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. 

Dorothea Brande’s 15 Minute Rule

I don’t feel like writing today.  Most anything seems more appealing than putting pen to page.  Like most writers, I began this day with an earnest, eager desire to put my thoughts into words and set a specific time to work.  But like most writers, the moment the clock struck the appointed time, I suddenly had countless pressing obligations I had to attend to: there were coats to hang, shirts to fold, urgent emails I needed to respond to (never mind that these “urgent” emails had been unimportant mere moments before).

“I’ll just make myself some chamomile tea before settling down to work,” I tell myself.  As I wait for the kettle to whistle, I notice a pile of dishes teetering as precariously as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  “Why don’t I just wash a few plates?” I say.  After scrapping off last night’s lasagna from the dirty dishes, I notice the filthy state of the sink.  And what do I do?  I grab a sponge and start scrubbing.  “Look at these grimy footprints all over the hardwood floors!  I’ll just give them a quick polish.  Fast forward three hours: my kitchen is spotless and I’ve gotten absolutely no writing done.

dorothea-brande

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll always resist the blank page.  We’ll always think of an excuse not to write: because we’re tired or because we’re upset after fighting with our boyfriend or because it’s rainy outside or because our hamster died.  Perhaps we have bills to pay or groceries to buy.  Or maybe we just aren’t in the mood.

But despite popular mythology, we don’t need to be in the “mood” to write.  As phenomenally productive writer Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.”  In his eleven commandments, Henry Miller created a no non-sense credo for himself, “If you can’t create, you can work.”  Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer, one of the most timeless books on the craft, offers similarly simple advice: if you want to write, write!  Don’t wait for the mythical lightning bolt or the mysterious, mystical whisperings of the muse.

Much like Julia Cameron, who unblocked millions of artists with her life-changing course The Artist’s Way, Brande has a doable, down-to-earth approach to the writer’s life.  You don’t need the most gorgeous ink pen or most beautiful leather-bound notebook.  Nor do you need a stylish desk or chic artist’s studio, the serene seclusion of a “room of your own”— you can write in crowded subways, noisy cafes, kitchens of rambunctious five-year-olds.  You don’t need yawning vistas of time: stretches of weeks over summer vacations, a year-long sabbatical.  Becoming a writer, Brande suggests, is as simple as surveying your schedule and setting aside a mere non-negotiable fifteen minutes for yourself:

“After you have dressed, sit down for a moment by yourself and go over the day before you.  Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself.  It need not be a very long times; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is earnest about it.”

If you want to write, Brande asserts, you have to hold yourself accountable.  Being a writer requires a deep commitment to yourself.  If, for example, you promise to rise at dawn so you can write for an hour uninterrupted, you have to wake up at dawn: no excuses.  As Brande writes with equal parts no bullshit and tough no-non-sense:

“You have decided to write at four o’ clock, and at four o’ clock write you must!  No excuses can be given…you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it.”

The beauty of Brande’s fifteen minute exercise is we can write anything at all: a character sketch, a bit of dialogue, a review of the last book we read, an opinion on the latest news story, a description of the view outside our window.  The point isn’t to contribute a masterpiece to English letters— it’s simply to get something, anything down on paper.  Unlike a spelling test in school, our efforts won’t be graded— they’ll only be marked for completion.  All that matters is we do it.  Like all great writing teachers, Brande gives us permission:

“…write anything at all.  Write sense or non-sense, limericks or blank verse; write what you think of your employer or your secretary or your teacher; write a story synopsis or a fragment of dialogue, or the description of someone you recently noticed.  However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write.”

Why does Brande suggest we begin with a mere fifteen minutes?  Isn’t a quarter of an hour not enough time to get any real writing done?  For Brande, fifteen minutes is perfect for the exact reason that it isn’t too long.  Sitting at a desk for a whole hour can be daunting, even for the most experienced writers.  But fifteen minutes is doable.  Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t stay focused for fifteen minutes.  Because the goal is so easily achievable, we trick ourselves into getting to the page.  Most days when the timer goes off, we’ll be so absorbed in our work that we’ll end up writing for much longer.

Following Brande’s fifteen minute rule will not only teach us discipline and diligence, it will train us to blast through our blocks and overcome resistance.  The result?  We’ll build a regular writing habit and finally “become writers” as Brande’s title promises.

