Natalie Goldberg on Why We Should Write & the Importance of Specificity

In her liberating, life-changing Writing Down the Bones, Zen Buddhist and writing teacher
Natalie Goldberg argues specificity is the cornerstone of great writing.  In the modern age where most of us are transfixed by the hypnotic blue light of our phones, we float around like disembodied ghosts.  We have lost the sights and sounds, the tastes and textures of the physical realm.  The writer’s job is to restore to the reader some part of his sensual world.

Writing, especially fiction, is meant to transport us somewhere else: a lost submarine in the deep ocean, an imperial English ship searching for treasure along the South American coast.  As writers, we cast a spell, lulling our readers into a trance where they momentarily suspend their disbelief and imagine they’re occupying an alternate world.  The only way to do this is through concrete detail.  We must avoid the vague, the abstract, the general.  When we write with specificity, we cut through confusion and create clarity.  Specificityto paraphrase one of my writing teachers takes you from a roughly rendered sketch to a nicely detailed painting.

Take this example:

The woman walked. 

3 words.  A simple noun.  A simple verb.  Though it contains the basic structural units of a sentence, it fails to paint an evocative picture.  Let’s try adding some detail.

The daisy-crowned woman strolled through the meadow.  

The fur-donned woman charged along Park Avenue.

The frazzled woman, her dress covered in day-old baby food, struggled to push her two toddlers.

Specificity allows us to see more clearly.  In the first example, words like “woman” and “walked” are too generic to conjure images in a reader’s mind.  They create a bare-bones outline: there’s no color, no dimension, no shadow.  The woman is a mobster’s wife or a traveling circus clown for all we know.

But the latter examples bring to mind a specific character: a romantic woman meandering through the English countryside, a hurried New Yorker who wears Manolo Blahnik’s and shops at Bergdorf’s, an exhausted mother.  Specificity is like a pair of glasses: it brings the fuzziness of the world into sharper focus. 

Much like poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, who urged us to call things by their true names, Goldberg suggests we dedicate the time to finding the exact words for things:

“Be specific.  Don’t say ‘fruit.  Tell what kind of fruit— ‘It is pomegranate.’  Give things the dignity of their names.  Just as with human beings, it is rude to say, ‘Hey, girl, get in line.’  That girl has a name.  (As a matter of fact, if she’s at least twenty years old, she’s a woman, not a ‘girl’ at all.)  Things, too, have names.  It is much better to sat ‘the geranium in the window’ than ‘the flower in the window.’  ‘Geranium’— that one word gives us a much more specific picture.  It penetrates more deeply into the beingness of that flower.  It immediately gives us the scene by the window— red petals, green circular leaves, all straining toward sunlight.”’

Rather than get lost in the airy world of abstractions, writers should focus on what’s directly in front of them.  If you’re writing a poem about love, you wouldn’t fill your verse with intangible concepts like “passion” and “infatuation” and “lust”— you’d want to replace rough approximations with exact images: amorous glances, frenzied cherry-coated kisses, the lingering smell of musk.  Similarly, if want to capture the essence of an August day, avoid indefinite ideas and instead focus on what can be apprehended with your senses: the sultry summer heat, the cloudless sky, the smell of sun tan cream.

So before you write, ask yourself: what can you see with your eyes?  taste on your tongue?  touch with your toes?  William Carlos Williams put it simply, “Write what’s in front of your nose.”  For Goldberg, a devout practitioner of  Zen Buddhism, writing requires we fully immerse ourselves in what’s here and now:

“Study what is ‘in front of your nose.’  By saying ‘geranium’ instead of ‘flower,’ you are penetrating more deeply into the present and being there.  The closer we can get to what’s in front of our nose, the more it can teach us everything.”

In many ways, modern life is antithetical to art.  Much of our day is a whirlwind of speed and distraction, high-speed internet and 30 second TikToks.  We’re almost never completely present.  We hurtle from home to work to school, between the infinite tabs on our laptops and the inescapable ding! ding! ding! of text messages. 

But art demands we examine something with our full attention; it requires we look at one thing longer than we ever have before (As Georgia O’ Keefe once said, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small.  We have’t time and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.”)  The artist is a monk in a monastery: completely absorbed.  When we create with complete concentration, we enter a blissful state where we both lose ourselves and find ourselves, what taoists called “wu wei” and what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow“:

“You must become one with the details in love or hate; they become one extension of your body.  Nabokov says, ‘Caress the divine details.’  He doesn’t say, ‘Jostle them in place or bang them around.’  Caress them, touch them tenderly.  Care about what is around you.  Let your whole body touch the river you are writing about, so if you call it yellow or stupid or slow, all of you is feeling it.  There should be no separate you when you are deeply engaged.  Katagiri Roshi said: ‘When you do zazen [sitting meditation], you should be gone.  So zazen does zazen.’  This is also how you should be when you write: writing does writing.  You disappear: you are simply recording the thoughts that are streaming through you.”

“When people talk listen completely.  Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say…You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that.  If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling…and always think of other people,” advised Ernest Hemingway.  With similar simplicity, Goldberg recommends would-be writers:

“Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings.”

But why bother committing our commonplace experience to paper?  For Goldberg, writing is a revolutionary act of love, a means of planting a flag into the ground and declaring “this matters/I matter/we matter”:

“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical.  We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles.  We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it.  At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth.  We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.  This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand.  We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived.  Let it be known, the earth passed before us.  Our details are important.  Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.”  

Ultimately, writing is a way of shouting an affirmative “yes” to life.  Much like a Buddhist monk, the writer’s task is simply to observe the truth of the moment without judgement.  As Goldberg writes, 

“Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency.  A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter.  It is not a writer’s task to say, ‘It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.’  Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist— the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children.  We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.” 

