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January 13, 2009

Deadlines and Guilt

I chose journalism over academia for all sorts of good reasons, but one was my inability to study and write steadily and systematically. Instead, I responded to deadlines and to the prospect of relatively (relative to a long academic essay or a book) short articles.

It worked fine for most of my professional life. Even when it came to books. The middle two, about Frank Sinatra and Lars von Trier, were shortish, tho still in the 25,000-30,000-word range. Can't recall if I needed the stimulus of deadlines to write them; probably. The fourth was a compilation, a long one, which took a lot of work but not the gut-wrenching creative kind; more mechanical, it was.

The first was All American Music, which consisted to 20 chapters of about 5,000 words each plus an Introduction. I set myself a schedule during four weeks off from the NY Times of doing the rough first draft of one chapter a day, Monday through Friday, with weekends off (God only got Sunday). It worked (the first drafts averaged 3,000 words each, later expanded), even when my early primitive computer (this was more than 25 years ago) ate my Laurie Anderson chapter and I had to rewrite it.

One reason I retired from the NY Times was to explore other kinds of writing. Especially a Big Book that wouldn't be dashed off on deadline (even if I had done loads of preparatory work for All American Music and loads of refinement as well as expansion of each chapter afterwards). I wanted to emulate the productivity of my friend Greil Marcus, who repairs most days up to his attic office but doesn't seem to need a fixed daily schedule, or various academics I know, most of whom are steady plodding turtles who beat us rabbits to the finish line every time.

So far, though, two years into retirement, I have found myself unable to settle down and work steadily all morning, say, on the slow accumulation of material and ideas to make up the Big Book. I have a subject that really does interest me. Do I just not want to do it, enjoying as I do the more casual and diverse aspects of retirement (including this blog)? Or have I fallen victim to the same frustrated lassitude that made it so hard to do anything but cram for exams in school or study at all for my Ph.D. orals in my 20's? Of course, then I had all the lovely distractions of the 1960's to beguile me, but the distractions today aren't half bad, either. Or worst, has a lifetime of journalistic deadlines made it even harder to write without them?

I brooded on all this as I cranked myself up to write an essay that will form a key text in a forthcoming Italian coffee-table book about Patti Smith. I listened and relistened to all her albums. I foreswore interviewing her (even though she offered), since that would have been more work, albeit the kind that might have enlivened the essay (my other reason being that in my post-journalistic life I prefer writing essays over conducting interviews, and now that it's finished I think it lively enough as is). I got the kindly publisher to postpone the deadline a month, then another week, and still I was a couple of days late. I fretted and procrastinated. I cancelled gym yesterday to get an early start, then wasted most the day. Finally today I got myself up at 6:30 and wrote the damn thing.

Do all writers go through such agonies? To hear them talk and read what they write about their work habits, a lot of them do. Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we (I) need to build up a full head of guilt before we can get rolling on a major writing project?

It's infuriating to read the memoirs (in my case, though there are plenty more from Anglophone writers) of how Thomas Mann and Richard Strauss sat down calmly, like bourgeois businessmen at the office, and dispatched their masterpieces. Strauss was so Germanic that if his alloted time for the day ended during, say, the final trio in Der Rosenkavalier, he laid his pen aside and picked up the next morning. So much for inspiration, even in this most inspired music.

Oh well, the human brain is a mysterious thing. I would love to recalibrate mine to be able to write efficiently and cooly like Mann or Strauss. Maybe I've been corrupted by journalistic deadlines. Or maybe I just don't want to write any more books, or put up with the grief that writing them would entail. You do feel pretty good when you finish, though...   

January 13, 2009 2:08 PM | | Comments (2)


Really, John, I just go upstairs, look at books, think, I really ought to read that someday, curse the neighbor's dog, and fly paper airplanes out the window . . .

Miscellaneous Thoughts: I imagine that having an expectatant audience, such as an established writer like Thomas Mann had, would make it easier to write: the knowledge that one's own work is part of an ongoing conversation, part of the surrounding culture. To simply feel as if one is doing writing for self-expression or as part of financial survival can make the process more self-indulgent or less emotionally vital. Writing workshops are often important for young writers in that they provide an audience. As for journalists, delivering the news is an inherent, ongoing goal. Cultural criticsm sometimes seems very important and other times redundant, unnecessary. There are probably as many philosophies about, and methods for, writing as there are writers.

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