Old Campus Dreams
Is there a dream you’ve harbored from long ago, a dream that you’ve put aside because practical considerations make it too risky to pursue? Or perhaps life’s demands keep getting in the way, pushing the dream further and further into the future. As a Yale freshman I wanted to study the great books, to read the Bible and Homer, Plato and Shakespeare, and immerse myself in the Western canon. But in the late ‘70’s the economy was dreadful, and I had taken out loans to pay the tuition. So I majored in economics, and I do not regret that decision. Economics prepared me for law school and for a career on Wall Street.
However, the desire to study the great books never left me. Alongside that desire, and connected to it, I dreamt of writing a book. I still do.
Why? Why does the vision of a hardcover with my name on it, with my voice rising from its pages, stir my soul? It has taken years to answer that question because it takes a long time to understand oneself. Now, in my fifties, I can examine certain memories like Sherlock Holmes studying a footprint or a discarded cigar butt, probing the mundane for its deeper meaning. As an undergrad I loved ambling along the Yale Coop’s aisles, looking not only for the books I had to buy but for anything that interested me. And so many different topics interest me: history, literature, philosophy, science in limited doses, math in smaller doses yet, psychology, sports, law, medicine…the list, like knowledge itself, is endless. Looking back, I see that the time I spent lingering over the marked-down bin, searching for a great first sentence, revealed not just what I like but who I am.
Youthful dreams are clues to one’s identity. And just as one’s identity changes modestly after college, if at all, so too do one’s dreams stay largely fixed. My dream of writing a book never went away. In fact, the desire to write has intensified with age. But write about what? When it came to subject matter my dream went hazy. A novel? History? Perhaps a polemic like Bill Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale”? If you are honest about what you know it is easy to conclude that you lack the authority to write about anything. Perhaps this is why Socrates, who alone among the Athenians recognized that he knew nothing, did not write. (He also thought writing was bad for one’s memory. I forget where I read that.)
Eventually, my desire to study the great books led me to St. John’s College, where I got a master’s degree and decided to write a novel set in the Exodus. Why write such a story? I have found the Exodus fascinating since childhood. Was any of it true, and if so, how much? As I returned to those questions I began to imagine an Egyptian aristocrat from the time of Moses, resembling a Thucydides, who tells his story and in so doing narrates another version of the Biblical tale. Like the characters in my novel who slog through the wilderness I’m still at work, unsure when I will finish. I hope the book will be published, but whatever its fate, undertaking the project has taught me about writing. I would like to share what I’ve learned. Perhaps you too, dream of writing a book. Many Yalies do, and some have succeeded, a few spectacularly so. Here is some advice for those who wish to try.
Write regularly, daily if possible. Set aside a time and find a place where you can focus exclusively on writing. I find early morning the best time to write because the phone isn’t ringing, the emails aren’t piling up, and the world has not come to life. The hours before 8:00 AM are ideal.
Set a target number of words to produce each day. On the advice of an experienced newspaper columnist I started with a daily goal of 500 words. The 500 words do not have to comprise a sparkling essay though it would be wonderful if they do. Just produce the words. As you become more proficient raise your target. I now write over a thousand words every morning. And I do it the easy way, by journaling. Journaling is a good way to practice writing, and it is also therapeutic. Even if you never write a bestseller you will not have wasted your time. The columnist who advised me to set a word quota likes to say “right yourself by writing yourself.” In Wall Street lingo, journaling has no downside.
Once you finish your daily writing keep a notebook (electronic or paper) handy. As you go through the day be ready to record things that catch your ear. It may be an expression someone uses or the way a person speaks or a fact or idea that grabs your attention. Record it all. You may find that your jottings become useful to your writing later, and if not, the practice will sharpen your powers of observation. Again, you won’t be wasting your time.
Make yourself a more observant reader. Highlight sentences that you admire and, when you have the time, examine why they impressed you. If your dream is to write a novel pay attention to the techniques accomplished novelists use. This may require reading a book twice, once for pleasure and then again like an apprentice studying a mentor’s work. If you’re feeling more aggressive, study the book like a competitor trying to reverse engineer a quality product. If you are going to study successful writers, I recommend spending time with the great books. Though chance may play a role in determining which books are immortalized and which forgotten, books that have been admired for centuries or millennia have been vetted too thoroughly not to be extraordinary.
For that matter, as a student of economics I have a healthy respect for the power of markets. If a book has sold millions of copies it has gotten the “thumbs up” from the reading public, which is usually a better judge than any individual reviewer or critic. Bestsellers usually do not stand the test of time-very few books do-but they offer something that speaks to legions, and it is often worthwhile to understand what that is.
Most importantly, take yourself seriously as a writer. That was the advice I got from an alum I met at a Yale 4Life course. He has a friend who wrote a well-received novel about Achilles and Patroclus. When I said that writer is the real deal while I am a wannabe he gave me a gentle scolding. “You have to take yourself seriously if you’re going to be successful.” He is right.
Finally, don’t be embarrassed to admit you’ve run out of advice. I have, so I finish by wishing you luck in reaching your dream, whatever it is.