Walking the Plank

By Jack Sheedy

Our hero, Thomas J. McSheey, adjunct English professor at Stonycliff College, penned the following introduction to a lecture he traditionally presented to his Creative Writing students at the beginning of each new semester. It was unearthed in the college’s archives, along with a flask of whisky, a pouch of pipe tobacco, and a rejection letter from a book publisher.

Walking the Plank
(Musical accompaniment: “La Mer” by Debussy)

There’s a moment, just before the first word is typed – hovering over the typewriter – when the writer is hesitant to strike a key. It is the moment that separates the dream from the reality. The dream remains bottled up, unrealized, existing merely in its potential. And until the first key is struck, that dream, that potential, remains limitless.

But as soon as the first key is struck, and the first letters form a word, and the first string of words form a sentence, the reality sets in, the dream decays, melts away, and the starkness of black words against white paper forces the writer to walk out upon the plank with the cold sea below, and with God only knows what creatures lurking beneath the waves. Perhaps a shark with razor-sharp teeth. Or a man-o-war with poisonous tentacles. Or a giant squid. Or an octopus. Or a mythical Kraken. Or seaweed.

Man, I hate the feel of seaweed when I’m swimming - it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

The point being, we seem to spend large portions of our lives waiting for something to happen. We rarely strike that first key. We rarely walk the plank. To do so might cause our dreams to come crashing down upon the rocks of reality. Better to leave the dream intact than to dare risk its demise by actually attempting to reach it, to fulfill it.

Yet, the writer will walk that plank over and over again.

Sometimes the writer hits the mark and the dream is realized. Other times the writer misses the mark and the reality doesn’t measure up to the dream. And oftentimes the reality of typewritten words takes the writer to an entirely different place, beyond the initial dream, to worlds not even imagined. In fact, rarely does the writer’s journey from first typed letter to last follow the original path intended. This is the point of creation in its purest form. And for a writer or an artist there is no better state of being than within that realm of pure creativity.

Perhaps that’s how God felt when creating the universe, each keystroke taking Him to places He never imagined, walking the heavenly plank above the cosmic seas of an evolving reality. It makes one wonder if the universe God created measured up to His initial dream – whether He hit the intended mark, or missed.

The writer’s lot in life is to dream, and then to string letters and words together toward that dream. Just as the painter’s lot is to use brushstrokes to reach her dream. Each new project presents a new plank to walk, and an unknown collection of creatures lurking beneath the waves. We strike the first key. We apply the first brushstroke. And off we go, toward worlds yet to be discovered. Toward corners of the universe that perhaps the Creator never intended.

But man, I hate seaweed. What was God thinking when He created seaweed? Heebie-jeebies!


McSheey had an artist friend, a Stonycliff alumna, in fact, who remained in his life throughout his twenties, and who passed away just shy of her thirtieth birthday. Her final painting, which she was working on in the weeks leading up to her death, titled “Lamellate for Icarus,” was an interpretation of Draper’s “Lament for Icarus” except that instead of three nymphs sans swimsuits lamenting Icarus’ demise as in Draper’s classic painting, the winged hero in repose is surrounded by a trio of bivalve mollusks. That unfinished painting now hangs upon a hallowed hall at the columned Stone House, resting atop a hill overlooking the Stonycliff campus.

Though McSheey’s relationship with the artist was platonic, the friendship was heartfelt and her passing left a void that can clearly be seen in his writings during that period. For instance, a number of his writings ended abruptly, in mid-sentence even, perhaps to symbolize the abrupt ending of his friend’s life.

Yet, he did manage to finish a lighthearted piece, which he later read aloud at a tavern gathering of colleagues to mark the one-year anniversary of her death. Titled “Luncheon of the Bathing Party,” it imagined an afternoon spent with a number of French painters of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods and their habit of painting nude studies in strange settings and poses. An excerpt of the piece is provided below:

Luncheon of the Bathing Party
(Musical accompaniment: “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Debussy)

Recently I took an afternoon off from my usual routine of writing in order to spend time visiting with some of my artistic friends. It was a beautiful day, with clouds of cotton white above and verdant fields of a myriad shade below, poplars and cypresses linking both extremes. Water lilies painted the little ponds as light itself seemed to contain a palette of forever-changing hues. It was a magical day, dressed in blurring color and in yellowing sunlight.

My first visit was to Manet, who asked me to attend a Luncheon on the Grass. When I arrived at the appointed location, I found that he and another man were seated casually upon a blanket spread on the grass, conversing with a naked woman. I was appalled, and appealed for her to cover up, but she just sat there next to the picnic basket, looking at me as if I was the one who was crazy. So I left, shaking my head to see what Cezanne was doing.

I found Cezanne in his studio painting a Still Life with Skull. That’s right, fruit juxtaposed with a human skull. Other paintings in his studio were of a similar theme – including a Pyramid of Skulls – and I thought, “This is damn creepy.” I asked if he wanted to take a break and head down to the local café for a glass of wine. He ignored my invitation and then, taking a piece of string, walked over to where I was seated and measured my cranium. “Voila!” he exclaimed, and as he reached for his brush I dashed out of the room.

Later he caught up with me, saying he was giving the skulls a rest, and we walked together down by a pond to relax and take in the sights. Suddenly, in the clearing, there appeared women bathers, throngs of them, all completely starkers, standing out in the open, as bold as brass, and with disproportionately shaped bodies to boot. It was all too much so I made my apologies and left to find Renoir.

Meeting up with him at Le Moulin de la Galette, I was invited to a Luncheon of the Boating Party, where the artist poured us each a glass of Merlot, but it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to sit down. Later he took me down by the river’s edge, but everywhere I looked there were naked women bathing and toweling off. Unable to avert my eyes any further, I departed, journeying over to see Degas. But as I walked into his studio I immediately happened upon a woman bathing in a small washtub. “Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed as I made my escape with eyes closed, Degas calling after me to return later… and to bring wine and cheese.

Eventually, I found myself wandering – through tree-lined streets that stretched off toward distant vanishing points – in search of Pissarro, who I was told, was painting en plein air. I found him in a rural setting, painting a scene before him of, thankfully, fully-clothed women working in the fields reaping a harvest beneath the gentle yellowed sunlight. Taking a break, with the Haymakers Resting, I sat upon the ground with my back against a haystack and after a time fell asleep.

When I awoke it was night, in fact, it was a Starry Night, with swirling spirals of light cast against the vast blueness of the heavens. As I stared up at the nearly abstract nature of the night sky, with grotesquely large stars challenging the logic of reality, hypnotized by the celestial scene, feeling a bit drunk by the cosmic commotion above, I thought, “What did Renoir slip into my Merlot?”

We’ll abruptly end it here…

Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest, and is currently at work on a new book toward a spring publication date.

Featured artwork: “Lament for Icarus” by Herbert Draper (1863-1920); “Luncheon on the Grass” by Edouard Manet (1832-83); “Still Life with Skull,” “Pyramid of Skulls,” and various paintings of women bathing by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906); “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” and various paintings of women bathing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1917); Various paintings of women bathing in washtubs by Edgar Degas (1834-1917); “Haymakers Resting” and various paintings of tree-lined streets stretching off toward distant vanishing points by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903); “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90). Featured music: “La Mer” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

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