The Process and the Moment

“Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.” (Oscar Wilde)

“From the centre, the manager or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates. [Jeremy] Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a panopticon prison.” (Wikipedia)

Last year, near the end of the Art of Learning Series, I hit on a useful distinction that I want to begin with and build on this year. If I am right, I have discovered three useful triads around which to organise your experience of higher education. The series is pitched to students, but I think even seasoned academics can get something out of reflecting on their goals and, when they do so, to take their happiness seriously. While the fall series is aimed broadly at the learning process, in this post I want to talk specifically about writing. I think the point generalizes to reading and speaking, but it may be easier to understand if we focus on the business of putting words to paper. I want us to consider the difference between the writing moment and the writing process.

When Oscar Wilde said that “suffering is one very long moment” he was serving two year’s of hard labor in prison. Bentham’s utilitarian archictectures nowithstanding, it’s important to keep in mind that school is, not only not prison, it is the opposite of prison. “School” comes from the Greek word for “spare time, leisure, rest, ease; idleness.” Bentham’s intuitions may be vindicated a little, however, when we realise that it also involved “a holding back, a keeping clear,” and, indeed, that school sort of clears a space in our life for learning, provides, if you will, a “clearing” where learning can take place. A “here”. I want to stress that it is nothing like a prison, except that it walls us off, for a time, from the ordinary business of living. Wilde’s suffering was unbearable because his respite from this business was not chosen freely.

This is why I remind you not to resent the academic situation. Remember that you have chosen it and that it offers you, precisely, freedom to think and feel differently about life than you might otherwise be compelled to by your life circumstances. The trick is not to see your time at university as “one very long moment” but to “divide it by seasons”, by semesters, by weeks, and days and hours. Indeed, I recommend you divide it into half-hours for good measure. It is these little moments that you must learn to master and then organize into a kind of progress.

Pleasure is of the moment, the present. When you are writing you must give yourself conditions that allow you to enjoy the activity. Don’t imagine your teachers (or, if you are a scholar, your reviewers) already looking over your shoulder ready to pounce. Don’t worry about life’s tribulations and responsibilities, to which you will return after the writing is done. “The human brain,” said Cyril Connolly, “once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow.” The same is true (if, quite literally, more prosaically) of the making of a paragraph. Give your brain a proper moment to function fully. Release yourself from time and space.

Of course, you can’t keep that up for long, as Wilde reminds us. Let every moment come to an end. Now look back at your process and find some satisfaction in the past, a series of deliberate moments that lie behind you. Remember what you accomplished there, not just how you suffered. If you have opened yourself to pleasure, you have, willy-nilly, opened yourself to pain, so don’t be surprised that not every moment was passed in pure bliss. You will have struggled and you will have learned. If you followed my rules, you will have a number of more or less coherent, indeed, increasingly coherent prose paragraphs to show for it. Look them over. Read them through, and out loud. Admire your handiwork. Take some satisfaction in it.

Pleasure in the present moment, satisfaction with the process that is past. What shall we say about the future? You want to face the future with confidence, and confidence somes from the progress you are making. Through a series of effective writing moments, organised into a reliable process, your prose is becoming stronger. Keep working from the centre of your strength, always seeking pleasure in the now and satisfaction in the then. This will give you confidence in what is to come. These three triads (moment/pleasure/present, process/satisfaction/past, progress/confidence/future) are what I want to explore this fall. You’re welcome to join me. Your comments along the way are more than welcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *