A year ago I delivered a commencement address in which I gave my listeners a piece of unsolicited advice:
The world is full to the brim of unprofessional people, many of whom are very smart and a few of whom are geniuses. You’ve known folks like that, folks who are always saying incredibly clever things off the top of their head, and I bet that sometimes they’ve made you feel small and inadequate. But here’s the secret of life. If you’re professional and they’re not–if you show up on time every morning and get the job done and they show up two hours later and start spouting clever excuses for being late the second they walk through the door–then nine times out of ten, you will win and they will lose.
Leonard Bernstein knew what I was talking about. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” he said in a 1959 interview. “I work extremely hard and all the time.” That’s how I feel about myself. Having met a few geniuses, I know quite well that I’m not one: I’m bright enough, and I’ve been blessed with a retentive memory, but that’s as far as it goes. What I do have in hyperabundance is what the Germans, who’ve coined an ugly-sounding word for just about everything, call Sitzfleisch, by which they mean the ability to sit at your desk for long stretches of time.
Anthony Trollope is supposed to have said that the three pieces of equipment needed by a writer are “pen and ink and a piece of sealing wax.” Asked what the sealing wax was for, he replied, “To put on the chair, my dear, to keep you at your work.” Whether or not this quote is apocryphal–and I have yet to find a primary source for it–I live by it. While I wouldn’t exactly say that genius is overrated, I do think that it’s not much more than the enabling condition for a certain kind of achievement. Without Sitzfleisch, it’s wasted.
Such, at any rate, is my belief, and I’m about to put it to the test. Mrs. T and I spent the night in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and later today she’ll drop me off at the MacDowell Colony, where I’ll be spending the next five weeks working on my Duke Ellington biography. I won’t be seeing any shows during that time. I’m taking two weeks off from The Wall Street Journal, and I’ve already filed reviews to cover the remainder of my stay in Peterborough, as well as enough almanac entries and videos to keep the blog warm. Between now and July 23, when I return to the world, I expect to be totally occupied with Mood Indigo.
The MacDowell Colony is well suited to total preoccupation with the task at hand, whatever it may be. I’ve been assigned to the Baetz Studio, one of thirty-two private hideaways in the woods. Each morning I’ll get up, eat breakfast, walk to my studio, shut the door, and start writing, or at least thinking. Each studio has a desk, a day bed, and a bathroom, and a picnic basket containing lunch will be silently placed on my doorstep at midday. What the MacDowell studios don’t have is wi-fi. Whenever I leave the main building, I’ll be pulling the plug on the outside world.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of this self-imposed isolation. I took a few months off in the summer of 2001 to finish The Skeptic, my biography of H.L. Mencken. Not since then have I taken anything remotely approaching a sabbatical. Every word of All in the Dances, Pops, Satchmo at the Waldorf, and my libretti for The Letter and Danse Russe, as well as a fair number of miscellaneous magazine and newspaper pieces, was written in such time as I had left over from my work as the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. No, it’s not ditch digging, but it keeps me busy, so much so that I quite literally can’t imagine what it would be like to have nothing to do but work on a book. Now I’m going to find out.
The picture of Leonard Bernstein that accompanies this posting was shot in the studio where he worked in 1962. Bernstein is one of countless artists of note who have holed up in Peterborough to work on whatever they please. Their track record is, to put it mildly, intimidating. (The previous occupants of my studio, pictured below, include James Baldwin and Spalding Gray.) On the other hand, Bernstein spent his first stay at MacDowell writing his “Kaddish” Symphony, which isn’t very good. I think I find that reassuring, though it’s also a bit frightening, since it serves as a reminder that if I don’t come home having written a sizable chunk of Mood Indigo, I’ll have nobody to blame but myself.
I expect to blog from MacDowell at odd intervals, but not, I think, too often. I intend to do my very best to get the most I can out of this experience. While I have it on good authority that it’s possible to fritter away your time at the MacDowell Colony doing things other than working on whatever brought you there in the first place, I have the advantage of being sufficiently well entrenched in my professional habits not to fling them aside casually, as well as old enough not to be easily deflected by such random opportunities to carouse as may present themselves. I came here looking for work, not fun.
Anyway, here goes nothing. Think kindly of me during the next five weeks–and wish me luck.