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.”
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.
Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality. Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies. We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe. As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche. With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.
Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality. Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy. In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels. And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.
Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy. In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting. Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring. Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers. And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.
No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton. In his indispensable volumeThe Art of Travel, which explained why we traveland how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad. After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing. But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments. His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness. How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?
Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city. As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.” Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity. De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary. After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements? As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing. There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco— but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”
Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring. Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city. Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame. Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas). Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.
De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.” No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning. Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally. What can it teach us about how to live? How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience? We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive. As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'” From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.
Lesson? For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it. Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.
No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread. To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines. If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself. Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules. As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors. Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart. Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us. When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport. “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves. Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.
We eventually arrive. Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time. If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board. With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours. To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones. When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope. In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.
Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are. Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow. But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people. The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds. In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable. If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef. Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business. Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten. Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:
“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul. Warsaw, Seattle, Rio. The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’ The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”
Why travel? The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting. The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV. The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting. Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany? What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places? Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning? Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?
In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Bottonsuggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently. Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being. At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages. Travel makes us realize we can change our lives. Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over. On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados. As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”
Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell? how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill? what should we make for tonight’s dinner? why hasn’t our package arrived yet? did it get lost in the mail?
We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale. A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes. “How can my husband not wash his dish right away? He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him. He’s a selfish pig!” If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.
But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective. In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist. As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.
Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion. In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting. We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck. Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor? If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner? A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill. At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.
In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual. Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one. “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit. Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places. Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.
“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket. The destination we select should remedy our affliction. If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet. On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon. Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts. How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?
In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves. In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.”
Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm. With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle. Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world? What do we imagine is our purpose in life? What have we always wanted to do? Learn Italian or do the tango? Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.
With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking. Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying? Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality. In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate. Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets. A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing. So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.
Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go. Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels. The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.
Most of us stumble through our lives in an insensible stupor, asleep to the sensory details of physical reality. We may go to the grocery store once a week but when was the last time we noticed the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the bakery? We walk through our neighborhood almost daily yet do we see the charming old-fashioned street lamps, the lemon tree against the spring sky, the lavender and red geraniums, the tire swing and oak tree?
It’s a tragic fact of life that we become blind the more we see something. Take your significant other as an example. Perhaps when you first met your paramour, you were absolutely infatuated with her. During the giddy days of first love, your heart leapt after her every text message, sank when she didn’t call. The more you learned about her, the more you became convinced she was the long-lost half of your Platonic soul: her favorite book was Love in the Time of Cholera, her favorite singer was Otis Redding and she wanted two kids, a boy and a girl.
As you headed to her house to pick her up for your first date (a picnic in the park), your palms were so sweaty you could barely grasp the steering wheel. You arrived promptly at noon, climbed the front steps and knocked on the door. Nervous, you shifted your weight from one foot to another. “God, I hope I don’t make a fool of myself,” you thought.
When she came to the door, she instantly charmed you with her self-possession (“Hi, I’m ___,” she said so confidently, reaching out to shake your hand). You couldn’t resist her cat eye sunglasses and polka dot dress. “Nice to meet you,” you replied, momentarily forgetting how to arrange words into sentences. As you chatted over lemon rosemary tea and cucumber-rye sandwiches, you couldn’t help but fall in love with her infectious laughter, the dramatic way she told stories and made gestures with her hands. When the time arrived to take her home, you were the perfect gentleman: you walked her to her door, gave her a polite kiss on the cheek. “I had a lovely time,” you said genuinely. It was only an afternoon but you were already fantasizing about eternity.
Fast forward a year and the woman whose mere presence once made you as shy as a school boy is now your significant other. Though you once dreamed of having the opportunity to kiss her, your lips now meet with such regularity— first thing when you wake up, when you leave home for work, when you go to sleep in the same bed every evening— that the miracle is lost on you. For so long, your beloved was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after a few months of being together, it is the time before you knew her, before she was casually saying “I love you” and arranging plans for your birthday, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.
