Alain de Botton on the Four Criteria of Emotional Health

young alain de bottonWe as a society are deeply committed to education.  In the U.S. alone, students spend 1,000 hours in school every year.  There they are taught lessons in the laws of thermodynamics and Mendel’s Punnett squares.  From eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, they study the disciplines that form the foundation of human culture: history, literature, mathematics, the sciences, art.  Contrary to popular belief, we’re actually getting smarter.  Over the last century, in every nation in the developing world where intelligence test results are on record, IQ test scores have climbed upward.  As Malcolm Gladwell explained in a 2007 New Yorker article, “The typical teenager of today, with an IQ of 100, would have grandparents with average IQs of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school…if we go back even farther…the average IQs of the schoolchildren of 1900 was around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.”

Despite the enormous gains we’re made in terms of traditional intelligence, the kinds of linguistic and mathematical reasoning measured on IQ tests, we have failed to instruct our children in an even more important form of intelligence— emotional intelligence, or the ability to navigate the at times rocky terrain of our inner worlds and interpersonal relationships.  Common core standards revolve around discipline-specific skills and foundational knowledge: how to factor a quadratic, say, or how to determine the meaning of words based on context.  But little time is devoted to teaching our children how to set boundaries or how to treat ourselves or others with love and kindness.

Beloved British philosopher Alain de Botton founded the School of Life in hopes of instructing us in the too often neglected art of living itself.  His underlying philosophy?  Love and empathy, trust and vulnerability are skills just like anything else.  If we can teach a 5th grader how to perform long division, we can certainly teach ourselves how to communicate our needs openly and honestly and how to be gentle with ourselves.  In de Botton’s ideal world, education would mean exploring the uncharted territory of our own psyches— not dutifully absorbing useless facts from textbooks.

In his latest book The School of Life: An Emotional Education, de Botton aims to help the emotionally ill-equipped among us live more meaningful lives.  Written with at times breathtaking poetry and charming, if cynical, British wit, An Emotional Education maps the journey to emotional maturity, covering such vital skills as how to be kind, how to be polite, and how to gain self-knowledge.  Because of his classical education and profound insight into the human condition, de Botton is able to redeem the much disdained genre of self-help— a genre we’ve come to associate with shameless platitudes and blockbuster bestsellers.  But despite the modern distaste for the genre, de Botton wonders: what is the aim of all literature, of all philosophy, of all culture if not to teach us how to live and how to live well?  Why read novels or marvel at paintings if not to better ourselves?  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  The works of Socrates and Aristotle.  For de Botton, the aim of the most monumental human achievements has been to help us improve ourselves.

How can we be happy and genuinely love who we are?  How can we find meaningful work?  the right partner?  How can we stop engaging in petty squabbles about dirty dishes and what we’re going to have for dinner?  If you’re on a never-ending quest to seek answers to such questions, if you want to be a happier, more fulfilled, more functional person, you absolutely must read An Emotional Education.

De Botton begins our emotional education by outlining what he considers to be the four markers of emotional health:

1. self-love 

self-love

Sadly, romanticism has perpetuated the myth that love has to come from outside ourselves.  In our era of gushy love songs and the prepackaged cliches of hackneyed Hallmark cards, we’re programmed to believe we need another person to complete our fragmentary selves.  Women are especially taught that we require romantic love to redeem our souls.  The result?  We seek love and adoration from men— selfish, self-absorbed, immature, emotionally incapable, occasionally abusive men— instead of validate ourselves.  As Rumi reminds us, “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts.”

But de Botton believes there’s a better way.  Rather than equate our worth to our relationship status or allow our self-respect to be shattered when a boyfriend leaves us or a potential paramour doesn’t call, we can give ourselves the tender affection we so long for.

What, exactly, does it mean to love yourself?  De Botton defines self-love as the “quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves.”  Instead of treat ourselves with the stern severity of a school master, loving ourselves means forgiving our frailties and foibles.  If your friend’s long-term boyfriend suddenly left her, would you demand she stop crying and simply “suck it up”?  Of course not.  You’d hand her a box of tissues and be there for her.  Or what if her presentation at work didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had hoped?  Would you ruthlessly reprimand her because she didn’t make enough copies and her voice shook?  Or would you reassure her that she is in fact a capable, compelling speaker and she did the best she could?

