Who’s Afraid of Thomas Wolfe?

Two months ago, as I walked through the front door of the Weymouth Center for the Arts, in southeastern North Carolina, I noticed a pleasant, capable woman arranging a magnificent bouquet in a large vase in the entry hall. When I complimented her on the arrangement, she responded that she was glad I enjoyed it. “It’s all for you, you know,” she added. “Everything we do here is for writers.”
If you push a pen for a living, you are probably as surprised as I was to hear that anyone, anywhere, devotes themselves to writers. But then you haven’t heard about the Ladies of Weymouth. A volunteer group, these dear and tender souls maintain the lushly manicured gardens and the antique-filled rooms of Weymouth. They host events and fundraisers to supply the writers’ quarters of this southern mansion with fresh flowers, shelves full of books, and a bountifully equipped kitchen, study and library.
Perfect for some. But not, apparently, for my on-again, off-again muse (whom long ago, in the throes of angst and deep irony, I christened Constance). I found myself sitting determinedly at my laptop, waiting. And waiting.

After the first day, I broke out the white chocolate.

After two, I stopped showering and started sweating.

By the next day, I heard time’s winged chariot revving its engine behind me. (I had signed on for only five days at Weymouth.)

Perhaps, I thought, Constance was an old fashioned girl and would prefer to be wooed by hand rather than computer. I was, after all, a guest in a house once visited by North Carolina’s most famous writing son. In fact, the plaque on my door announced that I was sleeping in the Thomas Wolfe room!  I didn’t own a typewriter like Wolfe’s, of course, but I had brought a tablet with me. Dutifully, I took it out and waited, pencil in hand, for free-written descriptions and dialogue to flow. I waited. And waited.

By the fourth day, I was biting my nails, over-snacking, and completely demoralized. I went to check my email in the ball room.

That’s where I met another, newly arrived Writer in  Residence (there are four bedrooms at Weymouth, with space for four lucky authors). She asked me which room I was in, and when I told her, she replied with delight, “Oh, you got the haunted room!”

“Haunted?” I inquired, not quite as thrilled at this prospect as she seemed to be. She told me that she had been coming to Weymouth for years, and that I was fortunate, indeed. Thomas Wolfe’s ghost, she explained, was mischievous only to writers who didn’t cotton to restless spirits. “He’s always wonderful to people who aren’t afraid of him,” she assured me.

Was I afraid of Thomas Wolfe? I asked myself this on my last night, as I sank into a bed tucked under the famous writer’s photo. The answer, it was pretty clear, was no. When I was a teenager, I’d put myself to sleep by repeating those lush, extravagant  lines from the end of You Can’t Go Home Again: “Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. “ Later, when I began writing my own books, the way Wolfe always gave himself so completely to feeling became a benchmark, a touchstone. So my once and future idol hardly frightened me; in my current depressed state, I was much more daunted than haunted. My muse and Wolfe could fight it out, I decided, yawning. I was going to sleep.

Not, as it turns out, for long. At 3 AM I woke in a cold sweat. Something had changed; something was different –about the room, about me. It took my sitting with the voice in my head, then padding to my laptop to transcribe it. It took my writing at break-neck speed my last morning at Weymouth. It took those five frantic hours to accomplish what I’d been hoping for — I had the two new scenes I needed for my novel! Someone had grabbed Constance by the scruff and shook poetry into her. She was on fire! And even now, long home and the book submitted, I’m filled with relief and swamped with gratitude — to a ghost. Thank you, Tom!!!   


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7 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Thomas Wolfe?

  1. ninanelsonbooks

    I think it’s great that you’ve named your muse; only my inner critic has managed to get a name out of me. Perhaps that shows that I’m spending too much time and energy on my inner critic (Yes, Priscilla, I’m talking about you) and not enough with my muse (Hello, stranger, come on over. No, Priscilla was just leaving, weren’t you Priscilla? Yes, you were.).

    Regardless, nice to know that Tom, in whatever way of his, inspired Constance. Perhaps your muse needed a muse.

  2. Louise Hawes

    Priscilla is a PERFECT name for an up-tight inner critic, Nina! I haven’t named mine yet, but following your example, am considering Bartleby (my inner critic is definitely of the male persuasion :-), Alexander (the not so great), and Gideon (Holier than Thou)…What do you think?

  3. ninanelsonbooks

    Well, Priscilla is all about being perfect, so if I’ve given her the perfect name, then it’s probably the only thing I’ve done right in her eyes. Otherwise, she’s too busy pursing her lips, tapping her manicured nails and tsk-tsking over all my obvious imperfections.

    Do you mean Bartleby of the I’m-so-intelligent and you’re not Bartelbys? Yes, absolutely. He’s an intellect of the highest brow and will tolerate nothing less than the most literary prose. If you ever want to take him down a notch, just call him Bart. He’ll turn up his nose, sniff and say something along the lines of, “That’s exactly the type of thing I’d expect from you,” but it might be enough to get him to leave for awhile.

  4. Uma Krishnaswami

    Thank you, Louise! I love this post. All of it, including that wonderful picture, The ghost, of course, and also my building fear that all five days were going to be for naught. But no. You (and Thomas Wolfe’s ghost) didn’t let me down.

  5. Louise Hawes

    Thanks, Uma. “Eleventh Hour” is my middle name ๐Ÿ™‚ I wish I could say this sort of suspense was unusual in my writing life, but Constance seems prone to last-minute inspiration!

  6. Louise Hawes

    Thanks, Mary. I wish you lived in NC, so you could come stay at Weymouth! With your “ghostly” writing, I’ll bet T.W. would cozy right up to you ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Louise Hawes

    P.S. Constance wants all and sundry to know she is NOT responsible for the typo in the third line from the bottom, where “shook” should be “shaken!”

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