Bell Hooks on What Love Is

The definitions of love are many.  For poetess and prototypical feminist Sylvia Plath, love is a Venn diagram of two independent but intersecting identities.  For fellow feminist Edna St. Vincent Millay, love might not be “all,” but “many a man is making friends with death for lack of love alone.”  Perhaps the best definition is no definition at all; as poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes, “love is the great intangible.”

In her revelatory All About Love, scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks aims to clarify this all about loveindefinite emotion.  Though at first love seems beyond definition, too elusive to be captured in a semantic net of description, hooks attempts to define love because “our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving.  If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying.”  After all, we can only love (and be loved) if we know what love is.  As Rebecca Solnit once so elegantly expressed, calling things by their true names “isn’t all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.”

Our cultural conception of love is often unrealistic.  Hollywood movies portray happy couples prancing off into the sunset, the moment of a couple’s romantic reunion at the airport or tender first kiss— never tense dinners in silence or squabbles over dirty dishes.  We usually only see the idealized initial stages of love but what happens after the end credits?  Had Jack not froze to death at the end of Titanic, would him and Rose have made it?  Would they have rode horses along the beach like they had imagined?  Would they be happily married or would Rose resent having to relinquish the material comforts of her aristocratic existence?  Would she eventually regret leaving the millionaire steel tycoon for the starving artist?

Most romantic movies end before the couple has to grapple with the difficulties of being in a long-term relationship.  Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles: all end with the beginning of a relationship: a first kiss, a grand declaration of love and reconciliation.  Because we only witness love in its intoxicating early stages, we have unrealistic standards for our real-life romances.  We equate love with uncontrollable passion, Gone With the Wind kisses and bouquets of roses.  If our partner is truly destined for us, we believe, things should be easy: we should finish each other’s sentences, always want to have sex, and never quarrel.  Our partner should know that we hate the volume too loud on the TV without us having to say so.

Despite these prevailing myths, love is often difficult.  In All About Love’s opening chapter “Clarity: Give Love Words,” hooks argues love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.  In other words, loving is a choice we make day after day, it’s something we do.  It’s easy to choose love in the beginning of a relationship, when our beloved is a distant crush we’ve barely uttered “hello” to.  It’s far more difficult to choose love— to compromise, to sacrifice, to hold our tongue, to listen attentively, to express gratitude— the longer we’ve been with someone.

In the first dizzy days of love, we think our beloved is an idol, a god.  But this is a chimera.  When we obtain the object of our desire, when the crush we admired from afar finally becomes our significant other, we realize they’re just as flawed as we are: they’re occasionally petty, often jealous, insufferable after a long day of work and grouchy when tired.  To love any one for any length of time requires we forgive these frailties and foibles. 

According to M. Scott Peck, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  Though we usually imagine love is accepting someone for who they are, hooks maintains—much like charmingly cynical philosopher and unlikely love guru Alain de Botton— that love is a form of education.  Our significant others are instructors in the school of life, coaches who challenge us to build upon our strengths and remedy our weaknesses.

While it’s true your partner shouldn’t try to shape you into something you’re not, growth is the cornerstone of the greatest relationships.  Each of us— no matter how intelligent or attractive or accomplished— are flawed: we sulk when our feelings are hurt, we throw fits when we lose at trivia, we furiously honk our horns and cut people off when driving on the highway during rush hour.  A good partner will possess the qualities we lack and teach us how to express our emotions, control our road rage and stop being such a sore loser.  As hooks writes, when we commit to love, we commit to being changed by another.Ultimately, love is care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest, open communication.  Love isn’t abuse, belittlement, cruelty, or humiliation.  In a moment that is as revelatory as it is painfully obvious, hooks declares “love and abuse cannot coexist.”  Though it seems self-evident that love is incompatible with mistreatment, many of us— especially those who were abused as children— struggle to accept this fact.  As any psychologist will tell you, our conception of love begins with our family of origin.  If we were physically, psychologically, or emotionally abused, if we were constantly criticized or compared to another sibling, if we were simply neglected and never listened to, we will make the logical leap that love = pain/neglect/abuse.

As adults, we replicate the same childhood scripts but find different actors to play the roles of our dysfunctional parents.  If our father beat us after one too many gin and tonics, we marry an alcoholic who’s just as short-tempered and just as violent; if our mother was a narcissist, we only find ourselves attracted to the most self-absorbed women.

Hooks contends that if we grew up in a dysfunctional home where our parents said “I love you” but also hurt us, called us names, minimized our feelings or acted as if we didn’t exist, we have to come to terms with a devastating fact: we do not know what love is.  We’ve never known love and, sadly, have spent much of our lives in a state of lovelessness.

The good news is that love is a skill: we can learn to love just as we learned the state capitals and letters of the alphabet.  Want more insight into this rare and immensely important ability?  Read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, how heartbreak dispels our hubris, love as the origin of beauty, the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, and dating as a form of performative playacting.  Longing for even more lessons on how to love?  Revisit French novelist Marcel Proust on how to be happy in love and philosopher, painter and poet Kahlil Gibran’s timeless meditations on love as our most demanding work.