What is a writer?  Susan Sontag defined a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.”  Goldberg would add that writers are chroniclers of our collective history and stewards of all of life’s lovely little details:  

“This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about orange booths in the coffee shop in Ottawa.”

“On paper our greatest challenges become A Real Thing, in a world in which so much seems ephemeral and transitory,” Anna Quindlen observes in Write for Your Life, her passionate plea for ordinary people to start writing.  Naming things— the smell of garlic and oregano in our favorite Italian restaurant, the black-and-white checkered floor of our first apartment building— grounds us in the present; it brings a sense of solidness to the ever-shifting fluidity of our experience.  Life rushes like a river.  Ultimately, putting our experiences into words keeps us from getting swept under:

“When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground.  It takes the blur out of the mind; it connects us to the earth.”

Our Wives Under the Sea: Loss, Grief & the Turbulent Tides of Change

The ocean is in my blood.  As a Bay Area native, my childhood consisted of building sand castles and eating funnel cakes at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  Both my parents lived within minutes of the beach: my mother grew up swimming with sea turtles in Mililani, Hawaii; my father spent the majority of his childhood across the shimmering lights of the San Francisco Bay in Marin County.  Using only their wits, my Pacific Islander ancestors navigated the endless sea. 

Yet in the ocean, I’ve always felt ill at ease.  As a child, I viewed the sea as a mighty force that surged and seethed.  It was defined by violence: it raged, it ravaged, it crashed relentlessly against the beach.  I was never the best swimmer so I always worried the powerful tides would pull me under or even further out to sea.  

More terrifying than the waves are what lies beneath.  When you go in the ocean, you’re entering another realm, a watery world where you’re no longer at the top of the food chain.  Out of your element, you’re at a distinct disadvantage.  No matter how clear the water, it’s impossible to see more than a few feet.  Even when I swim close to shore, I feel acutely vulnerable, as if at any moment I’ll be ambushed by a tiger shark or gripped by a mysterious tentacle.  Whenever I go to Hawaii, I hate snorkeling in the coral reefs.  Most people love swimming in the tranquil waters among sea turtles and butterfly fish; I’m always terrified that some monstrous creature is going to emerge from the deep.  I recoil when the slimy fish touch me.

“Never turn your back on a wave,” my uncle would tell me.  For more than 30 years, he worked as a lifeguard at legendary Waimea Bay where ocean swells reaching shore sometimes crest and break at heights of 30 feet.  “Ever since Blue Crush, everyone thinks they can surf,” I remember his fellow lifeguard saying as we baked in the sweltering Hawaiian heat.  That summer, hundreds of wannabe surfers took their longboards into the surf with no conception of the danger.  Some died, underestimating the sea’s strength.  As a lifeguard, my uncle saw this sort of hubris everyday.  Better, he thought, to have a healthy fear of the sea.

No book has made me more fearful of the ocean than Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea.  The story alternates between the perspectives of two wives, Leah and Miri.  After Leah, a marine biologist, goes on a submarine mission and is lost at the bottom of the ocean, Miri must cope with the crushing weight of her absence.  When the two are eventually reunited six months later, Leah isn’t quite the same: she takes unimaginably long baths, has developed a thirst for salt water, and runs the water at all times of day.  So traumatized is she from her experiences that she appears disassociated from her surroundings and rarely speaks to Miri.

Our Wives Under the Sea is at once horrifying and heartbreaking.  Armfield expertly combines the haunted houses of the gothic genre with the disturbing physical transformations of body horror.  The ocean serves as the perfect (though oft overlooked) setting for a horror novel.  Though our planet is covered by water, scientists estimate that more than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored.  The sea is vast, mysterious, unknowable.  Tens of thousands of feet below the surface lies an entire underwater realm.  At a depth of a thousand meters, the ocean is plunged into impenetrable darkness.  Is it any wonder the sea has always been a source of fascination and fear, the submerged site of magical creatures like mermaids and otherworldly monsters?

Leah’s plight on a lost submarine plays on our primal fears: of the unknown, of the dark, of lack of air.  Her chapters suffuse the narrative with moments of page-turning suspense and nail-biting terror.  What we wonder— is lurking beneath the waves?  As film critic Zander Allport writes, “The experience of reading Armfield’s novel feels like a descent into deep water, a study in adapting to conditions of intensifying darkness and pressure.”

I read Our Wives Under the Sea in less than 3 days.  With each chapter, the mystery of what happened to Leah deepened: what did she encounter in the unfathomable, pitch-black depths of the sea?  did she see a giant squid, a prehistoric shark or some other equally terrifying ocean fiend?  who, exactly, is the Centre for Marine Enquiry?  why were Leah and her crew sent on this mission in the first place?  was the sinking of their submarine purely an accident or are they a part of some sort of sick experiment?  does the Centre have ulterior (perhaps sinister) motives?

Sadly, I didn’t find answers to most of these questions.  The one thing I hated about this book was it’s complete and total lack of resolution.  Can novels contain ambiguity?  Of course; in fact, many of the greatest books maintain a bit of mystery.  But as a reader who sacrificed much needed sleep expecting to unravel the mystery of what happened to Leah, I was bitterly disappointed.  I turned page after page hoping to finally pull the curtain on the Centre, the narrative’s main antagonist.  I wanted the book to culminate in a climactic scene where we finally saw the creature Leah encountered at the lightless depths of the ocean.  But instead, what happened in that submarine only lingers at the edges of the narrative.

But perhaps this was Armfield’s intention: much like the deep blue abyss of the ocean, the ones we love exist outside the bounds of our knowledge.  In the same way that Miri can never grasp her wife’s ghastly transformation, we can never fully understand the people in our lives: their hearts are as inaccessible as the Mariana Trench.  Our loved ones are like water: flowing, fluid, incapable of being confined to the rigid roles we create for them.  They might not mutate into marine monsters, but they will change.  Sometimes we drift apart like ships lost at sea.  When our relationship falls apart  like Leah and Miri’swe often can’t explain the change.    

