Leo Tolstoy on Art as Infection

if you want to writeWhat makes writing “good”?  In algebra, good math is accurate math; if we solved for the equation “x + 2 = 6,” for example, a good calculation would result in x = 4.  In quantum physics, a good scientific theory would have sufficient evidence and be able to be proved.  But how do we evaluate the quality of something as subjective as writing?  Does writing follow laws as immutable as those that govern the universe?  Does good writing always prefer the energetic active voice to the lifeless passive?  Does it use specific, concrete nouns and vigorous verbs?  In grade school, we were assured writing could be calculated with the precision of a math problem and handed rubrics with different criteria during peer review.  Did our partner use at least ten “academic” words (as if pretentious, highbrow words were better than simple, exact ones)?  If so, they earned a shiny gold star.

In her lovely ode to art, beauty, and the soul-affirming act of unabashedly expressing yourself, If You Want to Write, the same volume that explained why art is a grand gesture of generosity and idleness is important to creativity, Brenda Ueland revolts against the spirit-sucking rules of too rigid English classrooms.  Much like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron, Ueland believes we write best when we feel free and unselfconscious, when we have permission to write recklessly.  If we want to write well, we have to liberate ourselves from the padded walls of “ought’s,” “should’s”  and “have-to’s”:

“Yes, you must feel when you write, free.  You must disentangle all oughts.  You must disconnect all shackles, weights, obligations, all duties.  You can write as badly as you want to.  You can write anything you want to— a six-act blank verse, symbolic tragedy or a vulgar short, short story.  Just so that you write it with honesty and gusto, and do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.  What’s the use?  You can never be smarter than you are.  You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this: while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.) 

As you write, never let a lot of ‘oughts’ block you: I ought to be more humorous, more Leftist, more like Ernest Hemingway, more bitingly satirical.  Then it shows.  That spoils it.  It will not be alive, but dead.” 

What makes something art?  Ueland agrees with Leo Tolstoy’s definition.  In his landmark essay “What is Art,” Tolstoy asserts real art has the ability to transmit a feeling from artist to audience.  Its distinguishing characteristic?  The power to move.  A great novel (or painting or film) can foster sympathy, stir us to action, incite us to anger; it can reacquaint us with beauty or simply remind us to marvel and wonder.  If a work requires too much analyzing and dissecting, too much stuffy debate among academics in tweed suits, it’s not art.  Real art is felt, not merely understood: 

“Art is infection.  The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too.  And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art.  If you have to puzzle timidly over a picture or a book, and try, try, to like it and read many erudite critics on the subject so that you can say at last, ‘Yes, I think I really do begin to understand it and see that it is just splendid!  Real art!’  Then it is not Art.”

tolstoy

So how do we infect our readers?  Our English teachers had us believe good writing was characterized by pomp and pretension; they encouraged us to use flowery, overdramatic language and craft elaborate rather than simple sentences.  The result?  Though it’s been many years since we’ve seen judgmental red ink on a midterm paper, we still write like little school girls trying to please teacher.  Rather than choose the word that most precisely expresses what we’re trying to say, we diligently follow those strict rules of composition we learned long ago in grade school.  We endlessly search the thesaurus for a grand word that will dazzle with its sophistication; we prefer longer obscure words to too “short,” too “simple” ones.  But this only leads to bad art.  Because, despite what our teachers told us, what separates good writing from bad writing is not word choice or syntax but truth.  We can only infect our audience with an emotion if we genuinely felt it ourselves, if what we write is true.  Reflecting on her students, Ueland writes:

“I saw in their own writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were.  But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead.  No infection.”

