categories: Cocktail Hour
“Do not hurry. Do not rest.” These are Goethe’s words, and I’ve always liked them. Especially the “do not rest” part. But even Goethe would admit, if he had, say, a Bad Advice Wednesday due, that sometimes you gotta hurry. One imagines Goethe in his book-lined study in Weimer, producing his great body of work at a stately pace. Like any writer, he must have often felt words, sentences and whole future books pressing on him, making him excitable and uneasy, but maybe, unlike most writers, he managed to keep calm and take one thing at a time.
Good for him. No one will ever call me stately. Over the last decade, or more realistically over the last two, I’ve shoved words furiously into the world, my pace more charge than stroll. When I was in Colorado this July, Reg Saner, who was once my teacher and now a friend, suggested something that I myself have thought (and written): that my bout with cancer at 30 served as a kind of starting gun for my career. Twenty years later I don’t claim to have reached any sort of finish line, but I do feel I deserve a bit of a rest. Call it, with fingers crossed, a half-way pit stop.
What does this mean for me, and, more importantly, for you (since this is supposed to be advice). It means that sometimes we’ve got to change it up. I means that travelling this summer was a sort of revelation, mainly because three things were impossible on the road: regular e-mail, cell phone conversation, and daily writing. Which should mean that the whole world fell apart, right? How wonderful when it didn’t. How nice to find my body rhythms slowing down, and to continue that slowing down now that I’ve returned home.
For a workaholic, and any kind of achiever, the concept of slowing down sounds suspicious. I, for one, believe that I can put in four or five hours at my desk and still smell plenty of roses. And I don’t plan on replacing those hours with meditation. Or maybe I do in a way, but just with a particular type of meditation called reading. My goal over the next year, in service of my new book, is to not just read everything that Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner ever wrote, but to read all I can about the history and environment of the American West. I might have done this anyway, but am beholden to it now because my new editor, right before buying the project, stressed that the press she worked for expected that, as well as my travels through the West, I would do the research of a true biographer. (Twice the research really since I will be writing braided biographical essays of two men.) This, it turns out, is a kind of blessing. It enforces a sort of slowing down. And it means—wonder of wonders—a year of reading ahead, a return to one of my greatest pleasures.
A pleasure it has been so far, but I am not quite ready for the monastery. Note that I have not abandoned the language of achievement. I used the word “goal” with regard to my new reading life, and rightly so I think. When he was only a couple years older than me, near the end of his life as it turned out, my father started to drink less and read more. He also numbered all the books he read each year, so that I still find the words “#73 DM Gessner 1992” in volumes that have migrated their way into my library. Reading was a pleasure, but there was also the need to satisfy some schoolboy sense of achievement, to tally up the end result. In honor of this, and of him, and to satisfy the same impulse in me, I will be numbering my books during the next year of reading. Yesterday I put the number 1 and the date in Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow.
So next time you see me please note my pace. I hope you will not find me charging from one place to another, though I still doubt that the word “stately” will pop into your mind. I guess it will be enough if you notice I’m moving a little slower.