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Scavenger Hunt of Curiosity

When Sylvia Plath wrote her perennial classic The Bell Jar, we imagine she was overcome by a burning passion for her subject, that she was obsessed with the repressive patriarchy of the 1950s, mental hospitals and electro-shock treatments.  But what if she wasn’t immediately infatuated with her concept?  What if The Bell Jar began as a simple attempt to recreate that “queer, sultry summer” in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and the Rosenbergs were electrocuted?

I write often about how we romanticize the artist’s life.  We glamorize the tired and trite “suffering artist” archetype, we worship the myth of the “muse.”  But perhaps one of the most persistent (and pernicious) myths about art is that the artist only creates because he “has” to.  To write— we think— the writer must be seized by a Big Idea.  In a sudden burst of ecstatic inspiration, he has no choice but to obey the callings of the muse.  His productivity is frenzied, fiery.  He can’t sleep, he can’t eat.  All his thoughts unceasingly circulate around one thing: his idea.  His work most closely resembles a passionate love affair.

I myself rarely have this experience.  Indeed, at first, I almost never am “in love” with an idea.  A topic might interest me like a handsome, mysterious man in the corner of a bar.  Do I want to dramatically kiss him like we’re Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca?  No, but I’m intrigued enough to walk across the room, spark a conversation and buy him a beer.

In her wondrous Big Magic, the ever-endearing Elizabeth Gilbert makes an unconventional argument: if you want to write, you need curiosity, not passion.  In our passion-crazed culture, we believe our work should be a consuming love affair as steamy as a clandestine kiss stolen in an elevator.  However, our next idea rarely (if ever) arrives in a lighting bolt of inspiration— it comes in hints, murmurs, and whispers.

In one of my favorite chapters “The Scavenger Hunt,” Gilbert describes the process of writing her page-turning period piece The Signature of All Things, a tale of adventure and discovery that traces the story of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant botanist during the 19th century.  Before she embarked on The Signature of All Things, Gilbert was experiencing a dry spell.  What— she wondered for months— did she want to do next?  Did she want to write a sweeping historical novel?  a piece of non-fiction?  another Eat, Pray, Love-style memoir?

Like many of us, Gilbert longed for irrepressible desire; she wanted her next project to give her goosebumps and butterflies, to sweep her off her feet, to court and woo her.  When such an idea never came, she decided to settle for curiosity.  Rather than wait for the idea to magically fall from the sky, she asked herself a simple question: was there anything she was interested in?  anything at all?  As Gilbert writes,

“I kept waiting for a big idea to arrive, and I kept announcing to the universe that I was ready for a big idea to arrive, but no big ideas arrived.  There were no goose bumps, no hair standing on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach.  There was no miracle.

[…]

Most days, this is what life is like.  I poked about for a while in my everyday chores— writing emails, shopping for socks, resolving small emergencies, sending out birthday cards.  I took care of the orderly business of life.  As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still hadn’t ignited me, I didn’t panic.  Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.

I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?”

Once Gilbert decided to let go of the need for passion and instead follow her curiosity, she realized she was interested in something: gardening.  Was she obsessed with gardening?  Would she die for a field of red carnations?  No, but she was curious.  She had just moved to a small town in rural New Jersey and wanted to plant a garden.  So she planted heirloom irises and lilacs and tulips.  In the process, she discovered that many of the gorgeous flowers in her garden actually originated in faraway, exotic places.  Her tulips were from Turkey; her irises were from Syria.  Every little flower in her garden contained a history she had not been aware of.

The more Gilbert learned, the more her curiosity bloomed.  She read books about botanists and explorers; she trekked across the globe from her small town in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of Polynesia; she poured over historical documents and interviewed experts.  Soon Gilbert was so fanatically obsessed with botanical history that she decided to write a book.

Had Gilbert disregarded her interest in gardening, she would have never written The Signature of All Things.  As she confesses with equal parts humor and humility,

“It was a novel I never saw coming.  It had started with nearly nothing.  I did not leap into that book with my hair on fire; I inched toward it, clue by clue.  But by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth-century botanical exploration.  Three years earlier, I had never even heard of nineteenth-century botanical exploration—  all I’d wanted was a modest garden in my backyard!— but now I was writing a massive story about plants, and science, and evolution, and abolition, and love, and loss, and one woman’s journey into intellectual transcendence.

So it worked.  But it only worked because I said yes to every single tiny clue of curiosity.”

If you’re feeling stuck and having trouble choosing your next project, heed Ms. Gilbert’s advice: stop romanticizing the drama and excitement of passion and instead follow the not-so-obvious clues of your curiosity.

Elizabeth Gilbert: What’s Your Favorite Flavor of Shit Sandwich?

