The Arrogant Writer and the Beached Mermaid

This entry is part 16 of 25 in the series The Mythology of the Modern World

Welcome once again to the Myth of the Week. I’ve been putting together a list of myth requests from those folks what answered the last couple of open calls, to make sure I don’t forget any of the ones I can answer (sadly, I don’t always have the answer. I wish that I did.)

What I find interesting this time, however, is that two of the recent requests… well, fit together. First was Moe Lane, who is always knowledgable and cool. And he asked, because he wanted to:

If Magick is a matter of Will and Imagination, then why don’t the great writers live forever?

An excellent question. One often pondered at the back ends of parking lots and in the OOP areas of LARPS since at least the mid-nineties. And one that is singularly difficult to answer.

But as I said, there was another question raised. In fact, the very next question, raised by Joel Wilcox:

Why do 99.9% of webcomics suck?

Statistically improbable? Sure. But a valid question. Mr. Lane jumped right back in, however, to say (and I quote):

Dude, 90% of *everything* sucks. Sounds fishy, sure, but it’s like a law, and everything.

Now, Mr. Lane is a solid writer in his own right. As Mr. Wilcox may be as well. I don’t mean to make this a Moe Lane tribute. But as I know Mr. Lane better, it’s easier for me to discuss such things with and about him. And one thing I know for certain is that Mr. Lane is himself a bit of a mythologist. He has intuited his fair share of things, not the least of which involves Marilyn Monroe’s post-rictus career as a vampire hunter.

But I digress.

Regardless, without even realizing it, Mr. Lane had seen a hint — just the tiniest hint — of his own answer. Which I’ll be glad to tell you in a story we like to call…

The Arrogant Writer and the Beached Mermaid.

*** *** *** ***

Once, up in the Hills of Feynman, there was a gravel path. That gravel path wound its way down around copses of trees and old weathered stumps and a battered sign that pointed up an overgrown path, indicating it led to Oxcart Route Sixteen. But following it down and between two of the hillocks caused the traveller to emerge at the far point of a huge inlet from the sea. Islands and giant boulders dotted the waters, and the rocky shoreline grew and shrank with the tides every day. And walking along the tide line, near the pools, avoiding seaweed and the odd jellyfish or two was a man. He was nearing forty, with his dark hair beginning to show grey. He wore the bottoms of his trousers rolled, regardless of who might dare to eat fruit or speak of Renaissance era painters.

His name was Edward, and he was the master of his own fate, for he was a writer.

In those days, of course, writers — good writers — were considered half mad at best. They saw things mortals did not see. They endured, for within them was an ancient magic. They could write, and they could create from nothing. They could describe and they could make their audience believe. For they themselves could believe, at least at the one moment their pen was on the paper, and that was enough to change the world.

And that was true. In a small sense, it was true for the world, as they altered perceptions and shifted opinions. As they wrote, so the world moved. But for the great writers themselves, it was all the more true — for as they wrote — and believed — on their own behalf, so did their own perception, their own universe follow.

It was a self-centered mindset, to be certain. Perhaps an ultimately self-centered mindset. But it gave them power, and since their greatest power was a capacity to shift their immediate world to the way they felt it should be, it was their personal power that was greatest of all. They seemed never to age, for they had a clear self image of how old they should seem. They never seemed to get sick, because illness did not fit their mental landscape.

So it was with Edward. He was not the greatest of writers and he was not the least of great writers, but he was great enough, and like so many he was self centered enough. His thoughts were on his inner world, not on the world he was ostensibly living in. He was creating, building, expanding his thoughts — the necessary preparation to writing. At least for some people.

And so he was walking on the shores of the inlet, barefoot, his trousers rolled. Because at low tide, the silt was cool on his feet, because the sound of the surf blended with the salt and seaweed smell, because this was an ambience that he found conducive. And if Edward were inclined to explain himself to anyone, he would make it clear that the environment he found conducive to creation was more important than anything else.

Which is where the mermaid comes into our story.

