by Mark Wunderlich
When I was in college I spent a semester reading the work of Goethe for a course in German literature. I couldn’t have been a very devoted student, as I don’t remember much from the class, but one piece we read has stayed with me for many years, and that was Goethe’s daily schedule.
There are several accounts of how this great man spent his days, but they all begin with him rising early and working uninterrupted until 11:00, at which time a cup of chocolate was brought to him, after which he continued work until 2:00. He would then dine, go for a long constitutional, address his correspondence, receive visitors and in the evenings he would go to the theater. After the theater, he would have a light supper and then retire. He had, as one chronicler put it, “a talent for sleeping.”
At the age of twenty, I marveled at this. I too had a “talent for sleeping.” (I also had a talent for watching Judge Judy and writing papers at the last minute), but this comforting and purposeful organization of his time resonated with me as an ideal way to structure the pursuit of the life of the mind; I was also utterly dismayed by the impossibility of attaining it. I imagined the invisible hand offering the resident genius his cup of chocolate, treading softly down the hall so as not to disturb. J. W. Von Goethe was not shopping at the Price Chopper, doing his own laundry, looking after children, cleaning up after pets or shoveling snow. He was thinking and writing and socializing. He had a household staff and the means to employ them.
My own days don’t much resemble those of the Goethe, though I do get up early. Once up, most days are a series of fragments, errands, deadlines, hurried preparations for teaching while trying to run a modest household. I commute. I manage my own meals. I suspect most anyone reading this does too. Rather than allowing the weight of middle-European genius crush us, however, I offer another quote, this by the early 20th century wit, Max Beerbohm: “The hardest thing about being a poet is trying to decide what to do with the other twenty-three and a half hours of the day.” Beerbohm is being funny, but we can also take courage from a piece of it, and that is the daily half hour.
Actually, we can even trim that to twenty minutes if we have to. In my experience, a great deal of writing can be accomplished incrementally and over time. Even at my busiest, I like to maintain a connection to my own creative work, and sometimes all I have is twenty minutes first thing in the morning before my day begins to spin me into the world. In twenty minutes I can read over the poem I’m working on and maybe add a line or two. I can write a short description of something I saw the day before, or I can recall a dream that is quickly receding as the bed forgets my shape and the morning draws up the rational mind into the light.
Making time every day—even a fragment—means you take your own inner life seriously enough to attend to it regularly, like exercise. In this way, the life of a writer can become a practice, a form of sustenance like that sweet and bitter cup brought to the working poet each morning on a tray.