Advice From Agatha

The other day, my friend Sally told me a joke that reminded me of one of the stranger occurrences in my life.

Years ago, when Jim and I were still courting (and this means sometime over fourteen years ago, since we just celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary), I was becoming aware that one of these days the question of marriage would arise.

Now, having had a first marriage that went sour and still relatively fresh from having lost Roger, I really wasn’t certain I wanted to get married again. Drifting along as we were doing was pretty comfortable, but I could tell that, despite having been a bachelor for forty-some years, Jim was a marrying sort of man.

While we were at a local bookstore, Jim remembered he needed a card for someone. In addition to a nice selection of cards, this store had an array of little gift books. You know the sort, quotations for occasions, illustrations, whatever.

My magpie’s eye was caught by a selection ornamented with bright “birth stones” on the cover. Of course, I wandered over and of course the book I picked up was the one for my birth month. I flipped it open to my birthday and the following words (or some semblance thereof, I paraphrase) leapt out at me.

“Marry an archeologist. The older you get, the more interested he’ll become.”

I stared at it: “Marry an archeologist.” It was like a direct command. I looked to see who was talking to me and noted the quote was credited to Agatha Christie. At that time, I didn’t know her second husband had been an archeologist, Max Mallowan. All I knew was that a writer whose many books I had enjoyed was giving me what seemed like very personal advice.

Quickly – not wanting Jim to see this of all things – I slipped the book back onto the counter and hurried away. He probably wondered why I had suddenly become so interested in what card he had picked up. I didn’t tell him that story for quite a while after.

That’s not the only time Agatha Christie has given me unsolicited advice. Some time later, our friend Patricia Rogers loaned us a copy of Agatha Christie’s excellent non-fiction work Come Tell Me How You Live, an account of several field seasons she spent with Max at archeological digs in the Middle East.

This book was so good, that I hunted out her autobiography. Surprisingly, especially for someone who had written so many books, she talks very little about writing. That makes what happened next so strange.

I was between books, against a deadline, and having a lot of trouble getting started. Therefore, I was sprawled on the sofa, sulking mildly, reading my current book: An Autobiography: Agatha Christie. I turned a page and read the following:

“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling like you want to cry your head off. Then you go out and interrupt someone who is busy – Max usually, because he is so good-natured – and you say:

“‘It’s awful, Max, do you know, I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’”

“‘Oh yes you will,’” Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first: now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.

“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’”

“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’”

“‘It’s different this time,’” I say, with positive assurance.

“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again: such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that seems the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through. It is rather like putting the ferrets in to bring out what you want at the end of the rabbit burrow. Until there has been a lot of subterranean disturbance, until you have spent long hours of utter boredom, you can never feel normal. You can’t think of what you want to write, and if you pick up a book you find you are not reading it properly. If you try to do a crossword your mind isn’t on the clues; you are possessed by a feeling of paralyzed hopelessness.

“Then, for some unknown reason, an inner ‘starter’ gets you off at the post. You begin to function, you know then that ‘it’ is coming, the mist is clearing up. You know suddenly, with absolute certitude, just what A wants to say to B. You can walk out of the house, down the road, talking to yourself violently, repeating the conversation that Maud, say, is going to have with Aylwin, and exactly where they will be, just where the other man will be watching through the trees, and how the little dead pheasant on the ground makes Maud think of something she had forgotten, and so on and so on. And you come home bursting with pleasure; you haven’t done anything at all yet, but you are – triumphantly – there.” (Quoted from pages 571-572)

Well, about half-way through the above, I started laughing. I interrupted Jim, who was doing some research reading across the room.

“Listen to this,” I said, and started reading. Jim listened, getting this funny look on his face as he heard Max saying just about what he’d been saying to me a few hours before.

Since then, we’ve adopted Agatha and Max as sort of our own personal patrons. I mean, just how many couples are there that consist of an archeologist and a genre fiction writer? Not too many, I bet.

Oh… And the joke Sally told me? It was a version of that quote about marrying an archeologist. A pithy bit of advice, that I’ve since read Agatha claimed she never said… But having read a lot of her writings, I can believe she did, grinning at Max even as she disclaimed it.

