So here, stacked on the table at Tom's, five inches of paper headed for the recycling, and half an inch to keep.
I'm going through old boxes of files, getting rid of them at a great rate, so as not to have to move stuff I don't want to keep. It's easy to dump so much of it, now that I'm sure that a) I will never write fiction, b) I will never be a literary scholar, and c) I will never be famous. I'm only keeping writing of mine that I actually like reading, and what that turns out to be so far -- to my surprise -- is some of my old graduate school papers, and some of my unpublished dissertation chapters from the 1980s.
I heard myself say to someone the other day, to my own astonishment: "I was a good literary scholar. I was as good as they get."
It was so out of character for me to think such a thing, let alone say it. But looking at what I wrote about Chaucer, I have to say I still think it's true. It's not an important genre of writing, of course. Academic literary writing, like journalism, is inherently ephemeral, whether it's printed on expensive acid-free paper or not. But I did it as well as it's ever been done. Nobody, as of the 1980s, understood and explicated Chaucer as well as I did.
How strange. It was the worst period of my life. Everything in upheaval. I had -- for the first time in my life -- unequivocally failed. I was a terrible teacher. I had the classroom presence of a soggy paper towel. I was drinking a lot, hanging out at taverns, scribbling a bit here or there at whiles, exiled in Portland: I had given up all my literary friendships with people at Yale -- or maybe they had given up me -- and I found no literary connections here. I had no vocation, no direction, no hope: I had two small children and a life to invent from scratch, and my skills were fluency in Old English and Latin, and a visceral understanding of what it felt like to be an English poet in the 14th Century.
And yet, I wrote this wonderful stuff. Not much of it, not even a whole dissertation's worth. But there it is, glowing in its nest of yellowing paper. No: this half inch I'm not throwing away. This I keep.