Despite its flaws, Our Wives Under the Sea manages to be a moving meditation on grief.  Though Leah does return from her harrowing descent under the waves, she emerges as another person entirely and Miri must cope with an even more complicated form of grief.  Leah and Miri may be physically together, but they’re emotionally faraway, as distant as two islands separated by a seemingly impassable sea.  “It isn’t that her being back is difficult.  It’s that I’m not convinced she’s really back at all,” confesses Miri.

Deterioration and loss take many forms in the novel: Leah becomes a shell of her former self, Miri loses her mother to a degenerative disease.  No matter how much we love something, Armfield seems to suggest, it will inevitably slip away as surely as the shore disintegrates into the sea.  

Susan Sontag on the Bliss of Having Written & the Inextricable Connection Between Reading & Writing

What’s the secret to being a good writer?  Aspiring wordsmiths often think the answer is shrouded in mystery.  New Yorker staff writers and Pulitzer-prize winning novelists— they think— might possess this arcane knowledge but they keep it locked away like a buried treasure in a cave.  To access it, you have to know the magic words open sesame.  

But being a good writer is actually quite simple: you have to read.  

“Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river,” Virginia Woolf wrote as she contemplated the inseparable connection between reading and writing.  Ray Bradbury urged aspiring artists to devour as much material as possible: “If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful.  I have never had a dry spell in my life mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting” (Mr. Bradbury must be on to something…he wrote more than 30 books and nearly 600 short stories).  Stephen King put it more simply, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Towering intellect and titan of criticism Susan Sontag would have to agree.  In her distinctively discerning essay “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite, Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed,” one of many thought-provoking pieces in the New York Times Writers on WritingSontag makes the convincing argument that you can’t write unless you read.  We usually think of the writing process as a series of predictable steps we learned in 3rd grade: brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, edit.  However, this formula neglects a fundamental stage: reading.  Reading is integral to revising: we must first become master readers before we can assess what’s working and what’s not working in our own writing.  As Sontag writes with characteristic acuity: 

“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.  You write in order to read what you’ve written and see if it’s OK and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it— once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread…Hard to imagine writing without rereading.”  

Every week in my writing workshop class, we have to critique our classmates.  At first, I resented the exercise: helping others revise their work kept me from my own writing (after all, I only have so many hours in a day).  But now I realize that assessing others sharpens my critical faculties.  If I can comprehend why another person’s story isn’t working (their central message is unclear, their characters are cardboard cutouts instead of three-dimensional people, their writing is clunky), I can apply those lessons to my own writing.  In the same way, when one of my classmate’s stories is working, it inspires me.  Nothing rekindles my creative fire quite like encountering an evocative bit of imagery or a sharp turn-of-phrase.  

Ultimately, reading ignites writing.  Reading a good book can electrify us with an ecstatic lightening bolt of inspiration and send our fingers flying.  But if we read too much, we might compare our not-yet-developed first drafts to the masterpieces of literary giants and find ourselves wanting.  No writer is safe from the torture chamber of comparison.  Though Virginia Woolf was certainly a genius in her own right, she found herself overcome by crippling writer’s block any time she read Marcel Proust.  “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence,” she wrote in 1922.

In an incisive passage, Sontag captures this complex relationship between reading and writing:

“Reading usually precedes writing.  And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading.  Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer.  And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write— and rereading the beloved books of the past— constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing.  Distraction.  Consolation.  Torment.  And, yes, inspiration.”

“I hate writing, I love having written,” lady of wisecracks Dorothy Parker famously quipped.  You’d be hard pressed to find a writer who didn’t agree with this sentiment.  The act of writing is often agony and anguish.  There’s nothing more formidable than facing the blank page’s daunting nothingness.

But if writing is torment, revision is bliss.  The first stages of writing are like the first stages of gardening.  There’s a lot of difficult decisions, not to mention drudgery: you have to choose the proper plot of land and the kinds of flowers you want to grow, you have to till the soil.  But once your seeds are planted and begin to bloom, most of your work is maintenance: you water, you pull weeds, you prune.

Once you have a first draft, you’ve arranged your thoughts into some sort of logical order.  You’ve accomplished the most difficult task: assembling your ideas into a coherent form so they can be transported into someone else’s consciousness.

“Having written” is the less laborious, more fun part of the writing process.  Once you’ve overcome the paralysis of beginning and gotten something, anything, down on the page, you can commit yourself to the more pleasurable work of revising.  Revising is weeding out unnecessary repetition and awkward phrasing, cutting away overgrown bushes of syntax so your reader can more readily understand your thinking.  Revising is replacing recycled ideas and commonplace cliches with fresh turns-of-phrase.  It’s replacing close-but-not-quite-right-words with more precise words that exactly convey your meaning.  Refining your work is endlessly satisfying.  As Sontag writes, 

“…though this, the rewriting— and the rereading— sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing.  Sometimes the only pleasurable parts.  Setting out to write, if you have the idea of ‘literature’ in your head, is formidable, intimidating.  A plunge in an icy lake.  Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade.


Let’s say, it’s a mess.  But you have a chance to fix it.  You try to be clearer.  Or deeper.  Or more eloquent.  Or more eccentric.  You try to be true to the world.  You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative…As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head.  You try to liberate it.  You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be— what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be.”

Gish Jen on the False Dichotomy Between Life & Work

“Want to get a coffee?” my sister asked after I had just settled in at my desk.  It’s inevitable: the moment I finally get into the flow of writing, something interrupts.  An offer to get a coffee, a phone call, an invitation out.  

