Daydream Trouble; Oxford Commas


Ask The Paris Review

Hello! I am a student. During my study time I should put my concentration to to study. But I can’t do it cuz of daydream. What should I do? —Anik Khan

Hello there, my distant twin! Isn’t daydreaming insidious? For you it’s study time. For me it’s worst in the mornings. As you get older, everybody tells you, time speeds up; what they don’t tell you is that the time before you get out of bed speeds up to a whiplash-inducing blur, and that your daydreams grow longer and more consuming, like those giant worms in Dune, devouring minutes and hours like so much sand. Sometimes I try to snap out of it by thinking of Marcus Aurelius. He had the same problem we do, two thousand years ago, and would remind himself that dancers and craftsmen lived for their work and “choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things they care for”; the point being, why should he lie there staring at the ceiling (he was emperor of Rome) … but for me this doesn’t usually work. Proust, in his big novel, stands up for the habit of daydreaming: Marcel spends all morning, every morning, just lying there, letting his mind wander from the dreams he had the night before. Few of us have this luxury, at school or afterward. Besides, it can be terrible to feel that you are, in the words of that sad song, dreaming your life away. Just this morning on the way to work, I realized I was talking to myself, daydreaming a conversation with someone who wasn’t there.

(I’m telling you, it gets worse.)

A friend of mine advises Zen meditation. Several writers I know use stimulants. The trouble is, these tend, very quickly, to make you pretty crazy. In his recent Paris Review interview, Jonathan Franzen talks about his own struggles with distraction: “Cigarettes had always been the way I snapped myself to attention … I’d quit because I’d decided that they were getting in the way of feeling.” There are, of course, other things to be said against cigarette smoking, but I like the way Franzen puts it, because he suggests that distraction, or daydreaming, is part of what it means to have emotions. Your daydreaming self is your feeling self, your passive self. The self that things happen to.

Of course you need to make time for your studies. If you catch yourself staring at the wall and dreaming of something you’d like to see happen, or someone you miss, or the way things might turn out, someday, make yourself go back to the book—but my advice is that you not let it worry you too much. Don’t punish yourself. This is one of those cases, I think, in which it is better to negotiate a shaky truce than hope for any kind of lasting victory.

I’ve just completed a Ph.D. thesis and spent a good month or more going through the text and making it comply to the rigorous strictures of a particular university style guide, during which time I served as a living response to Vampire Weekend’s resonant question, “Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?” Can you recommend any slightly cooler guides to writing well? Say, if one wanted to write something other than a Ph.D.? —Anonymous

My own favorite is Vivian Gornick’s little handbook The Situation and the Story. (Full disclosure: I was Gornick’s editor when she wrote it.) It is short on argumentation, long on case studies that are passionate and gripping. Best of all, you can see Gornick practicing what she preaches. She teaches by example. I have also recommended Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit to friends who were wrestling to bring their novels down to size—but if you just turned in your dissertation, I’m guessing you may not need Bell’s help for a while.

Break a leg in your defense!

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