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 uselessand 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.
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.
Here are the rituals and routines of yet 3 more remarkable people profiled in Mason Currey’s delightful Daily Rituals:
1. Charles Darwin
At the ripe age of 22, Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and set sail for the Galapagos. At this time, his life was romantic and adventure-filled: he traveled to faraway lands with foreign customs and strange people who spoke in even stranger languages, marveled at the boundless biodiversity of our improbable blue planet, studied his now famous finches and began to formulate his earth-shattering theory of evolution.
However, his life while actually writing On theOrigins of Species was rather dull by comparison. To escape the commotion of city life and work without disturbance, Darwin and his family left London in 1842 and moved to the quaint English countryside. There they made their home at Down House, a former parsonage in Kent, about 14 miles southeast of London’s Charing Cross. Darwin loved his secluded home— the “edge of the world” he called it— because he could be alone with his controversial thoughts. He knew his theory of evolution would cause an uproar. Not only did his thesis directly contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible, it suggested that man, who was supposedly created in the image of God, was just another beast in the animal kingdom. Man descended from monkeys? He knew such a blasphemous notion would cause an outcry and potentially ruin his career (time proved Mr. Darwin right; after he published his theory, one critic raged, “Darwin’s story begins in the mud, has a monkey in the middle and an infidel at the tail.”)
Still, Darwin worked steadily in secret on his ideas. At Down House, Darwin led a simple, solitary life. After waking, eating breakfast and taking a morning stroll, the great scientist settled into work. There he labored for an hour and a half before meeting his wife, Emma, in the drawing room, where she’d read him the family letters and a portion of a novel. At 10:30, Darwin returned to his study and worked for another hour and a half, which he considered a good day’s work.
Much like Wordsworth and Thoreau, the father of evolution understood the importance of idleness to creativity and made time for long, meandering walks throughout the day with Polly, his beloved fox terrier. Afternoons were reserved for leisurely lunches with his family and letter writing (Darwin made an effort to respond to every letter he received no matter how nonsensical or crazy); if he didn’t reply to even a single missive, he’d feel so guilty, he couldn’t get to sleep). In the evening, he’d have a small dinner (even if his family was indulging in a luxurious feast, he’d only have tea, an egg or small piece of meat), smoke a cigarette or two, play backgammon with his wife and then read and retire to bed around 10:30.
2. Albert Einstein
Perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, Albert Einstein was many things: groundbreaking physicist, champion of the imagination, unwavering believer in human goodness, unapologetic individualist, passionate pacifist, stanch defender of free speech and civil liberty. In addition to discovering E = mc2 and developing his groundbreaking theory of relativity, he made great contributions to human thought and philosophy.
When Hitler rose to power and the threat of war began to darken the continent in 1933, Einstein fled to the United States where he joined the faculty at Princeton University. There, he followed a predictable routine: he read the papers and ate a breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, and honey, then headed to the office. At 1:30, he returned home for lunch and an afternoon nap. The rest of the day, Einstein worked, answered letters, and occasionally entertained.
Despite his legendary life, Einstein’s day-to-day wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Like most remarkable men throughout history, his life wasn’t glamorous or thrilling, filled with fascinating people, faraway places and glittering parties— it was single-mindedly focused on his work which— from the outside— doesn’t look all that interesting. Picasso could delight in a dinner party now and again, but preferred to paint in his quiet studio in Montparnasse. Matisse worked 7 days a week, only taking a brief respite to oar in the harbor and play violin. When he wasn’t revolutionizing modern poetry, T.S. Eliot was wearing a suit and tie and working a rather regular job at a bank. As philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed so astutely, “Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting.”
Indeed, Einstein preferred to do certain things the same way everyday to save valuable time and energy. Rather than squander a precious hour debating whether to wear a button down shirt or a cashmere sweater, Einstein bought several versions of the same gray suit so he had a “uniform” he could wear everyday. “The same exact thing…everyday?” you fashionistas may be gasping in horror, “How boring!” Though his unrelentingly gray wardrobe might seem dreary, Einstein understood life was full of decisions: better to automate as many unimportant ones as possible so you can focus on what truly matters: your mission. Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck. Mark Zuckerberg and his uber-casual Silicon Valley uniform of a tee shirt and jeans. If you want to found a multi-billion dollar company or unlock the scientific mysteries of the universe, the idea goes, simplify your wardrobe and streamline your routine.