“Should I go?” I wondered to myself.  I wanted to focus on my work.  After 45 torturous minutes of writing and rewriting sentences, I had finally found a rhythm.  But did I really want to pass up an opportunity to get a cold brew with my sister?

If you’re a writer, you understand this unbearable tug-of-war between life and work.  On one hand, you want to RSVP a resounding “no” to every invitation out.  You’d much rather work on your novel than go to a pool party or out for brunch.  In many ways, you resent life itself: the million and one daily occurrences that intrude upon your work.  You despise the demanding ring of the telephone, the incessant irritating ding-ding-ding sound of mail in your inbox.  You harbor borderline irrational resentment for any errand that forces you out of your house.  For the writer, Dante’s nine circles of hell is taking your car to the mechanic or waiting on hold to talk to a representative at AT&T about your phone bill.

On mornings like this one, I entertain fantasies of abandoning my real life and retreating to a secluded cabin in Big Sur.  Among the quiet hush of redwoods, far from the commotion of city life, from the distractions of technology, from the infuriating interruptions of other people, I could finally get down to work.

But other times, I resent having to choose between life and work.  Every minute I spend in my fictional world is a minute I’m not spending in the real one.  If I choose to spend my afternoon rearranging words on a page, I’m not exchanging intimacies with my husband or seeing my brother for his birthday.

In her essay “Inventing Life Steals Time, Living Life Begs It Back,” one of many insightful pieces in Writers on Writing, Gish Jen explores this seemingly irreconcilable conflict between life and work.  Despite her success as a writer, Jen almost quits.  “Is writing worth it?” she wonders. Is it worth it to live on the page but not in real life?  Mired in existential crisis, she writes, 

“Last year I almost quit writing.  I almost quit even though I was working well, even though I remained fascinated by the process of writing— the endless surprise of the sentences, and the satisfaction of thoughts taking form.  I had a new book I wanted to write, the book I am now writing, which I knew to be a good project.  I knew, what’s more, that I was not written out, something for which I have perhaps morbidly always watched: I have long vowed not to keep on past the point where I ought best to stop.  

I was not there yet.  Still, I almost quit because I felt the writing life was not life, because I felt I was writing instead of living.”

Ultimately, writers are caught between worlds: the real one they inhabit and the imaginary one they construct.  As Jen observes,

“There is never enough time for writing; it is a parallel universe where the days, inconveniently, are also twenty-four hours long.  Every moment spent in one’s real life is a moment missed in one’s writing life, and vice versa.”

For the writer, writing and not writing are equally excruciating forms of torture.  When you’re writing, you’re wondering whether it’s any good, you’re comparing yourself to other writers.  Your day consists of trying to wrangle your wild, untamed thoughts into a comprehensible order.  You might labor over a single sentence for more than an hour.

But not writing is just as much torture.  Not writing is wishing you could be writing, it’s being physically present but mentally elsewhere.  You might be at a dinner date with your boyfriend, but you’re actually in your short story, wondering how to propel the plot further.

Jen intimately understands the agony of the writer’s life.  In a passage of emphatic anaphora, she writes,  

“To write is to understand why Keats writes of living ‘under an everlasting restraint, never relieved except when I am composing.’  It is to recognize Kafka’s longing to be locked in the innermost room of a basement, with food anonymously left for him.  It is to know why Alice Munro describes the face of the artist as unfriendly; and it is to envy Philip Roth, who, rumor has it, has sequestered himself in a cabin in the Berkshires.  He is writing, writing, people say, writing without distractions, only writing.  To which the news part of us asks: Is that a life?  Can you really call that a life?”

To write is to enter a Faustian bargain of sorts.  We might not sell our souls to be writers, but we exchange invaluable moments with our loved ones for more time at our keyboards:

“Writing competes with…life and shortens its run.  I struggle not to hurry my time with my children; I endeavor to lose myself with them even as I squeeze every last minute out of the rest of the day.  I calculate; I weigh; I optimize.  That I may lose myself again in my work, I map out the day, the route, the menu.  I duck, I duck.  I hoard the hours and despair in traffic jams.  Worse, I keep an eye on my involvements.  I give myself freely to others, but only so freely.  I wonder if writing is worth this last price in particular.”

Is writing worth the sacrifice?  For Jen, the answer is “no.”  Writing— she feels— has become a jealous, too possessive lover.  Determined to live again, Jen puts down her pen and spends her newfound freedom gardening and making up for lost time with loved ones.  

But after awhile, Jen misses her old paramour.  Writing had been a way of ordering the shattered fragments of her life into a coherent whole. Without writing, life didn’t feel worth living anymore:

“Yet I found life without work strangely lifeless.  I wish I could claim that I went back to work because I had an exceptional contribution to make to the world, or because I found the words to dress down Old Man Death; but in fact I went back because life without prose was prosaic.  It seemed as though someone had disinvented music— such silence.  I felt as though I had lost one of my senses.”

Jen had been living in a false dichotomy of either/or: either she lived or she wrote. But, she soon realized, she could live and write. Encountering an island of ice on a walk, she discovers an apt metaphor for the relationship between her work and her life:

“I walked past a reservoir in the spring and saw an ice island.  This was gray-black and submerged enough that it could have been the reflection of a cloud, except that it was covered with birds.  The birds were ankle deep in the cold water; pointing in all directions, they seemed, despite their concerted stares, to be scattered.  The island was something I’d seen and admired every year, but when I looked at it this time, I saw that it was transitory yet permanent, that its islandness depended on the water, which would destroy it and create it again.

The water and ice were antagonistic, but not only antagonistic.  The water was of the ice, after all, and the ice of the water; the water gave rise to the ice.  Their relationship was what James Alan McPherson might have called one of antagonistic cooperation.”

