Today is a writing day. It astounds me that, as a writer, I find setting aside an entire 9-hour workday for writing difficult. Even today, there was a cat to feed, a fire to light, lunches to make, emails to answer, student queries to unquery–a couple of hours of desk-clearing to find my way back to these words on a screen. And then I found out we were laundry-less as a family, and an appointment popped up. I missed a job yesterday that I needed to take care of. And one student query was unqueriable.
Whatever focussed, monastic imaginations I once had of a writer’s life, it is clear that I am destined to be someone who tinkers with words while embedded in a world of digital demands and family rhythms.
Writing day. Today is “paper day,” actually. I am thinking about whether I have something to say for Mythcon this summer–a digital conference for the first time in history. Mostly, I want to connect this summer as I’m sure I won’t be able to get from Prince Edward Island to Albuquerque, New Mexico next summer–about 44 hours by car each way. I am beginning the writing process of a paper for the Canadian-American Theological Association in late May. I have the “data,” the hard work of thinking and analyzing done. I can throw together a PowerPoint slideshow really easily. But I am considering presenting it as a personal essay, allowing my life to be part of the “data” set. It’s a risk, but it could be an interesting one. And I have a June Mythmoot keynote speech fermenting in my imagination–begun in the wee sma’s of an insomniac writing session during the winter. It is just sitting there in the back of my brain, waiting for me to pull it all into place.
Now, as I write out each of these projects that are buzzing in my imagination, I realize that I am avoiding a certain one. Really, my goal today is to start pulling together a paper I proposed 17 months ago for a conference that was supposed to happen last spring. It was to be a grand tour, my debutante ball as a recently minted PhD. First, a national academic conference in Ontario with a couple of societies I enjoy, presenting one paper from the book I have in draft form and one for a future book. Then down to the C.S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium at Taylor University–a highlight of my even years–to present something from my PhD thesis. Then to Wheaton, for a week of archival work at the Wade. Then home. A 60-hour round trip all told (including visits with friends in St. John, Montreal, Toronto, and Indianapolis), where I propose some ideas for the academic community, reconnect with my friends, dig deep into research, and launch myself as an academic looking for a university position.
Alas, we have had all manner of apocalypses since those heady days of 2019 and my debutante ball was inevitably delayed. I wonder….
Ah, there, I have done it again: I have avoided the project that I am avoiding.
True, it is a good narrative technique to introduce an idea and then look away from it while simultaneously building a quiet case for the idea. In this moment, however, it is sheer procrastination. This is because the paper that I proposed ever and long ago has migrated in my mind. I woke up this morning thinking that I had moved on from it altogether, and wishing I had simply cancelled instead of taking the one-year postponement. Here before me is the task, however, and now is the time to look at this project and see what I can do with it.
As so often is the case, things are not how I had imagined them.
I had thought I had lost the plot on this paper. Intriguingly, as I look at my proposal, it does not seem to me have as bad as I had feared. In fact, I see that I have something here. More than that, my instinct in proposing it was a good one. This isn’t a project that I am over with–like poor Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength, who has lost the love of her grad work and no amount of good intentions and self-accusation can restart it again. No, that’s not the problem at all.
The problem is that this is a project that I will not really begin for a couple of years.
Is that \really much of a problem, though? Doesn’t this paper allow me to test the concept, to play with the idea a bit, to see if it carries credibility for the scholars I am meeting with? I think so. This actually has potential!
But as my spirits are lifted by this possibility, I remember the peer-reviewer comments, which I conveniently did not save. I had glanced at them when they were returned with a confirmation 16 months ago, and have stored them in my mind as something negative. Indeed, they have grown so that in my imagination, they are something that seemed impossible to deal with at all. In my mind, their scholarly critiques now seem beyond me, impossible to meet as a collegial demand, a strain that takes the paper beyond its well-meant horizon.
