As a Masters of English Literature student, one semester I enrolled in a seminar class on John Steinbeck. On the first day of class, the professor began with a sort of ice breaker exercise, asking all of us, as we sat around a large conference table, to name some of our favorite pastimes. Once we all had shared our hobbies, sporting activities, favorite movies and television shows, etc., he bluntly pronounced that if we had any intention of doing well in the class, we would be doing none of those things over the succeeding four months. We all sniggered, believing he was joking.
He was not.
The seminar’s syllabus included the reading of an eleven hundred page biography of Steinbeck and an assortment of novels and non-fiction works that easily added up to another thousand-plus pages. In addition, an extensive, multi-sourced, argumentative research paper on an original thesis regarding some aspect of Steinbeck’s catalog was due by semester’s end. Mind you, at the time, I was also enrolled in a another graduate-level literature course with its own extensive reading demands, I was teaching full-time, and I had three school-aged children at home.
He was right.
Every spare second I could find – usually late into the night after everyone else had gone to bed – was spent reading and note-taking. The professor utilized a Socratic method of pedagogy that left a student quite exposed as a slacker should they fall behind in their reading, and I was determined not to be embarrassed as he had betrayed a clear prejudice against part-time grad students like myself. In the end, I read nearly every word assigned, wrote one of my favorite papers ever exploring the role of Steinbeck’s catalog of fiction in the songbook of Bruce Springsteen, and finished with an “A.”
I share this story to give evidence to an earlier blog post I shared titled “I Wanna Get Better” in which one of my stated goals as I move forward in my life is to make better use of time. My arch-enemy in this pursuit has long been and always will be my love of watching live sports and television in general. It doesn’t help that we are living in what has to be considered a golden age of television fare. Sure, there’s a lot of drivel being offered for live viewing or streaming, but if you’re willing to ferret it out, there is also an abundance of high-quality storytelling to be had as well, and I LOVE a good story in any form.
One of my favorite authors David Foster Wallace had a similar affinity for television. He described his as an addiction he could only escape by not owning a television of his own. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and Fiction,” he said of television that “We literally cannot imagine life without it . . . we are dependent on image technology; and the better the tech, the harder we’re hooked.” If anyone is interested in undertaking the ultimate challenge for a post-postmodern reader, try tackling the 1,079 pages of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel that, among so many other themes, satirizes our screen addiction and points out its dangers to us as individuals and as members of a society.
My goal is to reduce the time I spend as a member of the passively-entertained masses and to increase the time I devote to actively creating. For me, that means working diligently on what I hope to be my next novel. The exception is time spent reading, which directly correlates to improving my abilities as a writer. I’m committed to furthering the project everyday, even if it only entails adding a single sentence or merely editing my previous day’s work.
When the people in my life or other responsibilities and/or pleasures must be attended to, it might require my working early in the morning or late into the night, but when and if I finish, what I’ve created will be of much greater value to me than whatever I’ve missed on any of the various screens I too often mindlessly scroll through or stare at. Lately, I’ve been getting out of bed around two or three in the morning – I’m an inveterate insomniac – and writing for an hour or two. That’s me at three a.m. in the screenshot above – yikes!
My ultimate point, which my Steinbeck seminar proved to me, is that – if I want to badly enough – I have much more time in my days to complete the projects I want or need to complete. I must, however, be willing to sacrifice somewhere, whether that means eliminating other projects and activities, squeezing in a few minutes of project-oriented work whenever possible, or working on my projects at unorthodox times.
When I’m gone, I want to leave something of more-than-physical value behind, and I don’t want anyone to remember me as that guy sitting endlessly in front of a television, iPad, or cell phone screen. The irony of this, of course, is that my goal requires me to spend a great deal of time behind – you guessed it – a screen of the computer variety. I have no plans, however, to break out the old Smith-Corona typewriter. I’ve learned that if there’s one inescapable force in the universe, it’s irony.
You need to do you, but I’d challenge you to do something creative and lasting with at least some of your time.
Always with gratitude and love.
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