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The Workhorse and the Butterfly: Ann Patchett on Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art

“The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”

“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her lucid and luminous essay on where ideas come from and the “secret” of writing. “But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.” And yet our cultural mythology continues to perpetuate the perilous notion that great art is the product of great ideas that occur in a flash to those endowed with the mysterious gift of genius.

In her magnificent memoir-of-sorts This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (public library), novelist Ann Patchett offers one of creative history’s finest and most convincing counterpoints to this myth.

Ann Patchett by Heidi Ross

She writes in the introduction:

The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.

Patchett, who knew she wanted to be a writer since her early childhood — “A deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers,” she asserts in one of her many piercing asides — first set out to figure this out by taking a number of freelance assignments for various magazines, writing essays and other nonfiction while dreaming with crystalline determination about being a novelist. She reflects on a curious duality — on the one hand, the fundamental differences between writing fiction and writing nonfiction; on the other, the surprising ways in which the craft of the latter recompenses the art of the former:

In my mind, fiction and nonfiction stayed so far away from each other that for years I would have maintained they had no more a relationship than fiction and waitressing. Writing a novel, even when it’s going smoothly, is hard for me, and writing an article, even a challenging one, is easy. I believe nonfiction is easy for me precisely because fiction is hard; I would always rather knock off an essay than face down the next chapter of my novel. But I’ve come to realize that while all those years of writing fiction had improved my craft as a writer across the board, all those years of writing articles … had made me a workhorse, and that, in turn, was a skill I brought back to my novels.

But of all the skills essential to the fiction writer that Patchett acquired while writing nonfiction — from having her ego tamed by the constant practice of seeing her sentences slaughtered by editors to mastering “the ability to fake authority” — perhaps most valuable was the unshakable understanding that the chief purpose of writing, whatever its nature or genre, is to serve for people as Neruda unforgettable “hand through the fence.” Patchett recounts:

In the years I made my living writing nonfiction, I thought of the work I did as being temporary, with a life span that would, in most cases, not exceed a magazine’s last tattered days in a dentist’s waiting room, but the essays kept resurfacing. People would bring them to book signings and show them to me. I read this when my grandmother died. Someone gave this to me when I got divorced. They told me my story was their story, and they wondered if there was more, something they might have missed… The job of these essays had been to support art, not to be art, but maybe that was what spared them from self-consciousness.

In one of the most illuminating pieces from the book, titled “The Getaway Car” and subtitled “A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” Patchett considers how this writerly self-consciousness dances with our cultural narrative about great ideas being all it takes to produce great art:

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.

[…]

If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

Illustration from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.’ Click image for more.

She illustrates the disconnect between myth and reality by recounting an exasperating, almost absurdist encounter with a woman — not a writer — who claimed that while not everyone has in them “one algebraic proof” or “one five-minute mile,” everyone has “one great novel” tucked into their inner life, waiting to be externalized in writing. Patchett — a writer, and thus a rightfully indignant unbeliever in this strangely selective assertion — voices her incredulity:

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.

Living up to the book’s central disclaimer that it isn’t “an instructional booklet” but a subjective record of what has worked for her, Patchett echoes Tchaikovsky’s account of the “immense bliss” of ideation and relays her own experience:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

Photograph by Christopher Payne from ‘North Brother Island.’ Click image for more.

Only writers, Patchett argues, bend but don’t break under this crushing dissatisfaction with how the gossamer perfection of the idea withers as it metamorphoses into the reality of the execution — and that is what sets them apart from those other people who die with their One Great Novel unwritten:

The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write — and many of the people who do write — get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

And yet that resilience isn’t something arbitrarily bestowed upon the lucky few by a fickle muse — rather, it is earned the only way any stamina is ever earned. (Annie Dillard, perhaps our most benevolent patron saint of writing, put it best: “You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”) In a sentiment that calls to mind the exquisite example of how John Steinbeck disciplined his way to a Pulitzer, Patchett observes:

It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

With an eye to the deep rewards of practicing itself, Patchett addresses the obvious caveat:

Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound; not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself… I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art.

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from ‘Beastly Verse.’ Click image for more.

