In his latest dispatch for the New Yorker, John McPhee ruminated on all the many many projects he had taken up and never gotten to over the course of his (what looks like to the rest of us mortals) wildly productive writing life.
Trying to put a more positive gloss on a situation that had long bothered him (as it does most writers, who always have at least five unfinished projects for each one they complete), he recollects a lunch he had with his editor and Thornton Wilder many years back. Asked what he was working on, Wilder said:
… he was not actually writing a new play or novel but was fully engaged in a related project. He was cataloguing the plays of Lope de Vega … Four hundred and thirty-one survive. How long would it take to read four hundred and thirty-one plays? How long would it take to summarize each in descriptive detail and fulfill the additional requirements of cataloguing? … Wilder was sixty-six, but to me he appeared and sounded geriatric. He was an old man with a cataloguing project that would take him at least a dozen years. Callowly, I asked him, “Why would anyone want to do that?”
The response is vivid:
Wilder’s eyes seemed to condense. Burn. His face turned furious. He said, “Young man, do not ever question the purpose of scholarship.”
We all need something to do, and keep us going. Especially writers.