Sunday Night Journal — December 28, 2008
The end of 2008 marks the end of five full years of Sunday night journals. I haven’t checked recently, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss a Sunday between January 4, 2004, and today. That adds up to 260 weekly entries. If they average at least 600 words per entry, which I believe they do—my guess is that it’s more like 700 or 750—the total comes to over 150,000 words. If those numbers mean nothing to you, consider that the low end for a novel is probably 50,000 words or so, the average probably 70-100,000, and the high end (e.g. Moby Dick) over 200,000. So in five years I’ve written enough to make a decent-sized book (not counting non-journal blog posts).
I will now reveal to you the secret purpose of the Sunday Night Journal. In late 2003 I had a dream in which I was told that every week for five years I must write a short commentary on any subject that came to mind and publish it on the web. At the end of that time I was to count all the words I had written, and that number would be one of the terms in a mathematical formula that would solve the dark matter problem and, incidentally, resolve the enigma of the continuing popularity of reality television. I expect to have the dream that will reveal the formula as soon as I’ve finished counting the words.
Ok, sorry. Here is the real sorta-secret purpose. All my life I’ve had a compulsion to write, but have done very little of it. Notice I don’t say I’ve wanted to write. Obviously, as Senator Craig could have told you as he prepared to explain his men’s room misadventures to the nation, to feel compelled to do a thing is not the same as to want to do it. We discussed the silly notion of “wanting to write” in a comment thread here a couple of weeks ago; I think anyone who says he “wants to write” without adding “a book about…” or otherwise specifying what he wants to write is probably fooling himself. I don’t want to write: writing is work, and I don’t much like work. I want to have written, yes, much as one wants to have exercised, but not actually to go to the gym or mount the Nordic Track.
Even when I’ve managed to work up the will to write, my laziness, procrastination, and a lack of concentration that borders on ADD have generally kept me from sticking with anything for very long. I have almost forty years’ worth of fragments to show for my efforts. I’d like to blame someone or something else for this, but, like Faulkner, I’m very skeptical of the “mute inglorious Milton” theory (see Gray’s Elegy, approximately line 60). I’ve engaged in a certain amount of complaining over the years about various obstacles life has put in the way of my writing, but I don’t think they’ve been decisive. If I’d been really good and really determined, I’d have found a way. I’ve gotten over the idea that possessed me for a while in my early twenties, that I was meant to be a great poet or novelist.
Yet the compulsion persists, and I’m haunted, sometimes tormented, by the parable of the talents (explanation here for folks who don’t know the Bible). It is no pleasant thing to set foot on the threshold of old age with the sense that there was some work which one was supposed to do but has not done.
I discovered years ago that since I don’t like to write, it helps a lot to have some external force pushing me to do it. I noticed that I’m more likely to write if I’ve somehow obligated myself to do so. And that was the origin of the Sunday night journal. I publicly stated that I was going to do it, and at least a few people read that statement, and so the seed of a sense of obligation was planted. As time went on, and especially after I created a blog to make the journals simpler to post and maintain, the number of visits to the site went up, thus increasing the sense of obligation and supplementing it with evidence that people were actually reading and enjoying what I wrote.
In short, the weekly journal has been, in part, a sort of mind game I played with myself, a way almost of tricking myself into writing regularly. I could tell myself that even if I produced nothing else, there would be something after a few years.
And so there is. So why stop it now? Partly because I’ve produced enough that if I died tomorrow I would leave something solid behind for (at a minimum) that small number of people who have read me, and for any descendants who might be interested in knowing what sort of man their grand- or great-grand- or great-great-grand-father was. And partly because I want to pick up some of those fragments and incomplete projects and finish them, if I can (which is by no means certain).
I turned sixty this year. Perhaps I’ll live to be ninety, or perhaps I won’t see another Christmas. But taking the biblical three-score-and-ten as a rough guide to what to expect, I figure that the chances are pretty good that I have ten productive years left, but am taking no bets beyond that. Ten years no longer seems like a very long time to me. The recent removal of a melanoma also serves as a warning that the time ahead of me could well be less than the time between today and, say, the beginning of this century, which seems like yesterday. I wouldn’t say I have a sense of urgency, exactly, but I do have—finally—a sense that procrastination is no longer permissible if I want to get any substantial work done.
The journal, then, along with my other weekly commitment, Music of the Week, is going on hiatus for the next twelve months, and might or might not reappear after that. The two of them together have pretty much consumed my weekend writing time (Music of the Week was usually short, but often required a lot of thought and preparation). I want to work on some other things, including longer essays that require focus lasting more than a day or two. I want to go through several decades’ accumulation of poems and fragments of poems and see what can be preserved or completed.
The blog will continue, and in fact I may find myself posting more often but more briefly. The longer things may well appear on the web site, although one or two of them may find a place in magazines first. The poems certainly will—I have no interest at all in trying, probably without success, to place them in magazines that don’t pay and are mostly read only by poets anyway. I want to redesign and organize the web site, or at least clean it up, the better to post longer pieces in a readable way. And I have some other things in mind that I don’t even want to mention unless or until they show more sign of viability.
If I fall back into my old habits of laziness and procrastination, or if, after a year, I’ve run out of other things to do, I’ll restart the journal. I hope everyone who has enjoyed the blog will continue to read it.
As a retrospective glance, here is the first journal entry, transplanted after the fact to the blog—that, too, is one of the projects I want to finish. Here is how it looked originally—I would be interested in knowing whether you think one is more readable than the other.