Mermaids don’t need a lot of explanation. Disney has seen to that. We know that they have the top halves of human females. We know they have the bottom halves of various forms of fish. And we know that they are considered the most beautiful, most alluring of women. Which means, if we are to trust the passions of sailors, that the ultimate woman has a brain, a mouth, a voice and no genitals.

Oddly, Hollywood has inverted this model when they present their image of the ideal woman. Perhaps sailors just appreciate the fine art of conversation more than executives. Regardless, I digress.

I made mention that there are many different kinds of mermaid — in particular, many different fish halves. Swordfish or shark, mackerel or trout, snapper or — down on the Bayou — catfish, the variety of mermaids echoes the infinite varieties of the female form from the other half.

Now, this mermaid in question was actually half atlantic sturgeon, which meant that instead of scales her fish body had a series of bony plates, or scutes, going along it. It also meant that Dorothe — which was her name — was something of a bottom feeder. She spent her time in the depths of the sea, usually, exploring and poking and finding crustaceans and the like to eat. However, most mermaids have a longing for the land — they are, after all, somewhat human — which calls them to investigate. Dorothe, being a bottom feeder, crept along the sea floor, exploring and getting into shallower and shallower waters, over a slight rise and then….

Well, Dorothe was not experienced with the land, or even the surface of the water. So when the tide slowly went out, she missed the signs until she found she had insufficient buoyancy to coast back down into deeper water.

Which meant that Dorothe found herself beached, unable to move her bulk back down to the water.

Now, she was embarrassed to begin with. And wouldn’t you be? I mean here you are, a sleek and beautiful creature of grace and speed and seductive… well, conversation. And now she could barely move, her body hundreds of pounds of meat that could flop, but not manage to get moving. And the same bony plates that made her resistant to harm in the deep made it very hard to slide or even roll down the beach. She was stuck.

After twenty minutes, watching the waters recede farther and farther away… Dorothe realized that being stuck was a minor problem. For the first time in her life, her body began to dry out.

Mermaids stick to the water. They are capable of breathing air, at least for a while, but their bodies are adapted to the depths. Without water, their skin dries and flakes, their organs begin to fail. It becomes harder to breathe. The sun beats down, the heat takes over, and their very nonhuman nature comes to the fore. It is, in the end, a desperately unpleasant experience. And ultimately, a fatal one.

So, you can imagine the joy that Dorothe felt when she saw a human walking along the beach she had accidentally beached herself on, murmuring to himself and seeing distant vistas.

“Hey!” she cried. “Hello! Sirrah?”

The man — Edward, of course — kept walking.

“Hello? Hello?! Over here!”

Edward seemed not to notice at all, his eyes gazing at distant towers and far off fields, his powerful authorial mind considering the human condition.

“Hello? Hey! I need help over here!”

Edward kept walking.

Dorothe blinked. She was light headed, and scared, and knew that without help, she was doomed. And Edward didn’t even seem to notice her. “HEY!” she screamed, grabbing a rock and throwing it with all her strength at the writer while he walked.

Edward, in the meantime, had been considering a turn of phrase — a combination of words which were adequate but which could, with effort, be made sublime. He was certain that as he shaped and refined the sentence in his head, he was creating the very stuff of legend, which his fingers would shape and refine onto the page, extending his own greatness and changing the very world for the better. This would, very likely, be the single finest work of his career — a career that he had every confidence would last hundreds of years, even as his life and influence stretched into infinite.

That’s when a rock smacked him in the temple. “GAH!” he shouted. “Son of a bitch!

“Hey asshole! I need some help here!

Edward turned and looked. And blinked, seeing what was in one sense a radiantly beautiful creature of myth, but in another sense was a badly reeking half-fish with a bad sunburn and a nasty skin condition lying a way up the beach, flopping helplessly. “What do you want?” he snarled, being quite unused to being interrupted. He was, after all, a powerful man in every literal sense.

“I need your help!” she shouted. “I’ve been beached! I can’t make it back to the water, and by the time the tide rolls back in I’ll be dead! Give me a hand!

Edward looked at her a long moment. He then snorted. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” he muttered, turning to continue his walk.

Hey! What did you say?!”

