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Smart things said by other people

April 26, 2010

I’m posting these quotes mostly for my own benefit — I have them written down in my beloved cheap spiral notebook, but I keep forgetting to look at them when thinking about how to balance the many things I want and/or need to do in a given day.

What one is looking for is . . . the sense of extraordinary awareness of being, and more than just awareness, responsiveness also, openness. And that is damaged, wiped out by the diurnal — the cares, the responsibilities that each day demand one’s attention.

The curious factor is that the day itself cannot be construed as an enemy; it is what gives you the materials you have not only to contend with, but to work with, to build whatever you are capable of building. If you deny the day completely, you’re lost.

-Stanley Kunitz, from The Wild Braid

And, perhaps contradictorily:

It was in some ways the typical twenty-first-century up-and-coming American poet’s life — the pick-up jobs and the scramble for publishers, the fellowships and relationships . . . , the constant effort to find a way of staying alive without allowing one’s lifeblood to congeal into a career.

-Christian Wiman in Poetry, October 2009

It would seem that Wiman is letting me off the hook, in terms of trying to find a real, grown-up job where I go to the same place every day and don’t sometimes have to buy groceries with my credit card. Those are dangerous, potentially, in that if you put too much time and energy into something else, you might get so engrossed in it that you forget you’re a writer. And I’ve definitely read magazine articles recommending that the really serious writer get a really boring job, thus leaving plenty of brain space for more important things.

Kunitz is less dismissive of doing work outside of writing, though, and I tend to agree with him, because not only does outside knowledge actually provide something to write about, it gives you a context. Say you’re a doctor and also a poet (like William Carlos Williams): you may never write a poem about performing brain surgery, but your precise technical knowledge gives you a whole new vernacular to describe everything else in colors nobody else would have thought of.

The bottom line seems to be that knowledge is good, and experience is good, and without them you haven’t got much to talk about. The tricky part is in walking the line between doing something undemanding but uninspiring, and having a fantastically engaging, fulfilling job that leaves you no time or energy to do anything else. I would seem to sit comfortably in the middle — I do really like most of what I do, most of the time, and I’m not really too busy, and I have not yet failed to pay rent. (It helps that my rent is even more microscopic than my paycheck.) But I also waste a lot of time feeling guilty that I don’t have a Career. And wishing for bigger adventures, some of which would probably be precluded by said Career.

I guess I find the Wiman perspective comforting in its acknowledgment that plenty of people don’t have the balance worked out. Whereas Kunitz sympathizes with the difficulty of working within the paradox, but also reminds me what it’s supposed to feel like when I succeed: awareness, responsiveness, openness. That sounds like a pretty excellent place to be.

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One comment

  1. I really like that bit about not letting your lifeblood congeal. Never feel guilty about not having a box-style career… there’s nowhere it says that’s part of what makes you human. And I hope you have seen Up, because I would like to add: “Adventure is out there!”



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