Ultimately, we should concern ourselves not with whether our writing is “good” but with whether it’s true.  When we write what is true, when we put what we think and what we feel and what we see in the simplest terms, our writing sings with exuberance and truth.  But when we write something because we think “this is how writing should sound” or because we convince ourselves “this is what our reader wants to hear,” our writing loses its vigor.  Worse still, we compromise the trust of our readers.  “She’s calling her boredom ‘agonizing’?” our readers scoff when they come across an overwrought bit of description, “I no longer believe her.”  Ueland maintains we should never write for the validation of too stern English teachers— or anyone for that matter.  As writers, our only allegiance is to our own truth:

“And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored.  This is all you have to do.  Don’t say the boredom was ‘agonizing. excruciating,’ unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful.

That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is a good description, because it seems true.”

For more of Brenda Ueland’s stirring meditations on writing and the writing life, delight in the qualities of good writing and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  Hungry for more soul-nourishing writing advice?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut.

Why Van Gogh Painted Irises & Night Skies: Art as a Grand Gesture of Generosity

sunflowersWhy do we write?  In answer to this perennial question, poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied, “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead.  I have a kind of primitive need to leave my mark on the world.”  “I write,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan maintained, because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  Novelist Jane Smiley responded she wrote “to investigate things she was curious about” while James Frey, screenwriter and memoirist behind the controversial A Million Little Pieces, wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  In her landmark essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion confessed writing was a process of discovery: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” she observed in characteristically clear-eyed prose. 

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland examines why great artists throughout time have bothered to paint landscapes and compose poems.  In one of the volume’s loveliest chapters “Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets,” she suggests writers write to better understand themselves and the world:

“One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the noblemen knew and understood his own feeling better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the Italian or English language was.”

Why do artists scribble in notebooks and paint at easels?  Some create to attain a lofty goal: to revolutionize modern thought, say, or to change the world.  For others, art is an act of ego.  You know the type: the young and status-obsessed who dream of seeing their byline in the sophisticated typeface of the New Yorker.  At writing retreats, they only have one concern: will my work sell?  Rather than dedicate themselves to the noble quest of expressing what is beautiful and true and good—in other words, the work— they busy themselves with the economics of the work: is it marketable?  does it deal with a timely topic?  is it written in a hip, of-the-moment style?  These writers care about things like Oprah’s book club selections and best seller lists and book sales.  Their drive to create originates from the ego: they want to immortalize their name in the canon of English letters; they want awards and acclaim, prestige and a Pulitzer.

However for some, art is a selfless act of service— a way to offer others consolation and comfort.  The visionary Vincent Van Gogh belonged to this latter class of creator.  He didn’t paint irises and night skies to put a stop to global warming or end racism, nor did he paint to achieve any sort of worldly success (after all, despite his talent, he died by his own hand unknown and penniless).  He painted red poppy fields and farmhouses in Provence just because he thought they were beautiful and worth sharing with people:

“If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was.  It was just this: he loved something the sky, say.  He loved human beings.  He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was.  So he painted it for them.  And that was all there was to it. 

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman.  He had no thought of being an artist at all.  He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much.  He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamppost, a star, and he said something in his letter like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.”  And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.”

van gogh letter

van gogh letter #2

What, exactly, qualifies as “art”?  Who earns the distinguished title of “artist”?  Is art always contained in the dimensions of 4-by-4 picture frames and leather-bound covers?  Or can it be a sketch on a coffee-stained napkin?  as simple as a home-cooked meal and a beautifully-arranged bouquet of daffodils?

Though we imagine art is something lofty, the artist is someone who is simply awake to being alive in the world.  What makes a man an artist is not his raw talent or technical skill but his way of seeing: to create, you have to have attentive eyes and a receptive mind, you have to— in the elevating words of Van Gogh— devote one’s life to the task of expressing the hidden poetry of the world.  For the true artist, work is a labor of love undertaken in the spirit of generosity.  As Ueland so eloquently expresses, we paint, we draw, we write because we cherish something:

“But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse.  It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.”

