Jul/Aug 2009 Nonfiction

In Praise of the Rut

by Kevin Brown

When I was in graduate school, we had to attend a practicum for graduate assistants, which would cover topics clearly related to teaching, such as grading essays, and topics that did not seem to have much to do with our lives at that time. On one such occasion, one of our professors, Dr. Herrin, was giving a presentation on time management, based on information she had gleaned from an expert in the field and additional reading she had done. She talked about the importance of a calendar or planner in our lives and talked about tricks, such as putting projects in individual folders that could be moved off our desks and into drawers when we were not working on them. That way, we could focus on what we were currently working on without being distracted by everything else we thought we should be doing.

Because I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old, had recently graduated from college, and was one of the strongest students in my class, I knew better than to heed her advice. In fact, when she had finished, I proceeded to mock her approaches, even commenting, "I don't ever want to be the kind of person who has to pencil a friend in for lunch." Not surprisingly, I rather enjoyed the romantic view of writers (which included students for me) who work when they are inspired, act spontaneously, and live in the moment. Also not surprisingly, I did not get very much done.

However, it seems that I was already moving toward Dr. Herrin's suggestions, but I just did not know it. That summer, I made a reading list of works I should read, and, sure enough, I read every book on the list, save for one. The one I did not read was Steinbeck's East of Eden. Instead, I read Of Mice and Men, which was much shorter. To this day, I have still not read East of Eden.

To people who know me now, they would be baffled by my lack of time management and self-discipline, as I get routinely mocked myself these days. Just this summer, a student told me that she thought she could predict what I would be doing at any particular moment of the day. Of course, she's not quite right, as she doesn't know my daily schedule, nor does she know that it varies by day of the week; however, I will grant her that it is fairly easy to predict what I will be doing and when, as I am a creature of habit.

The reason I am is that I have become convinced that Dr. Herrin was right all those years ago. Recently, I was reading Donald Hall's long essay about work, Life Work, and he writes, "Anyone who loves accomplishment lives by the clock and the list." I have a clock in every room of my house, save for the bathroom (and I used to have one there), and, again, people make fun of me for this. I am told that I am obsessed with routine and time and that I am not spontaneous. People do not appreciate it when I tell them that I am productive. This approach has served me well in reading, writing, watching movies, running, and especially teaching, though there have been students who complained from time to time.

One student, an English education major, who was spending his time studying the latest teaching theories, certainly believed that variety made for better teaching. I know this because he wrote it on my teaching evaluations. He said that there were more interesting ways to convey what I wanted them to understand and that I should use more variety in my class. However, what I wanted students to do in this American Literature course was to be able to read texts, analyze them, and be able to discuss them. Thus, I assigned them reading, had them write short papers analyzing the texts, then come to class and discuss them. I wanted them to repeat this process over and over until they became better at it, and, to no one's surprise, they did become better at it.

Irvin Hashimoto quotes a tennis pro in his work Thirteen Weeks, which is about teaching composition. Vic Braden is talking about how boring Pete Sampras is in that he just keeps hitting the same old boring winner time and time again. Ivan Lendl received the same criticism, and, growing up, I was a fan of McEnroe, Connors, and Boris Becker. They were exciting, diving for volleys or yelling at the chair umpire, while, all along, Lendl just boringly won matches. In the same way, Andre Agassi was the flashy counter to Sampras, and he certainly won his share of matches, but it was the boring Sampras who was the dominant player during his time.

Hashimoto's point is that writing does not need to be flashy or spectacular to get the point across. We just have to write one boring sentence after another to convey our point. By "boring," here, though, he is not discussing content; instead, he's talking about word usage and sentence structure. We do not need, he argues, to use words that will impress the reader, just words that will convey our points to him or her; in the same way, our sentences should be as long as they need to be to carry out their purpose, not elaborate just for the sake of being so.

The same idea holds true for being a writer, in general. We still hold up the notion of Byron and Keats as the idea of how one should live if he or she is a writer. These days, we believe that we need to be Dave Eggers or Chuck Palahniuk, causing people to pass out at readings. I even have a friend who is a poet and creative writing professor who talks about writers or events as "sexy" or "hot," and developing a writing routine or a routine for life is definitely not sexy or hot. In fact, it's rather boring, just like Sampras and Lendl.

A friend of mine was recently amazed at the progress I had made on my student loan, and I commented, "Paying down a student loan is just like losing weight. It's just making the decision to do so every day." I could add writing to this list. John Updike famously wrote two legal sheets per day, which amounts to at least two books per year. Arthur Hailey once said, "I set myself 600 words a day as a minimum output, regardless of the weather, my state of mind or if I'm sick or well." That doesn't sound like much, but it amounts to 219,000 words per year, or four books of 50,000 words or so. Even Nicholas Sparks says that he writes 2000 words per day, whether that takes three hours or five.

However, it's easy to let output dominate the discussion of developing a routine when it's the simple fact of showing up that matters. Ted Kooser once said that he sits in his recliner for several hours every morning, working on some sort of writing. He said that seven out of eight days, he doesn't have anything worthwhile to show for it, but the eighth day makes up for it. He points out that he wouldn't have that if he weren't there the other days. David Foster Wallace once told Charlie Rose that he writes eight hours a day. Rose was shocked until Wallace elaborated. He went on to say that seven of those hours are spent avoiding writing, but he needs those other hours to get to his hour of productivity. William Faulkner has the most frequently cited comment on this issue. When he was asked if he writes on a schedule or if he only writes when he gets inspired, he commented, "I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."

In America, we value spontaneity and excitement, and living by a schedule is not a way to attract any type of attention beyond the negative. People hear that we do the same things day in and day out, wondering how our lives could be so boring. They talk about how predictable we are and how mundane our days must be. But, then, if we keep working at it day after day after boring day, then we hit that winner right by them. We may be boring, but we'll be holding the trophy.


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