It’s December, the month when my list of “Things to Do” begins to divide into long trailing tentacles of “Things to Make” and “Things to Buy” and “Things to Mail” and “Things to Cook” and, somewhere stuffed in-between them all, somewhat shrunken and tentative next to all the others, is “Things to Write.” And it’s right around now that I take The Phantom Tollboth down from the shelf and reread Chapter 17.
It is in Chapter 17 that Milo meets the Terrible Trivium, a faceless man who introduces himself as the “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” Milo encounters him in the Mountains of Ignorance, on his way to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Terrible Trivium asks for help moving a pile of sand using a pair of tiny tweezers and soon Milo is busy at the task, working hour after hour after hour after hour…
“Why do only unimportant things?” Milo asks, when he begins to get wise to the fact that the sand-moving may be getting in the way of the princess-rescuing.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the Trivium replies. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to keep you from what you really should be doing…There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again –and with a little practice, you can become a monster of habit, too.”
Norton Juster, the book’s brilliant author, knew from experience that there is always something else that a writer can be doing, in fact, should be doing. Not just the December tasks and projects, but errands, childcare, household chores — the list of Other Things To Do is as endless as Milo’s pile of sand. But while the reasons for not writing will always be much longer than the reasons for writing, a writer has to remind herself every day to put down the tweezers and continue the search for Rhyme and Reason. Who will rescue them, if not you?