For Ueland, the defining characteristic of art is exquisite attention to detail and a devotion to truth:

“Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care.  He made it as much like what he loved as he could.  You and I might have made the drawing and scratched it off roughly.  Well, that would have been a good thing to do too.  But Van Gogh made the drawing with seriousness and truth.”

irises

Master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once said “all art is quite useless”— a rather ironic statement considering he was a playwright and poet.  However, when he used the word “useless,” I think he meant in the sense that art has no practical purpose: it can’t keep you warm on a frigid winter night, it can’t nourish anything other than your soul.  After all, if you were stranded on a deserted island, you’d want a compass and a canteen of water— not a volume of Shakespeare’s poems. 

Those of us who aspire to be artists and writers are often reminded of our dream’s unfeasibility.  “You can’t support yourself writing!” we hear from concerned relatives at Thanksgiving.  If we’re bold enough to name ourselves writers over the clink of champagne glasses at a dinner party, we’re met with one question: “So are you published anywhere?”  The assumption is making art is only worthwhile if it earns us acclaim or contributes to our income.  We want things to be “useful.”  To fritter away hours attempting to capture the surreal blues of a starry night would be a pointless endeavor— that is, unless we sold the painting or had the opportunity to showcase it in a museum.

However, for Ueland, art is valuable in and of itself— we should make art for its own sake.  The rewards of a creative life are many: an awakeness to the marvels and mysteries of existence, a deeper appreciation for living.  But the greatest reward is a clarified, magnified understanding.  When we take the time to contemplate the colors of a spring sky and recreate it in words or in a painting, we see the sky more clearly.  The result?  We love it more dearly as well.  So even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time was wasted.  We’re always better for having created:

“And one of the most important of these intrinsic rewards is the stretched understanding, the illumination.  By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”

Carl Sandburg wasn’t exaggerating when he said If You Want to Write was “the best book ever written about how to write.”  It’s one of a few cherished volumes (among them The Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer) that I revisit every few years.  If you want more soul-sustaining encouragement from Brenda Ueland, revel in her insights on art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine and the incubation of ideas & the importance of idleness to creativity.  For practical nuts-and-bolts advice about the writing craft, study the wisdom of Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and John Hersey

Khaled Hosseini on the Limitations of Language & the Disheartening Difficulty of Truly Expressing Ourselves

No urge is more human than the urge to express ourselves.uSAIvyK3_400x400 - Version 2  We are hardwired to tell stories: our first stories appeared in the form of magnificent cave paintings tens of thousands of years ago.  The ancient Greeks told epic stories to memorialize great heroes; Native Americans told stories to explain the origins of the world.  Today we tell stories on front porches and bus stops, in newspapers and on national public radio.  We tell stories even when we’re condemned to solitude: prisoners wait to hear the jingle of keys disappear down the hall before passing notes between their cells; sailors lost at sea send messages in bottles hoping to one day be found.  More than love and be loved, humans want one thing: to be seen and be heard.

Language is how we accomplish the extraordinary feat of understanding and being understood.  When we impose order on the clutter of our thoughts, when we fit nebulous notions into clearly defined semantic categories and arrange them in comprehensible sentence structures, we can reveal the hidden depths of our souls.  Words make it possible to bridge the gap between ourselves and other people.  Without words, we’d be like Marin County and San Francisco, within sight of each other but eternally alone.

Sadly, it’s not always possible to cross the uncrossable distance between people.  The most profound experiences are beyond words.  How can words ever communicate the colossal grief of losing our mother?  the unbearable void left after we broke up with our boyfriend of ten years?  Not only are the difficult things hard to describe, the beautiful things are as well.  The simple pleasure of waking up on a frost-bitten morning to find our lover still warm wrapped in our arms, the enormous relief we feel when—after missing for a few hours— our lost dog returns home.  Joy and bliss, catastrophe and crisis: all are ineffable.