Sadly, the more familiar we become with something, the more likely we are to take it for granted. Just as we stop appreciating the object of our obsession once they become our boyfriend/girlfriend, we cease to notice things once they become commonplace parts of our day. Take the internet as an example. When the internet first made an appearance in the 1990s, we were in wonderment of the worldwide web. We marveled at its speed, the miraculous way it could connect people across continents. Now— with just the click of a button— we had all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips.
Today, however, we are no longer in awe of the internet. Though we carry an internet-powered computer in our pockets, our phones are as astounding to us as a light switch. We’ve forgotten that a mere hundred years ago, phones could only do one thing: transmit sound. We take for granted that today they can measure our heart rate, track our circadian rhythms, take pictures and write emails.
But if we want to write, we must not lose the ability to see and be astonished by things. In her timeless classic Becoming a Writer, which I consider one of the best books ever written on writing, Dorothea Brande suggests a writer must recapture a childlike awareness of the world. Unlike adults, who very rarely inhabit the present (distracted as they are by serious obligations and mortgage payments), children only exist in this moment: they don’t dwell on the fight they had with Sally yesterday, they don’t worry about their show-and-tell presentation tomorrow. They find unbelievable joy in the smallest things: playing in a sandpit, slipping down a slide, jumping off a swing, blowing bubbles.
Children are curious creatures. Spend an afternoon with any child under the age of twelve and you’ll be tasked with solving the universe’s most mysterious riddles: why is there day and night? why is the sky blue? where did the dinosaurs go? Because they’re young, children have yet to become weary of the world: they can still be surprised by learning something they didn’t know. We adults, however, are convinced we’ve seen it all. We know there’s day and night because the earth rotates about its axis once every twenty four hours; we know the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor 66 million years ago. It’s hard for us to awe at a hummingbird’s incredible speed or wonder at a butterfly’s patterned wings outside our window. We marvel at Cassiopeia and cumulonimbus clouds as often as toaster ovens and cutting boards. Why? Because habit has desensitized us. As Brande writes,
“The genius keeps all his days the vividness and intensity of interest that a sensitive child feels in his expanding world. Many of us keep this responsiveness well into adolescence; very few mature men and women are fortunate enough to preserve it in their routine lives. Most of us are only intermittently aware, even in youth, and the occasions on which adults see and feel and hear with every sense alert become rarer and rarer with the passage of years. Too many of us allow ourselves to go about wrapped in our personal problems, walking blindly through our days with our attention all given to some petty matter of no particular importance…The most normal of us allow ourselves to become so insulated by habit that few things can break through our preoccupations except truly spectacular events— a catastrophe happening under our eyes, our indolent strolling blocked by a triumphal parade; it must be a matter which challenges us in spite of ourselves.”
So how do we become more mindful? Brande recommends we recover a childlike “innocence of eye”— a wide-eyed interest in the world. Rather than remain asleep to the splendor of living, more dead than alive, she suggests we set aside at least a half an hour each day to awaken our senses and simply observe. What do we see? hear? If we’re taking the subway to work, what do we notice about the people there? Where are they headed? What do they wear? If we’re stopping at our favorite cafe for a cappuccino, what do we imagine is going on with the couple in the corner? Is the woman stirring her tea in silence because she’s irritated with her husband for forgetting to do the laundry or because she’s just discovered he’s having an affair? Our goal: to treat every place as a potential setting, every incident as a potential plot line, every person as a potential character.
The greatest writers of all time were— above all— alert. Hour after hour, minute after minute, they were attuned to their experience. Turn to any page of Anais Nin’s diaries, for example, and you’ll find descriptions of accomplishment-obsessed New York and romantic, restful Paris, detailed sketches of her father, Joaquin Nin, her literary friends Truman Capote and Henry Miller, her patients, her acquaintances. Every trivial conversation contains the suspense of a Greek drama; every mundane incident a heart-racing rising action, exhilarating climax and satisfying resolution as if her life had an underlying structure as comprehensible as a novel. If we observe the world as closely, we— too— can gather a wealth of material:
“It is perfectly possible to strip yourself of your preoccupations, to refuse to allow yourself to go about wrapped in a cloak of oblivion day and night, although it is more difficult than one might think to learn to turn one’s attention outward again after years of immersion in one’s own problems…set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.’ For half an hour each day transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at age of five. Even though you feel a little self-conscious about doing something so deliberately that was once as unnoticed as breathing, you will still find that you are able to gather stores of new material in a short time.”