Becoming a Writer is an invaluable addition to any writer’s library.  The 1934 classic won’t teach you the technical aspects of how to create compelling characters or construct plots, but it will train you to sharpen your powers of observation, follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical.  Want more nourishment for the writer’s soul?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity.  If you want more practical advice on the nuts and bolts of the craft, study Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of motif, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Ernest Hemingway on the appeal of telling almost the whole story.

3 Reasons You Should Keep a Diary

For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory.  It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge.  Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day?  who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years.  Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.

Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:

1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism

the diary of anais nin

For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment.  Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox.  Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?”  “Was our topic interesting/relevant?”  Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic.  There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust.  We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us.  Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence.  They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.

Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas.  The result?  We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!”  But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.

In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:

“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.  Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”

2. you might find diamonds in dust

virginia

Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf.  Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out.  There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.) 

The fact is writing can be hell.  Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards.  We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another.  On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle.  Every word, every sentence is a struggle.  We freeze up rather than let words flow.  Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked.  Should we employ more evocative description?  Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words?  Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?

For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block.  In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical.  More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:

“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice.  It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be?  Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.  I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” 

In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us.  Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard.  Think of a first date.  When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour.  But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.

The same is true in writing.  If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross.  But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.

Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose?  Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:

“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.  Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”

3.  you’ll create yourself

susan sontag

Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves.  As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:

“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.  In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.  The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.  It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.  Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning.  Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping.  Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny.  A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes.  Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns.  We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.

But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves.  By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible.  Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over. 

Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year?  Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.

How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called?  Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all.  Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call. 

How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girlsMaybe it’s time to pick up the phone.

Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s?  Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.

Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs?  Maybe it’s time to change careers.

Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure?  Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” Joan Didion once wrote.  Writing makes us aware of who we are and what we want.  Keeping a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our stories, we can revise our plots.

Cheryl Strayed on Trusting the Unfathomable Beauty of Our Becoming

Long before her smash hit memoir Wild revived Oprah’s book club and spent 126 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, Cheryl Strayed ministered to the lost, lonely and heartsick in her advice column Dear Sugar.  Week after week, thousands wrote Sugar, Strayed’s darling pseudonym, with their dilemmas.  Should a vaguely dissatisfied young woman leave her boyfriend even though she loves him?  Should a middle-aged man finally exchange the glorious freedom of bachelorhood for a dull domestic life of pacifiers and cribs?  Should a soon-to-be bride invite her abusive, alcoholic father to her wedding out of a sense of familial obligation?  Should a man who’s weary of love after a bitter divorce, utter those irrevocable words “I love you” to his new girlfriend?

Strayed’s responses, complied in the altogether lovely collection Tiny Beautiful Things, are glimmering, gutting, gorgeous.  What’s most endearing about Sugar is her voice, which is at times gentle and compassionate; at others, tough and no-nonsense.  She’ll call her letter writers affectionate pet names like “sweet pea” and “honey bun” no matter how seemingly shameful their revelations.  But if you’re wallowing in self-pity or making excuses for your shit, she won’t have it.  No, you [obviously] shouldn’t have slept with your friend’s ex.  No, you shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself because— gasp— your parents regard you as an adult and expect you to pay off your student debt.  Sugar is a wise, warm-hearted, hilarious friend: she won’t shame you, but she’ll hold you accountable when you do something stupid.

I respect Strayed because she’s had her share of hardship.  She grew up poor in rural Minnesota in a house without indoor plumbing or electricity and lost her mother in her early twenties.  Unlike many advice columnists, Strayed doesn’t offer empty-headed platitudes or insincere “it’ll be okay’s”— she speaks with the hard-won wisdom of someone who’s known enormous loss and terrible heartbreak.

cheryl strayed

In the closing letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, a devoted reader who calls herself Seeking Wisdom writes Strayed with a “short and simple” question: what would you tell your twenty-something self if you could talk to her now?

Like Seeking Wisdom, many of us are tormented in our twenties.  Where are we going?  Did we chose the right career?  the right boyfriend/girlfriend?  the right city?  When would we “make it”?  Would we ever?  When— to put it simply— would we finally have our shit together?

Haunted by insecurity, we worry we’re falling further and further behind our more successful, more stable peers.  While they’re getting PhD’s from prestigious Ivy League universities and settling down and buying houses and having kids, we’re chasing the grand dream of becoming a writer (or some other equally difficult/poorly paid profession).  While they discuss grown up things like real estate investments and mortgage payments, we’re renting a cramped apartment and nowhere near financially secure enough to think about home ownership.  We write and write and write but still— after years— have yet to “make it” in a conventional sense: we have yet to write a book, we have yet to see our name on any best-seller list.  The only thing in our inbox are dispiriting rejection slips.