3. Margaret Mead
Like most productive people from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was deeply devoted to her work. Endlessly energetic, Mead was always working on something, be it her revolutionary study of adolescence in the South Pacific in her controversy-stirring book Coming of Age in Samoa or her PhD.
Mead’s life is a testament to what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his fascinating study of “flow”: we’re happiest not when we’re relaxing in leisure but when we’re engaged in something difficult and worthwhile. Mrs. Mead despised being unproductive and hated nothing more than frittering away hours. So protective was she of her time that she became enraged at anyone who disrupted her schedule. On one occasion at a symposium, Mead was outraged to learn that a session had been postponed. “How dare they,” she exclaimed, “Do they realize what use I could have made of this time? Do they know that I get up at five o’ clock in the morning to write a thousand words before breakfast? Why did nobody have the politeness to tell me this meeting had been rescheduled?”
“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
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
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.
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
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 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
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.”
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 Work. A 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
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 AboutRunning, 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
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.
British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw. In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels. In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty. In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities. The result? We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.
If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing. Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic. “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”
Why is Ruskin so passionate about art? What is the point of learning to sketch? Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition? Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.
For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention. By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation. If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined. They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.
When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings. Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening. In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture. On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.
Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary. As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.” By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.
When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible. As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.” Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture. Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details. What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome? Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer? Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window? Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold? Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience. To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:
“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings. A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What is a better word for it than big?’ The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.”
Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others? Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco? British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels. The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms. A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.
In many ways, artists help us see more clearly. Different artists are guides to different things. Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies. Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen. But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.
In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply. At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees. Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”
It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings. Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.
Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence. One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses. Why had he never noticed them? And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?
Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation. Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape. In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a quality of distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”
Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century. His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely. With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony. Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.“
Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape. In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:
“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”
In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns. Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.” “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.” Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity. Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s. He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England. But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant. “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat. The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky. Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”
All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist. More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice. In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers. But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious of its awe-inspiring crescent moon.
Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality. Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies. We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe. As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche. With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.
Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality. Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy. In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels. And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.
Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy. In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting. Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring. Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers. And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.
No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton. In his indispensable volumeThe Art of Travel, which explained why we traveland how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad. After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing. But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments. His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness. How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?
Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city. As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.” Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity. De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary. After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements? As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing. There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco— but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”
Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring. Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city. Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame. Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas). Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.
De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.” No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning. Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally. What can it teach us about how to live? How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience? We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive. As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'” From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.
Lesson? For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it. Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.
No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread. To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines. If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself. Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules. As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors. Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart. Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us. When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport. “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves. Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.
We eventually arrive. Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time. If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board. With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours. To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones. When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope. In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.
Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are. Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow. But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people. The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds. In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable. If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef. Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business. Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten. Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:
“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul. Warsaw, Seattle, Rio. The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’ The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”
Why travel? The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting. The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV. The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting. Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany? What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places? Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning? Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?
In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Bottonsuggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently. Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being. At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages. Travel makes us realize we can change our lives. Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over. On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados. As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”
Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell? how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill? what should we make for tonight’s dinner? why hasn’t our package arrived yet? did it get lost in the mail?
We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale. A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes. “How can my husband not wash his dish right away? He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him. He’s a selfish pig!” If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.
But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective. In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist. As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.
Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion. In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting. We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck. Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor? If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner? A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill. At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.
In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual. Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one. “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit. Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places. Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.
“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket. The destination we select should remedy our affliction. If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet. On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon. Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts. How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?
In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves. In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.”
Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm. With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle. Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world? What do we imagine is our purpose in life? What have we always wanted to do? Learn Italian or do the tango? Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.
With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking. Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying? Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality. In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate. Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets. A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing. So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.
Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go. Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels. The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.