Ultimately, life and art aren’t armies in constant battle. They aren’t enemies— in fact, they can be great allies to each other: the mundane matter of life offers material for our art; making art makes life, at least, makes it worthwhile.

Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story”

In her penetrating memoir Drinking: A Love StoryCaroline Knapp compares her romance with alcohol to a doomed, dysfunctional relationship.  In the same way that an infatuated lover overlooks the flaws of their beloved, Knapp ignores the many problems caused by her drinking.  “When you love somebody, or something,” she writes, “it’s amazing how willing you are to overlook the flaws.”

Like many alcoholics, she rationalizes her destructive behavior: yes, she sometimes drank too much and yes, she rarely went a night without booze but she never drank on the job or got in her car blacked out and killed someone.  She was what we call a “functioning” alcoholic: despite her excessive drinking, she (mostly) managed to keep up appearances.  Knapp had a car, a house, a job.  In fact, she had a prestigious job at the Boston Phoenix and even wrote her own column.  Yet despite having achieved impressive heights of success, for many years, she secretly struggled with alcoholism.

As an Ivy League-educated young professional, Knapp found it difficult to see herself as an “alcoholic,” a word associated with cheap malt liquor in paper bags and dirt-smeared homeless men.  She didn’t fit the prevailing conception of a drunk: she had never been homeless or incarcerated.  Most of her drinking was social: a few innocent glasses of Chardonny with dinner, a cocktail or two with friends.  “I’m not that bad” is the logic of the functioning alcoholic.  “I might drive my car while slightly intoxicated/instigate arguments with my husband/occasionally do things I regret, but at least I have a job and a roof over my head!”

What causes someone to descend into the hellscape of addiction?  What makes someone an alcoholic?  Is alcoholism a disease encoded in our DNA or the result of a dysfunctional environment?

Knapp certainly didn’t have the tragic upbringing of many alcoholics.  She was born in Cambridge into a well-to-do East Coast family: her mother was an artist, her father was a psychoanalyst.  Her privileged youth consisted of formal family dinners and summers at Martha’s Vineyard.  She excelled academically and graduated from Brown with honors.

This is why her alcoholism is all the more mystifying.  Alcohol didn’t travel through her family like “water over a landscape” or wash across whole generations in a “liquid plague.”  There was nothing particularly traumatic she could point to in her childhood— a bitter divorce, a history of neglect or abuse— that could explain her tendencies toward self-destruction.  Had her upbringing been defined by disorder and dysfunction, her addiction might make more sense.  But I suppose that’s one lesson of Drinking: anyone— rich or poor, a Brown graduate from an affluent suburb or a tough-talking construction worker from South Boston— can be an alcoholic.  No one is safe from the tentacles of addiction.

Knapp evocatively describes the sensations of drinking (“I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler.  I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me”) and its torturous cycles of shame and self-loathing.  

But what I loved most about Drinking was her ability to express the agony and insanity of being addicted to something.  As someone who has struggled with several dependences (alcohol, cigarettes, stimulants, shopping), I could see myself in her story with excruciating clarity.  If you’ve ever been possessed by an irrational longing for merlot or martinis, you’ll recognize the countless rules Knapp imposes on herself to “manage” her drinking: “I never drank in the morning and I never drank at work…except for an occasional mimosa or Bloody Mary at a weekend brunch, except for a glass of white wine (maybe two) with lunch on days when I didn’t have to do too much.”

When I tried to manage my smoking, I made similar rules: at first, I said I’d only smoke in the morning with my ceremonial cup of coffee or on the rare occasion I went out to the bars.  But eventually, I made an exception to every rule.  I’d only smoke in the morning with my coffee except if I had a stressful day at work: then I could smoke as much as I want.  I’d only smoke when I was drunk except if my mom pissed me off.  The addict’s rules are violable.  No matter how much Knapp tried to “control” her drinking, she couldn’t stop.

Miss Knapp incisively captures addiction’s obsessive quality.  Throughout the book, she preoccupies herself with the whos, whats, whens and wheres of drinking.  Who should she invite for a casual cocktail after work?  What should she drink: a cucumber-infused gin and tonic or an ice cold glass of Budweiser?  When could she finally pop the cork on the celebratory champagne?  Where could she get a bottle of scotch if she was at her family’s summer home and the nearest liquor store was 45 minutes away?  

If she was at a social eventa dinner with her boyfriend’s parents, a family gathering— she rigorously monitored herself.  How much cabernet should I pour into my glass?  How much time should I allow to elapse before pouring a second?  Can Aunt Lucy tell I’m completely smashed?  Knapp, like all alcoholics and addicts, spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to keep her drinking to socially acceptable levels.

“A Love Story” is the perfect subtitle to Knapp’s cleverly-crafted memoir.  At the height of her addiction, alcohol is her lover, her best friend, her closest confidant.  Alcohol is her all-consuming passion, an intense infatuation that constantly intrudes on her thoughts.  She savors the smoky quality of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, the refreshing crispness of a glass of Sauvignon blanc.  Knapp obsesses over alcohol like a childhood crush.  But after 20 years of tormented love, she decides it’s time to file for divorce.

However, Knapp’s neurotic love for alcohol doesn’t just dissipate when she decides to quit drinking.  In a hilarious moment after she gets sober, she wonders if she’s really an alcoholicthen she realizes only an alcoholic would wonder if they were an alcoholic at 2:30 in the morning.

A reporter and daughter of a psychologist, Knapp often approaches her subject analytically.  Because of her journalistic background, she connects her experience to larger issues; at different times, she examines the ways we glamorize alcohol in our culture and includes statistics and facts about alcoholism.  As a fanatic for non-fiction, I appreciated how Knapp masterfully balanced confessional memoir and fact-driven journalism.

