Blog writing and morning pages aren’t new to me.
In 1981, I took a course at Yale called Daily Themes.
The premise was simple: every day, five days per week, the student was required to write 250-300 words and deliver them to a teaching assistant.
Monday through Friday, without fail, under the door.
In Daily Themes, Traditions Abound
Its greatest tradition is the building of the writer’s muscle, through hardship and training.
As Calvin Trillin recalls in The New Yorker in 1966, long before my themes were due:
Daily Themes has always been one of the few courses in Yale College to use letter grades (later translated into numerical grades used in Yale records), and the grade after D has always been W. Nobody is certain what W stands for, but most people believe it means “Worthless.” An undergraduate on the way to his weekly conference with his instructor, where he receives marks and criticism on his last five themes, walks in the presence of W’s. From the outset, it has been a tenet of Daily Themes that a student should not be permitted to leave a conference without a ray of hope — that somewhere in his five themes there must be at least one adjective that can be commended, or one phrase that is not as bad as all the others — but it is common for an instructor to leave the impression that a ray of hope was not easy to find.”
I recall that as if yesterday. I thought it was just me. I was humiliated every week. Barely a ray.
My father told me this humbling tale of his own experience as a student in Daily Themes in 1937:
Stanley [Lowenstein, his brilliant, literate, beloved cousin, a year ahead of him at Yale] took Daily Themes with me. One day, Professor Berdan asked what the class thought of a particular piece of writing. Stanley put up his hand and was called on. “I think it has style,” declared Stanley.”What is your name?” asked the professor.
“Stanley Lowenstein, sir.”
“Mr. Lowenstein says this writing has style. Mr. Lowenstein, please stand up,” demanded the professor. “Everyone, take a look at Mr. Lowenstein. What does he know of style? Thank you, Mr. Lowenstein. You may now sit down.”
Anti-semitism? Maybe. Humiliation of an aspiring writer. Absolutely.
Once or twice each week, we’d meet for the lecture that would inspire us to write. And we’d listen to the lecture while drifting toward the Tiffany windows in dear, musty Linsley-Chittenden Hall.
But we didn’t lack inspiration. The next theme was due. Under the door.
One Of The Best
I once heard a lecture by the late poet Richard Hugo. At the time he wasn’t late, but I recently discovered that he died only a few years after this lecture. He said, as far as I can recall:
I was drunk for 20 years. Then I stopped drinking. When you stop drinking after decades of drunkenness, there are two surprises.The first is how long the day is. I’d grown to think the day was only 45 minutes of daylight, seen through a haze that came and went. Now, sober, I realize the day is long, with so much opportunity to work and write.
I don’t remember the second surprise. (If you do, tell me.)
But Hugo continued with this gem (which I consider a basic element of judging creative work):
“Great poetry is never finished. It is simply abandoned.”
What a great metaphor for life. Great anything is never finished. It is simply abandoned.
Trillin’s Notes Are Better Than Mine (No Kidding)
In his June 11, 1966 article, “No Telling, No Summing Up,” Trillin describes John Berdan, who taught the course from 1907 until retirement in 1941:
“Vivify by Range of Appeal!” Berdan would exhort after he had despaired of making any progress in persuading students to Individualize by Specific Detail. “Characterize by Speech and Gesture! Clarify by Point of View! Unify by a Single Impression! Combine Details for Coherence! Charge Words with Connotation! Choose Words for their Sounds.”
Each imperative, a lesson. The lectures taught.
But The Writing Was The Thing
There was this macho aspect — macho for both boys and girls — for everyone in the class.
The phrase “Daily Themes” could get you out of any conversation. “Daily Themes” meant, “I have to go right now and finish my essay and get it under the door.”
Now, I imagine the phrase is “Dude. Daily Themes.”
A daily theme was more work that it is today. In the day of typewriters, there were at least two drafts and final submission was physical.
Beyond lectures and written assignments, there was much learning:
Writing every day trained me to trap images and memories. No thought or feeling is discarded without assessing its potential value as a piece of writing.Writing every day meant that there was a daily walk — to put the paper under the door. Daily Themes was a daily, forced stroll among college students, landscape and architecture. (Note to self: walk after writing, as a reward.) Writing every day increased my appreciation for the writing of others. My TA — an encouraging fellow who was scary because he sat behind the door — taught me to read “The Talk Of The Town” in The New Yorker. “It’s consistently the best short prose around.” He was right.
And it still is.
Now I write.
Forgive this essay please, for all its failings.
Please see only the ray of hope. Hard as it might be to find.