Returning to the question of transmuting inspiration into writing — one also addressed by another celebrated writer whose own relationship to butterflies was far from metaphorical — Patchett adds:

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

In this practice lies Patchett’s most empowering yet most difficult piece of advice:

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

[…]

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Patchett’s commencement-address-turned-book, then explore this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Cheryl Strayed on faith, humility, and the art of motherfuckitude, Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

BP

What Now? Advice on Writing and Life from Ann Patchett

“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”

In 2006, writer Ann Patchett gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. The speech, a worthy addition to history’s most memorable graduation addresses, spurred such wide resonance that it was soon adapted into a small and lovely hardcover book titled What Now? (public library) and designed by none other than the great Chip Kidd — a fate not entirely uncommon, also shared by David Foster Wallace’s celebrated This Is Water commencement-address-turned-book.

Patchett opens:

If all fairy tales begin ‘Once upon a time,’ then all graduation speeches begin ‘When I was sitting where you are now.’ We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.

Having once sat in those very chairs herself, Patchett offers a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the elasticity of time:

Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.

Echoing Steve Jobs, who in his own fantastic commencement address famously cautioned that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Patchett urges these new graduates to be sure to return at some point — this, she argues, would let them reflect on the series of small choices which, as William James put it a century ago, “[spin] our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” Patchet writes:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

Borrowing in part from great scientists and in part from great poets, Patchett advocates for embracing uncertainty as a positive force:

Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.

Patchett goes on to offer a treasure trove of insight on the craft of writing, from honing your daily routine to dealing with rejection. Complement What Now? with more fantastic advice for graduates — or for anyone turning a new leaf of any variety — from Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Novogratz.

Photograph courtesy Ann Patchett

BP

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

“We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.”

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

Few things in life are more seductive than the artificial sweetness of being capital-R Right — of “winning the narrative,” as my friend Amanda likes to say. This delicious doom and glory of being Right — which is, of course, a matter of feeling rather than being it — tends to involve framing our emotional triggers as moral motives, then thundering them upon those we cast in the role of the Wrong, who may do the same in turn.

How, amid this ping-pong of righteousness grenades, do we maintain not only a clear-minded and pure-hearted relationship with reality, but also forgiveness and respect for others, which presuppose self-forgiveness and self-respect — the key to unlatching the essential capacity for joy that makes life worth living?

That is what the wise and wonderful Anne Lamott considers with uncommon self-awareness and generosity of insight throughout Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library) — the small, enormously soul-salving book that gave us Lamott on love, despair, and our capacity for change.

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

To let go of the tightly held convictions that keep us small, separate, and severed from the richness of life is to let the ego — the gallows on which our beliefs and identity hang — dissolve into an awareness of shared being, or what the poet Diane Ackerman called “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Half a century after Bertrand Russell asserted that the key to growing old contentedly is to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Lamott writes:

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

From this recognition of the shared flow of existence — the wellspring of what the poet Lucille Clifton called “the bond of live things everywhere” — arises a calm universal compassion, which becomes the mightiest antidote to self-righteousness. Lamott writes:

Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy. Even (or especially) people who seem to have it more or less together are more like the rest of us than you would believe. I try not to compare my insides to their outsides, because this makes me much worse than I already am, and if I get to know them, they turn out to have plenty of irritability and shadow of their own. Besides, those few people who aren’t a mess are probably good for about twenty minutes of dinner conversation.

This is good news, that almost everyone is petty, narcissistic, secretly insecure, and in it for themselves, because a few of the funny ones may actually long to be friends with you and me. They can be real with us, the greatest relief.

As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.

Illustration by Japanese artist Komako Sakai for a special edition of The Velveteen Rabbit

Only by coming to terms with our own brokenness, Lamott suggests, can we build from the pieces a temple of joy — a state of being that is almost countercultural today, one which Lamott defines as “a slightly giddy appreciation, an inquisitive stirring, as when you see the first crocuses, the earliest struggling, stunted emergence of color in late winter, cream or gold against the tans and browns.” With an eye to the miracle of joy in a world so imperfect and strewn with suffering, she writes:

This is how most of us are — stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.

How did we all get so screwed up? Putting aside our damaged parents, poverty, abuse, addiction, disease, and other unpleasantries, life just damages people. There is no way around this. Not all the glitter and concealer in the world can cover it up. We may have been raised in the illusion that if we played our cards right, life would work out. But it didn’t, it doesn’t.

[…]

Even with the Internet, deciphering the genetic code, and great advances in immunotherapy, life is frequently confusing at best, and guaranteed to be hard and weird and sad at times… We witness and try to alleviate others’ suffering, but sometimes it just outdoes itself and we are left gasping, groaning. And running through it all there is the jangle, both the machines outside and the chattering treeful of monkeys inside us.

Lamott reflects on the improbable relationship between brokenness and joy:

The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.

