"The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day" By JAY PARINI
Jay Parini is a poet, a novelist, and a professor of English at Middlebury College. His latest book, One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, has just been published by Harper Collins.
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2005]

I don't care what they say: It is possible to write and teach at the same
time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching (sabbaticals
are always disastrous interludes for me, a time when I tend to sink into
depression, writing more slowly, thinking a lot less clearly). Teaching
organizes my life, gives a structure to my week, puts before me certain
goals: classes to conduct, books to reread, papers to grade, meetings to
attend. I move from event to event, having a clear picture in my head of
what I must do next. Without the academic calendar in front of me, I feel

I've been teaching for several decades, and in that time I've written and
edited a lot of stuff, including novels and volumes of poetry,
biographies, essays, and reviews. I'm not saying that to brag. I'm too old
for that. I simply want to make the point that I like being productive,
enjoy writing, and have never found myself without the time to write, even
when large numbers of students have required my attention. I should add
that where I work -- Middlebury College -- no graduate students are
waiting in the wings to grade papers for me or conduct discussion

To be sure, I've been fascinated by people like Harold Bloom, who can turn
out large and complicated books year after year, for many decades, without
seeming to tire. Versions of an old joke, doubtless apocryphal, circulate
throughout the academic and literary world. It runs something like this: A
student calls at the front door of Bloom's house, in New Haven. He asks to
see Professor Bloom. "I'm sorry," says Mrs. Bloom, "but Harold is writing
a book." "That's all right," replies the student, "I can wait."

But I'm not Bloom. For me, at least, quantity and quality are not the
same. (I often point out to students that Chidiok Tichborne wrote only one
poem that anybody knows, "Tichborne's Elegy," composed for himself as he
awaited execution for treason against Queen Elizabeth I. It is worth a
shelf of books by most other poets.) I look on writers like Joyce Carol
Oates, John Updike, and Gore Vidal with amazement. Their books arrive in
stores neatly packaged, copy-edited and blurbed, with the predictability
of the seasons themselves. One does view such prolific writers and
scholars with incredulity. How do they do it? Do they have an army of
research assistants helping them? Should they sign their names, "School of
So-and-So," as supervisors of a production line?

As a graduate student, I watched a few of my more prolific mentors
carefully. One of them, an extremely productive and original scholar of
Greek literature, culture, and language, was Sir Kenneth Dover. His books
on Aristophanic comedy, Greek homosexuality, and Greek syntax have proved
seminal works. His writing was meticulously researched, thoughtful, and
conveyed with clarity and argumentative force. When I was at the
University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, in the late 1960s and early 70s,
he not only ran the Greek department but also had large responsibilities
around the university. I once asked him the secret of his productivity,
and he said, without hesitation: "I've learned how to use the odd gaps of
20 minutes or so that occur at various points in the day."

Most of us -- myself included -- waste vast amounts of time. I don't
actually mind that. Like Robert Frost, I believe that laziness is
essential to creativity; I get a lot done because I have time to burn. I
tell myself over and over that there is so much time, so little to do.
That means that I feel free, unconstrained, and eager to work when I feel
like working. I have learned, like Sir Kenneth, to make use of little
pockets of time: the half-hour before dinner, for example. That stretch
can be very productive. Weekends are full of time, even when a lot of
chores have to be accomplished. I suspect that most of us fail to use the
hours of the day properly. We imagine, foolishly, that huge quantities of
time are needed to settle into a project, to reactivate the engines of

It isn't really possible to concentrate for more than half an hour without
a solid break. That is my experience, in any case. Even when I have the
whole day to work, I stop every 20 minutes to make a cup of tea, eat a
cookie, call a friend, do a little yoga or a few stomach crunches, shower,
or take a short walk. At a certain point in my life I realized that I
should not feel guilty about those breaks. (I try not to feel guilty about
anything, even when I am guilty.)