Maybe— we start to think— this whole writing thing isn’t worth it.  Maybe our grand dreams are  grandiose.  Maybe we should just give up.

Strayed tells us one thing: don’t Don’t measure yourself by the cruel yardstick of other people.  Don’t worry so much about “making it.”  Don’t conflate being a writer with being publishedWrite for its own sake— not external validation:

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out.  You don’t have a career.  You have a life.  Do the work.  Keep the faith.  Be true blue.  You are a writer because you write.  Keep writing and quit your bitching.  Your book has a birthday.  You don’t know what it is yet.” 

In our accomplishment-crazed culture, we focus on product, not process.  Rather than cherish the remarkable process of becoming, we obsess about being.  Our biggest fear?  That we’ll spend years scribbling in our notebooks and not “accomplish” anything: not see our name in print, not land a six-figure book deal.  We glamorize the myth of the overnight success and begin to doubt our path when our dreams take too long to manifest.  Years, decades have passed…why haven’t we “made it”?  In moments like these, we must remember the wise words of Rainer Maria Rilke: “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring.”

Strayed herself didn’t publish Wild until she was forty three.  Though she hated herself for not writing a book by the time she was thirty, as she got older, she realized her life had unfolded exactly as it was meant to.  “To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything in my twenties,” she confesses in another soul-stretching letter, “I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel.  I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow.”

Though in our capitalistic, efficiency-obsessed society, we imagine there’s nothing worse than “wasting” time, Strayed argues nothing is a waste.  Keeping a diary, committing poems to memory, reading essay collections and 19th century Victorian novels and memoirs and biographies, spending idle afternoons daydreaming, wandering from city to city, loving someone for ten years only to have the relationship disintegrate: these are not detours— they’re part of our path to becoming the person we were meant to be.  Strayed concludes by asking Seeking Wisdom to trust in her life’s unfolding:

“The useless days will add up to something.  The shitty waitressing jobs.  The hours writing in your journal.  The long meandering walks.  The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not.  These things are your becoming.”

Tiny Beautiful Things is consoling in its entirety.  Want more honest, heartfelt advice from Sugar?  Read Strayed on trusting your truest truth and having the courage to “go” and being brave enough to break your own heart.

My Muse Is Not A Horse: A Rock Star’s Rejection of his MTV Music Award

What drives us?  Psychologists argue there are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation is when we feel compelled to take a course of action or perform a certain behavior either to avoid punishment or earn an external reward.  The serious student who spends long hours hunched over textbooks in the library, most likely, is extrinsically motivated: he memorizes the major battles of the Civil War and labors so intensely to understand the causes of the Russian Revolution not because he’s appalled by the bloodshed of Antietam or genuinely interested in why communism appealed to millions but because he wants to get an A in his high school history class and gain Ivy League admission.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when we take up a hobby or pursue a passion for its own sakenot recognition or reward.  The children’s lit fanatic who collects rare first editions of classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret Garden; the lover of romance languages who finally dedicates herself to learning Italian; the thrift store addict who adores all things retro and spends Sunday afternoons perusing secondhand shops for mid-century furniture: all are intrinsically motivated. 

Sadly, most of what we do in life is extrinsically motivated: we work in a monochrome gray cubicle for eight mind-numbing hours a day at a miserable job so we can afford designer handbags and luxury vacations; we stay late at the office to get a promotion; we save money so one daywe can leave our cramped apartment in the city and finally buy our own house with navy trim and a red door.  We might scribble sentimental love poems to our crush or play terrible thrash metal in our friend’s garage for fun butas time goes onwe long for fame and fortune, acclaim and awards.  After all, why else would we subject ourselves to the humiliation of playing lame high school dances and gigs in dimly-lit half-empty bars?  If you’re a musician, isn’t the goal to sign to a major record label and tour the world?  Why endure the long hours of rehearsal and sleepless nights on the road if not for the stadiums of screaming fans, the wild parties, the feathers and platform shoes, the profiles in Rolling Stone?

nick cave & the bad seeds

According to the intelligent Nick Cave, lead singer of post-punk band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, there are more reasons to create than glamorous perks and prestigious awards.  We shouldn’t make a movie to get a glittery gold star on the Hollywood walk of fame or write a song to win an MTV Music Award.  We should make art for its own sake: for the satisfaction of saying exactly what we mean, for the incomparable joy of expressing who we truly are.