In her radiant, resplendent Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, who taught us how to embrace the paradoxical principles of creative living and rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence, tells the story of one of her friends who was an aspiring writer.  Much like her, he wanted nothing more than to be published.  Despite his determination, the only thing in his mailbox were rejections.  As time went on, the young writer got more and more discouraged.  What was the point?  Why write at all if he wasn’t going to “make” something of it?  “I don’t want to be just sitting around,” he grumbled to Gilbert, “I want this to all add up to something.  I want this to become my job!”  Tormented by the thought that all his hard work would come to “nothing,” the young writer sank into a serious depression.  Eventually, he put down his pen and paper and gave up.

Why did this young man stop writing?  Simple: he wasn’t willing to eat the shit sandwich.

What’s a shit sandwich?

The shit sandwich is a concept Ms. Gilbert borrowed from the four-letter-word-loving provocateur Mark Manson.  The idea goes that anything worthwhile comes with its own stinky brand of shit sandwich.  Every relationship, every city, every job, every profession has disadvantages.

The man of your dreams may possess everything you’ve ever wanted— a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, a gentle, sensitive nature— but have one serious flaw; perhaps he has an obnoxious obsession with recounting movie plots or has children from a previous partner.

The city you’ve always romanticized may be picturesque on postcards but have sidewalks littered with heroin needles and a serious homeless problem.

No matter how glittery or glamorous a job may seem, there will always be tedious things lurking beneath its glossy exterior.  A fashion editor, for instance, may get free Prada handbags and sip champagne in chiffon, but she may also have to work on a tight deadline and deal with constantly being chewed out by her tyrannical boss.  A famous musician may get to play in front of thousands of screaming fans but also have to live out of a suitcase on a tour bus.  A doctor may possess the prestige of a PhD and make a six figure salary, but also have to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before he can call himself a doctor.  As Gilbert writes:

“What Manson means is that every single pursuit…comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.  As Manson writes with profound wisdom, “Everything sucks, some of the time.”  You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with.  So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’  The question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”

elizabeth gilbert #2

Gilbert’s friend claimed he wanted to be a writer but he wasn’t willing to do what it took to be a writer.  The demoralizing rejection letters, the lack of respect or recognition, the concerned looks of sensible relatives: this is the stomach-churning shit you have to eat if you want to be a writer.  Writing isn’t just Pulitzer prizes and interviews with Oprah: it’s years of toiling away in obscurity, it’s hurtful criticism, it’s losing contest after contest, it’s impersonal form rejection letters.  But if you love writing— or anything— enough, you can tolerate the shit sandwich that accompanies your sumptuous feast of a three-course dinner.  The joy of writing— of simply putting one word against another— makes up for the heartbreaking years of being a nobody and the sting of a harsh review in the New Yorker.

The Paradoxical Principles of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philosophy of Creativity

When we talk about our writing lives, we often exist in the confining black and white binary of either/or.

Either we write the next Great American Novel or a trashy paperback. 

Either we quit our jobs and be “real” artists or suffer the soul-sucking 9-to-5 and slowly lose our will to live in a dreary gray cubicle

Either we write a massively successful New York Times best seller or fail.

Either we’re darlings of the critics or dismissed, shunned and ignored. 

Either we catapult to literary superstardom or toil away for years, pathetic and unknown. 

Either art sparks revolutions, changes people’s lives and makes a difference in the world or it sits, limpid and lifeless, on book shelves and gallery walls. 

Either art expands our hearts and stirs our souls or provides momentary entertainment— nothing more.

Either what we create matters or it doesn’t matter at all.

However if we are to live a creative life, bubbly, buoyant Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we should embrace the puzzling paradox of “and” and reject the overly simplistic mindset of “either/or.”  Much like Gretchen Rubin, who observed that the opposite of a great truth is also true, Gilbert believes two contradictory ideas can be correct at the same time.  Art is useless and worthwhile.  Composing a poem is not nearly as important as stopping global warming or finding a cure for cancer and it’s just as crucial.  Sonnets and symphonies are both pointless pleasures and nourishment for the soul.  Making things is a frivolous pastime and a miracle.

elizabeth gilbert signature of all things

In the conclusion to her gleeful guide to creative living Big Magic, which I’ve reread at least once a year since first discovering it three years ago, Gilbert shares her creative manifesto:

           “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

           What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

           We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

           We are terrified, and we are brave.

           Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

           Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”

In the end, if you want to write (or paint or sculpt or film or draw or sew), you must love your work deeply yet regard it lightly, you must take what you do seriously yet not care about it at all.  Writing a sentence, you consider each word: its meaning, its melody, its connotations, its tone.  In much the same way a chef considers whether his roasted duck will pair well with Merlot, you select your sentences with care and savor the sumptuous feast of your every word.  However— if after all your labor— you realize what you wrote doesn’t work, you’re willing to send it to the chopping block and start over.  As Gilbert says with refreshing irreverence, what we create is sacred and not sacred: our words are just words.