Of course it helps to have writing time you can count on. I have gone to a
village diner for breakfast at roughly 8:10 almost every morning for
several decades. Over coffee and English muffins (with peanut butter), I
write poems. Rough drafts, mostly. I have grown used to the chatter in the
background, the easy flow of coffee, the local crowd coming in and out. I
know most of the people. Many of them wave, nod, or speak to me briefly. A
few will sit down for a short time. But they all know I'm working. My
notebook is open. I have a pen in my hand. I've made it known in these
parts that I write poetry at this diner in the morning, and my friends
(and acquaintances) respect that.

A little work every day adds up. That was a concept I got from Updike,
whom I heard say (many years ago, in some public forum) that he writes
only two pages a day. Two pages a day adds up to a long book every year,
even counting revisions. When I'm working on a large prose book, such as a
novel or biography, I try to write two pages or so every day. I'm not
neurotic about itsometimes I don't feel like writing at all. But I aim for
two, and I usually get two. The system works. (And, like Hemingway, I
always stop at a point where I know what comes next; that makes getting
into the material easier the next day.)

Updike apparently compartmentalizes his writing life. Living in a big
house on the North Shore (of Massachusetts), he is lucky enough to have
several studies: one for fiction, one for reviews and nonfiction, one for
letters and business. He can move along the hall, stopping in for a
certain amount of time with a novel, working on a review for a time, an
essay for a time, perhaps a poem or short story for another chunk of time.
He doesn't teach, of course. It sounds nice.

I would get bored, however, without my teaching. I need contact with
students and colleagues, the sense of community. I like the demands of
preparation for a class: reading a favorite poet or novelist, skimming a
recent critical article. I am afraid that, left to my own devices, I might
not reread Stevens, Frost, Eliot, Yeats, and other poets in a systematic
fashion, year after year. And they have sustained me, provided spiritual
refreshment, furnished the rooms of my mind with decent stuff. I find it
very useful to put my thinking about their poetry into words in front of a

Sir Kenneth told me that teaching would serve me well. He once suggested
that a class and a critical essay are very similar in that each requires
powers of formulation; each draws on analytical intelligence. It was T.S.
Eliot who said criticism is as natural as breathing, and I believe that.
When I read something, I want to talk about it. I want to compare it with
other texts. I want to match my own voice with the voice of the text. That
is what it means to be a thinking person.

I keep at least two or three projects on the boil at a time. That means I
am never at a loss for something urgent to accomplish. I can always turn
from a poem to a novel, a book review, an essay. Each genre has its own
demands, and I have come to relish the differences. I've taken the same
notion and tried to embody it as a poem, then as a story, then as an
essay. One can, of course, adapt a notion from one form to another; but I
do believe that an idea has a perfect form, and I try to find it.

Teaching, too, calls upon us to move in many directions. There is always a
class to prepare, a book to read or read again, a paper to grade, a
meeting to attend. I have never in 30 years not had a letter of
recommendation urgently waiting to be written. Moving among those tasks, I
try to make haste slowly, stopping wherever I am to focus, to give
whatever I have to give at that moment. I think I've actually learned how
to do that by writing, by having to stare at the page in front of me, the
line of poetry breaking at the moment, spilling over onto the next line,
the essay in need of a final twist. It is always better to work in small
bursts, to focus on the twist or turn ahead.

Having a grand idea, and setting up to accomplish something in a grand
way, has always been, for me, a hopeless notion. I once had a good friend,
a poetry editor and teacher, who always hoped to write a novel. One day
the first sentence of the novel swam into his head: "All of Malaysia was
agog." He didn't know why Malaysians were agog, or even where on earth
Malaysia was. But he applied for a grant, got it, and set himself up in a
foreign country with a huge sheaf of paper and a typewriter. He typed with
reverence the great first sentence. He waited. He waited for much of a
year, but nothing ever came.

In those circumstances, of course, it never would.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 31, Page B5