[Paleopsych] CHE: The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Apr 7 16:49:12 UTC 2005

The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.8


   The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day


    I don't care what they say: It is possible to write and teach at the
    same time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching
    (sabbaticals are always disastrous interludes for me, a time when I
    tend to sink into depression, writing more slowly, thinking a lot less
    clearly). Teaching organizes my life, gives a structure to my week,
    puts before me certain goals: classes to conduct, books to reread,
    papers to grade, meetings to attend. I move from event to event,
    having a clear picture in my head of what I must do next. Without the
    academic calendar in front of me, I feel lost.

    I've been teaching for several decades, and in that time I've written
    and edited a lot of stuff, including novels and volumes of poetry,
    biographies, essays, and reviews. I'm not saying that to brag. I'm too
    old for that. I simply want to make the point that I like being
    productive, enjoy writing, and have never found myself without the
    time to write, even when large numbers of students have required my
    attention. I should add that where I work -- Middlebury College -- no
    graduate students are waiting in the wings to grade papers for me or
    conduct discussion sessions.

    To be sure, I've been fascinated by people like Harold Bloom, who can
    turn out large and complicated books year after year, for many
    decades, without seeming to tire. Versions of an old joke, doubtless
    apocryphal, circulate throughout the academic and literary world. It
    runs something like this: A student calls at the front door of Bloom's
    house, in New Haven. He asks to see Professor Bloom. "I'm sorry," says
    Mrs. Bloom, "but Harold is writing a book." "That's all right,"
    replies the student, "I can wait."

    But I'm not Bloom. For me, at least, quantity and quality are not the
    same. (I often point out to students that Chidiok Tichborne wrote only
    one poem that anybody knows, "Tichborne's Elegy," composed for himself
    as he awaited execution for treason against Queen Elizabeth I. It is
    worth a shelf of books by most other poets.) I look on writers like
    Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Gore Vidal with amazement. Their
    books arrive in stores neatly packaged, copy-edited and blurbed, with
    the predictability of the seasons themselves. One does view such
    prolific writers and scholars with incredulity. How do they do it? Do
    they have an army of research assistants helping them? Should they
    sign their names, "School of So-and-So," as supervisors of a
    production line?

    As a graduate student, I watched a few of my more prolific mentors
    carefully. One of them, an extremely productive and original scholar
    of Greek literature, culture, and language, was Sir Kenneth Dover. His
    books on Aristophanic comedy, Greek homosexuality, and Greek syntax
    have proved seminal works. His writing was meticulously researched,
    thoughtful, and conveyed with clarity and argumentative force. When I
    was at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, in the late 1960s
    and early 70s, he not only ran the Greek department but also had large
    responsibilities around the university. I once asked him the secret of
    his productivity, and he said, without hesitation: "I've learned how
    to use the odd gaps of 20 minutes or so that occur at various points
    in the day."

    Most of us -- myself included -- waste vast amounts of time. I don't
    actually mind that. Like Robert Frost, I believe that laziness is
    essential to creativity; I get a lot done because I have time to burn.
    I tell myself over and over that there is so much time, so little to
    do. That means that I feel free, unconstrained, and eager to work when
    I feel like working. I have learned, like Sir Kenneth, to make use of
    little pockets of time: the half-hour before dinner, for example. That
    stretch can be very productive. Weekends are full of time, even when a
    lot of chores have to be accomplished. I suspect that most of us fail
    to use the hours of the day properly. We imagine, foolishly, that huge
    quantities of time are needed to settle into a project, to reactivate
    the engines of thought.

    It isn't really possible to concentrate for more than half an hour
    without a solid break. That is my experience, in any case. Even when I
    have the whole day to work, I stop every 20 minutes to make a cup of
    tea, eat a cookie, call a friend, do a little yoga or a few stomach
    crunches, shower, or take a short walk. At a certain point in my life
    I realized that I should not feel guilty about those breaks. (I try
    not to feel guilty about anything, even when I am guilty.)

