Summertime Management

By: David OConnor on Thursday, July 7th, 2016

I had a dream last night. My soccer team––well, football, ‘cause we use our feet, and I’m in Spain––were playing in an international tournament in Tarragona. In the morning, much like Iceland, our team, the scrappy underdog, beat the favorite, say England. Blame it on Brexit.

Our team was having a big tavern lunch, preparing for the final that night. I fell in with some rowdy Australian and our conversation turned to a round of dares. Who can stand on their head the longest? Who can run the longest naked in the street? Who can touch a sausage first? What? Why? But I was dared. I bolted from the tavern with a nimble Aussie in chase. We sprinted down the tourist-packed street bounding in and out of restaurants, barging into kitchens, scanning for a butcher, anything to find a sausage. Freud’s cigar?

In a tiny family kitchen, in a cast-iron pan on high heat. I put my index finger on the oily pig-skin. The elation of winning the contest was replaced by a sharp burn. The sausage was blistering. Leaving the kitchen, I bumped into my faculty advisor who was sketching an architectural wonder melting into the cobblestone streets in a leather-bound notebook. This is an advisor I respect. A mentor I’m proud to know. A person who takes my work seriously. I tried to explain why I was running down a Tarragona street hunting for a sausage to touch. The beer buzz slurred my words. I invited him to the evening’s final match. I said many great players would be in top form. The response I yearned never came. I wanted mutual recognition, joy after coincidental meeting, congratulations for winning the dare and making the finals. I got a shrug. Consternation filled my advisor’s face, as clearly as if subtitled. What does all this mean?

For most tied to an academic calendar, summer is a time to recharge the battery, see the family, take a trip to new wonders, full of snapshots and campfires. Summer is time to catch up on the books that slipped through the agenda cracks during the year, to read those Christmas paperback presents, to revisit texts you will teach come autumn. But I haven’t. I’ve been dipping into books like a backpacker looting a remote hostel lobby. I’ve whizzed through Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a tight Mrs. Dalloway retelling, and Thomas McGuane’s Keep the Change, a light story about a manly-man rancher parading as didactic literature. Both books were found on my friend’s stairwell in Tribeca. I also powered through Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, in which an ex-drunkard finds himself teaching first-year comp at a Montana university in the mid-1950s. The narrator is trying to reinvent himself in the American West. Some fine insights. Malamud can write, and this book is sort of a time-capsuled guide for those moving from a big city to a small campus to start over, yet again. I’ve been fluttering away at Longreads online. I’ve been reading The Guardian twice a day––I’ve become a horror news junky. Nothing good is happening. Nothing is moving toward a happy ending. Perhaps my dream is about reading guilt. I just have to touch the sausage, right?

For MFAs, adjuncts, medievalists, high-school drama teachers the summer is about getting words on a page. A step-up on the publish-or-perish ladder. Those joyful first drafts, those detailed rewriting-hammer-swings on chisel, the scrappings and revisionings, yes: time is on your side, then it is gone, never to return. Time deserts. Abandonment. There is no need for the gory details, but I’m a third short of where I wanted to be with my writing, and looking at the calendar brings debilitating fear. Trump will win. Britain will leave. The rats are jumping ship. Our children will need automatic weapons to sit in privatized libraries. I have cancer. Bombs are falling. There is no point. Perhaps my dream is about writing guilt.

Two nights ago, I was eating octopus in a restaurant with a great friend I hadn’t seen in nine years. The writer in the back of my head was whispering, Remember this, observe this, register our changes, describe the lighting, keep the one-liners for later use; basically, be a writer. But his three-year-old daughter was making funny faces and his wife vividly told the story of her labor and the wine and food was good and soon I was telling my own stories and slipping into full engagement, fully present. Not a writerly thought in mind. Engage or observe? The artist’s eternal dilemma. When I look back, the details are vague, but I know the night was worthy and fun. Perhaps my dream is about dedication.

Sometime last month, I’ve stumbled across the learning theory of diffused mode versus focused mode. The latter is simple. I’m going to write this and do nothing else, no Googling, no phone, no Facebooking, open no other file, no talk—pure and tough, old school, mind to the grindstone. Diffuse mode is more abstract: the thought that comes in the shower, while folding laundry, watching the day’s-end pint bubble, or weeding the garden. In theory, one can not replace the other, both are needed, both are finite resources. We all know that, but the vocabulary helps. So, perhaps those trashy beach-reads are clearing space for Joyce or Nabokov. Perhaps, mopping the floor is more about that next line of verse than the satisfaction of spotlessness. Perhaps summer is the diffusion of term-time.

For an artist attempting to be productive, this can be tricky. Should I stop mopping and write down that line? Should I stop typing and go do some dishes because I don’t like what is coming next? Should I sit for four hours cursing a blank screen or call it a day when the word count has been met even when I know I have just shifted crap? Should I drink beer with the Aussies before the game and run like a madman through Tarragona to touch the sausage? Or stay horizontal near an air conditioner in a silent room envisioning my do-or-die penalty kick? Avoid dares? Does it matter if my mentor disapproves?

One truth I can avow: Summer gives us time to remember our dreams, and whether riding the diffused or focused wave, time is passing and worrying won’t help, but deadlines do, and they are always important and approaching.