My great college mentor, Benjamin DeMott (who, sadly, passed away last year), once looked out at the faces in his classroom and rhapsodized about a school, whose name I've long since forgotten, at Oxford. Apparently, the fellows of this place were required to do no teaching, no grading or tutoring or office hours at all. They were just to think. Or write, if they felt like it.
Professor DeMott told us how he longed to be there. There was a pause after the story. The Oxford thing had been apropos of nothing. He got on with teaching the class.
At the time, I was grimly amused. The fact that he wished to be at Oxford meant, of course, that he wanted to be away from us, his students. Apparently, our latest set of papers, or some other aspect of life, had plunged him into the despair of a writer forced to do other things.
But now I empathize. Life steals time relentlessly. This was mine today:
7 a.m. Woke to my 16-month-old son, Asher, crying on the bed beside me. He was pointing, I'm ashamed to say, at the plasma TV hanging opposite the bed. Yes, the first thing he does when opening his lovely brown eyes is demand to watch cartoons. I have not told his mother about this yet. I turn on Barney and go back to sleep, right arm curled around him.
8:02 a.m. Quickly check my Amazon ranking. We're up — helped by Sunday reviews in the Dallas Morning News, the Toronto Star, and a nice mention on Instapundit. These are the book's first newspaper reviews and I'm relieved. I've been compared to Robert Louis Stevenson. Sweet victory.
8:30. Breakfast (scrambled egg and banana for Asher, chocolate chip muffin and skim milk for me) and pick up my mother-in-law from church (she's originally from Haiti and deeply Catholic). Asher is dropped with Grandma at her house. He screams. I run.
9. New York Times and the NY Post. I don't read one story from beginning to end. I'm implicated in the death of newspapers.
9:30. Hit my bookmarked sites: Lileks, Washington Post, LA Times, Slate, etc. I hope James Lileks gets the Internet job. If there is justice in the blogosphere...
10:30. I take care of orders from my Internet business (it's book-related, boring, but pays the mortgage). Post office, bank, errands. My mornings are strictly about wage-earning.
11. Radio interview for Empire. The guy actually read the book and seems genuinely to have liked it. Nice. By now, I can do these things on auto-pilot. My applause lines are waiting in the frontal cortex.
12:30. Lunch at the local seafood shack — best clams on the Island. I read the New Yorker as I sit on the counter: Paul Theroux in a bizarre former Soviet Republic. I recall Theroux's encounter with V. S. Naipaul where the Trinidadian writer, during the Rwanda genocide, began singing "Tu-Tu-Tutsi goodbye, Tu-Tu-Tutsi don't cry," to the old show tune. Monstrous. But I cackle, despite myself. Naipaul is pitiless and great.
1 p.m. I begin to procrastinate. I am at the stage of research on my current book (on Napoleon, the ancient epidemic disease called typhus, and the destruction of the emperor's greatest army) where I need to read through all my notes, sort them into different categories, and highlight the pertinent info that made me copy them down months ago. This is akin to RL Stevenson drawing a left margin on the pages of his writing pad before plunging in to Treasure Island. Necessary, but so dull. The book is already outlined, even half-written, in my head.
1:04 p.m. I go online to dream-shop. When a writer signs a book contract, he gets three checks: one on signing (spent); one on manuscript delivery (spent); and one on publication (currently sitting in my bank account). I'm thinking of a new watch. The one that's caught my eye is so goddamn expensive that I cannot believe I'm even looking at it: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore. But it is for me what Auden used to call numinous. If Empire gets a movie deal, I'm buying it. Until then, I stare at the screen with helpless avarice.
1:05 p.m. I recall another DeMott anecdote: his disappointment when he went to a literary awards dinner and sat with the then-current crop of literary heavyweights (I'm assuming Roth, Mailer, Updike, etc.). Expecting an evening of sublime talk, he found that all they discussed was money. He was as crushed as a teenager, and I vowed right then to be better.
1:06. I guiltily check my portfolio at kiva.org. If you want to feel virtuous and do some good in the world, micro-financing is an answer.
1:30. I email a contact at the Motley Fool about an idea I pitched them: the pirate way of management. In it, I argue that what set pirate geniuses like Henry Morgan apart was there ability to motivate and manage their men. Why couldn't this apply to the David vs. Goliath business situation? JP Morgan named one of his yachts after his distant kinsmen Henry — and the lessons still apply today.
2 p.m. The plumber arrives. The brand new pump that my scurrilous contractor installed 2 years ago has mysteriously died. The verdict: $565 to replace. The plumber, George, a Vietnam veteran, notices the bamboo trees in our side yard and tells me he jumped out of a place over Burma and got hung up in trees just like them, but 200 feet high. He also tells me a deadbeat customer just stiffed him for 9 grand. (He asks me what I do for a living and is disappointed that I'm not a lawyer). I wonder if the price of my job just went up because of the deadbeat. But George is solid and I can't haggle with a man who parachuted into Burma on behalf of the red, white and blue.
2:30. I must start the notes. This is ridiculous. Asher will be home in three hours and has a day's worth of screaming to make up for. But I check email obsessively instead.
3:30. Finally I get down to some actual writing work. I have 400 pages of notes staring me in the face. This is going to take all week and next. It's my turn to envy the office workers of the world. A spreadsheet doesn't suck you dry like the thoughts of Napoleon on the road to Moscow.
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Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean. "A pleasure to read from bow to stern," raved Entertainment Weekly, which gave it an A grade. His book Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture was published to critical acclaim in 2003.
His posts appear every Tuesday throughout the month of May on the Powells.com blog.
Books mentioned in this post
Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign