A Person From Porlock

Jeanne MatthewsJeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is scheduled for release in June, 2013.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.

In 1797, having taken two grains of opium to relieve his rheumatic pain, Samuel Coleridge dozed off and had a marvelous dream.  As soon as he woke up, he began to write it down.  He had penned fifty-four exquisite lines when he was distracted by a knock at the door.  The intruder was a person from Porlock who detained him with some rigmarole about a horse.  Or so Coleridge alleged.  In any event, when he returned to his writing, the dream had vanished from memory.  He never finished Kubla Khan.

Coleridge couldn’t have realized that when he laid the blame on a nameless person from Porlock, he was launching a legend that would cloud his reputation for three hundred years.  The story didn’t ring true.  His fellow writers suspected that he’d already become stuck on Kubla Khan and the person from Porlock was just a lame excuse for writer’s block.  This opinion gained currency when Coleridge claimed that a distracting “letter from a friend” prevented him from completing his philosophical exposition on the nature of imagination.

Over time, dozens of writers have made the person from Porlock into a kind of literary inside joke.  In Valley Of Fear, Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock’s thoughts interrupted by a man from Moriarty’s organization calling himself Fred Porlock.  In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov has a man check into a motel and register as A. Person, Porlock.  Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin have made sly references to the visitor from Porlock, and Douglas Adams wrote a story in which Coleridge discovers in his dream how to build a time machine.  Detective Dirk Gently must travel back in time to the village of Porlock to keep Coleridge from remembering the dream and communicating the knowledge to space aliens who would use it to destroy the world.

In the Inspector Morse TV series, Morse is solving a crossword puzzle when Sergeant Lewis walks in and disturbs him.  “Damn!” shouts Morse.  “Seven seconds off the record if you hadn’t come barging in like that.  It’s the person from Porlock, that’s who you are.”

“No, sir,” replies Lewis, missing the allusion.  “Newcastle.”

A person from Porlock has come to mean anything that distracts someone from inspired creativity.  On March 1st, I had something a bit more aggressively distracting than a knock at the door.  A burglar kicked my door off its hinges, smashed into my house, and stole my computer with all of my manuscripts and photographs and contacts.  The computer, like an external, adjunct brain, was the repository of all of my creative endeavors.  It contained nothing so beautiful as the Kubla Khan, but there were some publishable bits.  At the risk of sounding whiny, the loss has been damned inconvenient.  Give me a person from Porlock any day of the week instead of a robber from Renton.  At least Coleridge didn’t have to buy a new front door which, it turns out, ain’t cheap.  But compared to the bad luck of some other authors, his person from Porlock and my robber from Renton were minor setbacks.

Edna St. Vincent Millay lost the only copy of her Conversations At Midnight in a hotel fire on Sanibel Island, but she didn’t complain.  She recreated the entire work from memory.  At the Gare de Lyon in Paris, Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley went to buy a bottle of Evian and left a suitcase filled with the originals and carbon copies of his early writings unattended.  When she returned, it was gone.  Hemingway never cited “a Her Boyfriend's Bonesthief in Paris” as an excuse for not carrying on with his novels.  T.E. Lawrence leapt aboard a departing train and forgot to grab his 250,000-word, five hundred page autobiography recounting his experiences in the desert and his military strategy.  It was never recovered, but he didn’t whinge.  He sat down and rewrote the whole thing.

The poet Robert Pinskey thinks that writers secretly yearn for distraction.  “Few people can write without procrastination, time-wasting, whining, and avoiding,” he says. But not many of us want to own up to being slackers.  In January, I finished Her Boyfriend’s Bones, my fourth Dinah Pelerin mystery, and I’ve been seizing on every excuse not to start a fifth.  I hang out on the Internet.  I e-mail people I haven’t spoken with in months.  I play Scrabble on Facebook.  The spring sunshine and wafting cherry blossoms are a particular temptation, luring me outside for long walks.  When I return and glance at the accusing blank page of the blog I’m supposed to write, I feel a sudden urge for a peanut butter sandwich and then maybe a nap.

It seems that “a person from Porlock” can appear in many forms.  Maybe Coleridge was warning us in Kubla Khan.

“…Beware!  Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”

Maybe he saw a vision of the future and the seductive power of television – Al Pacino’s crazy eyes and wild hair in that movie about “Phil Spector,” or Holly Hunter’s witchy mane in “Top of the Lake.”  Or maybe…

Oops!  Gotta go.  Somebody’s knocking at my new front door.

9 thoughts on “A Person From Porlock

  1. Thanks… that was really interesting… I’ve never heard of Porlock but all your attempts to avoid writing ring so true…. I can totally relate!


  2. It’s amazing to me how you pen such a well-crafted post on a literary reason for not writing. Okay, the burglary is a real reason, but your oh-so-logical post pushes that to the background (amazingly little whinging here) and combines a delightful discussion of all the excuses arising from one supposed occurrence in one man’s career with real accomplishments resulting from equally real disasters. May your best manuscript yet rise up from the busted door of your burglary.


  3. Where do you find this stuff?! Totally fascinating. Except the part about having your computer stolen. Now I’m going to be paranoid. Can’t imagine not doing some serious whining over that.


  4. I feel as if I have a tiny inside edge on this tale, having bumped into you at our favorite Wine Alley the very day of the burglary. (Glad to get a bit of the back-end scoop on that now as well.) Appreciate the reference to Morse, whom I adored. Don’t remember the Porlock scene, probably b/c I previously had no association to it. Thanks for educating me, here and otherwise!


  5. Posted it to my fb page. Porlock is a great “word of the day”. As for wrapping daily events into a tale, you do a marvelous job. So fun.


  6. I do like this (even if I never read any of those literary pieces); it is very amusing. I find the same kind of excuses for most any task I don’t feel up to tackling on any given day.


  7. Thanks to you all. And don’t forget to store your digital scribblings in “The Cloud.” I’ve certainly learned my lesson!


  8. Pingback: Cop to Corpse discussion, Part Two: the city of Bath and the county of Somerset | Books to the Ceiling

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