Big Magic is as indispensable to a writer’s library as The Artist’s Way, as wondrous as If You Want to Write, and as consoling and comforting as Bird by Bird.  Want more maps to chart the at times difficult writing life?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments, Brenda Ueland on why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies and Rilke on how to know you’re an artist and why you must be patient if you’re going to lead a creative life.

3 Revolutionary Scientists’ Rituals & Routines

Here are the rituals and routines of yet 3 more remarkable people profiled in Mason Currey’s delightful Daily Rituals:

1. Charles Darwin

At the ripe age of 22, Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and set sail for the Galapagos.  At this time, his life was romantic and adventure-filled: he traveled to faraway lands with foreign customs and strange people who spoke in even stranger languages, marveled at the boundless biodiversity of our improbable blue planet, studied his now famous finches and began to formulate his earth-shattering theory of evolution.

However, his life while actually writing On the Origins of Species was rather dull by comparison.  To escape the commotion of city life and work without disturbance, Darwin and his family left London in 1842 and moved to the quaint English countryside.  There they made their home at Down House, a former parsonage in Kent, about 14 miles southeast of London’s Charing Cross.  Darwin loved his secluded home— the “edge of the world” he called it— because he could be alone with his controversial thoughts.  He knew his theory of evolution would cause an uproar.  Not only did his thesis directly contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible, it suggested that man, who was supposedly created in the image of God, was just another beast in the animal kingdom.  Man descended from monkeys?  He knew such a blasphemous notion would cause an outcry and potentially ruin his career (time proved Mr. Darwin right; after he published his theory, one critic raged, “Darwin’s story begins in the mud, has a monkey in the middle and an infidel at the tail.”)

Still, Darwin worked steadily in secret on his ideas.  At Down House, Darwin led a simple, solitary life.  After waking, eating breakfast and taking a morning stroll, the great scientist settled into work.  There he labored for an hour and a half before meeting his wife, Emma, in the drawing room, where she’d read him the family letters and a portion of a novel.  At 10:30, Darwin returned to his study and worked for another hour and a half, which he considered a good day’s work.

Much like Wordsworth and Thoreau, the father of evolution understood the importance of idleness to creativity and made time for long, meandering walks throughout the day with Polly, his beloved fox terrier.  Afternoons were reserved for leisurely lunches with his family and letter writing (Darwin made an effort to respond to every letter he received no matter how nonsensical or crazy); if he didn’t reply to even a single missive, he’d feel so guilty, he couldn’t get to sleep).  In the evening, he’d have a small dinner (even if his family was indulging in a luxurious feast, he’d only have tea, an egg or small piece of meat), smoke a cigarette or two, play backgammon with his wife and then read and retire to bed around 10:30.

2. Albert Einstein

einstein #2

Perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, Albert Einstein was many things: groundbreaking physicist, champion of the imagination, unwavering believer in human goodness, unapologetic individualist, passionate pacifist, stanch defender of free speech and civil liberty.  In addition to discovering E = mc2 and developing his groundbreaking theory of relativity, he made great contributions to human thought and philosophy. 

When Hitler rose to power and the threat of war began to darken the continent in 1933, Einstein fled to the United States where he joined the faculty at Princeton University.  There, he followed a predictable routine: he read the papers and ate a breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, and honey, then headed to the office.  At 1:30, he returned home for lunch and an afternoon nap.  The rest of the day, Einstein worked, answered letters, and occasionally entertained.

Despite his legendary life, Einstein’s day-to-day wasn’t particularly noteworthy.  Like most remarkable men throughout history, his life wasn’t glamorous or thrilling, filled with fascinating people, faraway places and glittering parties— it was single-mindedly focused on his work which— from the outside— doesn’t look all that interesting.  Picasso could delight in a dinner party now and again, but preferred to paint in his quiet studio in MontparnasseMatisse worked 7 days a week, only taking a brief respite to oar in the harbor and play violinWhen he wasn’t revolutionizing modern poetry, T.S. Eliot was wearing a suit and tie and working a rather regular job at a bank.  As philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed so astutely, “Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting.”

Indeed, Einstein preferred to do certain things the same way everyday to save valuable time and energy.  Rather than squander a precious hour debating whether to wear a button down shirt or a cashmere sweater, Einstein bought several versions of the same gray suit so he had a “uniform” he could wear everyday.  “The same exact thing…everyday?” you fashionistas may be gasping in horror, “How boring!”  Though his unrelentingly gray wardrobe might seem dreary, Einstein understood life was full of decisions: better to automate as many unimportant ones as possible so you can focus on what truly matters: your mission.  Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.  Mark Zuckerberg and his uber-casual Silicon Valley uniform of a tee shirt and jeans.  If you want to found a multi-billion dollar company or unlock the scientific mysteries of the universe, the idea goes, simplify your wardrobe and streamline your routine.

