Thursday, August 20, 2009

Killing Time

According to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics, I have a life-expectancy of 77.9 years. That’s 28,433.5 days. I can subtract 9,477 days for an ideal eight hours of sleep per night, and that leaves me with 18,956.5 days to do whatever I must do.

Due to the nature of my life—(up at 6 am, in class by 7:15, teach five classes of eighth grade English in a row till 2:15, attend meetings, grade myriad papers, contact desperate parents, chat with students both past and present who come in share with me what’s going on in their lives...then pick up third-grade son before 5, make dinner (or buy something), grade more papers, edit police reports, wrestle one kid to take a shower and the other to do the dishes, tell a story or two in bed and/or sing a song by 9, pray, then take out my reading materials (Dickens' Bleak House right now) and read with my one good eye till 11)—I usually write well past midnight.

By the end of the first paragraph of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, I could smell smoke-–not tragic burning-house smoke, but that of a fireplace in an old library. It took me two solid days to read the eleven-page excerpt one time through, and upon completing it, I felt like a child who had been lost all day in a corn maze and came out hours later at dusk, only to discover another corn maze.

Dillard says, “We have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild." T. S. Eliot (my dead lover) confirms this by saying, “If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable." So I cannot buy back time after I spend it, but as a person of letters, I choose to spend a large chunk of my FREE-time with pen in hand, ready to capture images that beg to be recorded on paper, if not for anyone else’s pleasure but my own.

George Orwell’s advice to scrupulous writers is to ask four questions: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” He adds that they will probably ask two more: “Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” While asking these questions expends more of my limited minutes, the outcome, if applied well, will produce writing that will save my readers from wasting their time.

Ever since digital technology has invaded my home, I have wrestled against the temptations to stare for hours at a pixilated monitor, playing online Scrabble or searching Ebay for an antique typewriter, which I did find for $100—a 1950’s Royal, aqua blue gem.

But I never stare at a blank screen. No time to. Lucky for me, I have an energetic muse, sneaking around throughout my day, giving me new plot directions and settings and so forth. She and I work together like cats: dormantly lounging about on the mental windowsills of my day, thinking about the kill later on when the moon comes out. When the noises around us have subsided, we get that urge to pounce the keyboard. It’s a wild game of stalk the idea and attack. Stalk…Attack! If it’s not a school night, we can do this past 2 am. It may not be an ideal way to work, but it works.

I may kill time by playing the piano, knitting a sweater, or repairing a toilet. Whatever it is I’ve done with my time, I make sure I at least do it wholeheartedly. If I kill time by doing such actions without my senses fully engaged, then I’m a second-hand murderer, and as Eliot would say, “We had the experience but missed the meaning." If I miss the meaning behind what it is that I’m doing, then I may as well put my pen away for good and sell my soul to the highest bidder.

From Annie Dillard, I am learning the importance of images. Dillard’s grotesque image of a dead moth burning for hours like a candle seared my mind for days, and if I closed my eyes, I saw with even more clarity, how “when it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs." Now, nearly two years after the initial shock of reading it, I still see the image, but my feelings about it have changed. The burning moth is my time: “This spectacular skeleton began to act as a wick." My time may burn on a wick for 77.9 years, give or take a few, and after a close-call in April, I have to accept that fact that I will at some point be blown out.

Eliot’s Four Quartets, especially at the beginning of the East Coker chapter, uses clear ecclesiastical images to depict the passing of time: "Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf/Houses live and die: there is a time for building/And a time for living and for generation/And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane/And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots/And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto."

When I rub a moth’s wings they turn to dust. My body, likewise, will turn to dust when my clock stops. There’s no time in dust, but the smoke lingers in the library long after the writers have gone.


  1. Oh, how true! That moth sure is the objective correlative of this piece-- and a damn good one. Yes, the burning passion of the writer can be time gently fading away. There's a Moody Blues song "22,000 Days, 22,000 Nights" it's not a lot it's all you got -- that kind of wormed its way into my head as I read this.
    George Orwell's advice reminds me of David Long's take on the writing process. This is a really good essay-- moving and so true to the literary pursuit. Start sending this out.
    Love that clock pic. Hmmm, where have I seen that before?

  2. I've never heard that song before, so I'll have to go visit itunes later on today. I only know a few Moody Blues songs...White Satin, Tuesday Afternoon. So where in the world would I send an essay like this? I've got a poem from a few years back that sort of matches this theme. I'll post it on the blog if I can find it...