“I said good riddance,” Edward shouted back, turning and glaring. “Look, do you have any idea who I am?!”

“Is asshole a good guess? Jesus, just help me down thirty feet! I’m going to die if you don’t!”

“I don’t care if you do! You’re transitory! A moment in the world! But I am conceiving of thoughts and moments and histories not yet written that will last forever, and every second you take me from it robs the world of a word I might write!”

Dorothe blinked. “Is this some kind of joke?” she asked.

Edward frowned. “Not in the slightest,” he said. “I am a writer. An author. One of the greatest of my generation. Soon to be one of the greatest of all time! My words have influenced all who hear them. My stories change the world! And I myself am possessed of a spirit unquenchable! I am growing in power and strength and because of that the world itself is growing in beauty. What is your life compared to that? What are you compared to that, except a silly bottom feeder who didn’t even pay close enough attention to save her own life?”

Dorothe stared. “You’re a writer?” she asked. “You’re going to let me die so I don’t keep you from making shit up?”

Edward chuckled. “How prosaic you make it sound,” he said. “How little you understand. I think I am doing the world a favor by letting you pass out of it now.”

Dorothe stared. “I’m going to die if you don’t help me,” she said, more softly. “Please. I beg of you. Help me back to the sea.”

Edward shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he said, though he clearly wasn’t. “I’ve already spent to much time on you. Everything I write is beautiful, and that is something I must take very seriously.”

And the writer turned, and he walked. And the mermaid watched him walk away.

I would love to tell you the story of how the young hero crested the hill then and helped Dorothe return to the waters. I would love to tell you how a young child found the fish-woman and helped her, earning her thanks and an adventure and a flute made of the bones of the Leviathan itself. I would like to tell you how Dorothe was so pissed off she found the strength to roll herself into the waters and save her own life, and to Hell with Edward.

I would like to tell you all of those things, but that would be a lie. The truth is, Dorothe died.

And it wasn’t a pleasant death, either. Not that most deaths are pleasant.

As she stared dully up at the sun that was killing her, her mind fogged and her body full of pain, she thought of the man who could have helped her. Who could have saved her. The man whose words were always perfect, and the power that he commanded as a result. A man who changed the world, but who was so self focused and so self involved that he couldn’t see past himself. Not even for the few minutes it would have taken to save Dorothe’s life.

And shuddering, the last water clinging to Dorothe being the tears that dripped from her eyes, she mouthed a curse. She didn’t want Edward to just die. She wanted him broken. She wanted him to suffer. So she cursed him to endure the breaking of his power — the breaking of his majesty. The breaking of the very perfection which had removed his ability to have empathy for someone else. She cursed his very writing.

But knowing that making his writing terrible would hurt him, but he would figure out he couldn’t write and get over it, someday. So she cursed his writing to be terrible nine tenths of the time. That way, he could still generate the sheer, tragic beauty he already knew one time out of ten — just enough so that he would never be able to stop writing, because he would be so desperate to reclaim the words that he would be driven to write more and more, creating steaming piles of crap in hopes of finding those few, shining diamonds. Oh yes she cursed him, cursed him to a mortal life — for his ability to reshape the world would be limited and sporadic, and his ability to extend himself and his own life almost completely destroyed — for not only would he be unable to edit his life as he could have done before, but the sheer stress of pursuing perfection he could no longer achieve would ruin him.

She cursed him, and she kept on cursing him to her final breath, and then she breathed no more.

And I doubt any of you feel badly for Edward, whose selfishness earned him the most bitter of rewards. And you would perhaps take comfort when his writing turned to garbage and he became disdained by those who loved him, mocking and tearing him down and driving him out, forcing him to scratch out a living while driving him to late night scribblings, knowing that if he just kept trying he would find that one perfect phrase once more and he would be beloved and powerful once more, even as he descended into a madness and a premature senility, and suffered horribly for his own selfishness.

I’m sure many of you feel gladly for all of that. And if this were the end of the story, you might be satisfied in a cold way.

The problem is, this isn’t the end of the story. You see, Dorothe never knew Edward’s name. So she just called him ‘Writer’ in her curse.

