that haunted jazz club which is never too far from where dreams have died,
I was playing chess with the ghost of William Faulkner.
The fog gathered near.
The jazz murmured low in the shadows.
The torches beckoned to all who wander lost in the dark of their soul.
I must have spoken that thought aloud,
for Faulkner said low, "How do you know they are so lost?"
I smiled sadly, "On such a night, if they could be home, they'd already be there."
He returned my smile. "Just so. Just so."
I asked, "Why weren't you at the poker game last night?"
Faulkner snorted, "Hemingway gets too morose about November's writing contest."
"So you approve of NaNo?"
"Goodness, no! It is a horrid waste of 30 precious days that will never come again.
The dead know all too well how fleeting life can be."
Faulkner finished with me, " ... you can only spend it once."
"But have those contest participants bought anything of lasting value with those 30 coins?"
"So you agree with Hemingway?"
"No. He lived a full life and should know Mankind has always looked for the secret elixir, the hidden keys, the lost path to success."
Faulkner smiled bitterly.
"Not that they exist, mind you, but we want them to. We live in denial of the simple fact
that the true path to success, whether in writing or in any other endeavor,
is paved with courage, imagination, and persistence."
He blew pipe smoke into the shadows. "And it is a lonely road."
I sighed, "For me it has been."
"So it is understandable that so many writers think they have found the key to becoming writers
in this joint 'group hug' as Hemingway so colorfully and callously calls this contest."
He frowned as I moved my knight in a move he had not foreseen.
"But the truth is as elusive as smoke in the night. Sometimes you can smell it in the air, but it slips through your fingers."
Faulkner took my knight in a move that this time I hadn't seen coming and smiled,
"But I can tell you and your electronic friends the simple secret to writing success."
"It's not nice to tease a struggling writer."
"Oh, I am quite sincere. The simple secret is this:
Write of an old thing in a new way."
In response to my frown, Faulkner said,
"The oldest lodestone to literature is the human heart in conflict with itself.
From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams that lodestone has been the compass that led the way to riveting stories."
He tapped the chessboard with the stem of his pipe.
"Only that is worth writing about, worth the agony, and the sweat of wresting something from nothing."
Faulkner leaned forward, stabbing my chest with the pipe stem.
"Leave no room in your writing for anything but the old truths of the heart,
the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed -
love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Until you do so, you labor under a curse.
You write not of love but of lust,
of defeats in which no one loses anything of value,
of victories without hope and,
worst of all, without pity or compassion.
Your griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars.
You write not of the heart but of the sex glands."
He wrinkled his nose as if to sneeze.
"When I was in Hollywood, Samuel Goldwyn would point out the latest hit to me and my fellow script writers
and say, "I want the same thing ... only different."
"No stories of young boys or girls fated to save the world, no wallflower girl courted by supernatural heart-throbs, no ...."
"Dare to save your character's world in a way not seen before and with imagination not cookie-cutter formulas.'
I moved my last knight, positioning it to take his King. "Checkmate."
He tipped over his King and arched an eyebrow, "Only a callow soul takes advantage of the dead."
The ghost of Mark Twain pulled up a seat and crowed, "Why I do that all the time!"
Faulkner snorted, "I rest my case."