The Cortland Review


William Heath
J.M. Spalding interviews poet William Heath.

David R. Slavitt
A Day in the Life of David R. Slavitt.

David R. Slavitt

David R. Slavitt's recent books include: PS3569.L3, his latest collection of poetry, and Get Thee to a Nunnery: Two Shakespearean Novellas. His latest translations are of Solomon Ibn Gabirol's A Crown for the King, and Joćo Pinto Delgado's Poem of Queen Esther.  

A Day in the Life of David R. Slavitt


I am not so far into my dotage as to suppose that anyone can be interested in my day. I have a blessedly uneventful life: no job, no responsibilities, no obligations…. It is as if I'm back at Yale, where I was in 1955-1956, a Scholar of the House and, relieved of all academic obligations (classes, exams, everything but the requirement that I show up at a banquet every other Wednesday evening and that I meet, from time to time, with my advisor, Paul Weiss), allowed to learn what freedom means and how to use it.

That begins to be interesting, actually. It's Zen-ish and difficult to grasp. The last full-time job I had was more than thirty years ago when I reviewed movies for Newsweek, and when I left that to go out on my own and write, I had to relearn my Yale lesson in demanding less of myself and finding my natural rhythm. What was at first troublesome was that my recollections of Newsweek were misleading. An eight- or ten-hour day has a certain appeal. It suggests virtue and effort and such puritanical values that may or may not be suitable for writers. But if one subtracts all the phone calls, meetings, travel, and other wasted time from that ten-hour stint, then what's left is close to the three or four hours I put in every day.

"Do you write with a fountain pen?" is an inevitable question one gets at readings and such public appearances. The assumption is that if only one picked the right tool, one could do that! Libraries that collect writers' manuscripts (where the scholars can track the spoor of revelation or even inspiration through the underbrush of emendation and revision) labor under a similar misapprehension—that if only one learned the pathway from first prompting to finished object, one could… do that. It doesn't work. I don't even learn anything very useful from my experience with one poem or story or novel because I'm unlikely ever again to write that particular poem or story or novel. One always starts fresh. And stupid. And it's always scary.

But to get that out of the way, I write on a computer (an ancient Mac Performa I'm about to replace) and correct drafts with a fountain pen (Pelikan, Mont Blanc, Cross, Waterman, Parker, Sheaffer-I have a pleasing array of them). I wake sometime between seven and nine, depending on how late I was up reading the night before. I pour my coffee and bring it to the computer in the small study that was originally a dressing room. I turn on the CD player (at the moment, the Shostakovich preludes and fugues are playing), check the email, reply to whatever's urgent, play a few games of solitaire, and then get to what I'm working on. There is almost always a longish project to which I can repair for entertainment and occupation. But I will put that aside, whatever it is, if a poem presents itself to me. (I reject all first promptings, figuring that those ideas that don't come back weren't all that important or interesting anyway. When something suggests itself several times, I figure that it may be connected to something I care about and that, therefore, the easiest way to get rid of it is to do it.)

I write until noon and then have a light lunch. The mail usually comes in around midday, and I'll look through that. I may read a little (in connection with some project or other, or in search of one, or just for entertainment) or look at newspapers or magazines (the usual ones, but The Georgia Review, Pequod, and Shenandoah are on the nightstand at the moment). If the work has been going well, I may put in another hour in the afternoon. Or I will run errands and shop. Or cook, which is pleasant to do after a session with words because it's physical and tactile, and the payoff is immediate. I generally exercise for half an hour (on a stationary bicycle, usually watching "Inside Politics" on CNN, which is the best—or least bad—thing on then). My wife gets home around 6:30 PM, and inasmuch as the main purpose of writing is to get through the day until drinks-time, I can pop a cork and declare the day a success.

At Yale, the goal line was not so far away, and all I had to do was to get through to when tea was laid out at the Elizabethan Club at four o'clock. But I'm not complaining. On the contrary, I think there are few writers, and indeed few people, who have as easy and pleasant a time of it as I do. I don't for a moment suppose that this is because I deserve it. But I'd be a fool not to be grateful.

—David R. Slavitt

A Day in the Life of David R. Slavitt
TCR July 1999 Feature


© 2002 The Cortland Review