Small Angry Gnome

gnome marisha pessl writing
“My inner writer is a small, angry gnome. He looks like Danny DeVito. He weighs four-hundred pounds. He has greasy hair, and sparking, penetrating eyes, and I believe (though I’m not 100% sure) one of those creepy too-long thumbnails.”


I find even the word irritating. My problem with it stems from the romanticized suspicion that the true writer (the wild genius I compare myself to who works through the night, has mad, gleaming eyes, and hair standing on end like a female Beethoven) has no room for something as even-keeled as balance.

But I live in the real world. As I’ve gotten older, the richer life has become. It was easy as a twenty-one year-old living in a mouse-infested walk-up to stay in on a Friday night writing a book while my friends were out clubbing at Tunnel. Now, the siren call pulling me from my imagination into the real world is more powerful and more fulfilling. When you have a daughter pulling out these Ginger Roger moves in the living room how can you not walk away from your desk to watch?

It doesn’t help that my inner writer is a small, angry gnome.


Maybe some writers have gentle inner writers who are wise Joan Didion-types with liquid Thai Chi movements, a toga wardrobe, and never appear without calming bamboo spa music.

Mine, for better or worse, is relentless with vampire tendencies. He looks like Danny DeVito. He weighs four-hundred pounds. He has greasy hair, and sparking, penetrating eyes, and I believe (though I’m not 100% sure) one of those creepy too-long thumbnails. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s clear. Few get him like I do. Or appreciate his intensity. I do. I always have. It can be enormously gratifying to do exactly what he says. Yet, he’s a slippery slope because he’s insatiable and unreasonable.

Writing four hours a day? Amateur stuff. A vacation without a laptop? A travesty. He’d prefer a nice sixteen-hour writing stretch (with Inboxes filled with unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls). He likes all vacations to be research, all thoughts to lead not to Rome but a work-in-progress. At heart he is a jerk, always urging me not to check my phone, to blow off that text, to send everyone and their grandmother to voicemail. Reaching out to that friend I haven’t seen in a while? A waste of time. Exercising? Only because it’s good for concentration. If it were up to him, my exterior world would be a permanent landscape of mud-hole Glengarry properties, so all of my passion and thirst for life could be poured entirely into writing. Thankfully he’s pushed me to write novels rather than shoplift.

marisha pessl writing

It’s up to me to manage him. It isn’t easy. Balance? He doesn’t see the point. He prays for the extreme. He regards my husband and daughter with a hint of suspicion. True love, traveling the world, friendship, even childbirth—while he grudgingly has accepted these things in my life I suspect it’s only because he secretly hopes they’ll one day serve him. It’s all about him. He’s a shameless observer of people and bad situations. He eavesdrops in restaurants and waiting rooms, considers every unwitting person in the airplane seat next to me a character in a potential novel. That little text you sent with a nervous sniff even after the airline attendant said to turn off your electronic device? He brazenly read it over your shoulder and now he’s wondering who Cynthia is.

Handling him is a walk on a tightrope. I fall all the time. I ignore him and miss him terribly. It hurts to see him so neglected with unkempt hair and unwashed clothes and bleary eyes. He doesn’t understand how I could be so careless with his devotion. Then I give him too much attention and he takes over. Friends—occasionally even my husband–ask if I’ve been trekking the Singalila Ridge in India from Sandakphu to Phalut. Nothing else could explain my disappearance.

Ultimately I’ve decided to keep him under the stairs. I’ve given him a clean, locked room with a cot and a big window. He doesn’t have a key to let himself out, however. That would be too dangerous.

Sometimes I read about people who appear to have their personal and professional lives in perfect balance and I wonder how they do it–how they can be such beautiful suns with a handful of giant planets and moons all orbiting around them, so predictably, so precisely? I suspect they don’t have an inner writer like mine. Their inner taskmasters are something else. If you’re a fashion designer, you must have some other kind of inner something ordering you around–someone fabulous with an asymmetrical haircut who perches gracefully on an imaginative desk and ends all orders with please, darling?

My inner taskmaster is not that. And that’s okay.

For now, I’ve carved out this little, clean, well-lighted place for him to live. So in the times when I’m not with him at least he has some sunlight and is comfortable.

When I’m ready, I let him out. And it’s wonderful. But then thank goodness I have the sense to send him back where he belongs under the stairs, keeping him in there with the door bolted in spite of his complaints, until it’s time for him to emerge. Again.

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