    Of course it helps to have writing time you can count on. I have gone
    to a village diner for breakfast at roughly 8:10 almost every morning
    for several decades. Over coffee and English muffins (with peanut
    butter), I write poems. Rough drafts, mostly. I have grown used to the
    chatter in the background, the easy flow of coffee, the local crowd
    coming in and out. I know most of the people. Many of them wave, nod,
    or speak to me briefly. A few will sit down for a short time. But they
    all know I'm working. My notebook is open. I have a pen in my hand.
    I've made it known in these parts that I write poetry at this diner in
    the morning, and my friends (and acquaintances) respect that.

    A little work every day adds up. That was a concept I got from Updike,
    whom I heard say (many years ago, in some public forum) that he writes
    only two pages a day. Two pages a day adds up to a long book every
    year, even counting revisions. When I'm working on a large prose book,
    such as a novel or biography, I try to write two pages or so every
    day. I'm not neurotic about itsometimes I don't feel like writing at
    all. But I aim for two, and I usually get two. The system works. (And,
    like Hemingway, I always stop at a point where I know what comes next;
    that makes getting into the material easier the next day.)

    Updike apparently compartmentalizes his writing life. Living in a big
    house on the North Shore (of Massachusetts), he is lucky enough to
    have several studies: one for fiction, one for reviews and nonfiction,
    one for letters and business. He can move along the hall, stopping in
    for a certain amount of time with a novel, working on a review for a
    time, an essay for a time, perhaps a poem or short story for another
    chunk of time. He doesn't teach, of course. It sounds nice.

    I would get bored, however, without my teaching. I need contact with
    students and colleagues, the sense of community. I like the demands of
    preparation for a class: reading a favorite poet or novelist, skimming
    a recent critical article. I am afraid that, left to my own devices, I
    might not reread Stevens, Frost, Eliot, Yeats, and other poets in a
    systematic fashion, year after year. And they have sustained me,
    provided spiritual refreshment, furnished the rooms of my mind with
    decent stuff. I find it very useful to put my thinking about their
    poetry into words in front of a class.

    Sir Kenneth told me that teaching would serve me well. He once
    suggested that a class and a critical essay are very similar in that
    each requires powers of formulation; each draws on analytical
    intelligence. It was T.S. Eliot who said criticism is as natural as
    breathing, and I believe that. When I read something, I want to talk
    about it. I want to compare it with other texts. I want to match my
    own voice with the voice of the text. That is what it means to be a
    thinking person.

    I keep at least two or three projects on the boil at a time. That
    means I am never at a loss for something urgent to accomplish. I can
    always turn from a poem to a novel, a book review, an essay. Each
    genre has its own demands, and I have come to relish the differences.
    I've taken the same notion and tried to embody it as a poem, then as a
    story, then as an essay. One can, of course, adapt a notion from one
    form to another; but I do believe that an idea has a perfect form, and
    I try to find it.

    Teaching, too, calls upon us to move in many directions. There is
    always a class to prepare, a book to read or read again, a paper to
    grade, a meeting to attend. I have never in 30 years not had a letter
    of recommendation urgently waiting to be written. Moving among those
    tasks, I try to make haste slowly, stopping wherever I am to focus, to
    give whatever I have to give at that moment. I think I've actually
    learned how to do that by writing, by having to stare at the page in
    front of me, the line of poetry breaking at the moment, spilling over
    onto the next line, the essay in need of a final twist. It is always
    better to work in small bursts, to focus on the twist or turn ahead.

    Having a grand idea, and setting up to accomplish something in a grand
    way, has always been, for me, a hopeless notion. I once had a good
    friend, a poetry editor and teacher, who always hoped to write a
    novel. One day the first sentence of the novel swam into his head:
    "All of Malaysia was agog." He didn't know why Malaysians were agog,
    or even where on earth Malaysia was. But he applied for a grant, got
    it, and set himself up in a foreign country with a huge sheaf of paper
    and a typewriter. He typed with reverence the great first sentence. He
    waited. He waited for much of a year, but nothing ever came.

    In those circumstances, of course, it never would.

    Jay Parini is a poet, a novelist, and a professor of English at
    Middlebury College. His latest book, One Matchless Time: A Life of
    William Faulkner, has just been published by HarperCollins.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list