In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he refers to the creative force behind his work as the little gnome that he keeps in the basement. When King sits down to write, the gnome, if he’s been treated well, passes his stories up through the cracks in the floorboards and, a page at a time, a book begins to take shape. If you haven’t read On Writing, you should. It’s a great book, both a memoir and a manual. One of the most enduring things that I took away from it was this concept of the gnome in the basement, a grimy little guy down there in the dark that’s slaving away at all hours, stockpiling his little tales, and essays, and notes so that when the lazy tenant upstairs comes knocking, he’s got something to offer up. The key to the keeping of the gnome is that the little guy needs to be well-kept.
If I fatten my gnome on junk food and reality TV, guess what he parrots back to me? Healthy writing requires a healthy gnome. I’ve got to keep him on a healthy diet if I want him to give me the good stuff. This isn’t just theory; it works. I can map an accurate correlation between the quality of my writing and the quality of my gnome’s diet. I know, for example, that when I go through periods of relative artistic famine, days with few books read, few good films seen, few hours spent in meditation or prayer, that the gnome is slovenly, coarse, and sometimes comatose.
When I’ve fed him on great literature, or fine cinema, or pushed myself away from the easy temptations of television and fast food, the dirty little guy jumps out of bed, takes a shower, gets on the treadmill, and is soon ripping page after page out of his typewriter and he’s knocking at the floorboards at all hours, passing cryptic notes and storied pages up between the floorboards. Sometimes I can hardly keep up with him. It’s a good feeling to rest in the knowledge that you’ve got a happy, healthy gnome.
Right now, he’s awake. He’s feeling a bit groggy, though, and he’s looking somewhat flabby around the middle. Time to whip him into shape. So I’ve gone to the bookcase and gotten him some lunch. Here, little guy, eat this. It’s a little book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Tastes like Annie Dillard. Chew on it a while and get back to me. We’ve got a lot of work to do.