Like many struggling musicians, Cave and his band toiled in obscurity for years.  But when in 1996 their haunting ninth album Murder Ballads was hailed as a masterpiece of morbidity by critics, they finally gained the attention of MTV, who nominated Cave for its Best Male Artist of the Year award.  In this glorious “fuck you” of a letter to the network, Cave courteously (if cheekily) rejects his nomination, explaining his muse is not a horse and doesn’t deserve to be subjected to the indignities of competition:

“21 Oct 96

To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you all for the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist.  The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P. J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated.  So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies.  I myself, do not.  I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring.  I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition.  My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.  My muse may spook!  May bolt!  May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Cave”

nick cave & the bad seeds #2

Ultimately, Cave is modest enough to recognize that such competitions are meaningless.  Winning an MTV Music Awardjust like earning the prestigious honor of a Man Booker or MacArthur Fellowship doesn’t mean you’re a genius, or the voice of your generation, or actually the “best” artist: winning is often the result of luck and happenstance.  As Jennifer Egan remarked about winning her Pulitzer:  “If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes…Deserving only gets you so far.  Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.”

Lesson?  We shouldn’t treat our art like a sport: our goal shouldn’t be to win a gold medal or cross the finish line ahead of our competitors.  As Brenda Ueland so beautifully expressed nearly a century ago, everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.  Because we are human, we are entirely unique: we can’t be compared to others and what we create certainly can’t be categorized into “winners” and “losers.”

Oscar Wilde on Why All Art Is Rather Useless

wilde

What is the purpose of art?  Pablo Picasso believed it was to wash the dust of daily life off our souls while Proust contended it was to reawaken us to extraordinary beauty of the ordinary worldLeo Tolstoy held that the aim of art was to instruct: we read and write stories to be better people.  According to the great Russian novelist, we should read Pride and Prejudice— not for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s witty banter or the delightful charm of high society and British manners but to learn valuable lessons about love.  Romance is not enough, Jane Austen teaches us, and we shouldn’t judge a potential paramour on first impressions alone.

Aesthetes, on the other hand, held the philosophy of “l’art pour l’art”: art for art’s sake.  A 19th century intellectual and artistic movement, aestheticism asserted art was valuable in and of itself— it didn’t need to have a moral purpose.  Unlike Tolstoy, the aesthetes, most notably poet, playwright, and lover of lavish capes Oscar Wilde, maintained art (at least, good art anyway) was concerned with one thing: beauty.  Art seduced the senses; it didn’t stand on a soapbox to lecture or promote a political opinion.

Needless to say, aesthetes who made art for its own sake were condemned as degenerate debauchees and hedonistic pleasure seekers.  As 19th century Europe entered the industrial revolution, factories rose, millions moved from the quiet countryside to the noisy commotion of crowded cities, and goods that once took months to make could be produced quickly on a mass scale.  In the efficiency-obsessed industrial age, it was thought immoral to pursue pointless pleasure.  After all, what’s the “use” of a poem or painting or sculpture?  Why labor to capture the loneliness of a diner in the middle of the night or the loveliness of a floral tea cup, jar of apricots and loaf of bread when you could be doing something useful?  Art seems frivolous when there are crops to grow and railroads to build.

hopper painting

In this clever, charming 1890 letter to one of his fans, Wilde concedes that all art is rather useless.  Much like a flower or sunrise or sunset, art is a thing of beauty— that’s it.  But just because art is useless doesn’t mean it has no value.  Though our capitalistic society contends a thing is only worthwhile if it can be exchanged for dollars and cents, making art is its own reward.  As Brenda Ueland wrote in her endearing classic, one of the most important intrinsic rewards of making art is the “stretched understanding, the illumination.  By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”  With his trademark irreverence, Wilde explains that—above all— art brings us bliss:

“My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood.  It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.  It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.  If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.  A flower blossoms for its own joy.  We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.  That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.  Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower.  It is not part of its essence.  It is accidental.  It is a misuse.  All this is I fear very obscure.  But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde”

floral tea cup chardin

Our society tells us that writing a book is only worthwhile if it becomes a New York Times bestseller, a film only if it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.  If our portrait of a Parisian couple never hangs in the Louvre and is only ever featured on the mantel of our mother’s living room, we will be fools; if we dedicate our lives to our art but never “make it”— never publish our work, never experience the exhilaration of seeing our book at Barnes and Noble— we will have failed.  Why had we worked so hard?  Why did we devote years to something that never “got us anywhere”?  Wasn’t all that time a waste if— like Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and Vincent Van Gogh— our work was lost to the dusty oblivion of history and we died tragically unknown?