In his lovely essay in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, novelist Khaled Hosseini ponders the many limitations of language.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A treasury of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus III, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

For his passage, Hosseini chose the opening line of Stephen King’s “The Body,” a coming-of-age story that is perhaps more recognizable as its classic 80s movie adaptation “Stand By Me.”  In the passage, the protagonist, Gordie LaChance has a distressing epiphany: the most important things are the hardest to say.  The tragic irony of being able to speak, he realizes, is the things we most need to express our beyond our capacities:

“The most important things are the hardest to say.  They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them— words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”

For Hosseini, the opening lines of “The Body” remind us no matter how fundamental our need to understand and be understood, we can never be completely seen or completely heard.  Why?  Because there will always be a rift between what we want to say and our actual words.  Ultimately, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he says one thing but means another, he projects an outward persona but conceals his inner self. 

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players,” Shakespeare once wrote.  To function in society, we must confine ourselves to our appropriate role: subservient suburban housewife, corporate CEO.  The problem?  A part is a performance— it’s not our real self.  A woman might play the part of shallow housewife when she gossips over mimosas at Sunday brunch, but— behind her Botox-enhanced lips and designer Louie Vuitton — be able to hold a spirited discussion on existentialist philosophy and recite T.S. Eliot by heart.  Similarly, a frat boy might spend his weekends displaying his machismo in bar fights but reveal a more tender, sensitive side when he’s away from the aggressive masculinity of the frat house with a girl he loves.  Reflecting on his first encounter with Stephen King’s opening lines, Hosseini recalls: 

“When I first read those lines I was twenty— not a teenager anymore, but certainly a young man.  At that age, especially, you feel like the world doesn’t get you— if only people could look inside you and see all you carry inside!  This passage is an expression of how alone we are, really.  How fully we live inside our minds, that the person who walks down the street and shakes hands is only an approximation of the self inside.  The personas we inhabit publicly are merely approximations of who we are internally— shrunken, distorted versions of ourselves that we present to the real world.  This is because the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”

Just as our oversimplified exterior selves can never capture the interior complexities of who we are, what we write never quite expresses what we wanted to say— our words stumble short of our ideas.  The painter who tries to reproduce the surreal midnight blue of a starry sky, the novelist who attempts to articulate the inexpressible yearnings of the heart: anyone who calls himself an artist knows the exquisite torment of expressing oneself.  The artist is a dauntless explorer who sets out on the expansive sea of the blank page to discover new worlds.  The problem?  Much like Columbus, we intend to go to one place but often end up on the other side of the globe.

There will always be a gap between what we envision and what we execute.  The painter’s cheerful shade of blue won’t quite capture the mysterious wonderment of that surreal summer sky; the novelist’s heartbreaking scene between estranged lovers won’t ring true.  So what are we aspiring artists supposed to do?  Zadie Smith advised we resign ourselves to the “lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”  The witty Michael Childress put it another way: accept that “a book is best before you’ve written a word.”

Hearing this advice, you might wonder: if we’re inevitably going to be disappointed with what we create, why write at all?  Isn’t it a cruel form of masochism to try to accomplish what we prove— time and time again— cannot be done?  To write, in the words of Bill Bryson, is to “come to terms with the dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill.”  Though the summit continually retreats by whatever distance we press forward, still we stagger on…what else can we do?  Most writers would say they write— not to arrive at the top of the mountain— but for the thrill of trying to get to the top.  Though writing involves discouragement and disappointment, Hosseini affirms it’s ultimately a joyous, humbling experience:

“This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship.  You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true.  And yet, by the time this idea passes through different filters in your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen— it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished.  The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.  

When this happens, it’s quite a sobering reminder of your limitations as a writer.  It can be extremely frustrating.  When I’m writing, a thought will occasionally pass unblemished, unperturbed, through my head onto the screen— clearly, like through a glass.  It’s an intoxicating, euphoric sensation to feel that I’ve communicated something so real, and so true.  But that doesn’t happen often.

[…]  

Even my finished books are an approximation of what I intended to do.  I try to narrow the gap, as much as I possibly can, between what I wanted to say and what’s actually on the page.  But there’s still a gap, there always is.  It’s very, very difficult.  And it’s humbling.”