If we want to be writers, we must be “strangers in our streets” and look at the world around us as if for the first time. But how, exactly, do we truly see something, especially something we’ve seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times? We don’t have to seek new landscapes, only fresh eyes. Like scientists who discard all their preconceptions and simply record what they see, we should remain open, receptive and attentively observe our surroundings. If we see a spring sky, what color is it? a cloud-dotted azure? an innocent robin’s egg blue? If we find ourselves in a winter landscape, is the air “chilly” or “frigid”? Are the trees “bare” or “frost-bitten”? What is the overall atmosphere and mood? Be as specific as possible. Or as Brande writes,
“You know how vividly you see a strange town or a strange country when you first enter it. The huge red buses of London, on the wrong side of the road to every American that ever saw them— soon they are as easy to dodge and ignore as the green buses of New York, and as little wonderful as the drugstore window that you pass on your way to work each day. The drugstore window, though, the streetcar that carries you to work, the crowded subway can look as strange as Xanadu if you refuse to take them for granted. As you get into your streetcar or walk along a street, tell yourself that for fifteen minutes you will notice and tell yourself about every single thing that your eyes rest on. The streetcar: what color is it outside? (Not just green or red, here, but sage or olive green, scarlet or maroon.) Where is the entrance? Has it a conductor and motorman, or a motorman-conductor in one? What colors inside, the walls, the floor, the seats, the advertising posters? How do the seats face? Who is sitting opposite you? How are your neighbors dressed, how do they stand or sit, what are they reading, or are they sound asleep? What sounds are you hearing, which smells are reaching you, how does the strap feel under your hand, or the stuff of the coat the brushes past you? After a few moments you can drop your intense awareness, but plan to resume it again when the scene changes.”
One way to sharpen our artist’s eye is to make time for adventure and novelty. Brande suggests we shake off the blinders of custom and habit and, every so often, do something new: eat pancakes for dinner, take a different route to work, go to a matinee on a Tuesday at noon.
We don’t have to venture to a lush jungle in Indonesia to see things anew. We can practice looking at things in a fresh way from the comfort of our living rooms. Stand on the coffee table. Somersault across the floor. Do a headstand. Anything to make the familiar objects of our lives as unfamiliar as possible:
“It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week. But any moment of your life can be used, and the room that you spend most of your waking hours in is as good, or better, to practice responsiveness on as a new street. Try to see your home, your family, your friends, your school or office, with the same eyes that you use away from your own daily route. There are voices you have heard so often that you forget they have a timbre of their own…the chances are that you hardly realize that your best friend has a tendency to use some words so frequently that if you were to write a sentence involving those words anyone who knew him would realize whom you were imitating.”
I don’t feel like writing today. Most anything seems more appealing than putting pen to page. Like most writers, I began this day with an earnest, eager desire to put my thoughts into words and set a specific time to work. But like most writers, the moment the clock struck the appointed time, I suddenly had countless pressing obligations I had to attend to: there were coats to hang, shirts to fold, urgent emails I needed to respond to (never mind that these “urgent” emails had been unimportant mere moments before).
“I’ll just make myself some chamomile tea before settling down to work,” I tell myself. As I wait for the kettle to whistle, I notice a pile of dishes teetering as precariously as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “Why don’t I just wash a few plates?” I say. After scrapping off last night’s lasagna from the dirty dishes, I notice the filthy state of the sink. And what do I do? I grab a sponge and start scrubbing. “Look at these grimy footprints all over the hardwood floors! I’ll just give them a quick polish. Fast forward three hours: my kitchen is spotless and I’ve gotten absolutely no writing done.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll always resist the blank page. We’ll always think of an excuse not to write: because we’re tired or because we’re upset after fighting with our boyfriend or because it’s rainy outside or because our hamster died. Perhaps we have bills to pay or groceries to buy. Or maybe we just aren’t in the mood.