Intelligently written and unfalteringly honest, Drinking: A Love Story is a vitally important addition to the addiction memoir genre.  


Ursula K. Le Guin on Why We Should Pay Attention to the Music of our Sentences

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,” Strunk and White wrote in their seminal writing guide The Elements of Style in 1959.  For the last half century, their philosophy on writing has reigned in newsrooms and classrooms nationwide.  Modern sensibilities prefer minimalism to ornamentation: critics praise the muscular prose of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver; high school teachers plead for their students to strip their sentences of superfluous words and fancy flourishes.

However, in her warm, witty Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin revolts against the Strunk and White idea that good sentences are always short sentences.  A clean, concise sentence, Guin concedes, can be impactful, especially after a string of elaborate prose.  But too many short, Hemingway-esque sentences can start to sound as tiresome as the not-yet-developed thoughts of a five year old.  As Guin writes,

“…very short sentences, isolated or in a series, are highly effective in the right place.  Prose consisting entirely of short, syntactically simple sentences is monotonous, choppy, irritating.  If short-sentence prose goes on very long, whatever its content, the thump-thump beat gives it a false simplicity that soon just sounds stupid.  See Spot.  See Jane.  See Spot bite Jane.”

If we are to seduce our readers, Guin suggests, we must become attuned to the music of language.  At the word level, we must choose our words carefully and pay attention to the symphonies they create: the rhythm and cadence of single syllables, the romance of vowels, the flowy, melodious “r,” the harsh, percussive sounds of consonants like “p” and “t.”  At the sentence level, we must remember one word: variety.  Too many succinct sentences and our writing sounds like it belongs in a newsroom or child’s story; too many fussy, flowery sentences and our readers inevitably get lost in a maze of syntax and have trouble deciphering our meaning.  Balance is key.  

In his indispensable Murder Your Darlings, Roy Peter Clark complies the collected wisdom of fifty of the best writing books ranging from titans of the genre like William Zinsser and William Strunk to gentle, encouraging voices like Brenda Ueland and Anne Lamott.  Murder Your Darlings is like speed dating literature’s most iconic figures: the profile of each book is brief, but immensely instructive.  If you’re a professional writer, a diligent wordsmith or just a lover of language, you’ll delight in your dates with these literary legends. 

In his chapter on Ursula K. Le Guin, Clark distills Steering the Craft into 4 practical writing tips:

1. Read your drafts…out loud.  Pay attention to the sound of your sentences and watch out for passages that have a “monotonous rhythm.”

2.  Vary your sentence length.  Too many terse sentences one after another?  Add a longer sentence to give your writing a more pleasing melody.  Too many lengthy, meandering 20 word sentences?  Introduce a brief 2 or 4 word sentence for variety.  As Janet Fitch once said in “10 Rules for Writers,” switching up your sentence structure will keep your reader from going crosseyed.

3. Be purposeful in your repetition.  The rules of the English classroom often take the inviolability of edicts.  Avoid the passive voice.  Never use “I.”  Never end a sentence with a preposition.  Despite what stuffy English teachers may have told you, you shouldn’t always avoid repetition.  Often times, the most talented literary stylists use repetition to underscore a theme or reveal a message.  Take Sylvia Plath’s genius first line from The Bell Jar, her harrowing classic:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

After this first image of a pair of Jewish spies being executed in the summer of 1953, the motif of electrocution is repeated throughout the story.  Why?  Because Ms. Plath was an incompetent hack who was too lazy to vary her word choice?  No, Plath intentionally repeats the image of electrocution to foreshadow the novel’s disturbing climax, the protagonist Esther’s botched electro-shock treatment.  Bad repetition is a result of oversight or sloppiness.  Good repetition serves a purpose.

When a reporter asked the late great Joan Didion why she repeats certain words and phrases, she replied, “I do it to remind the reader to make certain connections.  Technically it’s almost a chant.  You could read it as an attempt to cast a spell.”

So be a sorcerer of sentences.  Feel free to repeat…so long as you’re harnessing the incantatory power of language.

4. This last tip is my favorite.  Clark recommends close reading one of your own passages that you think works well.  Like Joan Didion who counted the words in Hemingway’s famous opening to Farewell to Arms, you should take a mathematical approach to your analysis: count, literally count, the words in each of your sentences.  What do you notice?  Most likely, you’ll see that you use a variety of sentences: simple, compound, complex.  Some of your sentences will be as condensed as a hurried p.s. at the end of a note; others will seem as epically enormous as a Donna Tartt novel.  Next time you go to write, use your passage as a model. 

Arnold Bennett on Why We Should “Use” Our Free Time

“Life feels so mundane,” my college friend confessed the other day, “I just go to work and pay bills.”  Sadly, as we get older, every day comes to seem the same: wake up, have your morning coffee, wait for the (yet again) late 8:30 train, do monotonous, meaningless work under the harsh fluorescent lights of a grim office that is relentlessly gray, come home, repeat.  Littleif anything— breaks up the tedium of our days.  “Adulting” is living in an eternal Groundhog Day. 

In his 1908 masterpiece of self-help How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett prescribes a potent medicine for the mundanity of modern living.  According to Bennett, the greatest tragedy of our times is that we regard 8 hours— a whole third of our existence as simply something to “get over with.”  Though a great fraction of our time is spent working, few approach their jobs with a sense of fervor or eagerness.  As Bennett writes, “In the majority of instances he does not precisely feel a passion for his business; at best he does not dislike it.”