I once read that words are the instruction manual for reassembling our ideas.  As writers, our job is to outline our thoughts so clearly that our readers can reconstruct them for themselves.  If we don’t arrange our points in a logical fashion or use signposts to signal a shift in ideas, they’ll be like the unfortunate soul who tries to assemble an IKEA coffee table without the instructions— they’ll struggle to connect the parts of our argument into a coherent, comprehensible whole.  The result?  They’ll end up— not with a functional table— but a wobbly three-legged nightmare. 

This analogy attests to the difficulty of ever truly communicating with someone.  Transmitting a message to another requires reasoning abilities far more advanced than those required of a whale’s song or bird’s squawk.  Yet no matter how eloquent or sharp-witted we are, our capacity to express ourselves will falter.  Why?  Because not only are we imperfect writers, our audience is composed of imperfect readers— they can always misunderstand us.  As Gordie so poignantly observes, 

“…you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it.  That’s the worst, I think.  When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

And isn’t that what so often happens?  We so fear being misunderstood that we safeguard the gems of who we genuinely are in the vault of our hearts.  Think about love.  Perhaps we’ve been dating someone casually for a few months and our initial seeds of infatuation are beginning to blossom into love.  Do we confess our feelings?  Of course not.  What if they think we’re needy/clingy/psycho?  What if dating as an adult is just as infantile as having a crush on the playground?  What if the moment our schoolyard crush knows the depths of our feelings, he ceases to like us?  After all, isn’t reciprocation a surefire way to repulse someone?  If we say how we feel, he might think we want a deeper commitment and run off.  Or—having finally won our affection— he might get bored and seek to conquer another woman’s heart.  Our biggest fear is being rejected and misconstrued.  The last thing we want is to utter those immortal words from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not it all.  That is not what I meant, at all.”

Yet no matter how impossible it is to be truly seen and truly heard, no matter how likely we are to be misunderstood, the beauty of literature— of all art, really— is it bridges the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between ourselves and others.  “Books make us less isolated,” exquisitely erudite philosopher and re-inventor of self help Alain de Botton once wrote, “They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.”  An exalting line of poetry, a richly imagined novel: despite how challenging it might be to form close bonds in real life, art reminds us of our common humanity and alleviates our terrible sense of being alone.  Hosseini concludes by celebrating literature’s miraculous ability to connect people in a disconnected world:

“But that’s what art is for— for both reader and writer to overcome their respective limitations and encounter something true.  It seems miraculous, doesn’t it?  That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog.  Great art reaches through the fog, toward this secret heart— and it shows it to you, holds it before you.  It’s a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens.  You feel understood.  You feel heard.  That’s why we come to art— we feel less alone.  We are less alone.  You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have— and you feel better.”

For more wisdom on writing and the writing life, visit Maya Angelou’s writing routine & the exquisite torment of the creative life, Anne Sexton’s advice to young writers, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.  For even more guidance from our era’s most dazzling literary lights, rejoice in Brenda Ueland on art as infection, art as a grand gesture of generosity, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and the incubation of ideas. 

Sylvia Plath on the True Definition of Love & the Dynamics of a Healthy Relationship

the unabridged journals of sylvia plath

Since the shattering dissolution of my ten-year relationship, I’ve been preoccupied with what constitutes “love.”  What, exactly, is this emotion that has endlessly puzzled philosophers?  Is it carnal passion?  physical chemistry?  Does it burn and blaze through our hearts until it’s extinguished by domesticity?  Or is true love as stable as a 30-year mortgage and 2.5 kids?  Is it dirty dishes and morning coffee?

Can love take many forms?  Can it be romantic and platonic?  ruled by the mind, body and heart?  Can you have a sexual soul mate and an intellectual one?

After so much misfortune in the romantic arena, I wanted to learn how to distinguish infatuation from idealization, real intimacy from rushed intimacy, commitment from codependence, charm from manipulation, love from love-bombing.  I became a lexicographer dedicated to reducing love to an accessible definition and understanding its many meanings.  If I possessed the linguistic tools to name love, I would be better able— I hoped— to recognize it.