Much like Julia Cameron, who unblocked millions of artists with her life-changing course The Artist’s Way, Brande has a doable, down-to-earth approach to the writer’s life. You don’t need the most gorgeous ink pen or most beautiful leather-bound notebook. Nor do you need a stylish desk or chic artist’s studio, the serene seclusion of a “room of your own”— you can write in crowded subways, noisy cafes, kitchens of rambunctious five-year-olds. You don’t need yawning vistas of time: stretches of weeks over summer vacations, a year-long sabbatical. Becoming a writer, Brande suggests, is as simple as surveying your schedule and setting aside a mere non-negotiable fifteen minutes for yourself:
“After you have dressed, sit down for a moment by yourself and go over the day before you. Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself. It need not be a very long times; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is earnest about it.”
If you want to write, Brande asserts, you have to hold yourself accountable. Being a writer requires a deep commitment to yourself. If, for example, you promise to rise at dawn so you can write for an hour uninterrupted, you have to wake up at dawn: no excuses. As Brande writes with equal parts no bullshit and tough no-non-sense:
“You have decided to write at four o’ clock, and at four o’ clock write you must! No excuses can be given…you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it.”
The beauty of Brande’s fifteen minute exercise is we can write anything at all: a character sketch, a bit of dialogue, a review of the last book we read, an opinion on the latest news story, a description of the view outside our window. The point isn’t to contribute a masterpiece to English letters— it’s simply to get something, anything down on paper. Unlike a spelling test in school, our efforts won’t be graded— they’ll only be marked for completion. All that matters is we do it. Like all great writing teachers, Brande gives us permission:
“…write anything at all. Write sense or non-sense, limericks or blank verse; write what you think of your employer or your secretary or your teacher; write a story synopsis or a fragment of dialogue, or the description of someone you recently noticed. However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write.”
Why does Brande suggest we begin with a mere fifteen minutes? Isn’t a quarter of an hour not enough time to get any real writing done? For Brande, fifteen minutes is perfect for the exact reason that it isn’t too long. Sitting at a desk for a whole hour can be daunting, even for the most experienced writers. But fifteen minutes is doable. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t stay focused for fifteen minutes. Because the goal is so easily achievable, we trick ourselves into getting to the page. Most days when the timer goes off, we’ll be so absorbed in our work that we’ll end up writing for much longer.
Following Brande’s fifteen minute rule will not only teach us discipline and diligence, it will train us to blast through our blocks and overcome resistance. The result? We’ll build a regular writing habit and finally “become writers” as Brande’s title promises.
For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory. It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge. Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day? who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years. Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.
Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:
1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism
For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment. Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox. Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?” “Was our topic interesting/relevant?” Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic. There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust. We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us. Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence. They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.
Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas. The result? We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!” But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.
In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:
“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”
2. you might find diamonds in dust
Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf. Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out. There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence. Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.)
The fact is writing can be hell. Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards. We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another. On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle. Every word, every sentence is a struggle. We freeze up rather than let words flow. Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked. Should we employ more evocative description? Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words? Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?
For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block. In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical. More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:
“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.”
In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us. Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard. Think of a first date. When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour. But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.
The same is true in writing. If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross. But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.
Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose? Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:
“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”
3. you’ll create yourself
Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves. As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:
“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”
Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning. Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping. Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny. A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes. Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns. We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.
But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves. By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible. Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over.
Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.
How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called? Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all. Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call.
How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girls? Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone.
Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s? Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.
Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs? Maybe it’s time to change careers.
Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure? Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.
For most of us, life leaves little room for rest or renewal. Most days, we’re racing from home to work to our daughter’s elementary school. Rather than concentrate on completing one thing at a time, each hour of the day, until the day is over, we carelessly rush from one task to another— or worse— attempt to do two things at the same time. In a pandemic that requires us to spend the majority of our waking hours in front of the hypnotic blue light of the computer, it has only become more difficult to be mindful. How can we possibly focus on one thing when— with a single click— we can skim the headlines, take Buzzfeed’s “What Disney Princess Are You?” quiz, and watch another hilarious but ultimately pointless cat video? The high-speed twenty first century is a circus of jugging clowns and acrobats in sparkly costumes.
