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June 2001
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo


"One thing to know about Kent Haruf, author of the novel Plainsong, is that he wrote the first draft of the book with a wool stocking cap pulled down over his eyes.... [H]is rather eccentric method was, he said, an effort to reach the emotional heart of his story unconstrained by the feeling that someone--an invisible critic--was watching over his shoulder and scrutinizing every word he chose."
--The New York Times, December 1, 1999.

The writing game had gotten so bad for me, I'd even given my Invisible Critic a name. Edmund Wilson. He hovered constantly at my back, big as Harvey the Rabbit but much less pleasant company. Okay, so the nickname for my hallucination wasn't that original or clever. But that lack just reflected the depths of the neurotic pass I had reached. I simply couldn't get the words down on paper anymore, with any degree of creativity. Edmund Wilson had me stifled.

I knew I was on the road to perdition. Eventually I'd end up like so many other failed fiction writers, churning out salacious memoirs or vapid content for some e-zine. But then, at the nadir of my despair, I spotted an ad in the back pages of The New York Review of Books that promised a cure.

Invisible Critic cramping your style?

For Invincible Confidence, visit

Woolpullers, Inc.

My front door didn't touch the chair-worn seat of my trousers on the way out.

Woolpullers, Inc., occupied a modest office suite in one of the under-rented highrises downtown. A polite but unforthcoming receptionist invited me to supply lots of highly personal information about myself, which she entered into her terminal. But she refused to reveal the nature of the firm's anti-writer's-block treatment.

"Mr. MacArthur will explain everything to you."

I should mention that this otherwise-fashionable woman wore a cranberry-colored knitted stocking cap emblazoned with the firm's name and logo, the latter being a recursive image of a stocking cap. I spent a lot of time trying to avoid looking at this incongruous item of apparel--which made her resemble a rave kid who'd lost her pacifier--before I was summoned into Mr. MacArthur's office.

The neatly suited MacArthur also wore a crimson cap, which, combined with his hearty manner, modest potbelly and trim white beard, rendered him rather Santa-like. I was certain the effect was intentional, even cynically so, but felt myself relaxing nonetheless.

"Welcome, welcome, Paul! If I may be so bold as to call you by your first name, I hope you'll do the same and call me Grant."

"Hi, uh, Grant," I responded weakly, allowing myself to be conducted to a seat alongside a large desk. MacArthur dropped down into his own chair, then swivelled his computer monitor to face me. I regarded a screenful of confusing graphs, histograms and pie charts hopefully, but was soon put in my miserable place.

"Bad news, son. Based on the information you just provided us and according to our patented predictive WriterSoul (TM) software, you'll go from constipated to catatonic in less than six weeks. That is, unless you enroll in our treatment plan immediately."

MacArthur pivoted the screen away with a sad flourish, then composed his features into a receptive blank. I hesitated a moment, but eventually asked the expected question.

"Um, exactly what does your treatment consist of, Grant?"

MacArthur leaned forward and beamed. "Deception, Paul. Pure deception."

My puzzled expression was the only permission he needed to launch into his salestalk.

"You're naturally aware, Paul, that the entire practice of fiction involves deception. But I bet you've only thought about it from the audience's point of view. The famous 'willing suspension of disbelief' on the part of the reader, which convinces him for the duration of the reading experience that he is apprehending real, meaningful events. But what we at Woolpullers, Inc., have chosen to concentrate on is the self-deception that the author himself undergoes.

"You see, every author of fiction must convince himself first of all of the validity of his characters, the integrity of his narrative, the undisputable rightness of the story he is about to compose. Otherwise, lacking this belief, the writer is unable to go on. Everything falls apart, and out of the debris rises the Invisible Critic, whose stern authoritarian voice pooh-poohs all possible sentences on the basis that fiction writing is a meaningless, childish game."

I looked nervously over my shoulder to see how Edmund Wilson was taking this. Just like Mr. Coffee Nerves in the old ads whenever the smart housewife brought out decaffeinated Postum, he was beginning to go a little green around the gills.

"So you propose making me really believe again in the existential heft of my own work. Makes sense. But how do you go about such a confidence-building course?"

MacArthur leaned back in his chair, now that I was hooked, and folded his hands across his charming little tummy. "Drugs. Heavy-duty drugs that open you to the helpful remedial posthypnotic suggestions of our staff psychologists. Nothing illegal, mind you. Just the latest generation of psychotropic helpers out of the Prozac family."

"I could get a prescription for those from my HMO."

"True. But even the Screenwriters Guild HMO cannot take the next step that makes our services unique. We put all our writers into longterm artificial environments which encourage the necessary fantasies that supplement the drug regimen and paradoxically bolster your sense of your fiction's reality."

"For example?"

MacArthur pulled out a sheaf of glossy brochures. "Here's a popular one: Faux Yaddo. A simulated artist's colony where all the other residents are actors paid to praise your work in progress."

I scoped out the discreetly printed price at the bottom of the leaflet.

"That's beyond my means, I'm afraid."

"Well, here's a simpler construct, the Thomas Wolfe package. We set you up in a Depression-era Brooklyn apartment with a signed book contract from Scribner's. All the furniture is scaled down to make you feel as somatically big as Wolfe, so you can write standing up and using the top of the fridge as a desk, just like him. Most writers end up producing ten thousand words a day."

"I hate the city. What else do you have?"

Growing a little testy, MacArthur shuffled through the stack of leaflets before finally selecting one and setting it down triumphantly before me.

"I sense you're just the kind of misanthropic fellow who would appreciate this. It's called Last Man on Earth."

Everything clicked. "It's perfect! With no fear of my work ever being read by anyone, I could write anything!"

MacArthur smiled knowingly. "We have a deal with the Russians to use a portion of the depopulated Chechen Republic as a stageset. And in your case, besides planting strategic stashes of writing supplies, foodstuffs and medicines, we'll make sure there are dozens of pairs of eyeglasses with the proper prescription lenses scattered about, just to avoid the dreaded Twilight Zone phenomenon."

"Where do I sign?"

"Don't you need to ask your Invisible Critic's permission first?"

I looked behind me. A wailing, grimacing Edmund Wilson was fading out faster than an airport bestseller. Immensely relieved, I seized the opportunity and signed the contract MacArthur proffered.

"Congratulations. You'll have to come in a day early for us to apply the fake radiation sores. In the meantime, wear this with pride."

He handed me a red stocking cap. I snugged it on and pulled it down happily over my eyes.

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