My complaining visitor reacted as I
had done twenty years earlier. He burst into laughter and asked, 'Did
I sound that bad?'
'Worse!' I snapped. Then I pointed to a novel of
mine which he was using as the basis for his term paper. 'You're
bellyaching about a three-thousand-word paper which at most will
occupy you for a month. When I started work on Hawaii, I faced the prospect of
a three-million-word term paper. And five years of work. Frankly, you
This strong language encouraged an excellent
discussion of the preparation it takes to write a major novel. Five
years of research, months of character development, extensive work on
plot and setting, endless speculation on psychology and concentrated
work on historical backgrounds.
'When I was finally ready to write,' I replied
under questioning, 'I holed up in a bare-wall, no-telephone Waikiki
room and stuck at my typewriter every morning for eighteen months.
Seven days a week I wrestled with the words that would not come, with
ideas that refused to jell. When I broke a tooth, I told the dentist
I'd have to see him at night. When DeWitt Wallace, the editor of the
Reader's Digest and a man to whom I am much indebted, came to Hawaii
on vacation, I wanted to hike with him but had to say, "In the late
afternoon. In the morning I work."'
I explained to my caller that I write all my books
slowly, with two fingers on an old typewriter, and the actual task of
getting the words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good
enough to be used in first draft, not even important personal
letters, so I am required to rewrite everything at least twice.
Important work, like a novel, must be written over and over again, up
to six or seven times. For example, Hawaii went very slowly and
needed constant revision. Since the final version contained about
500,000 words, and since I wrote it all many times, I had to type in
my painstaking fashion about 3,000,000 words.
At this news, my visitor whistled and asked, 'How
many research books did you have to consult?'
'Several thousand. When I started the actual
writing, there were about five hundred that I kept in my
'How many personal interviews?'
'About two hundred. Each two or three hours
'Did you write much that you weren't able to
'I had to throw away about half a million
The young scholar looked again at the chaplain's
card and returned it reverently to my desk. 'Would you have the
energy to undertake such a task again?' he asked.
'I would always like to be engaged in such tasks,'
I replied, and he turned to other questions.
Young people, especially
those in college who should know better, frequently fail to realize
that men and women who wish to accomplish anything must apply
themselves to tasks of tremendous magnitude. A new vaccine may take
years to perfect. A Broadway play is never written, cast and produced
in a week. A foreign policy is never evolved in a brief time by
diplomats relaxing in Washington, London or Geneva.
The good work of the world is accomplished
principally by people who dedicate themselves unstintingly to the big
job at hand. Weeks, months, years pass, but the good workman knows
that he is gambling on an ultimate achievement which cannot be
measured in time spent. Responsible men and women leap to the
challenge of jobs that require enormous dedication and years to
fulfill, and are happiest when they are so involved.
This means that men and women who hope to make a
real contribution to American life must prepare themselves to tackle
big jobs, and the interesting fact is that no college or university
in the world can give anyone the specific education he will
ultimately need. Adults who are unwilling to reeducate themselves
periodically are doomed to mediocrity.
For in American life, the average man - let's
leave out doctors and highly specialized scientists - can expect to
work in three radically different fields before he retires. The
trained lawyer is dragged into a business reorganization and winds up
a college president. The engineer uses his slide rule for a short
time, finds himself a sales expert and ends his career in labor
relations. The schoolteacher becomes a principal and later on heads
the town's Buick agency.
Obviously no college education could prepare a
young man for all that he will have to do in his years of employment.
The best a college can do is to inspire him with the urge to
reeducate himself constantly.
I first discovered this fact on Guadalcanal in
1945, when the war had passed us by and we could see certain victory
ahead. Relieved of pressure, our top admirals and generals could have
been excused if they loafed, but the ones I knew well in those days
took free time and gave themselves orderly courses in new fields. One
carrier admiral studied everything he could get on tank warfare. The
head of our outfit, William Lowndes Calhoun, spent six hours a day
I asked him about this. 'Admiral, what's this big
deal with French?'
'How do I know where I'll be sent when the war's
over?' he countered.
But what impressed me most was the next tier of
officers, the young Army colonels and the Navy commanders. They
divided sharply into two groups: those who spent their spare time
learning something and those who didn't. In the years that followed,
I noticed in the newspapers that whenever President Truman or
President Eisenhower chose men for military positions of great power,
they always picked from the officers who had reeducated
More significant to me personally was my stay with
the brilliant doctors of an Army hospital in the jungles of Espiritu
Santo. The entire staff of a general hospital in Denver, Colorado,
had been picked up and flown out to care for our wounded, and they
experienced days of overwork followed by weeks of tedium. In the
latter periods the doctors organized voluntary study groups by which
to further their professional competence.
By good luck, I was allowed to participate in a
group that was analyzing alcoholism, and one night the leader asked
me, as we were breaking up, 'What are you studying, Michener?' The
question stunned me, for I had been studying exactly nothing.
I drove back through the jungle and that very
night started working on something that I had been toying with for
some months. In a lantern-lit, mosquito-filled tin shack, I started
writing Tales of the South
I have been the typical American in that I have
had widely scattered jobs: teacher, businessman, soldier, traveler,
writer. And my college education gave me no specific preparation for
any of these jobs.
