Thursday, May 11, 2006


A while back I read Green Mansions, a novel by W.H. Hudson that was published in 1904 and made into a fairly decent movie fifty-five years later. I thought it was cute that the book was subtitled "a romance of the tropical forest" when it was more like something Nicholas Sparks would write. Great title, though.

Writers are the builders of many novel mansions, and spend our lives planning, designing, constructing, finishing and furnishing them. Our vision provides the specs, our industry the code. To make mansions for a living is nice, but whether or not we're paid for it, it is the building that consumes us. Probably why during the process most writers are as courteous and charming as the average construction worker laboring and sweltering under a mid-July sun. Occasionally we smell as good, too.

Like neurotics with their castles in the air, writers live in our mansions of paper, even while we're building them. Some become dream palaces, with ivory towers and wide windows that let in plenty of sunshine. Others are nightmare castles, haunted by personal demons we don't dare release anywhere but in those contained corridors. There are all the places in between, too: labyrinths of a million roses, caves of mysterious crystal, cliffhouses of painted rock, cathedrals of towering ice. There are no limits on what we can build, or how, or where. The clouds make way when our turrets spiral up toward the heavens. The earth opens to accept the abyss as we dig our way to hell.

We divide the interiors of our mansions into chapters; like so many bedchambers and stairwells and studies and sitting rooms. We spend days and weeks and months in those small sections of the house, crafting them until they provoke just the right response. We disguise the secret passages to and hiding places of treasured revelations so they can't be easily discovered, and place plot twists like unexpected artworks, to surprise and thrill the unwary.

Our characters are both permanent residents and indentured servants, sentenced to live in our mansions and do our bidding for eternity, or at least until we send them packing. Some are obedient and helpful, and make the work a joy. Others are a pain in the ass and tear down as much as we build on any given day. We are glad they're not real, because we rarely treat them well. Then there are moments when those imagined folk seem more real than we ever will be.

When the work is done, we must carve something above the threshold to our mansions. We try to give them magic names; whispers of what's inside. Some of us put other words in that place, words with meaning known only to us, words that are prayers and curses, confessions and fragments of private poetry; our wards against the void.

We try to interest real estate agents in our mansions even as we know that if they do buy them, it'll likely be for a pittance. Once the sale is made, the property no longer belongs exclusively to us. The agents erect signs on the lawns and repaint the exteriors to suit themselves. If they don't like something on the inside, they tell us to renovate. Often these renovations are a good thing, and make the mansion a better, more balanced place. Occasionally they aren't, and we end up with a little pink powder room filled with adorable stuffed animals in the middle of a haunted chateau. We then stand silent and watch as the result of our months and years of dedicated work and attention to detail is turned over to the tourists.

As we are at the mercy of the real estate agents, so they become sycophants to those fickle souls, the wielders of the Almighty Buck. From the moment the tourists walk inside, they're opening doors and cupboards, sniffing the air for the smell of fried fish or well-used litterbox. Never mind that we've never met them. Some are not to be cheated, you understand, of the mansion experience they have come to expect, and God help any builder who doesn't deliver. They've paid eight dollars, or fifteen, or twenty-five for the privilege of seeing the place. They may not have a clue about how to build even a functioning outhouse, but that won't stop them from passing judgement on what we've done.

First in are usually the jaded cynics, experts at mansion touring, looking for anything with which to indulge their contempt and show how clever they are. They're the ones who will generally waltz out dismissing everything we've done as less than nothing. Then there are those plaintive complainers who behave like little yap-yap dogs, racing in only to make a lot of noise while they piddle on the carpets.

Not all of the tourists stop in just to piss on the place, though. Some are respectful, knowledgeable of the effort that goes into mansion building, and keep an open mind. Some are like kids, prepared to be delighted, open to enchantment. Others have toured the mansions we've built before, and have come looking for our latest efforts. If there's something that bothers them, they let us know, but not by lifting a leg. Those are the people for whom we love to build.

Almost before we have a chance to enjoy the finished mansion, it's time to move on and build the next one. We glance back at what we've accomplished, and appreciate what we've learned in the process. The mansion will always be there. It may grow old and dusty, and no one may want to buy it or pay to have a look after a year or two on the market, but no one can tear it down. They can walk through it, rent it, steal the design, buy it outright, or even pay us for the privilege of putting their name on it and claiming that it's their work, but it will never belong to them.

That's why we build them.


  1. Beautiful. A mansion in its own right.

  2. A superb analogy.
    Thank you.

  3. I'm truly inspired.
    Thank you.

  4. Anonymous7:08 AM

    Well said. (written)

    Behold the mansion - another portal is open.

  5. Anonymous8:06 AM

    I have a sudden urge to ask my art-talented sibling to draw out the pictures of my primary settings for each book, so I can adorn my walls and hold onto those carefully crafted "mansions." *-*

  6. Anonymous8:56 AM

    I think I tend to build ramshackle old farmhouses with moldy cellars and dusty rooms no one's aired out for a while, but yes.

    Thank you for the post.

  7. ;o)

    I need to print this out and when somebody asks me WHY I write... just them this explanation instead of staring them stupidly for a minute before saying something like... well, cuz i can? cuz I want to... cuz...

  8. What a wonderful analogy.

    I wonder if I'm the only one who worries that we're turning too much pristine countryside into housing developments full of mansions, and that the forest clearcut to make room for my mansion is tiny compared to the forest sacrificed as lumber to build it?

    I probably am.

  9. Oh, now I like this analogy. Especially the part about inhabiting it for a while and real estate agents pointing out the flaws.

    Thanks :).


  10. I'm with Margaret. Love the analogy. :)

  11. Anonymous12:52 AM

    I'd be happy selling a hovel at this point
    Melissa H.


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