Digging out the comments from an old email thread, once again, I see that my mind had taken these few fleeting words and built them into a solid edifice of concern. Both peer-reviewers were, in fact, very positive and supportive. There was only one thing touching on a critique in either comment, and it was that within my own proposal was a counter-current of thought that was worth exploring. It is actually a pretty smart observation–one that actually helps me see even grander possibilities for the larger project ahead.
But there is one line that catches me up as I read:
Perhaps one of the things that needs to be most in play in this discussion is a kind of phronēsis.
Once again, my imagination takes this line and moves on it before I have done fully thinking about it. Perhaps this is why I had allowed a negative feeling to grow over the months of this paper. What does this even mean?
So I looked up phronēsis.
As it turns out, there is no mystery there. I have been teaching my Greek students a solid definition of ϕρόνησις for years–a thoughtful but tangible wisdom, the proper distance between the twin madnesses of manic risk and fearful protectionism, the right foundation for good action in the world.
So I know the word, phronēsis, but the sentence is still hard to discern. In taking the time to think this through, however–and carefully rereading the peer-reviewer’s comments–I have finally come to appreciate what they are saying.
And it is pretty simple. This scholar is saying that there is a distinction in my work worth noting, but going too deeply down that road might be unruly, frenetic (ϕρενῑτικός). But if I show a bit of humorous wisdom (ϕρόνησις) to choose the right distance between opposite errors, I can create a nuanced reflection on my topic. It’s a cool comment after all. They are simply encouraging me to choose well where I focus my time.
And now, as I sit and reflect on this project, even though it comes both too late and too early in my research, I realize that I am excited to dig in and see where it goes.
There is another lesson, too–at least one that is coming to me. I am always a bit tempted to ϕρενῑτικός it seems. I love the way that words flow down the screen, the way that ideas tumble out, the way that links are made when people seem to be looking the other way. Whether this peer-reviewer knows me or not, for me a path of ϕρόνησις will be to still that frenetic thinking–particularly those edifices of doubt that grow up in the imagination through neglect and fear.
This seems to me the path of wisdom.
One of the greatest challenges of writing is that void between the concept of the mind and the way we can express such with the imperfect tools of words. From that often springs doubt about whether the concept is ready – is this the right time to express the idea? I run into it constantly – given further difficulty by the fact that non-fiction writing has further imperfections in that one has to work with the available data, another layer of complexity. One outcome is that a writing day often produces little actual writing. On the other hand, the thought process itself is useful and the answer to that question of how to convert the simultaneity of thought into the linear thread of the written word often pops up after due unconscious processing. Usually just at meal times.
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You’ve written a lot of books, Matthew, so you have perhaps a better sense of this than I do. I don’t have idea problems, but I have completion problems. That’s 25% priorities, 25% time management, 48% doubt, and 11% mathematical problems. I’m better at writing than actually, you know, finishing a piece, editing, getting it published, caring later, etc.
I agree about the mental “rest” that happens, unconscious processing. For me it’s the shower, and back when I would swim.
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I love this musing. I would be surprised if there are many writers who do not identify with it.
Of course, the Benedictines do not permit monks to spend the entire day in the scriptorium and I remember Lewis writing a piece on his ideal day (probably written because it happened so rarely) in which a good walk during the afternoon was an essential element. I note that doing the housework did not feature in his ideal day but when Laura heads off later on to supervise a Covid vaccination clinic (a regular weekend event these days) I will vacuum clean the house. Last weekend it was sawing wood in the garden. Much more fun!
Actually, housework wouldn’t feature in my ideal day either and I am pretty sure that Lewis didn’t plenty of it too. It always feels like an interruption; but then interruptions have a way of being divine visitations if I can only recognise and welcome the Guest.
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I have heard that writers have the cleanest houses. Not my temptation (though I like dishes). I would, though, have a pretty great garden! I would also drink too much tea to be healthy. There must be chances in life for self-discipline, I’m afraid.
In your house Stephen, I would be tempted by the labyrinthine bookshelves. Who knows what you might read?