Worse still is the fact that we treat the other 16 hours of our day as “free time” to waste.  Of course, 8 of those 16 hours are spent sleeping but what about the other 8?  After work, we fritter away these precious moments in some trivial activity: relaxing but ultimately random reading, zombified scrolling, superficial conversation, T.V.  And so runs the unfortunate course of our finite lives: 1/3 spent sleeping, 1/3 spent working at a profession we find divorced from a transcendent cause or greater meaning, and 1/3 spent in trifling activity.  

Bennett believed our gravest mistake was making our jobs the focus of our day.  Though many of us dislike if not outright despise our jobs, we organize our lives around what we do for a living.  For most— Bennett claims the hours from 9 to 5 constitute the day: “the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.”  We use the hours before and after work like money in a foreign country: we insist this time doesn’t “count,” so we spend it frivolously.  After all, it’s easy to spend extravagantly in Greece if the concept of a euro means nothing.

Rather than squander our finite time on Earth, Bennet argues we should use time wisely.  The forefather of self-help recommends we devote an hour and a half every other evening to some “important and consecutive cultivation of the mind.”  

But why only an hour and a half every other night?  Certainly we have more free time.

If we work a traditional 9-5, we probably have around 5-6 hours every day of “free time.”  However, we must account for our other obligations.  After commuting and grabbing our morning coffee, grocery shopping and going to the post office, making cereal for our kids and reading them bedtime stories, we probably have less than 3 hours of free time. 

So why still only commit an hour and a half every other night?

As with any worthwhile endeavor, we must start small.  An hour and a half every other night is a manageable amount.  After a few weeks of dedicated practice to our “cultivation of mind,” most of us will spend several evenings a week engaged in our activity and prefer it to the hollow pleasures of social media and T.V. watching.

But what, exactly, constitutes a “cultivation of mind”?  What should we use our hour and a half every other night for?  

Watch AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.  Read all of Leo Tolstoy’s works.  Train for a half marathon. 

Our goals may be physical or intellectual, spiritual or emotional, the only important thing is we have a goal and that goal personally resonates with us.  We can work to realize a lifelong ambition (write a novel) or revive a long neglected hobby (collect midcentury furniture).  We can learn to speak Italian or play the piano or master the art of Szechuan cooking or aim to expand our knowledge of 18th century literature.  The only requirement is we choose something meaningful.           

Why is learning a skill or cultivating a passion or taking up a hobby so crucial?  As Bennet so eloquently explains, if you learn, say, how a symphony operates, the next time you go to a concert, you’ll have an “astonishing intensification of interest in it.”  That is the beauty of hobbies: they renew our fascination and rekindle our zest for existence. 

Olivier Burkeman on the Reality that You Never “Have” Time

Much of our mortal lives is a struggle against the clock.  We’re obsessed with managing time, with breaking it down into concrete, controllable blocks.  We streamline our lives and regiment our schedules with military precision.  We treat our days like assembly lines, something to be made more efficient.  We pencil and plot and plan.  We book doctor’s appointments, write agendas on the boards of our classrooms, schedule coffee dates with our friends three weeks in advance.  A date scribbled in our calendars gives us the illusion of certainty: if it’s written in ink— we believe— our plans will unfold accordingly.

However, as most of us know, life almost never goes according to plan.  Though you “plan” to go on a coffee date with your friend, Olivier Burkeman writes in his philosophically-minded masterpiece 0f self-help Four Thousand Weeks, any “number of factors [can] confound your expectations, robbing you of the…hours you thought you had.”  You might get a flat tire on the way to the coffee shop.  Your friend might cancel because she’s sick.

Despite our hubristic belief that man can move mountains and has dominion over all beasts, time is one thing man cannot control.  No matter how neurotically we try to squeeze the events of our lives into predictable schedules, we can never force Father Time to submit to our will.  The vet’s appointment that was supposed to take a quick 50 minutes will become an interminable 3 hours.  The languid summer afternoon we “had” to spend working on our novel will get rudely interrupted by the unwelcome sound of the doorbell.

In the cleverly titled chapter “We Never Really Have Time,” Burkeman calls into question the very idea that we “have” time in the first place.  Though we worry and obsess, project and plan, our “plans” are intentions for the future— nothing more.

Our calendars offer consolation in a chaotic world: when we pen an appointment in poised cursive in our planners (doctor’s appointment @ 2pm), we feel in command.  We don’t have to confront the disturbing, rather distressing fact that much of life lies outside our control: how and when we’ll die, whether democracy collapses across the globe, the rise of the alt-right, the rate at which polar ice melts, the rise and fall of the Dow Jones.

In many ways, we’re not the directors of our lives: we can’t force our marriage-wary on-again, off-again boyfriend to propose, nor can we cast our ceaselessly critical older sister into a less nitpicking role.  Life is a movie, but we can only partially write the script.  If we want to lose weight, we can eat bananas and granola, we can exercise 3-4 times a week, we can drink water instead of soda and other sugary drinks, but ultimately we can’t change our body’s fundamental shape.  If we’re naturally more curvaceous, we’re never going to be Kate Moss-skinny— even if we do 100 crunches a day.

Our obsessive planning deludes us into thinking we can control the future.  When we assert that our doctor’s visit will— in fact— occur at 2 pm, we feel we can assert other things with confidence: that we’ll drive to work without getting into an accident, that our troubled son will graduate high school and not fall victim to drug addiction, that that the lump in our breast is benign, not malignant, that we’ve been silly to lose sleep over a possibly terminal cancer diagnosis.  Like William Ernest Henley in his rousing poem “Invictus,” we insist we’re “captains of our souls.”  But we’re not captains of our fate— we’re more like helpless life rafts bobbing in a storm-tossed sea of forces beyond our control.  

