Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers May 2006
vol. 2, no. 5
No writer has more fascinated other writers than Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century English essayist and poet. Part of what makes him so fascinating is that he embodied the most extraordinary contradictions.
He grew up in a bookstore, had memorized vast swathes of literature, and yet claimed to have never read a book all the way through. He was widely known as a conservative thinker and yet was vehemently against colonialism and slavery, even leaving his estate to an adopted black “son.”
One of the things that he was most famous for was being both prolific and lazy (as he put it). For instance, he often started his newspaper column only when the press runner had arrived at his door to pick it up. The runner would not have to wait long, however, as Johnson could compose a paragraph faster than most could copy it. Some of this, I suspect, is that he composed in his head and then did merely transcribe. But he is said to have written his first book, a translation, in one month, after languishing in bed for several months, because friends invented a story about the printer's family starving.
Since Johnson felt that he was by nature lazy (we might now say depressive), he often put himself in a position where he simply had to produce. He would contract to do several newspaper columns a week, to write introductions for books that were about to come out, and so on. Having to meet such external deadlines time after time taught him that a writer “may write at any time if [you] will set [yourself] doggedly to it.” He frequently advised younger writers, then, to learn to write quickly: “to get a habit of having [your] mind to start promptly,” adding, “It is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy … If [you are] accustomed to compose slowly and with difficulty upon all occasions, there is danger that [you] may not compose at all, as we do not like to do that which is not done easily.” While I do not think waiting until the press runner is at your door is a good way to live a stress-free life, I do think that learning to compose quickly, rather than well, will stand you in good stead.
This information about the fascinating Johnson comes from W. Jackson Bate , Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), largely p. 206.
Readers with Questions
A Flourish reader wrote in with the following question for other readers. (I wish I had a discussion space online so everyone could chime in and see each others' responses right away, but that still lies in the future.) For now, please reply to me to forward to the reader. I will collate some for the next issue. And don't be shy! All thoughts welcome.
“I have had no trouble buckling down and writing every day on my dissertation, but after six years I am still working away! Naturally, I'm feeling frustrated. I suspect much of my trouble comes from the topic I chose. I'm studying an illegal activity, and practically every assumption I had at the beginning has turned out to be wrong. So it seems plausible that it's not my "fault" that I'm taking so long. But I can't be sure. So I have a question: How do you tell the difference between patience and procrastination? Or, put differently, what kind of situations should send you back to prewriting--that is, rethinking the structure (or even the argument) of a chapter--and when should you just push ahead? Is there a helpful rule of thumb? (My sense is that too much prewriting can keep you from accomplishing real work, while too much persistence risks wasting time on a dead end that you might have recognized if you had had more perspective, like what you would get from prewriting.)”
Flourish reader Angela Jamison notes the following (perhaps timely?) essay on writerly angst by Garrison Keillor:
“ OK, let me say this once and get it off my chest and never mention it again. I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and almost impossible it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.
“It's the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don't notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.”
To read the rest, see Garrison Keillor, “Writers, Quit Whining” Salon.com (May 3, 2006).
News from the Editor
I had to prepare and give a public talk on my research this month. I would whine about how difficult it was to prepare, but I'm trying to follow Keillor's advice above. All I will say is, thank goodness that's over! For those interested in African literature, some info from the talk is at my ucla page.