But it gave me something much better. I attended
Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia, and by fantastic luck, I
got there just as the college was launching an experiment which was
to transform the institution and those of us who participated. At the
end of my sophomore year the faculty assembled a group of us and
said, 'Life does not consist of taking courses in small segments. A
productive life consists of finding huge tasks and mastering them
with whatever tools of intelligence and energy we have. We are going
to turn you loose on some huge tasks. Let's see what you can do with
Accordingly, we were excused from all future class
attendance and were told, 'Pick out three fields that interest you.'
I chose logic, English history and the novel. The faculty said, 'For
the next two years go to the library and learn what you can about
your fields. At the end of two years we'll bring in some outside
experts from Harvard and Yale, whom you've never seen, and they will
determine whether or not you have educated yourselves.'
What followed was an experience in intellectual
grandeur. The Swarthmore professors, realizing that when I was tested
they would be tested too, helped me to gain as thorough an education
as a young man could absorb. For it was in their interest to see that
I understood the fine points of the fields I had chosen.
When the two years ended, the visiting experts
arrived and for a week they probed and tested and heckled. At the end
of this exciting time one of the examiners told me, 'You have the
beginning of a real education.'
He was right. Nothing that I studied in college
has been of use to me in my various jobs. But what I did learn was
how to learn, how to organize, how to write term papers. If my
education had ended the week I stood before those strange examiners,
I would have proved a fairly useless citizen.
While I was reflecting on
these matters, my young scholar asked, 'If you were a young man today
and wanted to be a writer, what kind of education would you
I replied, 'I'd choose some very difficult field
and try to master it. I'd seek out professors who really poured it
on. Long term papers and many of them, tough laboratory work.'
'Why?' he pressed.
'Because we learn only those things at which we
have to work very hard. It's ridiculous to give a bright fellow like
you a three-thousand-word term paper. It ought to be fifteen thousand
words - or thirty. Tackle a real job. Then, when you're through,
you're on the way to facing big jobs in adult life.'
My visitor made a few marks in his notebook, then
asked, 'When you were in college, the scientific revolution hadn't
occurred yet. Today, would you stick with liberal arts - things like
logic and history - or would you switch to science, where the good
I didn't hesitate a minute on this one. 'Unless I
had extraordinary aptitude in the sciences, I'd stick with liberal
arts every time. The pay isn't as good. The jobs aren't waiting when
you graduate. And when you want to get married, it's tough to tell
your girl's father, "I'm studying philosophy." But forty years from
now the scientists in your class will be scientists. And the liberal
arts men will be governing the world.'
The idea was so startling that my young visitor
wished to discuss it further. 'You mean there's a chance for fellows
'Every year your prospects grow brighter,' I
insisted. 'The more complex the world becomes, the more desperately
it needs men trained in liberal arts. For the government of the world
must always rely upon the man with broad human knowledge. And the
government of a business or a university or a newspaper requires the
same kind of man.'
'Why?' he asked, forgetting his notebook.
'Because governing anything requires knowledge of
men, a balanced judgment, a gift for conciliation and, above all, a
constant weighing of good versus bad. Only men with broad educations
can perform such tasks.'
'Can't scientists do this?' he asked.
'They surely can. If, after they graduate, they
give themselves courses in the humanities.'
I finished our interview by telling a story. 'In
1942 the United States Navy was hungry for talent, and four of us
were taken into a small room where we sat around shivering in our
shorts. A grim-faced selection committee asked the first wouldbe
officer, "What can you do?" and the man replied, "I'm a buyer for
Macy's, and I can judge very quickly between markets and prices and
trends." The selection board replied, "But you can't do anything
practical?" The man said no, and he was shunted off to one
'The next man was a lawyer, and when the board
asked him if he could do anything practical, he had to confess, "I
can weigh evidence and organize information," and he was
'I was the third in line, and when I answered, "I
know language and a good deal of history," the board groaned and I
was sent shivering away.
'But when the fourth man said boldly, "I'm from
Georgia Tech and I can overhaul diesel engines," the committee jumped
up, practically embraced him and made him an officer on the
'That's what I mean,' my young scholar pointed
'At the end of the war,' I continued, 'the buyer
from Macy's was assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, in charge of
many complex responsibilities requiring instant good judgment. He
gave himself courses in naval management and government procedures
until he became one of the nation's real experts.
'The lawyer wound up as assistant to Admiral
Halsey, and in a crucial battle, deducted where the Japanese fleet
had to be. He came out covered with medals.
'I was given the job of naval secretary to several
Congressional committees who were determining the future of America
in the South Pacific. And what was the engineer doing at the end of
the war? He was still overhauling diesel engines.'
'You're sure there's hope for the liberal-arts
man?' the young scholar repeated.
'If he learns to tackle the big jobs - the big
ones historically or morally or culturally or politically.'
We parted on that note, but
when he had gone, I realized that I had not made my statement nearly
strong enough. I should have said, 'The world is positively hungry
for young men who have dedicated themselves to big jobs. If your
present professors aren't training you for such work, quit them and
find others who will drive you. If your present college isn't making
you work to the limit of your ability, drop out and go to another
that will. Because if you don't discipline your brain now, you'll
never be prepared for the years when it's a question of work or
Parents or professors who do not encourage their
young to tackle big jobs commit a moral crime against those young
people. For we know that when the young are properly challenged, they
will rise to the occasion and they will prepare themselves for the
great work that remains to be done.