For the Love of Work, or,Tea with Melville

categories: Cocktail Hour


A while ago–fifteen years ago? longer?–my friend the writer Burns Ellison gave me Donald Hall’s book, Life Work.   It was love at first sight.  I’ve re-read the book twice since and I’m re-reading it again for a grad class I’m teaching this term called “The Writing Life.”   One result of the book was that it freed my inner workaholic.  Some (my wife) might argue that that workaholic had been free for years, slamming away like a madman on a keyboard in his study.  That may be true but the book confirmed in me something that I have always felt:  a love of those  long stretches of diving down and staying immersed in work, what Hall calls “absorbedness.”  (“‘Absorption,'” he argues “sounds too much like paper towels.”)   He means of course when you are so far in it that you don’t know that you are for a while.

A couple of years back I wrote an essay about how teaching sometimes got in the way of my writing.   It pissed a few people off, and they told me about it.  They assumed that I was a so-so teacher who didn’t care much.  I can’t judge my own teaching but I do know that I care.  It’s just that I care about my writing more.   In the piece I argued that a great writer “must travel daily to a  mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it.”

When I wrote those words I was thinking specifically of Melville, and more specifically of Melville as described in another great book,  Howard P. Vincents’  The Trying Out of Moby Dick. Vincent portrays  Melville during that moment that his  “simple whaling journey” begins to transform into something else.  He calls him  “the artist at full tide.”  The artists at full tide!

He also  quotes Melville’s letters from the time, describing his home and work habits:

“I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

“Do you want to know how I pass my time? . . . My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire – then spread my M.S.S. on the table – take one business squint at it, & then fall to with a will. At 2 1/2 p.m. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be.”

At this point in the composition of Moby Dick, Melville was writing about six hours a day, and swilling about a cup of tea an hour.  It is hard to write about work long without writing about caffeine….This comes through in Moby Dick itself,  in the chapter called The Fountain:

“While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.”

* * *

We aren’t all going to write Moby Dicks, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t experience absorbedness.

I would agree with Donald Hall that this is the best state for an artist.  And so, it turns out, would the  sculptor Henry Moore.  When Mr. Hall asked Moore what “the meaning of life” was, he replied:

“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing–it must be something you cannot possibly do!”

Here, by the way, is the Syllabus for the Writing Life:

David Gessner


Office Hours Mon 1-2  Tuesday 12-3

Course Overview:

This class will focus on all aspects of the writing life.  What does it mean to live a life of writing and reading books?   The course will be broken down into roughly three sections.  The first will focus on the spiritual aspects of the writing life, the second on work habits and work, and the third on the practical aspects, the brass tacks, from writing a cover letter to a book proposal.  But while we will end on a practical note we will keep our focus on the larger picture, and the philosophical aspects of choosing to be a writer in today’s world.  Our reading will include books on writing, biographies, and more practical writing guides.



1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

2. The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm (Students hated it)

3. Life Work by Donald Hall

4. Winter Hours by Mary Oliver


5.Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh Edited by Irving Stone

6. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet by Walter Jackson Bate

7.  The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin


8. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

9.  On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner

Part IV: THE NOVEL: Reading and Writing the Big Book

8. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

9. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

  1. Burns Ellison writes:

    Dear David,

    I was much flattered, and more than a trifle touched, to see that you’d chosen to make mention of me in ‘For the Love of Work, or, Tea with Melville.’ I particularly felt that way given how much I liked the piece itself. Upon reading it, I found myself not only wanting to go back and read Donald Hall’s book again but also to read more Melville–and more Gessner (not necessarily in that order) .

    Write on.

    Burns Ellison

  2. Cider Rides writes:

    “Absorbedness” is a place I find myself often. I was there last weekend. What, to those on the outside might perceive as W-O-R-K…, is to me a dedication to an an endeavor that will likely never be completed moment to moment; day to day. It can be a challenge to become un-absorbed.

  3. John Jack writes:

    I enjoyed E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel more than any similarly themed writing on writing text. It put me in a frame of mind to appreciate a shortcoming in my writing. I could show, imitate proxy realities all day, every word, all along fairly well, but I came across as telling what I insisted readers listen to.

    A preacher writer, not particularly a visionary observer, no mystic-prophet like magical transendence into a profound personal participation mystique.

    Forster magically invokes the metapsychic predetermination versus free will debate in that section of the work. He doesn’t scratch at the underbelly of the idea, he embraces it without naming it, all the while not overtly favoring one side or the other.

    “There, also, is God-the Archon-the metapsychic organizing power: the formless shaper of form. ”
    — In Other Worlds
    Connotation from W♥rdnik

  4. Bill writes:

    David, this looks like a really great class. I want to return to every book on your list, stuff I read years ago, see how they ring here in what I hope proves to be the middle of my career…

  5. George de Gramont writes:

    Great Essay . Good to see a return to “Montaigne” Standard.