How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.

Art by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

More than a century after Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant, underappreciated sister — observed from her deathbed that “[this] is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Lamott adds:

We see this toward the end of many people’s lives, when everything in their wasted bodies fights to stay alive, for a few more kisses or bites of ice cream, one more hour with you. Life is still flowing through them: life is them.

[…]

That’s magic, or the human spirit, or hope — whatever you want to call it — to captivate, to share contented time.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly splendid Almost Everything: Notes on Hope with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the pillar of art, then revisit Lamott on friendship, finding meaning in a mad world, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her magnificent manifesto for handling haters.

BP

A Short Guide to a Happy Life: Anna Quindlen on Work, Joy, and How to Live Rather Than Exist

“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

A Short Guide to a Happy Life: Anna Quindlen on Work, Joy, and How to Live Rather Than Exist

The commencement address is a special kind of modern communication art, and its greatest masterpieces tend to either become a book — take, for instance, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life — or have originated from a book, such as Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life. One of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, however, has an unusual story that flies in the face of both traditional trajectories.

In 2000, Villanova University invited Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, journalist, and New York Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen to deliver the annual commencement address. But once the announcement was made, a group of conservative students staged a protest against Quindlen’s strong liberal views. The commencement was cancelled. “I don’t think you should have to walk through demonstrators to get to your college commencement,” Quindlen lamented. Rather than retreat, however, she emailed the undelivered commencement address to a Villanova graduate student who had expressed disappointment at the situation. Years before the social web as we know it today, the speech spread like wildfire across the internet. A few months later, Quindlen expanded it into the short and lovely book A Short Guide to a Happy Life (public library).

Anna Quindlen (artwork based on a photograph by Grant M. Haller)

Quindlen begins:

I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field… I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or academe, as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand. I’m a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.

And know it she does:

Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard that my father sent me last year: “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

Quindlen considers the question of the self and what makes us who we are, what makes us worthy of being. And while the great Annie Dillard may have cautioned to not “ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible,” it seems impossible to address the question of what makes a meaningful life without addressing the human soul, which Quindlen does beautifully:

There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.

People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Even those trying to find their purpose, even those engaged in fulfilling work, and even those of us lucky enough to have no separation between “life” and “work,” can get consumed by our modern cult of productivity. Quindlen’s words come as a vital reminder of what matters, what counts, what the true aliveness of life is:

You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.

So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.

Here, Annie Dillard, who so memorably expounded the power of presence over productivity in the making of a rich life, would have agreed. For Quindlen, however, an even richer life than that of simply being present is one of being present with a palpable generosity of spirit towards the world:

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘I’ll Be You and You Be Me’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Quindlen, who had a jarring confrontation with the mortality paradox early in life — at nineteen, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer and spent her sophomore year of college administering morphine while her peers partied — considers the Alan Wattsian idea that putting at rest our resistance to the inevitability of death liberates us to be more alive. (Sarah Lewis put this beautifully when she observed, “When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.”) Quindlen reflects on the tragedy that split her life into a “before” and an “after”:

It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking.

[…]

“Before” and “after” for me was not just before my mother’s illness and after her death. It was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came on, for the darkest possible reason.

And I went back to school and I looked around at all the kids I knew who found it kind of a drag and who weren’t sure if they could really hack it and who thought life was a bummer. And I knew that I had undergone a sea change. Because I was never again going to be able to see life as anything except a great gift.

Watercolor by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for more.

“We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” philosopher Roman Krznaric wrote in his fantastic manifesto for finding meaningful work, but Quindlen reminds us that the luxury of seeking fulfillment rather than mere survival came at a price — and yet how easily we take it for granted:

It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is. We have more time than ever before to remember it. The men and women of generations past had to work long, long hours to support lots and lots of children in tiny, tiny houses. The women worked in factories and sweatshops and then at home, too, with two bosses, the one who paid them, and the one they were married to, who didn’t. . . . Our jobs take too much out of us and don’t pay enough.

She continues:

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.

[…]

This is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.

Photograph by Myron Davis for ‘The Meaning of Life.’ Click image for more.

How, then, are we to fully inhabit the miracle of our existence, that cosmic accident by the grace of which we ended up alive, here, now? Quindlen offers a gateway to presence:

Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

A Short Guide to a Happy Life is the kind of read that stays with you for a long time, the sort you revisit again and again when the ground beneath your feet shakes and you reach for a reminder of the solid center. Complement it with more fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Joss Whedon, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jacqueline Novogratz, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos

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