3. Margaret Mead

margaret mead

Like most productive people from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was deeply devoted to her work.  Endlessly energetic, Mead was always working on something, be it her revolutionary study of adolescence in the South Pacific in her controversy-stirring book Coming of Age in Samoa or her PhD.

Mead’s life is a testament to what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his fascinating study of “flow”: we’re happiest not when we’re relaxing in leisure but when we’re engaged in something difficult and worthwhile.  Mrs. Mead despised being unproductive and hated nothing more than frittering away hours.  So protective was she of her time that she became enraged at anyone who disrupted her schedule.  On one occasion at a symposium, Mead was outraged to learn that a session had been postponed.  “How dare they,” she exclaimed, “Do they realize what use I could have made of this time?  Do they know that I get up at five o’ clock in the morning to write a thousand words before breakfast?  Why did nobody have the politeness to tell me this meeting had been rescheduled?”

3 Writers Who Had Day Jobs

“Follow your dreams.”  “Take risks.”  “Be brave.”  In hopeful America where ambition is as tall as the Empire State Building, we romanticize the risk-takers who take big, bold steps toward their dreams: the aspiring novelists who quit their soul-sapping day jobs to toil away in anonymity, the artists who sacrifice everything.  We want grand gestures done in the name of creativity: a Leo Tolstoy who sacrifices his material possessions to go on a spiritual quest, a Van Gogh who devotes his life to his art, despite the fact that he can never make a living from his paintings.

In our cultural consciousness, being an artist means living in a bohemian studio in Brooklyn or Montparnasse and leading a Dionysian life of cheap wine, cocaine and excess.  An artist can’t work a conventional job at a bank or an insurance company, he certainly can’t have a normal, quiet life and rejoice in the trappings of the middle-class bourgeoisie.

To be a “real” writer, you have to write full time and make money from your writing.  Working a regular 9-to-5 job while pursuing your art on the side is seen as cowardly.  After all, shouldn’t a “real” writer fearlessly pursue his dreams instead of care too much about practical matters like mortgage payments and 401ks?

But nothing is more damaging to the muse than demanding she support you financially.  No matter how much we glamorize the myth of the starving artist, there’s nothing glamorous about stressing about money.  Buoyant spirit and overall beautiful human being Elizabeth Gilbert is a passionate champion of working to provide for your creativity.  Before she wrote her blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, she worked countless jobs to sustain herself while writing.  At various points in her life, she was a tutor, a cook, a waitress, a bartender.  At fifteen, she made a pact with her creativity: “I will never ask you to support me financially.  I will support both of us.”  Instead of “be brave” and quit her day job, Gilbert worked so she could pay the rent and focus on what really mattered: her art.

Despite the destructive myth that being a “real” writer means writing for a living, Mason Currey’s “delightful book of quirks and oddities,” Daily Rituals reveals many of the most distinguished writers held ordinary occupations during the day.  Below are three world class writers who had regular jobs despite their massive success in writing:

1. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Is there anything less poetic than working at bank?  Yet titan of modernist poetry T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk at London’s Lloyd’s Bank for nearly a decade.  From 1917-1925 in between writing some of the most revolutionary poetry of the century, Eliot wore a pin-striped suit, parted his hair seriously to one side and worked what would appear to be a rather dull office job in the bank’s foreign transactions department.  Like the rest of us bread-and-butter slaves, he commuted on a crowded train every morning (“I am sojourning among the termites,” he wrote to British writer and critic Lytton Strachey) and worked Monday through Friday from 9:15-5:30.

The banker’s life may have lacked the thrill and romance of the poet’s, but Eliot was grateful for a steady paycheck and reliable gig.  Before his job at Lloyd’s, he worked as a teacher at Highgate School where he taught French and Latin.  To subsidize his meager income, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses at Oxford and University College London.  Not only was teaching exhausting, it narrowly paid the bills and barely left him enough time for his true calling.  Therefore, when he got the position at Lloyd’s, Eliot was overjoyed.  Two days after receiving the appointment, he wrote his mother, “I am now earning two pounds ten shillings a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5:00 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in office…Perhaps it will surprise you that I enjoy the work.  It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching and it is more interesting.”

Though Eliot did eventually leave his bourgeois job at the bank for a more “literary” position as an editor at Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), his years at Lloyd’s helped him establish himself as a writer.  Had he not had the stability afforded by a 9-to-5 job, perhaps Eliot would have never written “The Wasteland” or been able to show us fear in a handful of dust.

2. Wallace Stevens

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

Wallace Stevens was yet another poet who spent his days in a gray-colored cubicle.  Rather than chase his literary dreams after graduating from Harvard, Stevens took his father’s advice and made the sensible choice to attend law school.  He later accepted a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where his main responsibility was evaluating insurance claims as an insurance lawyer.  Stevens was so successful that he was promoted to vice president of the company in 1934. 

Though it’s hard to imagine a poet indulging in trivial office gossip around the water cooler, Stevens loved the stability of the corporate 9-to-5.  “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once confessed, “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.”