Oliver Burkeman on the Myth of “Doing it All” & the Secret to Making the Most of Your Harrowingly Short Life

We live in a time-obsessed age.  We want to control it, to conquer it, to use it wisely.  If you’re a reluctant self-help enthusiast like me, you’ve tried everything to streamline your schedule and increase efficiency: read books like The Checklist Manifesto and The 4-Hour Work Week, used apps to track your calories and your sleep, been convinced by tech bro podcasts that the key to success was to emulate billionaires’ morning routines.

Sadly, most self-help convinces us we can optimize our lives as if humans were nothing more than yet-to-be-perfected machines.  In his part how-to guide, part philosophical treatise Four Thousand Weeks, British journalist Oliver Burkeman rallies against such misdirected self-help and suggests there’s more to life than crossing items off a to-do list in the name of productivity.  

The New York Times observes Burkeman’s work can sit comfortably on the “shelf next to the books published by Alain de Botton, literary-flavored advice on love, friendship, work and other conundrums.”  The comparison to Botton is apt: both are British, both are charmingly cynical, and both fuse together the wisdom of the ages into how-to guides for modern mortals.

Though its premise (life is short— we should make the most of each day) seems unbearably commonplace, Four Thousand Weeks manages (for the most part) to escape self-help’s empty cliches.  In fact, I dare say Burkeman will inspire you to look at time in a whole new way.

A self-proclaimed “productivity geek,” Burkeman was at one time a devoted believer in the religion of productivity: he used highlighters to color code his planner, broke down his day into 15 minute increments, and tried countless efficiency systems such as Inbox Zero and the Pomodoro technique.

Then one winter in 2014, he had an unsettling epiphany: he was never going to scale the mountain of all his “to-do” tasks and blissfully arrive at the summit of “being on top of everything.”  

According to Burkeman, the problem with most time management philosophies is they rest on the erroneous premise that we can do everything.  If only we could find the most efficient way to structure our day/tackle our inbox, we could launch our 6-figure business, have a happy marriage and regularly run marathons.  If only we could find the most aesthetically-pleasing Pinterest-worthy planner, we could systematically prioritize our to-do list and “get it all done.”

But the reality is we can’t do it all.

Staying late at the office means we can’t have game night with our family.  Opting to go with our friends to a bar Friday night means we most likely can’t go running early Saturday morning.  If we only have 2 weeks of vacation a year, we can’t possibly go to every one of our “must-see” destinations: we have to choose between the endless excitement of New York and the majestic turquoise waters of Bali.

The problem with the be/do/have it all mentality is it encourages us to say “yes” to every opportunity: social invitations, networking events, more and more responsibility.  The result?  We have full calendars of other people’s priorities.  Because we said “yes” to Sarah’s dinner party, we spend our Saturday night nibbling on quiche instead of working on our 3 act play.  And because we said “yes” to yet another project at work, we can no longer take a romantic holiday to wine country.

Ultimately, time management isn’t about “doing it all” (which is impossible)— it’s about coming to terms with the fact that you’re never going to.  You’re never going to have a bustling social life and work 60 hours a week.  You’re never going to have the picture-perfect marriage and a high-powered career.  You’re never going to be a world-class pianist and a Harvard PhD.  Perhaps a few super humans among us can do many things, but the rest of us mortals must make choices.  Time management requires you face your finitude: as Burkeman asserts, “your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice— the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time.”

Joan Didion on How Detours Bring Us Closer to Our Destiny

Most of us have clear ideas about how our dreams should unfold.  If we want to be movie stars, for example, we imagine our breakthrough moment will be an Academy Award or a critically-acclaimed starring role.  We dream our big break will manifest in a very specific way: a major director will notice us while we’re waiting tables; after a single audition, we’ll land our ideal part.  We imagine we’ll be “discovered” in some romantic fashion like Lana Turner, casually sipping a coke at a malt shop.  Our initiation into Tinseltown will be the legendary stuff of Hollywood lore.

But sometimes our “big break,” doesn’t seem big at all.  This, we think, wasn’t how it was supposed to go!  We were supposed to be “serious” actors— not amateurs in a 30 second McDonald’s commercial!

If we’re about to pass up an opportunity because it isn’t as glitzy or glamorous as our fantasies, because we think it’s a roundabout detour on what should be a straight and narrow path to our destiny, essayist and journalist Joan Didion would say one thing: don’t.

Didion understood that dreams don’t always come true the way we hoped.  After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1956, she moved to New York City to become a writer.  Her first gig was writing merchandising copy for Vogue.  Though Vogue is certainly a prestigious publication, Didion didn’t exactly imagine her “dream job” would involve writing compact 1-line captions for patent leather pumps.  Another writer might have dismissed this type of “writing” as frivolous.  But Didion saw fashion writing as a way to perfect her craft and polish her prose.  In her landmark 1978 essay “Telling Stories,” one of many characteristically clear-eyed pieces from Let Me Tell You What I MeanDidion realizes that her time at Vogue played a formative role in shaping the writer she’d become:

“It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’ and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toy weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.  In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.  At Vogue one learned fast, or did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters.  We were connoisseurs of synonyms.  We were collectors of verbs.  (I recall “to ravish” as a highly favored verb for a number of issues and I also recall it, for a number of issues more, as the source of a highly favored noun: “ravishments,” as in “tables cluttered with porcelain tulips, Faberge eggs, and other ravishments.”)  We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there were two oranges and an apple” read better than “there were an apple and two oranges,” passive verbs slowed down sentences, “it” needed a reference within the scan of an eye), learned to scan the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again.  “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there.”  “Give me a shock verb two lines in.”  “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.”  Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion.  Going to work for Vogue was, in the 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes.”

It was at Vogue that Didion developed her distinctive style and terse, tough-minded prose.  Lesson?  We never know how the seeds of our dreams will blossom and grow.  For more from this stellar sentence stylist, read Ms. Didion on writing as a process of discovery and the pains & perils of self-doubt.