Which meant she didn’t curse Edward. She cursed writers.

All writers.

Not all writers were as self absorbed as Edward was. Surely they didn’t all deserve this fate. But like it or not, mediocrity and hackwork descended upon a profession which until that moment had only known glory and beauty and success, and it tore through the writers like a plague. For years, the streets were rampant with broken men and women desperately scribbling in their moleskines, reduced to begging outside the IHOP on Oxcart Route Sixteen.

Naturally, over time, the world adapted, and so did writers. New generations knew that for everything you wrote that was worth reading, there was a buttload you wrote that wasn’t worth the paper it had been scribbled on. And every so often, a work was produced that was so astounding, so legendary, so seminal that it changed the world. You have read some of these works, I’m sure.

But even those writers who practice and refine their craft beyond all their peers, possessing talent, drive, will and imagination to spare, cannot grasp the essence of reality, of magic, of the change that writers of old once possessed. And so writers cannot live forever any longer, or remake themselves at a whim, or transform their environment into something finer or at least more interesting. Now, they live and they die like all of the rest of us.

But here’s the thing. The one saving grace. You see, if ninety percent of all creative work is crap, thanks to the arrogant writer and the beached mermaid, there is still that ten percent that’s okay. Or even good.

And ten percent of that is really good.

And ten percent of the really good is phenomenal.

And ten percent of the phenomenal is brilliant.

And ten percent of the brilliant is the finest work ever written.

The authors of such work grow old and feeble and die. But those works live on. They live on forever. They grow and become a part of society and never leave.

That too is a kind of immortality. And it is the rare writer who achieves it. And for many writers, it is enough.

As for Edward’s work?

I really couldn’t tell you. None of it — not even the things he wrote before the curse — have survived. All we really have is one critic’s review, and of that review only one sentence survived.

That sentence? ‘If Edward would just get his head out of his navel or out from up his ass once in a while and look around, maybe he’d create characters we could identify with.’

Food for thought, perhaps.

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12 thoughts on “The Arrogant Writer and the Beached Mermaid”

  1. Well, I figured out Theodore Sturgeon at the least (“Yes, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But you don’t understand: ninety percent of everything is crud!”) But with the others? Not a chance. The only connection I can find between Edward and Feynman is “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!” with Edward Hutchings. I really doubt that’s it.

    I almost missed the TS Elliot reference, too, so it’s probably staring me in the face.

  2. The joys of random readings on the internet. Theodore Sturgeon’s original name was actually Edward Hamilton Waldo. I remembered that much from a course I took a while ago. After research, though, it also turns out his first wife’s name was Dorothe. I’m also feeling stupid since I have no idea what the TS Elliot reference is.

    …you know, at some point I suppose I should get to work instead of reading, but really, this is just more fun.

  3. The T.S. Eliot bits are layered. On the one hand, there are several references to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

    In the room the women come and goTalking of Michelangelo[…]I grow old… I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.I do not think that they will sing to me.I have seen them riding seaward on the wavesCombing the white hair of the waves blown backWhen the wind blows the water white and black.We have lingered in the chambers of the seaBy sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brownTill human voices wake us, and we drown.

    Further. Eliot married a woman named Vivian who (some say) he essentially abandoned, ultimately committing her for the rest of her life in a mental institution. A marriage Eliot claimed gave Vivian no happiness, and led Eliot to compose The Wasteland. While it is oblique, Edward abandons a creature of intellect and conversation who needs him, and ends up in a wasteland of his own devising.

    …look, I didn’t say all of these things worked.

  4. Hmm … This explains a lot. All it fails to explain is why writers are incapable of identifying the good in their own writing. I must have written something good at some time, but I’ve never figured out what it was. Either critics or editors tell writers that, but as I recall, you already explained why critics exist in another one of these stories.

  5. Being not pretentious in the sense that would leave me mulling over the possible references for quite some time…. (I’m rather happy in my foolish ignorance. It is bliss, or at least they say it’s bliss. Lalala.)

    My only comment can be.

    “Please reword your curses carefully. It’s rather mean when you don’t.”

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