Friday, June 15, 2018

June 15: Greatest Efficiency, Writing Practice, Charles Dickens

A word concerning an incident in the last chapter.

According to the invariable usage of the fishery, the whale-boat pushes off from the ship, with the headsman or whale-killer as temporary steersman, and the harpooneer or whale-fastener pulling the foremost oar, the one known as the harpooneer-oar. Now it needs a strong, nervous arm to strike the first iron into the fish; for often, in what is called a long dart, the heavy implement has to be flung to the distance of twenty or thirty feet. But however prolonged and exhausting the chase, the harpooneer is expected to pull his oar meanwhile to the uttermost; indeed, he is expected to set an example of superhuman activity to the rest, not only by incredible rowing, but by repeated loud and intrepid exclamations; and what it is to keep shouting at the top of one's compass, while all the other muscles are strained and half started- what that is none know but those who have tried it. For one, I cannot bawl very heartily and work very recklessly at one and the same time. In this straining, bawling state, then, with his back to the fish, all at once the exhausted harpooneer hears the exciting cry- "Stand up, and give it to him!" He now has to drop and secure his oar, turn round on his centre half way, seize his harpoon from the crotch, and with what little strength may remain, he essays to pitch it somehow into the whale. No wonder, taking the whole fleet of whalemen in a body, that out of fifty fair chances for a dart, not five are successful; no wonder that so many hapless harpooneers are madly cursed and disrated; no wonder that some of them actually burst their blood-vessels in the boat; no wonder that some sperm whalemen are absent four years with four barrels; no wonder that to many ship owners, whaling is but a losing concern; for it is the harpooneer that makes the voyage, and if you take the breath out of his body how can you expect to find it there when most wanted!

Again, if the dart be successful, then at the second critical instant, that is, when the whale starts to run, the boatheader and harpooneer likewise start to running fore and aft, to the imminent jeopardy of themselves and every one else. It is then they change places; and the headsman, the chief officer of the little craft, takes his proper station in the bows of the boat.

Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman. I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them.

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.

In this entire chapter, which is one of the shortest in the book, Melville is talking about efficiency.  He tries to point out the utter foolishness of a common practice in whaling boats--making the harpooneer not only throw the harpoon at the unfortunate quarry, but also help row out to the whale before he unleashes his weapon.  The practice, Melville argues, almost insures that the poor harpooneer will either miss or not have enough strength for the killing throw.  The traditional practice in whaling boats is, therefore, wildly stupid and inefficient.

I have always hated it when someone provides this argument when asked for the reasoning behind doing something a certain way:  "Because that's the way we've always done it."  With that line of thinking, then, slavery should still be alive and well in the United States, and bloodletting should be a common medical treatment for smallpox and epilepsy.  Just because a practice is common doesn't mean that it's either the best or most efficient.

This afternoon, I revised a poem that I've been working on.  I'd like to say that I went off by myself to a nice quiet room and spent three hours scribbling in my journal, crossing out and staining my fingers black with ink.  Of his writing habits, Leo Tolstoy said, "I must write each day without fail."  Here's a description of Charles Dickens' typical day:
Dickens’s working hours were invariable. His eldest son recalled that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”
He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk.
On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time.
Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.” Dickens’s nights, however, were relaxed: he dined at 6:00, then spent the evening with family or friends before retiring at midnight.
That is what Dickens did almost every day of his life, with little fail.  It worked for him, obviously.  He's considered the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.  Wrote 29 books in his lifetime, many of them considered classics.

Very few people could follow Dickens' writing process.  Just reading it exhausts me.  Working on my poem today, I followed my normal daily writing routine, which I would describe as fits and starts.  I work a full-time job, Monday through Friday, eight hours a day.  During the school year, I teach some afternoons and evenings.  To be able to write anything, I am stealing moments.  Today, I was scribbling in my Moleskine in between phone calls from patients.  A line here.  Phone call.  An image there.  Another phone call.  Another line.  Phone.  You get the idea.

This process probably wouldn't work for a whole lot of people.  But, like Dickens, I have crafted the way I write to fit my life.  Dickens had a houseful of children and a large group of friends, so he had to escape from them.  I have to work a lot to pay the bills, so I think and write on the job at times, even if I don't have a pen in my hand.  This afternoon, a coworker noticed I was staring off at the ceiling with a strange expression.  "Is something wrong?" she asked.  I looked at her, a little dazed, then said, "Oh, no, I was just writing a poem."

On the weekends, my writing habits change.  If I'm on vacation, my writing habits change.  Sometimes I write in the morning.  Other times, I sit down with pen and paper in the evening, after everyone has gone to bed.  What produced a poem for me today won't necessarily be fruitful for me tomorrow.  As Melville points out in the chapter above, the harpooneer doesn't HAVE to row the boat every time.

The only writing rule I try to follow religiously is this:  Write every day.

Saint Marty is thankful this evening for the practice of writing, in all its shapes and forms.

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