YOU. Life is all about attitude. This site is dedicated to motivate and encourage others. In my blogs, I discuss a variety of issues pertaining to Faith, Family, Fitness, and Food. Why? Because those are all part of my life.
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