Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Aug 31, 2021 @ 15:53:03

    Ahhh. You are speaking to my ❤️ today Mike. Be well and write on.

    Reply

  2. joannerambling
    Aug 31, 2021 @ 22:47:37

    I really liked this post

    Reply

  3. foodinbooks
    Sep 03, 2021 @ 08:02:21

    Excellent post! And I love that film also.

    Reply

  4. stormy1812
    Sep 03, 2021 @ 17:30:31

    Oh my goodness how I loved that film! My life has not been the same since Robin died…it’s always a bit sad when a celebrity I like passes away but to me Robin was special in more ways than one. Regarding Dead Poets Society, I think Keating was probably thinking more along your lines than seemed. I’m not sure he was encouraging them to be reckless, at least not specifically, but to be unafraid; to not let perceived obstacles to keep them from doing things that will make their lives special. As a reporter, I’ve written several stories of people who were walking, running, biking across the U.S. or large chunks of it for various reasons and that was them seizing the day…albeit more like several months with several months of planning in advance. Seems like seizing the day is more like seizing the idea, the moment, etc., as long as they go for it and with intention, as you’ve mentioned here. When I’ve opted to just seize that moment or whatever, I’ve felt like I’ve really lived…for better or for worse lol. Some experiences I certainly wouldn’t repeat. Yet, I couldn’t be who I am without those experiences and I’m grateful I seized my moment or day or whatever it was at that time. When I haven’t seized the moment, I’ve missed out and it’s been tragic really. Anyway, as per usual, fabulous post! I may have to watch that movie yet again.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 08, 2021 @ 12:38:07

      Thanks, Jen! These are great points, and I agree. And it’s funny because just *writing* the post made me want to watch Dead Poets Society again. Which I now have.:) Always great hearing from you!

      Reply

  5. Carol Balawyder
    Sep 08, 2021 @ 11:34:22

    Wonderful and encouraging post, Mike. Loved the photos to go along with it.

    Reply

  6. TheDreamGirlWrites
    Sep 18, 2021 @ 10:34:35

    Wow! This is beautifully put!!
    Dead Poet’s Society is such a beautiful classic!!

    Reply

  7. selizabryangmailcom
    Sep 20, 2021 @ 20:13:01

    Really great advice and reminders, because time is, in a way, a universal nemesis.

    Reply

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