Monday, 3 May 2010

How to Live by the Pen


Many years ago (before the widespread use of email - imagine that) when I was toiling away at my thesis I found a brief respite by taking a little job sticking seminar programs announcements into pre-addressed envelopes. There were two piles, one being the letters, the other the envelopes. The movements involved to accomplish this task were simple: take one letter from one pile, fold it in thirds, take envelope from the other pile, stick folded letter in, peel off removable strip at the back of envelope, press flap onto adhesive to seal envelope. Repeat as necessary.

It was all performed in a tiny, airless, windowless room and it was a task so soothing to the mind that I still recall it as one recalls a day on the beach. Even better. The task earned me a little money too. I do not want to propose peel-and-seal envelopes as the path to intellectual salvation or self-sufficiency. I was just reminded of this small task while reading the following passage from John Stuart Mill's Autobiography:

Books destined to form future thinkers take too much time to write, and when written come, in general, too slowly into notice and repute, to be relied on for subsistence. Those who have to support themselves by their pen must depend on literary drudgery, or at best on writings addressed to the multitude; and can employ in the pursuits of their own choice, only such time as they can spare from those of necessity; which is generally less than the leisure allowed by office occupations, while the effect on the mind is far more enervating and fatiguing. 
For my own part I have, through life, found office duties an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously with them. They were sufficiently intellectual not to be a distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought, or to the labour of careful literary composition.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, published by ebooks@Adelaide 2009, The University of Adelaide Library, University of Adelaide, South Australia

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