Here's a chapter that didn't make it into Pen on Fire. I can no longer say why because I can't remember.
“I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then,
do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a
customs barrier?” - John Steinbeck
No Snail Likes Flat Beer
In Southern California, slugs and snails are about as plentiful as cars on the freeways. Nurseries devote rows upon rows to shelves of snail bait, you'd think the gutsy gastropods were the plague. Actually, in my garden, they are. My poor polka dot plant, shredded all because of a slug. Red, ripe strawberries, now inedible because they were some snail's idea of a snack.
Still, I put off buying the bait. Call me superstitious; I didn’t want the word death on any product in my house. It’s hard enough having books with that word on them, though I do own a few: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Death in Slow Motion by Eleanor Cooney.
I heard that snails and slugs like beer, so I popped a can of Budweiser left over from a surprise party I threw for my husband, Brian. (Someone brought over a six-pack and Brian, a Coors man, relegated the Bud to the garage.) Then I robbed empty jars of their lids and strategically placed the lids about our teensy garden adjacent to the strawberries and tomatoes. I filled the lids with beer and hoped for the best. At least the slimy creatures would go on to the next level feeling no pain.
The following morning I went outside just as a slug was dragging itself out of the lid onto the dirt. Only one measly slug had drowned.
“You need deeper bowls,” a friend said, “so they can’t crawl back out.”
“Will everyday dishes do?” I said, “or do they only like China?”
That night, after my son went to bed, I crept outside. Holding the flashlight between my chin and neck, I crouched on the ground and peered through leaves, under plants. When I found a gastropod, I sprinkled salt on it and watched it shrivel up. Torturer! Once was enough.
I took to picking up the snails and tossing them into the street. That was no good either. The crunch of their shell on the pavement got to me.
I reverted to beer. Because that gave the snail or slug a choice. When Brian had a beer, I’d swipe the bottle when there was only an inch or so of flat beer left, and pour it into a little plastic container. But I caught no snails. And then it occurred to me: like most humans, no snail likes flat beer.
Three days ago I broke down and went to the nursery to buy snail and slug bait. After watching the pests decimate flowers and vegetable seedlings, I had to make a choice: the plants’ life or the snails'?
I still feel pangs of guilt.
There’s so much to feel guilt over. Not writing is right up there at the top of my list. If you’re trying to decide if you’re a writer, take a look at your guilt quotient. Do you feel bad when you don’t write? Do you ride yourself endlessly about how you should be writing more? When you do write, do you feel the burden lift? Do you breathe a sigh of relief, feeling good that you got something done?
Neal Shusterman has published more than 15 young adult novels, wins awards, and writes for TV and film. He's one of the most prolific writers I know. Yet, he feels guilty if he doesn't write, or doesn’t do something writing-related during his workday.
"I have a strong work ethic," he says, "and want to feel that writing full-time is a 'real' job. I keep track of the hours I spend writing--even if they're unproductive hours. Forty hours spent working through a writer’s block with no pages to show for it is still a full work week. I don't feel guilty about that, because I know I'll also have a week where in forty hours, I'll be on a roll and get two weeks of work done."
I can always count on novelist Jo-Ann Mapson to reduce things to their essence, including guilt. "I don't feel guilty when I don't write," she says. "I just feel as if someone cut off my hands. Incomplete. Inarticulate. And mopey."
Whether you’re published or not, feeling like you haven’t gotten anything done unless you’ve written even a paragraph is a good indication you are a writer. Snails can tell the difference between fresh and flat beer just as writers know the difference between meaningful creative work, and just work.
Set Your Timer
Most writers feel lousy and guilty when they don’t write. By now you know that if you make a commitment and goal, you'll feel guilty if you don't do what you say you're going to do. Everything in the universe is on a schedule. Those snails in my garden know that late at night, when it's dark and damp out, it's time for them to mosey about the plants. Nature's schedule is solid; there's a proper place in time for everything.
Working first thing is idea because you’ve at least put in your time. But do your work before you go to sleep if you must.
If you find that the actual time you sit down to write isn't working for you—and not writing anything is a good indication--then try another time and place.
Try locations outside the house, too: the cafe in the bookstore, the park, the mall, in a Denny's or Coco's or another restaurant by a freeway or turnpike exit where there’s interesting people-watching.
The main thing is to stop feeling guilty and the only way to do that is to correct the balance. When you're writing the right amount for you, guilt will cease to be.