Thriving on the Quotidian: T.S. Eliot lights the way

In a recent exhibition on T.S. Eliot, posted September 2, 2009 by The Guardian’s Allison Flood covers a letter sent from Virginia Woolf to Eliot offering the poet a substantial fund that would have freed him to commit his time and energy solely to writing. Eliot not only refuses the sum but curses the thought:

…The Bloomsbury group attempted to set up a fund to provide TS Eliot with a private income and allow him to give up his job at Lloyd’s, but he preferred to continue working as a bank clerk, according to a new exhibition about the poet which opens later this month.

What writer do we know would pass up the chance to toss essays aside, break free from the cubicle and throw himself completely and unabashedly into words? Apparently Eliot is not among us.

Concerned that Eliot was wasting his time at Lloyd’s, and that he should devote himself full-time to writing, some of the members of the Bloomsbury group dreamed up the “Eliot Fellowship Fund”, which would see subscribers paying a contribution to create an income for the author. But Eliot enjoyed the routine of his work at the bank, and rejected the idea; letters from Virginia Woolf included in a forthcoming exhibition at the British Library show her attempting to work out his feelings on the scheme, which she describes as “that cursed fund”…

…”Eliot was by turns amused, embarrassed and irritated by it,” said the British Library’s curator of modern literary manuscripts Rachel Foss of the fund. “This idea that Eliot should be freed from the drudgery of work misses the point that he was actually very interested in the minutiae of every day life – he was a commentator on the quotidian, and really thrived on the routine of office life at Lloyd’s and then later at Faber.” Read more

As the chaos of fall semester ebbs, bringing with it the tidal wave of composition papers, endless stacks of homework to grade, and the gauntlet of student appointments and departments meetings, would not a writer be crazy to push all the former aside? Yet, Eliot found the minutiae of the everyday essential to his craft. The mindlessness of office drudgery not just appealed to him but inspired him. To cast away the paper and pencil-pushing would be like cutting off his writing hand.

His rejection aptly reminds us why we chose our individual money-making method. For many of us, writing probably chose us. Most writers would gladly toss the pen and paper aside and partake of those sunny Sunday barbeques or a night out with friends at the local pub. Not writing is not an option. But being chained to a cubicle for eight hours a day, forty hours a week, or schlepping across freeways and enduring long commutes to feed our families and pay the rent–that becomes a whole other story that often times we’d gladly decide to shake loose.

Those of us who make our living by teaching literally tread a sea of words on a daily basis. Its hard to keep perspective and remain uncynical about this. Most of the time we feel like we’re drowning under papers and essays, but why not take a different approach and see ourselves buoyed instead by the very thing that we love? Sure not every essay we grade will be stellar, not every student, good-natured and compliant, but there will always be that one sparkling thought contributed from the corner during class discussions or beaming out from a written assignment that surprises us and affords us a new ray of light on a topic or theme we’ve dedicated our lives to. For those who spend their forty hours a week among a maze of cubicles, or even remain desk-bound at home, surely when you look up from your lit screens, you’ll find some grain of truth about what it means to be human when the phone won’t stop ringing or the emails keep coming with pesky requests.

Of course we must sift. We can’t possibly believe every nanosecond that slips through our fingers is clay to be molded, but we must cultivate the unexpected. We must be open to any moment, whether that means pausing for receptivity while we yawn at the microwave as our lunch spins round and round on that opaque glass inside the spaghetti stained convection oven or when we engage in a tussle with a co-worker over splitting the duties of a project. We must catch ourselves as we’re hurtled and bandied about like a shuttlecock in the endless game of bringing home the bacon.

Eliot knew that a whole week might hinge on a sincere smile from the supervisor or that a lifetime of regret could be nailed by those sentences left unspoken during a department meeting, so who are we to write about life, love, petty grievances, rivalry, and jealousy if we’re not treading the swampy waters of daily pathos? At work and in our commutes, we witness and take part in the daily art of living and making a living. No matter how menial the task, as long as we breathe, we are in and of a certain moment and to disregard the everdayness, the pedestrian task of photocopying, converting files to PDF, checking on deliveries, or the relentless gab of the co-worker who won’t stop complaining about the disorder of the lunchroom’s refrigerator, is to discount the individual inhalations and exhalations we respire and inspire regularly. This quotidian, no matter how petty it may seem, is, in essence, Life, the very ephemera which we struggle to capture on the page. As mad as it seems, Eliot had something to his method: “Let us go [to work] then you and I…there will be time for a hundred indecisions and for a hundred visions and revisions…”

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