If— as Rebecca Solnit so poetically phrased— “the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour,” the frantic pace of modern life is too fast for thought. Hurried and haphazard, we can’t penetrate anything beyond the surface, let alone appreciate the glory and grandeur all around us. Rarely do we marvel at the miracle that we even exist (the probability that any of us will be born, after all, is only 1 in 400 trillion), that despite car crashes and earthquakes and forest fires and meteors and stage three breast cancer and diabetes and heart disease and serial killers, we’re still here. Too often, we neglect the “little joys”: the smell of french toast and coffee in the morning, the laugh of a child, the dappled autumn sunlight.
A daily walk, however, can help us slow down and notice what we usually overlook. When we stroll, we soak up the scenery: the flower beds of red geraniums, the brick house covered in ivy, the old-fashioned Victorian home on the corner with a magical tree house in the backyard and a red 1967 Mustang in the driveway. With nowhere to get to and nothing pressing to do, we pause for a moment to leaf through the local street library only to find a pack of Tarot cards and a rare first edition of Anais Nin’s first diary.
In our accelerated lives, things usually whiz by in a black-and-white blur, but on a solitary stroll, the world bursts into vivid technicolor. At a slower pace, we can actually see the sky: clear or cloudy, robin’s egg or carefree Renoir blue. The instruments of nature– the breeze blowing through bare branches, the patter of rain against the pavement, the foreboding sound of an approaching storm, the reposeful chirp of crickets at dusk, the drowsy buzz of bees in the sweltering summer sun– form the soundtrack to our saunter. We may have walked these streets countless times, but today we see things we never noticed before: a corgi across the street, two bushy-tailed squirrels chasing each other. We start to see the humanity of our neighbors. There’s the liberal-minded lesbian couple with Black Lives Matter signs in their front yard, the beautiful German woman who wears impossibly chic sun hats and spends her Saturdays tending her garden. “With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf,” observed Robert Walser.
What’s so magical about New Year’s? Is it the celebratory pop of champagne and the excuse to kiss a stranger? Or is it the streamers and confetti, the sparkle of cocktail dresses, the joviality of party horns, and the general mood of good cheer?
For me, New Years is so enchanting because it promises a fresh start, a chance to start over. It’s as if life resets when the clock strikes midnight and the ball drops in Time’s Square. It no longer matters that we resolved to go to grad school and have yet to even send away for a brochure. Nor does it matter that our only exercise the past 365 days was walking the twenty three short steps from our couch to the refrigerator.
January 1st beckons with the promise of a new us— not just a new year. This year we’re going to work out every day. This year we’re going to eat salads and protein shakes instead of Chinese take out and gallons of Haagen-Daz. Most New Year’s resolutions focus on the physical, the productive, the practical: “lose weight,” “get in shape,” “spend less time on social media.” But what about the mind and heart? This year rather than make the same half-hearted resolutions, let’s aspire to live more passionate lives, find wonderment in the most mundane moments, and commit ourselves to the most noble goal of all: be who we truly are. Inspired by Maria Popova’s elevating resolutions for self-refinement, I have complied my own list of higher-minded resolutions from history’s greatest thinkers.
1. live, love & write it well in good sentences
No diarist has penetrated the human heart more deeply than Sylvia Plath. Sadly, Plath is known— not for her literary genius— but for her final act: dying by her own hand. In the collective consciousness, Plath is the paragon of the “tortured artist,” a martyr for feminism who killed herself (rather symbolically) by sticking her head in the oven. We romanticize her tragic end, her doomed marriage, her mental illness. But though we glorify her losing battle with depression, we shouldn’t ignore the courage with which she faced her demons.
This year, let’s pattern ourselves after Ms. Plath and accept life’s tribulations and triumphs. The devastation of a breakup, the stress of a job layoff, the loneliness of being trapped at home during a worldwide pandemic instruct us in what it means to be human. Rather than pity ourselves or succumb to depression, we can “live, love, and write it well in good sentences”— in other words, transmute our experience into art, whether that be words on the page or paintings on a canvas.
