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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 girls? Maybe 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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 sake— not recognition or reward. The children’s lit fanatic who collects rare first editions of classics like TheChronicles 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 day— we 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 but— as time goes on— we 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?
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.
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.”
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 world. Leo 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.
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.
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?