Many of us think that to write you need yawning vistas of time: a year long sabbatical, an entire summer, at least an afternoon of uninterrupted hours.  However, we’re often more productive when we have more— not fewer— demands on our time.  When you have a full-time job, you have to make time to write.  Stevens, for example, would write poetry on long walks during his lunch hour (like Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth before him, he knew walking was the fertile soil where the seeds of great ideas were planted).  When inspiration unexpectedly struck at the office, Stevens would scribble fragments of poems onto bits of paper, file them in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and have his secretary type them.

Like Eliot, Stevens kept a day job because he didn’t want to worry about dollars and cents.  We may romanticize poets who die destitute in garrets, but there’s nothing romantic about being penniless.  In fact, money troubles distract from creativity and cause enormous stress.  Stevens’ substantial salary as a lawyer ($20,000 a year, equivalent to about $350,000 today) promised money— or lack of it— never interfered with his poetry.  “I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about money,” Stevens once wrote, grateful for his days at the office.

3. Anthony Trollope

Many know that Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific writers of all time, but fewer know that he wrote many of his 47 novels, 42 short stories and 5 travel books while employed.  From 1834 to 1867, the English novelist worked as a civil servant at the General Post Office and only wrote in the three hours before dressing for breakfast.

Trollope’s routine was strict and unvarying.  In his Autobiography, he admitted, “I allowed myself no mercy.”  Every morning— no matter what— he rose at 5:30 and began working.  To hold himself accountable, he paid an old butler 5 pounds to wake up with him and bring him coffee.  “I owe more to him than to any one else for the success that I have had,” Trollope once said, half-seriously.

With only a few hours before he had to be at the post office, Trollope required himself to produce at least 250 words every quarter of an hour.  By the end of the morning, he’d have written a whole 10 pages of a novel, a pace— if sustained— that would result in 2,400 pages, or several lengthy novels, by the end of a year.

Trollope’s dedication to his craft was no doubt influenced by his mother, who took up writing later in life to support her six children and Trollope’s ailing father.  Like most women throughout history, Mrs. Trollope was primarily responsible for housework and child-rearing.  To be able to write and still fulfill her domestic duties, she rose before sunrise everyday.  Both Trollope and his mother are proof that if you really want to write, you can find the time…even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning.

3 Artists’ Rituals & Routines

Self-help books and personal development podcasts all tout the importance of having a morning routine.  But what— exactly— is the ideal way to start the day?  Many experts argue you should begin with your most important task and avoid checking email and social media first thing in the morning.  Others contend you should make your bed every single day.  Such a simple act is a symbolic gesture: by establishing order in your physical environment, you establish order in your psyche.  Still others recommend journaling, meditating and exercising.

Despite our cultural fascination with the most productive way to divide our days, a quick perusal of Mason Currey’s charming Daily Rituals will reveal there’s no one perfect routine.  An extensively researched collection of over 160 artists, writers, painters and poets, Daily Rituals suggests there’s no single path to a Pulitzer or literary fame: the only thing that matters is sitting your butt in a chair, no excuses, day after day after day.  Whether you work for at least 8 hours like phenomenally productive Joyce Carol Oates or can’t write for more than 2 hours like Southern gothic novelist Flannery O’ Connor, you can write a novel or compose a poem so long as you consistently stick to some sort of routine.  Below are how 3 groundbreaking artists structured their days:

1. Pablo Picasso

Picasso

Pablo Picasso was many different things to many different people: to some, he was a genius, a god; to others, a devil.  At times, he could be charming and convivial, at others, callous and cruel.  His daughter Paloma compared him to the center of our solar system: “If you get too close to the sun, it burns you.”

Picasso was notorious for his moodiness and bad temper.  When he finished working for the day, he’d join his girlfriend Fernande for dinner.  “He rarely spoke during meals; sometimes he would not utter a word from beginning to end,” she recalled.  The painter was more companionable when they had guests over but remained ambivalent about entertaining: though he liked to take breaks between periods of intense productivity, he quickly tired of too much frivolous socializing.

Painting, on the other hand, never bored him.  Like many artists, he was most content when he was in front of a canvas.  For 12 hours a day, Picasso would withdraw to his studio on boulevard de Clichy in Montparnasse.  More a night owl than a lark, he’d begin his work day at 2pm, work until 10, have a late dinner until 11, then continue painting until 3 am, long after most of us have gone to bed.  The result?  Picasso was incredibly prolific, producing over 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints, 300 sculptures, and 34,000 illustrations.

2. Andy Warhol

andy warhol

Andy Warhol is one of the 21st century’s most accomplished artists.  Besides leading the pop art movement, he managed the Velvet Underground, popularized the expression “15 minutes of fame,” and founded The Factory, a hip gathering place for artists, intellectuals, models, musicians, drug users, and drag queens which came to epitomize the nonconformist spirit of the 1960s.  Warhol, much like great artists Van Gogh and Chardin, found beauty in the most mundane things.  In the same way that Duchamp shocked the world when he submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Warhol broke the barrier between the elevated and everyday.  For him, art wasn’t only bowls of fruit and breathtaking landscapes; it could be Coca Cola bottles and Campbell Soup cans, Brillo soap pads and iconic portraits of celebrities.