For Wilde, the answer is a resounding no.  Even if we write a book no one reads or toil for years and squander our life savings to make a film audiences loathe, we should not regret it.  We’re always better for having created.  If you’re still feeling discouraged because you have yet to “make it,” remember the encouraging words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Write a six line poem,” he implored a class of high school students, “Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents…Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you already have been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

Kurt Vonnegut on Why We Should Make Art Every Single, Solitary Day of Our Lives

“All art is rather useless,” dapper dandy and master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once quipped.  Art might startle and surprise, astound and astonish but it has no practical purpose.  After all, a play can’t fold the laundry, a poem can’t fix a flat tire, a painting can’t change your motor oil.  Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” can’t end global warming; Cezanne’s apples and oranges— no matter how charming— can’t cure cancer or rebuild coral.  So why bother to scribble a sonnet or compose a villanelle?

According to Kurt Vonnegut, postmodern genius behind such masterpieces of counterculture as Slaughterhouse Five and sage behind some of the wisest writing advice, we should paint and write and act and sing and dance and draw because making art helps us better understand ourselves and the world.  Will our still life save the rain forest?  Will our exhibit of black-and-white photographs find a more sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels?  No, but trying to capture something will stretch our understanding and deepen our appreciation of whatever we write and draw.  Or as Brenda Ueland once wrote, “By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it.  In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”

As sensible adults, we want results.  If we spend all day at our desk, we want something to show for our work; if we devote years to writing a novel, it better win the Pulitzer Prize and become a New York Times bestseller; if we go through the trouble of painting a Renoir blue sky, it better hang in the Louvre.  What’s the point of dedicating untold hours to writing or painting if it never earns us acclaim?  if it never sells and increases our net worth?

It’s so important to make art because it reconnects us to our inner child.  Unlike too-serious, too-solemn adults who believe we are what we accomplish, children understand there is more to the day than a to-do list.  Children don’t make mud pies or build sandcastles or construct bed sheet fortresses because they want to be the envy of their friends or see their essay published.  They don’t care if their crayon drawing is hung proudly on the fridge or is forgotten in a junk drawer. They create because it brings them joy.  For them, making art is its own reward.

Vonnegut believes we can all learn from children.  Even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time is wasted.  We’re always better for having created.

kurt vonnegut

With his zany wit and exuberant, playful love of life, Vonnegut implores a group of Xavier High School students to live creatively.  In this lovely letter, featured in the altogether inspiring Letters of Note: Volume 2, he writes:

I thank you for your friendly letters.  You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years.  I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously!  I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.  Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her.  Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on.  Make a face in your mashed potatoes.  Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed.  No fair tennis without a net.  Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood.  OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

go into the arts

Being creative doesn’t have to be pompous or pretentious; it doesn’t have to be a poem or a painting on a canvas.  Everything is art: how you stir your tea, how you organize your spice cabinet, how you arrange a bouquet of flowers, how you frost a cake, how you tell bedtime stories to your children, how you kiss your husband goodnight, how you greet the day, how you laugh, how you love, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you decorate your home.  Want to learn more about how you can be an artist of the everyday?  Rejoice in Proust on how art reawakens us to the extraordinary beauty of ordinary things and 3 things I learned from Sarah Ban Breathnach.

