The Mark of a Writer

May 7, 2011

I thoroughly enjoy writing in my bed.  It is the most comfortable and warmest place in my little rented basement suite.

About a week ago I was sitting up in bed, with my sheets pulled up around me, my gel pen in my hand, and my notebook (yes, I still use a non-electronic device to write with) perched on my lap.  I was in the midst of reconstructing a poem I had recently written, when, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed that my right hand was turning black.  Not only was it turning black, but black liquid was also starting to drip down my arm and onto my sheets.  I quickly came to the realization that my pen had mysteriously exploded in my hand.  I immediately jumped out of my bed and scurried, pen in hand, to the wastebasket at the other side of the room, leaving a trail of black ink droplets behind me as I did so.

Once the leaky pen was safely in the wastebasket I immediately started cleaning the ink off the linoleum floor of my room.  I was quite sure that ink stains on the floor would ensure that I would never see the return of my rental damage deposit.  Once the floor was cleaned (with some minor stains left behind, which I really hope will not be noticed by the landlord when I decide to move) I surveyed the bed to see what damage had been done to the sheets.   My bed sheets happen to be extremely old and I really don’t mind if they have a few ink stains on them.  I stripped the bed and threw the bed sheets into the bathtub to soak (there is no washing machine in my basement suite).  It was at this point that I started thinking about writers of the past and their ink spotted sheets.  Surely some of the greatest writers in history must have written in bed and accidently dropped their feather or fountain pens onto their sheets once in a while.

My favorite opera composer, Gioachino Rossini, was famous for writing his operas from the comfort of his bedroom, wearing his bedclothes.  He reportedly composed some of his earlier operas in bed in order to keep warm and to save the expense of keeping a fire lit in his bedroom.   There is a famous anecdote about one particular occasion, when Rossini was composing a duet for his opera “Il Signor Bruschino”.  He was composing in bed when some of the sheets of music for the duet he was working on slipped off the bed and onto the floor.  Rossini got up to collect the sheets, only to discover that they had fallen under the bed and lay out of his reach.  It was bitterly cold, so he climbed back into bed and resolved to rewrite the whole duet over again from memory.  Unfortunately for him, he found that he couldn’t remember what he had written at all, so he decided that he would compose a new duet to take the place of the one he had lost under the bed.  Just as Rossini had finished composing this new duet, a friend of his entered the room, obligingly reached the sheet music lodged under the bed with his cane, and handed it back to Rossini.  Upon comparison it was evident that the two duets were not in the least similar to each other.  The tempo of the first duet better fit the mood of the situation it was written for within the opera, and so it was chosen over the second duet.  But then another idea came to Rossini and he proceeded to rework the second duet into a terzetto (a trio) to be inserted into the same opera.  In the end, both pieces were used and the opera was a great success.

So there you have it, writing in bed can be truly inspirational, especially under certain circumstances.  Now that my bed sheets look like the sheets of a writer, I feel as if I have been initiated into a great historic tradition.  Ink stains must truly be the marks of a writer.

The opera composer Rossini is best remembered for two things in particular, his overtures and his reputation as the laziest composer in history. This reputation stems mainly from the fact that he retired from composing at the age of 39.  At the time of his retirement, Rossini was the most famous living composer and was at the very peak of his talent. There is a lot of conjecture as to the cause of Rossini’s early retirement.  He had a passion for food and it is often speculated that he gave up composing in order to pursue his love of the culinary arts.  To this day, there are several Italian dishes that bare his name.  Whatever the reason for his early retirement, it was at least partially due to burnout.  He had written two, three, sometimes even five operas a year for almost two decades (39 operas in total).

He had a unique way of using procrastination as a tool for inspiration.  Here, for example, are his thoughts on writing an overture:

“Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair out. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty.

I wrote the overture to “Otello” in a small room of the Palazzo Barbaja, where the baldest and rudest of directors had forcibly locked me up with a lone plate of spaghetti and the threat that I would not be allowed to leave the room alive until I had written the last note.

I wrote the overture to “La Gazza Ladra” the day before the opening night under the roof of the Scala Theatre, where I had been imprisoned by the director and secured by four stagehands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below to transcribe it. If I didn’t write the pages, they were ordered to throw me out the window instead. For “Barbiere”, I did better: I did not even compose an overture, I just took one already destined for my opera, “Elisabetta”. The public was very pleased.

I composed the overture to “Comte Ory” while fishing, with my feet in the water, and in the company of Signor Agnado, who talked of his Spanish fiancée. The overture to “Guillaume Tell” was composed under more or less similar circumstances.”

Overture to “Guillaume Tell” 1829 (William Tell)

Overture to “La Gazza Ladra” 1817 (The Thieving Magpie)