In many ways, our culture’s definition of love is unhealthy.  From a young age, girls are bombarded with toxic messages, usually in the form of damsels-in-distress and Prince Charming bedtime stories.  These fairytales teach us we’re Snow White: breathtaking but helpless creatures who require a handsome prince to awaken us from our spell-induced slumber.  The result?  When we grow up, we believe we need a knight-in-shining armor.

This idea that we need another person originates in the ancient world.  According to Greek mythology, human beings were inseparably intwined with their soul mates until Zeus split us in two, dooming us to eternally wander the Earth in search of our other half, our “one.”

Today the belief in soul mates persists in sappy chick flicks and the prepackaged cliches of sentimental Hallmark cards.  Though we swoon over the Platonic myth of our “other half,” at its base is the rather unhealthy conviction that we’re fundamentally incomplete and need someone else to make us whole.  The uncoupled among us are seen as missing a vital piece of our soul.  Women are especially taught to equate their worth to their relationship status.  If we reach a certain age and still haven’t walked down the aisle, we’re pitied as lonely spinsters.  “Poor Sheila, still single…and after all these years!” our relatives mercilessly gossip over cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. 

blonde sylvia

In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece of introspection worshipped as the first feminist bible and hailed as a genuine literary event, dedicated diarist and prolific poet Sylvia Plath challenges us to rethink our definition of a healthy relationship.  During her 1950s era of shiny chrome appliances and the picture-perfect Beaver to Cleaver white picket fence, women only had one option: housewifery.  Finding a husband was the end-all and be-all of her existence; she didn’t have an identity outside her marriage and mothering responsibilities.  While her husband commuted on the morning train to his job where he practiced medicine, transacted business, administered justice, and delivered impassioned sermons, she tied an apron around her waist and cooked casseroles in quiet desperation.  She might bake brownies for her son’s bake sale or attend the occasional PTA meeting, but her life was in large part circumscribed by his. 

Though we’ve come a long way since the conventional gender roles of the 1950s, we still possess many of the same outdated ideas about relationships.  “Real” love— we believe— is losing yourself in your partner; a “real” relationship is two lost and lonely “I’s” merging and melding to become a single unit.  However, ancient philosophers and contemporary psychologists agree that the healthiest relationships strike a balance between distance and intimacy, independence and togetherness.  A marriage should be a union of equals: one partner’s passions and preoccupations should never dominate the other’s.  Ideally, a relationship is a reciprocal exchangenot a crusade for control or battle for power.  To be satisfied with our significant others, we must have a shared life but also a life outside each other.

In a May 15, 1952 journal entry, Plath fashions the elegant metaphor of a Venn digram to illustrate that the happiest marriages are composed of two people with overlapping but independent identities:

“I plan not to step into a part on marrying— but to go on living as an intelligent mature human being, growing and learning as I always have.  No shift, no radical change in life habits.  Never will there be a circle, signifying me and my operations, confined solely to home, other womenfolk, and community service, enclosed in the larger worldly circle of my mate, who brings home from his periphery of contact with the world the tales only vicarious to me…No rather there will be two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, but both with separate arcs jutting out in the world.  A balanced tension; adaptable to circumstances, in which there is an elasticity of pull, tension, yet firm unity.  Two stars, polarized…in moments of communication that is complete…almost fusing into one.  But fusion is an undesirable impossibility— and quite non-durable.”

For more illuminating insights about love, read Alain de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaningdating as a form of performative playacting, love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment and how heartbreak hurls us into the depths of despair and dispels our hubris.  If you’re feeling hopelessly incomplete without a partner this Valentine’s Day, remember Edna St. Vincent Millay’s consoling assertion that love is not all.  Still struggling in the romantic department?  Delight in Marcel Proust’s timeless advice on how to sustain a loving, long-lasting relationship.