Life and Death in The Writer’s Studio

July 18, 2017 Musings

It’s been a year since author Mark Morneweg died of adrenal cancer, a rare cancer with no screenings, no treatment, or, as he chose to refer to it, “freaky-deaky time”. The disease ravaged his body but it could not destroy his mind or his will to write.

Mark was my brother and the loss of his friendship and brilliance is still raw, still recent. I continue experiencing those brief flashes where I think I must ask him about something from our shared history only to recall that he has died and whatever I hope to learn will always remain a disappointing unanswerable cipher.

The photograph is of Mark’s last book, Penthe & Alphonse, a Civil War love story, which he wrote during the last year of his life. Most of it was written pre-diagnosis while he had cancer. I believe it’s his best work and continue to marvel over his highly original, vivid, masterful creation of the strong female character, Penthe:

The music started.

It was night. There were torches in the square.

She took her tignon off.

There was a beat, a drumbeat.

She danced.

She swayed her hips, and she danced.

Her hands were up in her hair.

There was laughter.

A slave man came out and danced with her.

She took the hand of a little boy and started him off.

A woman asked who the white girl was.

“That aint a white girl, that’s Penthe Anne.”

She danced more wildly now.

There was no moonlight.

There was cloud cover.

It was hot.

There were torches in the square.

Author Patricia Nugent wrote about Penthe & Alphonse:

“The beauty of Mark’s 99 pp novel lies in what he left out; much like poetry, his prose painted an image; gave an impression while trusting the reader to figure it out.”

After Mark was diagnosed he traveled with me from his home in Southern California to my home in Savannah, Georgia. It was a grueling trip, and although he hated it, he fit his 6’2” frame into wheelchairs to navigate through the terminals in Salt Lake City and Atlanta. For a while he lived with me and, although he was physically fragile, most days he would rise and come down two flights of stairs to sit on the couch in my parlor and write, where he would remain until late into the evening. On days when he couldn’t manage the stairs he wrote from his bed. He continued to create without looking back.

What did he write? He finished Penthe, wrote a treatment for a screenplay, and began a new novel during the five months and handful of days remaining. He also sat with his friend and publisher, Frank Mendelson, who helped him convert the manuscript for  Penthe & Alphonse, as well as his two other novels, The Electric Mandolin, and The Girl on the Forty-Yard Line. Before he died he held all three published novels in his hands.

When the steep stairs of my two-hundred-eighteen year old house became too much, Mark moved to the local hospice. Fortunately, he was placed in a single room with a view of Georgia pines. Frank encouraged him to think of the room as The Writer’s Studio and Mark embraced the concept. A sign reading WRITER’S STUDIO went up on the outside of his door. With the exception of the last two weeks of his life, when he could no longer handle a keyboard or pen, he wrote every day. When he wasn’t writing, he was reading, most notably, he enjoyed the works of Marcel Proust.

One day when I arrived in Mark’s room he told me a volunteer entered his room, for a well-meaning conversation.  As time passed and the visitor lingered, he finally said, “Sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m working here.” He was writing.

I spent hours with him every day. So I know that without exception he never felt sorry for himself. He measured his happiness and the quality of his final days by his ability to create and the time he spent with those he loved. On days when I struggle with the discipline to sit and write, or to see the gift of each day, I look to my brother’s example.

Penthe & Alphonse is available on Amazon.