Of time and academia

I'd like to have a lighter course load and just write more books -- but I've got tenure!

Topics: Since You Asked, Academia, Writers, Writing,

Of time and academia (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I love your column. I love your political commentary even more. Your last piece on Romney was genius. Thanks for making my day.

OK. Here’s the question. I’m an INTP. (The N is 26 to 1 Intuition over Sensation.) I’m a professional academic, and pretty successful at it. I have tenure. I’ve written two books. My introversion doesn’t hinder my being a highly effective presenter at conferences. Even if I need to retreat to recharge with my dogs on a regular basis, an academic schedule makes that easy to handle. So what could be the problem, right?

I love to write. But I never have enough time. I’ve managed to get a novel out on Kindle and two books out with good university presses, but my super-heavy teaching load and service load do not permit me to achieve what I might otherwise achieve. I’d like to work at a research school with a lighter teaching load instead of a teaching school. But I’m not sure anyone would hire me at my age. Moreover, my considerably older husband works where I do and is very happy. He doesn’t want to budge. I’m already 55. If I make a move it has to be now, and it may already be too late.

On the one hand, I have a lot of friends where I am, my husband doesn’t want to leave, and the whole business of LOOKING for something else is strenuous and exhausting and will cut annoyingly into my writing time.

On the other hand, I want more time to write! More, at any rate, than a sabbatical every 10 years can get me. I’d like to teach at a research school. I’d like classes with grad students in them. This is what I dream of when other people long for sunny tropical shores or mescaline.

Should I, as a friend once told me, just stay where I am and be happy? Should I try and give it a final shot? Any advice?

INTP with clipped wings

Dear INTP,

I’m glad you liked that Mitt Romney piece, though if he gets elected I will feel terrible for giving him such useful advice.

If you, however, were to be helped in any small way by what I have to say, I would only be glad.

Now let us talk about time.

Like water in the desert, time is rare and must be husbanded. When it is found, it must be stored in a suitable container that will not leak or allow it to evaporate into the atmosphere of random activity that hovers over us.



A calendar is a container in which time can be stored for later use.

When time is short, the large lengths we need for useful work are hard to find.  Little scraps of time can be put into a calendar where they are joined into larger pieces. A calendar is also a machine like a spindle that can make a yarn out of random fibers of time.

One tends to think of time as something that will simply arise; so one waits around for idle time to come. But time does not just arise naturally. That hardly ever happens. It’s smarter to actually make time.

Time can be made. All one needs is a suitable container and an eye for what time looks like. Sometimes a discarded portion of time can be found between the hours on a clock, if you look closely; when cleaning behind the hands of a clock sometimes a bit of neglected time will be found.

Now and then a visitor will drop some time on the sidewalk and it can be picked up; or a receptionist will call and say that a visit has been canceled, meaning that a portion of mortgaged time is suddenly freed up. When this happens it is important to capture that time right away and store it in a calendar. Such an unexpected piece, when added to another, may lengthen a previously useless shred into something capacious enough for the production of a small element of literary fiction — a scene, say, or a bit of dialogue. The wonderful thing about writing fiction in time is that in 15 minutes one can span a century or more; if, say, a character needs to age, or mature, or die, one can accomplish this swiftly while riding a bus or reading a restaurant menu. We writers may lament that what takes us hours or months to prepare is consumed in a matter of minutes, but the opposite can also be true: a trope that took only seconds to occur and record can reside in a reader’s brain for 75 years.

But what, one may ask, is time made of? Time is made of duration. Duration is that clear, elastic material that stretches between events. You can sometimes feel it on your face when leaving an argument or a love affair; it exerts a tiny but appreciable gravitational force on melancholy and ennui.

So we go about, picking up little items of various durations, like stray strings, and then we cobble these durations together into rugs of time, ropes of time, chains of time.  Then, of course, we need something to put these remnants of time into, and a calendar is, as we have said, the best container of time because it can hold time, compress it, expand it, change it and easily label strands of time so they can be found later.

So use your calendar to store time, to collect it and keep it fresh. Look in any disused or discarded continuum for a scrap of time; reach in and pull it out; catalog it, tag it, label it, name it, assign it a duration. When these little bits of time have been arranged into longer pieces, then crawl inside a newly minted, luxurious, padded moment and write. Some moments may not really be that long but if they have been sturdily bound at each end they will serve well. Doors are excellent for creating borders around time, especially shorter segments. A door can be shut on a period of time, thus preserving what duration remains.

So, in short: The calendar is a useful tool for collecting time and amalgamating its often random scraps into useful larger pieces. Once these pieces have been assembled it is possible to slip into them and write. Thus the art of literature continues and the restless mind of humanity is given the illusion of continuity through story, or yarn.

I’m sorry in the extreme if this seems overly fanciful. My practical, real-world solution is to learn time management and practice it with a fiery heart, conscious of mortality and the few important things we must do while here. Time can be found. Time can be managed. One simply must learn techniques and practice. Find a congenial method and learn it with the same fervor with which you would learn a language when visiting a strange country. It is just an element like any other. It can be  shaped and managed and collected and spent wisely in small amounts.

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