2. put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard
Our second new year’s resolution comes from another gifted but tormented poet, Anne Sexton, who used therapy to process her trauma and shed light on the dark, cob-webbed corners of her subconscious. The therapist’s office was a place where she could come to terms with the past, where the ghosts of her upbringing— to borrow Alain de Botton‘s elegant metaphor— could be brought into the daylight and laid to rest.
Why should we invest the time/money/energy in psychoanalysis? Is devoting an hour a week (and quite a sum of money) to rambling about our childhoods really worth it? Yes, because when we revisit painful experiences from our past, we gain insight into our at times incomprehensible behavior and can feel more self-compassion. Recounting our traumatic upbringing to a sympathetic ear, we realize we sabotage our chances with loving, considerate partners— not because we’re irredeemable idiots— but because our dysfunctional parents failed to teach us what a healthy relationship was. If, for example, our father was a perpetually absent workaholic who barely lifted his head from his newspaper when we joined him at the dinner table, we came to associate love with being ignored. If, on the other hand, our mother’s idea of discipline was smacking us in the face and calling us a worthless cunt, we received one message: love = hurt.
The result is we play out these destructive patterns in adulthood. We seek out abusive men with explosive tempers— not because we’re masochists or because we’re too dumb to know any better— but because being mistreated is familiar. Growing up, love wasn’t tender hugs or a “honey, how was your day?” when we returned home from school; it waslong, lonely hours in front of the television set and constant belittlement, unreciprocated and occasionally cruel.
The good news, however, is we’re not doomed by our bad childhoods. If, like Anne Sexton, we commit ourselves to rigorous self-examination in therapy (the Pulitzer prize-winning poet certainly did; she met her therapist religiously two to three times a week for eight years), we can break our unhealthy patterns and hopefully heal.
3. find & become who you truly are
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation,” poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once said. Though we like to imagine ourselves as individuals, most of us are mere repositories for the social and cultural milieu in which we live: our most deeply held beliefs are things we’ve overheard or read, our politics are buzzwords we absorb from Fox News or CNN. We spend our tragically short lives striving for things— fame, fortune, social standing, degrees from Ivy League universities, an important-sounding job title we can brag about at high school reunions— not because they speak to our spirit or because they have deep personal meaning but because we’re “supposed” to. We’re supposed to want the Beaver-to-Cleaver era icons of middle class success: a husband and children, a house with a white picket fence, a once-a-year summer getaway to Hawaii replete with tropical breezes, white sand beaches and the scent of sun tan lotion.
But what happens when we actually attain these things? Though we have a life many women would envy— a devoted husband, happy, healthy children, a reasonable amount of money in the bank— we find ourselves discontented. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, we’re awoken by a terrible existential dread: “Is this all there is?”
In 1926, British psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner had one such unsettling experience. Although there was nothing exactly wrong with her life, Milner realized she wasn’t leading an authentic existence. “I was drifting without rudder or compass,” she writes, “swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen.” Like many women, Milner never took the time to know herself, to sieve her authentic longings from the sands of social convention. So like Henry David Thoreau, who retreated to the seclusion of Walden Pond because he wished to “live deliberately,” she embarked on a seven year experiment to discover what would truly make her happy.
The result was A Life of One’s Own, a charming field guide to living in alignment with your own values. Much like a detective, Milner set out to solve a mystery: who was she? what did she love? loathe? what did she most deeply desire? She used logical reasoning and clues from her daily life and diary to find answers. Over the course of her nearly decade-long project, Milner plumbed the depths of her own psyche, recording her observations with a scientist’s rigor. Her conclusion? You must possess self-knowledge to be happy.
This year let’s learn from Ms. Milner and aim to know ourselves better. Rather than wander aimlessly without rudder or compass, we can find direction by making time for sacred silence, for introspection. What stirs our spirit? What sets our heart aflame? If we were on our death bed, what would we regret not doing? Like Milner, we can contemplate these questions, record our observations and regularly reflect in a diary. The goal? To uncover what we want to do— not what we feel we should.