Though he was notorious for his eccentricities, Warhol deeply valued routine.  According to his collaborator and longtime friend Pat Hackett, “keeping to his beloved ‘rut’ was so important to Andy” that he veered from it only when absolutely necessary.  Every weekday morning from 1976 until his death in 1987, Warhol— who was obsessed with documenting his day a whole half century before social media— called Hackett and recounted the events of the last 24 hours: the things he’d done, the people he’d seen.  Hackett then transcribed and collected these events in The Andy Warhol Diaries.

After his daily call with Hackett, Warhol showered, got dressed and had breakfast.  Then he’d go shopping for a few hours, usually along Madison Avenue, then in antique shops, auction houses, and the jewelry district.  Between 1 and 3, he’d get to the office.  Before doing any real work, he’d check his appointment book, take a few calls, and open the mail, looking for letters, invitations, photographs and magazines for his Time Capsules.  A snapshot of both his personal life and the zeitgeist of his age, the Time Capsules were an extensive collection of mementos Warhol kept in hundreds of 10×18×14 inch cardboard boxes from 1974 to 1987.  “Less than one percent of all items that he was constantly being sent or given did he keep for himself or give away,” Currey writes, “All the rest were ‘for the box’: things he considered ‘interesting,’ which to Andy, who was interested in everything, meant literally everything.”

After finding material for his Time Capsules, Warhol chatted with people in the reception area and then moved to the sunny window ledge to read the newspaper and leaf through magazines.  Eventually, he would go to the back part of the loft near the freight elevator and settle in to do some real work.  A socialite who loved a glamorous party, Warhol reserved evenings for socializing.  Never the stereotypical reclusive artist, he believed life was a vital part of his art— not an enemy of it.  Indeed, Warhol often used his real life for inspiration.  An obsessive chronicler of the commonplace, he never left the house without film in his instant camera and often taped conversations.  Whether he was hanging with Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger or model Edie Sedgwick, Warhol thought a bit of captured conversation might later supply the dialogue for a play or movie script.

3. Henri Matisse

henri matisse

A French artist known for his expert craftsmanship, bright, expressive colors, and strong shapes, Henri Matisse is considered— along with Picasso— to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  The father of Fauvism, an artistic movement that emphasized vivid and unnatural use of color, Matisse had a great influence on expressionism and continues to inspire artists today.

Basically, I enjoy everything; I’m never bored.  Do you understand why I am never bored?  For over fifty years, I have not stopped working,” Matisse told a visitor to his studio in 1941.  This was no exaggeration: over the course of his career, he worked 7 days a week.  Though his paintings give the impression that they were created with effortless ease, Matisse confessed he had to labor painstakingly to achieve such seeming simplicity.  However, he loved the challenge of capturing his vision in painting.  “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” he once said, “I threw myself into it like a beast.”

Matisse’s day began at at dawn when he’d head to Club Nautique, where he’d oar in the harbor.  After he returned home, he’d practice the violin for a few hours.  From 9 till noon, he’d sit to work only to briefly take a break for a nap and lunch.  Around 2, he’d pick up his brushes again and paint until dusk.

The French painter followed this rigorous routine even on Sundays.  “On Sundays I have to tell all sorts of tales to the models,” he admitted, “I promise them it will be the last time I will ever beg them to come and pose that day.  Naturally I pay them double.  Finally, when I sense that they are not convinced I promise them a day off during the week.  ‘But Monsieur Matisse,’ one of them answered me, ‘this has been going on for months and I have never had one afternoon off.’  Poor things!  They don’t understand.  Nevertheless, I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them merely because they have boyfriends.”

The Routines & Rituals of 3 Famous Authors

What is the secret to success?  The answer— many of us contend— lies in the rituals and routines of great men.  By studying the biographies of billionaires and business men and adopting their habits, we believe we can attain similar success.  If we read a book a week like Bill Gates, we think, we’ll found a multi-billion dollar company and be just as wealthy as him.  Though this idea is obviously preposterous, something about the routines of the rich and famous still captures our imagination.  One look at the most listened to podcasts on Spotify reveals our fascination with the mysterious workings of the creative process.  We long to know how Beethoven prepared his morning coffee, when Picasso began his work day, when Einstein went to bed.