Rilke on the Importance of Patience to Creative Work

Is there any value we so underrate as patience?  In our accelerated age of bullet trains andRilke & Moscow high speed internet, we demand instant gratification.  The slightest delays trigger head-splitting frustration.  If our friend is five minutes late for coffee or, god forbid, our web browser takes more than a split second, we feel an exasperation far out of proportion to the event.  This need for speed doesn’t just apply to petty things like coffee dates and internet connections.  We expect the big things— a fulfilling career, a loving, long-term relationship— to be delivered to our doorstep with the swiftness of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  When we have to devote more time and effort to our dreams than we originally anticipated, we get discouraged and want to give up.  Why after an entire month of dating have we not met that special someone?  We’ve sifted through countless lame pick-up lines on OkCupid, suffered hours of strained conversation over fettuccine and red wine…shouldn’t we have found the “one” by now?  We forget that in the face of eternity a mere 3o days is laughably minuscule.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” the wise Maria Popova once wrote.  No one needs to be reminded of this more than artists.  If we labor for years putting pen to paper and never win acclaim, we begin to wonder: why write at all?  why dedicate endless hours to writing a book— or composing a poem or molding a sculpture— if we never publish our work or win a Pulitzer?  What if we work and work and work and never win the recognition we so desperately desire?  What if we die penniless in a gutter like Edgar Allan Poe or in shameful obscurity like Vincent Van Gogh?

As artists, we tend to measure our creativity by a clock.  By 30, we resolve, we’ll have written the great American novel; by 40, we’ll have secured our place in literary history among giants like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Our dreams sparkle with the grandiosity of youth.  But when we get older and fail to realize these lovely— if unrealistic— ambitions, we want to throw away our notebooks.  Why haven’t we landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list or won a Man Booker?  Shouldn’t we be further along by now? 

rilke tree

In his profoundly wise and tenderly beautiful Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke argues that if we want to be artists, we have to relinquish our need for reward.  When budding young poet Franz Kappus writes to him seeking counsel, Rilke tells him to stop measuring his progress in earthly time.  Rather than demand his life unfold according to some rigid timeline, he should be patient and have faith: all the days spent devotedly writing at his desk, all the hours spent pouring over other people’s poetry would one day add up to something.  The artist doesn’t insist that he attain certain things by certain dates— he simply creates.  As Rilke writes, 

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.  It does come.  But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.  I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

For more from Letters to a Young Poet, read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist.  If you want more exquisitely written writing advice, revisit Brenda Ueland on art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want more insight into the writing life, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne SextonMaya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.

Rilke on How to Know You’re an Artist

Rilke & MoscowHow can you know you’re an artist?  In the most literal sense, an artist is one who has artistic talent.  Those gifted with the ability to write and paint and draw are obviously artists.  But do all artists share a common psychological makeup?  Do they possess something the rest of us don’t— receptive minds, attentive eyes, and sensitive hearts?  Is there any truth to the myth that to create is to suffer?  must artists undergo a lifetime of agony for their art?  Is the artist always a tragic, tormented figure?  a Plath with her head in the oven or an alcoholic Fitzgerald? 

No one is more tortured by this question than those who aspire to make art.  In what is perhaps the loveliest book ever written about writing, Letters to a Young Poet, budding young poet Franz Kappus seeks the counsel of the great Rainer Maria Rilke.  How, he wondered, could he know he was meant to be a writer?  Like many aspiring artists, Kappus wanted validation: validation of his work, validation of his talent.  Though over the course of their decade-long correspondence Rilke never confirmed his protege was an “artist” (I doubt the always humble German poet would imagine himself qualified to either grant or deny someone such a title), he did challenge Kappus to uncover answers for himself.  How could Kappus know he was meant to put pen to paper?  In a passage of elevating beauty and emboldening encouragement, Rilke asserts a writer is simply someone who must write:

“You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.  No one can advise or help you— no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this strong, solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

In our carrots-and-sticks culture, we’re driven by rewards: we work hard because we want to climb the corporate ladder and one day have a corner office; we diligently study Keats and Shelley— not because we genuinely care about Romantic poetry— but because we want an “A” in our survey literature course.  But such extrinsic motivation has no place in art.  Being an artist isn’t a job or career— it’s a calling, a fate bestowed upon us by the universe.  If we find, as Kappus did, that we must create, we have an obligation to honor our gifts— even if our book never makes the New York Times bestseller list.  “No one becomes an artist unless they have to,” the beautiful but murderous poet Ingrid reminds her daughter in the haunting White Oleander.  Or as Rilke would say, being an artist is a cross a select few must bear:

“Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist.  Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from the outside.”

Letters to a Young Poet has inspired generations of artists and will continue to inspire generations more.  If you want more stirring words to set your soul alight, delight in the free-spirited Brenda Ueland on art as infection, why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want advice from more modern literary lights, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  Long to add still more tools to your warehouse of writing wisdom?  Visit Ernest Hemingway on the secret of seduction, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of a recurring image.

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

if you want to write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The idle man says:

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

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

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

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