The key to a contented life is treating ourselves like a friend: with thoughtfulness, generosity and warmth.  If we ever want to have success in the romantic arena, if we ever want to love someone else, we first have to love ourselves.  The truth of this observation is reflected in the sentence structure of the phrase “I love you” itself.  “I” must always precede “you”: you can’t truly extend compassion and understanding to another human being until you extend such kindheartedness to yourself.

2. candor

self-knowledge

The second hallmark of emotional health is candor.  Yet we often lie to ourselves.  Why?  Because if we were honest, truly honest, we’d have to change our lives— a task that is too daunting for the majority of us.  If we admitted we no longer loved our husbands, we’d have to leave and essentially start over.  If we admitted the man we were “madly” in love with was just a rebound, we’d have to come to face-to-face with a not-so-flattering fact about ourselves: we seek solace in the flesh instead of deal with the grief and sorrow of terrible break ups.

Man is a master of self-deception.  To maintain the illusion that we are, indeed, still satisfied with our loveless marriage or are deeply invested in our sexually explosive but ultimately dull rebound relationship, we devise all kinds of distractions: booze, cigarettes, obsessive news/social media checking, pornography, sex.  “But if we could stop, for a time, looking at naked people, or drinking or checking the news, and face up to what we need to do, we might– gradually– end up in so much better a place,” de Botton reassures us.

Lesson?  If you want to be happy, be forthright about who you are and what you want not only with friends and lovers but with yourself.

3. communication

communication

Communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship.  In the early stages of courtship, communication is absolutely essential: are we looking for something serious or more casual?  do we want marriage?  the idyllic white picket fence and 2.5 baths?  a gaggle of youngsters and a kitchen overrun by pacifiers and baby bottles?  

Once we agree on the terms of our union, we have to explicitly express ourselves if we want to sustain love over the long-haul.  Yet many of us have a deep aversion to translating our feelings into words.  Rather than tell our husband he hurt our feelings when he called our choice of presidential candidate “dumb” in front of our dinner party guests, we spend the rest of the evening angrily sipping champagne and exasperatingly rolling our eyes at everything he says.  Or what if the man we’re casually dating reaches out reliably everyday and suddenly– for three unbearable, excruciating days– doesn’t text or call?  Do we behave like rational, mature adults and ask for an explanation?  Do we confess that his mysterious silence– though insignificant– upset us?  No, most often we retreat into bitter silence and sulk: we only give curt one-word replies to his texts, we reject his attempts at affection, we look away when he tries to kiss us.

Why is it so hard to utter what is in our hearts?  Why do we refuse to just say what’s bothering us?  De Botton suggests we’re uncommunicative in love because we believe the prevailing Platonic myth that our lover is our “other half” and, therefore, should naturally understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers can see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, if two people are truly destined for each other, they shouldn’t have to say how they feel– their partner should just know.  Our husband should know such an off-hand remark about our political preferences would hurt our feelings; the man we’re dating should know we’d descend into a torture chamber of abandonment and insecurity if he didn’t call.  If we have to communicate directly, our relationship must be doomed.  After all, it’s tragically unromantic to have to spell things out.

But de Botton argues we’d be better off if we took a more realistic, perhaps even more cynical, view of love.  Rather than buy into the lovely but fanciful notion that our significant other should understand us without our saying a word, we should realize relationships require us to speak up.  Love isn’t beyond language: we need to state our needs if we want them met.  If we expect our partner to read our minds, our relationship will be defined by mutual incomprehension and disappointment.

The reality is sometimes our husbands won’t be able to decipher the strange hieroglyphics of our gestures and facial expressions: he’ll misread our yawn to mean we’re simply tired from a long day when we’re actually bored of his dull conversation; when he asks if we want Thai food for dinner, he’ll understand our reluctant “um hm” as tacit compliance.  And why wouldn’t he?  How is he supposed to know we were really hankering for Chinese?  The result?  a) We don’t get what we want (wor wanton and chicken chow mein) and b) we likely spoil our evening.

So how do we spare ourselves all this heartache and frustration?  Simple: have a conversation.

4. trust

after the storm

The final pillar of de Botton’s philosophy of emotional health is trust.  “How risky is the world?  How readily might we survive a challenge in the form of a speech we must give, a romantic rejection, a bout of financial trouble, a journey to another country or a common cold?” he asks us.  Those who are emotionally healthy have faith not only in life, but in themselves: they believe in their capacity to overcome any obstacle– no matter how seemingly insurmountable.  Lose your job?  The emotionally intelligent person will of course worry (“Will I find something as fulfilling?”  “How will I pay my bills?”) but unlike the emotionally-maladjusted person, they won’t indulge their anxiety.  Rather than buy into their fear-based stories that there “aren’t any [insert industry] jobs in this economy,” they’ll remind themselves a) they are captains of their fate and b) much of their life is within their own control.  While the melancholic will pity themselves and lament the cruelty and unfairness of the world, the emotionally mature person will be practical: this is the time– not to draw the blinds and retreat under the covers– but to diligently search job postings and polish cover letters.

