So here I sit, Saturday afternoon, crushingly blue sky in slices though the palm fronds hanging just outside my office window. The culmination of a long week of grading, calculating grades, inputting grades. So much work by so many for those puny letters in the Final Grade column. And, of course, so little work by so many others. Twenty seven years of this: 14, 16, 18 classes a year. Twenty five students in each, later 26. Now sometimes 27 (“You don’t mind, do you?”). It’s not 10,000 students all together, but it’s close. It’ll be over that by the time I retire. Who’d have thought I would ever meet so many people?
After all the rigmarole of the approach and arrival and departure of final exams, I will have a little time to do some serious writing. Serious. What could that possibly mean? Serious writing, as in “littachur” and not just filling pages? As in, Terence, this is serious stuff? Stupid stuff. As in I’m writing the Big Topics: love, sex, death? Or maybe I’m just serious about the writing itself, the act of writing. As in, I’m going to seriously get after it now. Like when you say to a child, “I’m serious. Put that down. You hear me? I’m serious now.”
When I reread my published writing, I’m usually surprised that I was able to turn out (what seems to me) such good work. How did I do that? I can’t remember how I did that. Now I’m working on (yet) another novel, and I am tortured, riddled with doubts: is this ever going to become interesting? How about readable? Having been a writer all my adult life, I still find getting started to be one of the hardest things in the world. Having written doesn’t make writing any easier for me. I always approach the blank page with angst, with torment. With radical doubt.
Like Olsen’s Maximus, I have had to learn the simplest things last. And I have come to the Four Quartets late. In my end is my beginning. They are doing a lot of things to me. That couldn’t be more vague. Let me try again: the poems (the poem?) are acting on me in a number of ways: poetically, philosophically, theologically. No answers, of course. Just interesting questions in beautiful language.
But there is this for the writer approaching the page:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again….
That’s from “East Coker.” Boy, I get it. Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays is fairly scant, under four hundred pages, most of that plays. Leave out the plays and the 20 pages of cats and it’s under 150. How much he must have found the courage to throw out. And there you are: start a new book, a new story, poem whatever, and you’re face to face with any action/Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat/Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
It’s hard. Lord, it’s hard: how many times will I have to remind myself to stop trying to get some character across the room and get him rather into some other character’s business, stop trying to “write” it and just write it, stop listening to your voice and listen to theirs, stop getting it right and get it written? You can get it right later. Get it written now.
In a week, classes start again. Long, hot summer. There will be more and more reasons every day not to get serious about writing. Then again, a week is long time.
John Calvin Hughes is the author of Killing Rush, available from Second Wind Publishing. More of his writing can be seen at johncalvinhughes.com