Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Try to Work

Here's a brief clip of Mordecai Richler, the Canadian novelist, talking about the work of writing. Regular readers of this blog will find his approach familiar. "You can't just work when you're moved to work." He was no doubt taking this advice from Hemingway, the paragon of the "professional" novelist. In fact, in 1951, nineteen-years old, he went off to live in Paris, just like Papa Hemingway. In 1968, he wrote the following:

I frequently feel I've lost something somewhere. Spontaneity maybe, or honest appetite. In Paris all I ever craved for was to be accepted as a serious novelist one day, seemingly an impossible dream. Now I'm harnessed to this ritual of being a writer, shaking out the morning mail for cheque-size envelopes—scanning the newspapers—breakfast—then upstairs to work. To try to work.

Replace "novelist" with "sociologist", "anthropologist", "philosopher", "intellectual", or whatever your chosen field is, and you have something that might just as well apply to academic writers. It's part of what I meant by the "catastrophe of vocation" that must be faced at the completion of the PhD thesis.

Intellectual curiosity is important, very important. But it is while writing your dissertation that you will realize that it is not by the force of your original ideas (though you will have original ideas) that you will find your vocation. The budding researcher begins, one hopes, with an "honest appetite" for knowledge, a spontaneous will to learn. But you don't become a "serious" academic merely by satisfying that craving. As Dorothy Parker said, you must learn to put your ass to the chair.

No comments: