Alain de Botton on How to Lengthen Your Life

apples & orangesIs there anything that fills us with more terror than death?  We do everything in our power to postpone it: we eat kale, run marathons, join Soul Cycle, do juice cleanses.  But no matter how healthily we eat or rigorously we bicycle, we can’t escape the inescapable.  Even if quitting our nasty habit of smoking does add 5 years to our lives, there’s no guarantee that those extra 5 years will make our lives more meaningful.

In his latest book A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, gain self-knowledge, and listen to our boredom, incredible intellect Alain de Botton argues that “if the goal is to have a longer life…the priority should not be to add raw increments of time, but to ensure whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial.” 

As Einstein discovered over one hundred years ago, time is relative— not absolute.  Unlike other units of measurement like feet or inches, how we experience hours and minutes changes: the five minutes before summer vacation can feel like five hours, the lovely afternoon we spend with our crush can pass in what seems like seconds.  Time can drag ploddingly or race mind-blowingly fast.  As Einstein once said, “When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours.  That’s relativity.”

But why is it, exactly, that time accelerates when we get older?  When we’re children, life feels like it will go on forever.  But as we age, time speeds up: in our twenties, it jogs; in our thirties, it sprints; in our forties and beyond, the hands of the clock seem to move at a million miles an hour.

For Botton, “the difference in pace is not mysterious; it has to do with novelty.  The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel.  Conversely, the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in a blur.”  In childhood, each day contains novel encounters and never-before-seen characters.  Our early life is essentially defined by “firsts”: our first time standing on our own two feet, our first time going to grade school, our first time bringing our beloved Curious George doll to show-and-tell, our first time losing a tooth.  Not yet made weary by experience, we are astonished by the most ordinary things: the cycles of day and night, the miracle of rain, the basic arithmetic of 2 + 2.  Our curiosity is insatiable.  We want to know why we exist, why human civilizations rise and fall, why the octopus has eight legs and why clouds form.

But by middle age, life loses some of its novelty.  We may have important jobs and traveled thousands of miles.  Everyday things no longer spark a feeling of wonderment.  We’re no longer interested in the stars in the sky or the depths of Earth’s oceans.  We find most things tedious.  We have mastered the major disciplines: English, history, calculus, physics.  We know “adult” things like how to open a bank account and make a dinner reservation.  Because we believe we’ve seen it all, there are very few things that absorb our attention.

In adulthood, most of our days unfold in the exact same way: we rise at 6:30, make our morning coffee, shower, scramble to make orange juice and waffles for our children and get ourselves ready.  We follow the exact same route— left on Meredith, right on Channing— to the subway station and take the red line downtown just as we do every morning.  We make small talk with the same people, write the same emails, go to the same meetings only to wake up the next day and do the exact same thing.  “As a result,” Botton writes, “time runs away from us without mercy.”

So how do we lengthen our lives?  The most obvious answer is to find more exhilarating sources of novelty.  We need to visit the pyramids of Giza and the wondrous rainforests of the Amazon.  We need the adrenaline rush of jumping off of planes and swimming with Galapagos sharks.  If we want fresh experiences, we believe, we have to travel to faraway places where people practice strange customs and speak foreign languages— we can’t remain confined to the dull familiarity of our own backyards. 

“However,” Botton objects, “this is to labour under an unfair, expensive and ultimately impractical notion of novelty: that it must involve seeing new things when it should really involve seeing familiar things with new eyes.”  In reality, we don’t have to parachute out of planes or fly to Tahiti to find something beautiful or interesting.  We just have to be willing to look at things differently.  Like an explorer from a distant land or an alien who lands in a cornfield from Kepler 16b, we can bring attentive eyes to the things we normally neglect.  Rather than regard the ordinary and commonplace with world-weariness, we can recapture the child’s ability to be astonished.

In this new state of mind, simple things like a red carnation or the intoxicating scent of perfume on a summer wind reveal themselves remarkable things worthy of appreciation.  No longer do we regard our loved ones as predictable characters from a novel we’ve already read— we realize they’re just as mysterious as strangers in a subway station.  The city we’ve lived our entire lives becomes as awe-inspiring as the canals of Venice.  

If we want to live longer lives, we can learn something from artists.  As Botton so eloquently writes in his other masterpiece of philosophy, The Art of Travel, the central task of the artist is to open our eyes to what regularly escapes our notice: Chardin, for example, opens our eyes to the understated elegance of a glass of wine and loaf of bread; Cezanne to the neglected beauty of apples and oranges; Van Gogh to the glorious primary colors of Provence.  Unlike us, the artist doesn’t let habit get in the way of wonderment.  Rather than let life slip away, he remains awake to the dignity of the old peasant, the drama of a group of men playing cards, the aesthetically-pleasing proportions of a jug of milk and wedge of cheese.  Because the artist is curious and conscious, a single second can feel like an eternity.  He might not live longer than the average person, but his life feels longer because he lives more deeply.

In the end, we can never defeat mortality.  But we can make the most of the short lives we have by savoring the small moments of our day.  Even if we never compose a poem or paint a still life, we can adopt the artist’s orientation to the world and, as Botton concludes, “aim to live more deliberately.”

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Scavenger Hunt of Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a shit sandwich?

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

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

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

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

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

elizabeth gilbert #2

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

The Paradoxical Principles of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philosophy of Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

elizabeth gilbert signature of all things

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

           “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

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

           We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

           We are terrified, and we are brave.

           Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

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

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

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

3 Writers Who Had Day Jobs

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

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

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

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

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

1. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

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

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

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

2. Wallace Stevens

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

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

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

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

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

3. Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

3 Artists’ Rituals & Routines

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

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

1. Pablo Picasso

Picasso

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

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

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

2. Andy Warhol

andy warhol

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

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

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

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

3. Henri Matisse

henri matisse

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

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

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

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

The Routines & Rituals of 3 Famous Authors

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

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

1. Haruki Murakami

murakami

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

2. Joyce Carol Oates

oates

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

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

3. Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothea Brande on Being a Stranger in Your Streets

Most of us stumble through our lives in an insensible stupor, asleep to the sensory details of physical reality.  We may go to the grocery store once a week but when was the last time we noticed the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the bakery?  We walk through our neighborhood almost daily yet do we see the charming old-fashioned street lamps, the lemon tree against the spring sky, the lavender and red geraniums, the tire swing and oak tree? 

It’s a tragic fact of life that we become blind the more we see something.  Take your significant other as an example.  Perhaps when you first met your paramour, you were absolutely infatuated with her.  During the giddy days of first love, your heart leapt after her every text message, sank when she didn’t call.  The more you learned about her, the more you became convinced she was the long-lost half of your Platonic soul: her favorite book was Love in the Time of Cholera, her favorite singer was Otis Redding and she wanted two kids, a boy and a girl.

As you headed to her house to pick her up for your first date (a picnic in the park), your palms were so sweaty you could barely grasp the steering wheel.  You arrived promptly at noon, climbed the front steps and knocked on the door.  Nervous, you shifted your weight from one foot to another.  “God, I hope I don’t make a fool of myself,” you thought.

When she came to the door, she instantly charmed you with her self-possession (“Hi, I’m ___,” she said so confidently, reaching out to shake your hand).  You couldn’t resist her cat eye sunglasses and polka dot dress.  “Nice to meet you,” you replied, momentarily forgetting how to arrange words into sentences.  As you chatted over lemon rosemary tea and cucumber-rye sandwiches, you couldn’t help but fall in love with her infectious laughter, the dramatic way she told stories and made gestures with her hands.  When the time arrived to take her home, you were the perfect gentleman: you walked her to her door, gave her a polite kiss on the cheek.  “I had a lovely time,” you said genuinely.  It was only an afternoon but you were already fantasizing about eternity.

Fast forward a year and the woman whose mere presence once made you as shy as a school boy is now your significant other.  Though you once dreamed of having the opportunity to kiss her, your lips now meet with such regularity— first thing when you wake up, when you leave home for work, when you go to sleep in the same bed every evening— that the miracle is lost on you.  For so long, your beloved was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after a few months of being together, it is the time before you knew her, before she was casually saying “I love you” and arranging plans for your birthday, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.

Sadly, the more familiar we become with something, the more likely we are to take it for granted.  Just as we stop appreciating the object of our obsession once they become our boyfriend/girlfriend, we cease to notice things once they become commonplace parts of our day.  Take the internet as an example.  When the internet first made an appearance in the 1990s, we were in wonderment of the worldwide web.  We marveled at its speed, the miraculous way it could connect people across continents.  Now— with just the click of a button— we had all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips.

Today, however, we are no longer in awe of the internet.  Though we carry an internet-powered computer in our pockets, our phones are as astounding to us as a light switch.  We’ve forgotten that a mere hundred years ago, phones could only do one thing: transmit sound.  We take for granted that today they can measure our heart rate, track our circadian rhythms, take pictures and write emails.

stranger in the streets

But if we want to write, we must not lose the ability to see and be astonished by things.  In her timeless classic Becoming a Writer, which I consider one of the best books ever written on writing, Dorothea Brande suggests a writer must recapture a childlike awareness of the world.  Unlike adults, who very rarely inhabit the present (distracted as they are by serious obligations and mortgage payments), children only exist in this moment: they don’t dwell on the fight they had with Sally yesterday, they don’t worry about their show-and-tell presentation tomorrow.  They find unbelievable joy in the smallest things: playing in a sandpit, slipping down a slide, jumping off a swing, blowing bubbles.

Children are curious creatures.  Spend an afternoon with any child under the age of twelve and you’ll be tasked with solving the universe’s most mysterious riddles: why is there day and night?  why is the sky blue?  where did the dinosaurs go?  Because they’re young, children have yet to become weary of the world: they can still be surprised by learning something they didn’t know.  We adults, however, are convinced we’ve seen it all.  We know there’s day and night because the earth rotates about its axis once every twenty four hours; we know the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor 66 million years ago.  It’s hard for us to awe at a hummingbird’s incredible speed or wonder at a butterfly’s patterned wings outside our window.  We marvel at Cassiopeia and cumulonimbus clouds as often as toaster ovens and cutting boards.  Why?  Because habit has desensitized us.  As Brande writes,

“The genius keeps all his days the vividness and intensity of interest that a sensitive child feels in his expanding world.  Many of us keep this responsiveness well into adolescence; very few mature men and women are fortunate enough to preserve it in their routine lives.  Most of us are only intermittently aware, even in youth, and the occasions on which adults see and feel and hear with every sense alert become rarer and rarer with the passage of years.  Too many of us allow ourselves to go about wrapped in our personal problems, walking blindly through our days with our attention all given to some petty matter of no particular importance…The most normal of us allow ourselves to become so insulated by habit that few things can break through our preoccupations except truly spectacular events— a catastrophe happening under our eyes, our indolent strolling blocked by a triumphal parade; it must be a matter which challenges us in spite of ourselves.”

So how do we become more mindful?  Brande recommends we recover a childlike “innocence of eye”— a wide-eyed interest in the world.  Rather than remain asleep to the splendor of living, more dead than alive, she suggests we set aside at least a half an hour each day to awaken our senses and simply observe.  What do we see?  hear?  If we’re taking the subway to work, what do we notice about the people there?  Where are they headed?  What do they wear?  If we’re stopping at our favorite cafe for a cappuccino, what do we imagine is going on with the couple in the corner?  Is the woman stirring her tea in silence because she’s irritated with her husband for forgetting to do the laundry or because she’s just discovered he’s having an affair?  Our goal: to treat every place as a potential setting, every incident as a potential plot line, every person as a potential character.

The greatest writers of all time were— above all— alert.  Hour after hour, minute after minute, they were attuned to their experience.  Turn to any page of Anais Nin’s diaries, for example, and you’ll find descriptions of accomplishment-obsessed New York and romantic, restful Paris, detailed sketches of her father, Joaquin Nin, her literary friends Truman Capote and Henry Miller, her patients, her acquaintances.  Every trivial conversation contains the suspense of a Greek drama; every mundane incident a heart-racing rising action, exhilarating climax and satisfying resolution as if her life had an underlying structure as comprehensible as a novel.  If we observe the world as closely, we— too— can gather a wealth of material:

“It is perfectly possible to strip yourself of your preoccupations, to refuse to allow yourself to go about wrapped in a cloak of oblivion day and night, although it is more difficult than one might think to learn to turn one’s attention outward again after years of immersion in one’s own problems…set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.’  For half an hour each day transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at age of five.  Even though you feel a little self-conscious about doing something so deliberately that was once as unnoticed as breathing, you will still find that you are able to gather stores of new material in a short time.”

If we want to be writers, we must be “strangers in our streets” and look at the world around us as if for the first time.  But how, exactly, do we truly see something, especially something we’ve seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times?  We don’t have to seek new landscapes, only fresh eyes.  Like scientists who discard all their preconceptions and simply record what they see, we should remain open, receptive and attentively observe our surroundings.  If we see a spring sky, what color is it?  a cloud-dotted azure?  an innocent robin’s egg blue?  If we find ourselves in a winter landscape, is the air “chilly” or “frigid”?  Are the trees “bare” or “frost-bitten”?  What is the overall atmosphere and mood?  Be as specific as possible.  Or as Brande writes,

“You know how vividly you see a strange town or a strange country when you first enter it.  The huge red buses of London, on the wrong side of the road to every American that ever saw them— soon they are as easy to dodge and ignore as the green buses of New York, and as little wonderful as the drugstore window that you pass on your way to work each day.  The drugstore window, though, the streetcar that carries you to work, the crowded subway can look as strange as Xanadu if you refuse to take them for granted.  As you get into your streetcar or walk along a street, tell yourself that for fifteen minutes you will notice and tell yourself about every single thing that your eyes rest on.  The streetcar: what color is it outside? (Not just green or red, here, but sage or olive green, scarlet or maroon.)  Where is the entrance?  Has it a conductor and motorman, or a motorman-conductor in one?  What colors inside, the walls, the floor, the seats, the advertising posters?  How do the seats face?  Who is sitting opposite you?  How are your neighbors dressed, how do they stand or sit, what are they reading, or are they sound asleep?  What sounds are you hearing, which smells are reaching you, how does the strap feel under your hand, or the stuff of the coat the brushes past you?  After a few moments you can drop your intense awareness, but plan to resume it again when the scene changes.

One way to sharpen our artist’s eye is to make time for adventure and novelty.  Brande suggests we shake off the blinders of custom and habit and, every so often, do something new: eat pancakes for dinner, take a different route to work, go to a matinee on a Tuesday at noon.

We don’t have to venture to a lush jungle in Indonesia to see things anew.  We can practice looking at things in a fresh way from the comfort of our living rooms.  Stand on the coffee table.  Somersault across the floor.  Do a headstand.  Anything to make the familiar objects of our lives as unfamiliar as possible:

It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.  But any moment of your life can be used, and the room that you spend most of your waking hours in is as good, or better, to practice responsiveness on as a new street.  Try to see your home, your family, your friends, your school or office, with the same eyes that you use away from your own daily route.  There are voices you have heard so often that you forget they have a timbre of their own…the chances are that you hardly realize that your best friend has a tendency to use some words so frequently that if you were to write a sentence involving those words anyone who knew him would realize whom you were imitating.”

Dorothea Brande is a kick-in-the-pants coach who will inspire you to get to your writing table.  For more tips and tricks from Becoming a Writer, read Brande on how to follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical.