Exactly one day after the Fall 2010 semester ended, a student in my technical writing class appeared at my office door to explain why he had not submitted a major assignment. He had tried to start writing it, he told me, but, for some inexplicable reason, he found he “couldn’t be in the moment.”

 

Be in the moment! Now, I could have lectured him on the myth of writerly inspiration, that “one fell swoop” ideology created by the 18th-century romantics whereby the entire work descends, like a tongue of fire, upon an especially sensitive soul, a mystification of the writing process designed to elevate themselves to the level of the wealthy patrons upon whom they depended and to efface the self-abjection they felt because of that dependence.

But I did not lecture him, for I found that I… More…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That’s what John says in his Gospel. But the story of the Word is more complicated for human beings. Creatures roughly like us in all the essential ways have existed for a couple of hundred thousand years. But it was only around 30,000 years ago, more or less, that people started talking to one another in any way that we would recognize as language. A threshold was crossed, an innovation took root. No one knows exactly how or why it happened. It just happened, and at around that time something we can call language began truly to take root and spread amongst the species we call Homo sapiens. The “sapiens” (Latin for “wisdom”) refers to the way that our species has consciousness, awareness, the ability to reason, and so forth.

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These are things I know about people I have never met:

Islands of Privacy by Christena Nippert-Eng. 360 pages. University of Chicago Press. $22.50.

I know a former writer for Jezebel accidentally left a tampon in for several days, and I know what the discharge looked like when she finally got it out.

I know what a memoirist and blogger ate today, and also what her cat looks like sitting up, lying down, chasing a bug, and hiding under the bed.

I know the sexual proclivities and preferences of a work colleague’s wife, because her husband announced them at a cocktail party. I was not at the party, but a friend called me mid-way through to relay the information.

I know about random people’s drug habits, eating disorders, cutting, menstrual cycles, and fetishes, because they wrote… More…

You can tell a lot about a person by the relationship she has with time — what she values, how she works, and often where she came from. I have often wondered if my own anxiety about the wide expanse of the day goes back to my rural Kansas upbringing. Barred from watching television and encouraged (pushed) to explore the outdoors, the way I view the hours of the day correlates with the view of the horizon: flat, never ending, bichromal. I wake in the morning to wonder how in the world I will ever find a way to break that expanse into manageable chunks without falling into boredom or uselessness.

Time by Eva Hoffman. 224 pages. Picador. $14.00

Whether it’s the American motto “time is money,” or the Eastern European saying “When man is in a hurry,… More…