Brenda Ueland on the Incubation of Ideas & the Importance of Idleness to Creativity

if you want to writeWe live in a productivity-obsessed age where we streamline our lives with the efficiency of assembly lines, devoting our every minute, every second to the capitalist task of “getting things done.”  Today some ten-year-olds have busier schedules than corporate CEOs.  Hour after hour is crammed with basketball games and ballet classes, playdates and piano.

The problem?  In our rabid race to achieve, we leave little time for idleness.  We all need “time freed from time”— respite from the relentless hamster wheel of duty and obligation.  Savoring a cup of chamomile tea, unwinding in a hot bath, lounging on a languid summer afternoon with nothing pressing to do and no set plans: such idle moments are restful commas in a hurried sentence.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that we all require time for rest, renewal, and relaxation.  Yet in our “time is money” capitalist culture, we feel guilty if we don’t maximize every hour and do something “useful.”  If we fritter away a Saturday morning painting or writing sonnets or simply staring out the window, we’re slothful— or worse— sinful.  Idleness is an unforgivable violation of the capitalist credo.

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, delightfully defiant Brenda Ueland suggests idleness is not a condemnable waste of time but a critical component of the creative life.  Much like Rebecca Solnit, who argued the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour, Ueland believes the imagination “works slowly and quietly.”  Indeed, throughout time, idleness has been behind all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “What we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing,” wrote Leo Tolstoy.

Sadly, in our accomplishment-manic society, we find it hard to tolerate the idleness so crucial to creativity.  To write, to paint, you need long stretches of seeming un-productivity.  Or as poet Mary Oliver so elegantly phrased, “a place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”  To be an artist, we have to resign ourselves to the dispiriting fact that some days we’ll slave for hours and have almost nothing to show for it; some days “working” will consist of simply staring out the window and sitting at our desks.  But if we’re to remain artists, we can’t be discouraged by this apparent lack of progress.  As Ueland writes:

“When we hear the word ‘inspiration’ we imagine something that comes like a bolt of lightning, and at once with a rapt flashing of the eyes, tossed hair and feverish excitement, a poet or artist begins furiously to paint or write.  At least I used to think sadly that that was what inspiration must be, and never experienced a thing that was one bit like it.

But this isn’t so.  Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly.  Say that you want to write.  Well, not much will come to you the first day.  Perhaps nothing at all.  You will sit before your typewriter or paper and look out the window and begin to brush your hair absent-mindedly for an hour or two.  Never mind.  That is all right.  That is as it should be,— though you must sit before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper sooner or later.  And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day and so on, forever and ever.”

Though we tend to idolize what the ancients called the vita activa, or life of action, Ueland believes we should devote just as much time to quiet contemplation.  Our ideas are like seeds: we can’t plant them in the ground and expect them to immediately sprout— they need to sit in the fertile soil of silence and solitude before they can bloom into fully-formed flowers:

“Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.  Bernard Shaw says that it is not true that Napoleon was always snapping out decisions to a dozen secretaries and aides-de-camp, as we are told, but that he moodled around for months.  Of course he did.  And that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people often say: ‘I am not creative.’  They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time.”

For Ueland, there is one crucial difference between the active, go-getting man and the idle man: while the go-getting man mindlessly follows other people’s maxims out of a stern sense of obligation, the idle man is a free thinker who has his own ideas and creates his own rules.  

“It is these fool, will-worshipping people who live by maxims and lists of chores and the Ten Commandments— not creatively as when a fine, great maxim occurs to you and bursts a little, silent bomb of revelation in you— but mechanically.

‘Honor thy father and thy mother’… the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behavior.

The idle man says:

‘Honor they father and mother.’…That is interesting…I don’t seem to honor them very much…I wonder why that is?  and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained.  This distresses him and he puzzles and thinks and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination shows to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: ‘Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?'”

