FIVE WORDS THAT MADE A LIFEBELT

The final part of the apocryphal story about writing Taking Leave. 2.30 pm on a boiling hot August afternoon on Patmos. Having reached meltdown with the laptop computer, spider bites and stage fright, JT runs from his house into the port and smack into revered elderly American poet, Robert Lax. Read Parts One and Two.

‘Nothing broken!’ Lax called out cheerfully, slumped on one elbow on the ground. I help him to his feet and brush some leaves from a nearby bench. He sat down, breathed in and out, impossibly adjusting his woollen bobble hat on his head and tightening the scarf around almost translucent skin.

‘I’m so sorry about that!’ I said, feeling like an obsequious phoney.

Lax chuckled and smiled with a set of elderly large teeth.

‘I’m still here and all vital signs appear to be working. So how’s the book going?’

‘Oh, the book.’

‘What’s up? What’s happening?’ he said, fixing me with a stare, half way between support and impatience.

Aware I was standing next to a literary giant and spiritual fountain, I decided to confess all. ‘I feel as if I have dived into an ocean.’

Lax sniffed and nodded, ‘Carry on.’

‘I feel as if I have swum into the middle of the ocean but am never going to make it to the other side or get back to where I dived in.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Finally I feel that even if I do get to the other side, there is not going to be an editor in existence who will be able to pull all the strands of my novel together.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Yes.’

Lax inhaled and cleared his throat.

I sat down on the bench leaving a respectful distance between us and made myself comfortable.

‘They tell me,’ Lax began, pausing to take a deep breath. I readied my brain for a transfusion of wisdom.

‘They tell me that if you find yourself stranded in the middle of the ocean that there are two important things to bear in mind.’

Lax inclined his head ever so slightly towards me. I breathed out a long breath of acknowledgment. Lax held the index finger of one hand in the air and spoke as if he was reciting a poem.

‘They tell me that if you find yourself – in the middle of the ocean – two things are absolutely essential – don’t panic. And keep swimming’

A part of me wanted to say: ‘Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to add?’

But the better side knew to smile, shake hands and depart. Like all good cures, those words took a while to sink in and take effect. Since then I have written three more books and try to remember to take the medicine every day.

The simplicity of the message is deceptive but it has saved my life as a writer on more occasions than I care to remember.

Thank you, Robert Lax, wherever you are swimming now.

– Robert Lax died two years after this incident in September 2000.

QUESTION: Marin Amis’s father claimed that writing a novel is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. Right or wrong?


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