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7 Responses to “Advice From Agatha”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Ah the twilight zone moments. Something happens, and you swear you can hear the guy standing off the to side saying, “Witness if you will…..”

    Those are the rare moments I remember because they help me know when I’m on the verge of something. Some call it random chance. Some coincidence. I myself call it God speaking to me, but that’s my belief.

    As for that phase of “I don’t know what to write”, I’ve been through those too. And every time sooner or later, I suddenly know exactly what to do. It’s as if God himself stuck me with lightning and said, “Okay, enough sitting on your but. Write!”

    Those too are the time when I realize, I’ve got something good cooking.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Something about chance favoring the prepared mind, perhaps? Or not. I think episodes like that are great.

    At least the advice wasn’t “marry a mycologist, he’ll grow on you.”

    Here’s my most recent one: We’d gone off to visit Sedona and check out the Sedona “vortexes” otherwise known as a great excuse to go hiking. Interesting thing was that I could feel something about the vortexes. The air was different somehow. That was about it.

    A few weeks later, I was hiking in a place I visit several times a week. I ran into a solitary roadrunner who lives out there. Normally this bird is pretty nervous around me and takes off into the brush. This time, he ran off down a path I don’t normally take. Fine, I thought, and followed him, expecting him to dash off into the brush. Nope. He ran across a bridge and down the path ahead of me for a half mile, and he could have turned off the path just about anywhere. But no, he’d wait until I was in sight, then run off again. Finally, he turned and ran off the path. At this point, I had a hunch something was up, so I followed him off the path, right into another vortex. I’ve been on that path before and since, and that’s the only time I’ve had that experience.

    Maybe I was supposed to get enlightened or something, I don’t know. So far as I know, those vortexes are just places where the air feels different.

    And the roadrunner’s still out there, still avoiding me. Guess I’m a disappointment to him.

  3. Alan Robson Says:

    Most evenings Robin and I sit in the lounge and she watches TV and I read a book. I don’t find the TV distracting, I can easily tune it out, particularly if the book is really holding my interest.

    However, far too often for my peace of mind, I get suddenly snapped out of my reading spell because somebody on the TV is speaking the exact same words that I am reading…

    Not whole sentences; that really would be weird — usually it’s just one word, maybe a two or three word phrase; I’ve never had any more than that. But it happens a lot. And even more oddly, the words are often quite strange and uncommon ones. How many times do you hear characters on the haunted fish tank say (for example) “abrogating responsibility” at the exact same time that you are reading these words on the page? But it’s happened to me. I doubt I see those words in print more than once a decade or so. What strange cosmic forces made them coincide with a speech in a TV drama?

    ….eerie music….


    -Alan

  4. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Well, I believe in all of this, Twilight Zone, road runners,and Alan’s cosmic coincidences, too. Strange and wonderful story I could share about my grandfather visiting me in a dream to comfort me after he passed away. Like most mystical experiences, something is lost in the telling, but I know it happened. Skeptics like to put all these things down to mental stress or overworked imagination, but Shakespeare said it best through the mouth of Hamlet to Horatio…”more things on heaven and earth…”

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I really love hearing people’s stories… And I offer appreciation to those of you who have done so (and maybe will do so?).

    Ann is SO right. It’s hard to tell a story like these because they do lose something when being reduced to just words — sort of like watching JAWS without the music.

  6. Paul Says:

    Agatha’s advice seemed much more specific than the ones I see these days when I visit our local Chinese restaurant. I only got one specific one in my life, and I can’t even remember it now but it was obviously meant for a lawyer. At the time, there was a lawyer sitting next to me at the table, so I passed it to him, saying, “Here. I got yours by mistake.”

  7. heteromeles Says:

    I should relate my favorite “anti-mystical” story. A young air force veteran was telling me about how, the night before he shipped out for duty in Korea, he had a going-away party at a Chinese restaurant near the base. His fortune cookie said, “You are about to have a change of address.” Years later, he was still in awe.

    I asked him how many people at his airbase shipped out for Korea. He said that just about everyone did. It was their main duty post after they finished training at the base. Then he thought about it for about ten seconds and said, “Oh.”

    I admire that restaurant owner.

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