If— like me— you find such trivia endlessly entertaining, you’ll love Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to WorkA charming compendium of more than a 160 artists, writers, painters, poets and philosophers, Daily Rituals illuminates the many ways remarkable people throughout history have structured their days.  Though there are some commonalities among those featured, no one routine is universal.  Some worked for long stretches of time; others could only manage to work for an hour.  Some were early birds; others were night owls.  Some followed a strict schedule (Hemingway, for example, rose every morning at dawn no matter how much he drank the night before) while others were less regimented with their schedules (later in his life, man of the Jazz Age F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled to maintain a regular writing ritual).  In the end, the habits of these remarkable minds are as distinctive as the people.  Full of amusing anecdotes, interesting oddities and little-known facts, Daily Rituals will delight you— and perhaps reassure you that there’s no one “right” way to work.  Below are 3 of my favorite authors profiled:

1. Haruki Murakami

murakami

For Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, writing is just as much a physical challenge as a mental one.  “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity,” he told the Paris Review in 2004.  To stay in peak physical condition when he’s writing, he rarely drinks, eats mostly vegetables and fish and runs (his memoir What We Talk About When We Talk About Running, of course a nod to the classic Raymond Carver story, is one of my favorite books on either writing or running).  Because Murakami is a serious athlete (he began running 25 years ago and has been running daily ever since), he understands writing is a sport that requires focus and endurance.  Murakami follows a strict writing schedule in much the same way he trains for marathons: he wakes up before dawn (4 am) and works for 5-6 hours.  He is unwavering in his commitment.  No matter how enticing the cocktail hour or glamorous the party, Murakami often declines social invitations.  For him, writing is his number one priority.  Lesson?  Though your friends might get mad when you yet again say “no” to a night out, it’s more important to say yes to your novel and yourself.

2. Joyce Carol Oates

oates

Is there any writer who’s as productive as Mrs. Joyce Carol Oates?  One can only look upon her more than 50 novels, 36 short story collections, and countless essays and poems and gasp in wonderment.  How can a mere mortal observe so much of the world and craft art from her every experience?  What’s her secret?

Though Oates’s output seems impressive, it isn’t a surprise considering how many hours she spends at her desk.  America’s foremost woman of letters writes every day from 8:00 to 1:00, takes a brief respite for lunch, then writes until dinner.  “I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day’s work, it is a single page and these pages add up,” Oates told one interviewer.  Never one to fall for the myth of mood, Oates writes no matter what; she doesn’t wait for the mercurial muse.  Lesson?  If you want to write, be willing to work.

3. Stephen King

Master of horror Stephen King is yet another phenomenally prolific writer.  The macabre mind behind such bone-chilling books as It and The Shining has written over 62 novels and 200 short stories.  His books have been adapted for the silver screen, translated into over 50 languages and sold upwards of 350 million copies.  His body of work is— to say the least— intimidating.

So how has the sinister scribe managed to write so much over the course of his nearly 50 year career?  First off, he writes every single day of the year.  That’s right: every single day.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or his son’s birthday: he sits at his desk and writes until he reaches his self-imposed quota of two thousand words.  Like many in Daily Rituals, King begins writing first thing in the morning— 8:00 or 8:30— and works until he meets his goal.  Some days that might be until 11:30, other days it might be until 1:00.  Though he writes diligently every day, King isn’t a humorless workhorse.  His schedule allows for plenty of unstructured time for rest and renewal.  Once he writes two thousand words, he has the rest of the day to himself: to read, to write letters, to spend time with loved ones.

Alain de Botton on How to Preserve the Beauty You Behold Abroad

Why should we write or draw?  Wilde thought we should make art for joy alone whereas Van Gogh believed art was a grand gesture of generosity, a means of sharing something he loved with the world, whether it was a surreal St. Remy sky or a red poppy field.  Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, believed we should make art because it teaches us about ourselves and makes our soul grow

British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw.  In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels.  In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty.  In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities.  The result?  We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.

If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing.  Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic.  “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”

Why is Ruskin so passionate about art?  What is the point of learning to sketch?  Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition?  Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.

For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention.  By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation.  If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined.  They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.

When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings.  Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening.  In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture.  On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.

Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary.  As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.”  By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.

When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible.  As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.”  Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture.  Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details.  What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome?  Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer?  Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window?  Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold?  Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience.  To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:

“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings.  A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt.  Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water?  What are its associations?  What is a better word for it than big?’  The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.” 

Want more travel tips from The Art of Travel?  Read how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing and how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts.

Alain de Botton on How Art Can Open Our Eyes & Help Us Appreciate More Deeply

Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others?  Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco?  British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels.  The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms.  A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.

In many ways, artists help us see more clearly.  Different artists are guides to different things.  Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies.  Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen.  But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.

In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply.  At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees.  Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”

It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings.  Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.

Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence.  One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses.  Why had he never noticed them?  And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?

Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation.  Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape.  In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them.  The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk.  And the green has such a quality of distinction.  It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”

Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century.  His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely.  With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony.  Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it.  With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.

Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape.  In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:

“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white.  At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate.  With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”

In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns.  Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.”  “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.”  Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity.  Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s.  He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England.  But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant.  “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat.  The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky.  Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”

All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist.  More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice.  In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers.  But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious of its awe-inspiring crescent moon.