One great thing about teaching on a college campus is that I don't sit at my computer all day long. In order to get to classes, I have to put on my overcoat and walk through whatever weather the day presents. During the bad ice storm of February1994, tree-sized limbs crashed onto sidewalks all over campus. Most of the time, however, the ten minute dash across campus is uneventful and gives me time to think and observe.
This week's grey, cold weather with drizzle threatening to turn to ice turns my mind to Groundhog Day--and more specifically to the film Groundhog Daystarring Bill Murray. In my household, watching Groundhog Dayat the end of January has become a tradition. Living the worst day of your life over and over again seems to pretty much sum up many people's views of their lives. Few people seem to have found the perfect marriage of vocation and avocation. Their daily pattern of driving to work, spending eight hours like Sisyphus pushing the same rock up the same hill over and over, then driving back home to make dinner, do laundry, help with homework, and vacuum until it is time to fall into bed and arise the next morning to the same schedule--well, let's just say the cold grey days of winter create a mood that does little to break such a bleak spell. Fairly existential stuff. One might ask: Is this life I lead really who I am? At what point does life become worth living?
I think the writing life is my personal antidote for existential malaise. For one thing, if you are seriously writing, there are no idle moments to ponder your misery BECAUSE WHATEVER PROJECT YOU'RE WORKING ON, YOU'RE BEHIND AND YOU NEED TO GRAB EVERY SPARE MOMENT TO WORK ON IT. Sure, the effort is futile. No one will ever read what you're writing because the chances of it being published are slim. But as Phil Connors (Bill Murray) learns in the film, there is something to be found in the simple act of repetition. The way to become a better writer is to pay attention and write regularly, daily if you can manage. I have seen few writers who do this whose writing remains stagnant. And if publishing is your only goal, if being sure you are good and having the world acknowledge it is your only objective, Merwin quoted Berryman once in a poem: if you have to be sure, don't write.
The difference for Phil Connors as he repeats the same one day of his life over and over and over again is that although the world around him wakes up each morning like a goose in a new world, carrying over no knowledge of what has previously transpired, Phil himself IS aware of what he has learned in his yesterdays. That's what we do when we write. We don't have one year of experience thirty times: we have thirty years of experience. We build cumulative knowledge. We grow as writers just as we grow as people.
Which brings me to my own past thirty years. January 25, 1978 -- January 25, 2008.
Thirty years ago today, I was working late in The Writing Center at the University of Alabama when a colleague I had just met touched me on the shoulder and said,
"Let's close this place down and lock the door. Truman Capote is reading right down the hall. We should be there, not here."
As badly as I wanted to hear Capote read, it never occurred to me that I could leave my post early, even though there were no students. This guy tempted me with a delicious, enticing thought: I could use my own judgment.
And with his help for the past thirty years, I have continued to make choices that don't always follow the chain of command and certainly don't follow popular opinion.