When we get quiet, we can hear the hushed whisperings of our own heart.  As British philosopher Alain de Botton so eloquently put it, in idleness the “more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.”  In what is perhaps my most beloved and oft-quoted line from If You Want to WriteUeland reassures us if we sit still and listen hard, the Muse will strike:

“So you see the imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.  These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: ‘I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.’  But they have no slow, big ideas.  And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from the office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.” 

For more of Brenda Ueland’s heart-sustaining meditations on art and creativity, revisit art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies.  Longing for more insight into writing and the writing life?  Read advice from our era’s leading literary lights including Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood, Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, and Maya Angelou on her writing routine and the exquisite torment of the creative life.

Brenda Ueland on the Imagination as the Glorious Gateway to the Divine

Poets and philosophers have been enraptured by the imagination since the beginning of time.  “I am if you want to writecertain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” romantic poet John Keats once wrote.  For playwright George Barnard Shaw, imagination was the beginning of creation, the first step to manifesting our deepest desires in the physical, material world: “You imagine what you desire.  You will what you imagine.  And at last, you create what you will.”  Founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought the imagination was a gift generously bestowed upon us by the gods.  “Imagination is the true fire stolen from heaven to animate this cold creature of clay,” she wrote in characteristically evocative prose.

But no words on the imagination startle with more truth than Einstein’s famous assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  In our era of content-driven education with its mechanical memorization and high-stakes standardized tests, how can this be true?  The word “imagination” itself carries a magical— if childlike quality— as if it only belonged in rainbow-colored kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes.  No, forget inspiration and invention, ingenuity and curiosity.  Knowing the exact years of WWI and the number of elements on the periodic table—we’ve been told— is more important.  Rather than encourage students to imagine, we cram their brains with useless facts.  So obsessed are we with knowing that we devotedly read What Your Sixth Grader Should Know and reduce what could be a consciousness-raising curriculum to a list of spirit-squashing state standards.

Yet despite our education system’s emphasis on knowledge, there can be no innovation without imagination.  If knowledge is composed of the things we know for sure, imagination permits us to play with possibilities, to explore the untrodden terrain of new ideas.  Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Einstein’s theory of relativity.  No feat in the arts or sciences can be accomplished without the ability to see and believe in something that is not yet there.

In her timeless classic on art and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, the same trove that gave us art as infection and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, Brenda Ueland suggests the imagination is a glorious gateway to the divine.  If the atheist/agnostic among us shudder at her use of “God” and “Holy Ghost,” we can exchange her religious language for more secular terms.  God, Universe, Spirit, Fate.  Whatever we call it, the fact remains: when we create, we connect to something magnificently larger than ourselves.  In splendidly simple prose, Ueland argues— much like her idol Romantic poet and fellow champion of the creative spirit William Blake— that we should create for the whole of our limited time on Earth.  Why?  Because more than our capacity to reason, our imagination is what separates us from brutes:

“But the ardor for it [the imagination] is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.

Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost.  My theology might not be very accurate but that is how I think of it.  I know that William Blake called this creative power the Imagination and he said it was God. 

[…]

Now Blake thought this creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives.  And so do I.  Why?  Because it is life itself.  It is the Spirit.  In fact it is the only important thing about us.  The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”

If creative expression is the portal to a more exalted life, one question remains: how do we keep the imaginative impulse alive?  Ueland offers a simple solution: use it.  Unfortunately in our efficiency-obsessed era, we find it hard to waste time on such “frivolous” pursuits.  After all, wouldn’t it be more productive to go grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner than compose a love song?  What’s the point of writing a 5-act play or perfecting a Beethoven concerto?  Why bother painting a vase of sunflowers or a wheat field at dawn?  Why devote time to our art when there are more serious things to be done?

Though there are always to-do lists and time sheets, we must create— it’s what we’re here to do.  To disregard the muse and refuse ourselves the God-given gift of creation, to deny ourselves what we most want is an unforgivable betrayal of the self.  Sadly, in our sensible world of should’s and have to’s, it’s common to sacrifice our wants:

“But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or play the piano.  And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.

They do not know, as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves.  They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunsets, as they wanted to.”

If You Want to Write is a rousing reminder to forget duty and obligation and honor our wants, whether we want to write a novel or learn to cook Szechuan.  For more invaluable wisdom on creativity and art, read The Artist’s WayBird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer.

Leo Tolstoy on Art as Infection

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

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

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

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

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

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

tolstoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

van gogh letter

van gogh letter #2

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

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

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

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

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

irises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blonde sylvia

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

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

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

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

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