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The Difficult Art of Self-Compassion

“We need to re-learn the value of calculated moments of self-compassion; we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious and fruitful life.”

“Compassion,” wrote historian Karen Armstrong in considering the proper meaning of the Golden Rule, “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” In her beautiful ode to compassion, Lucinda Williams urged: “Have compassion for everyone you meet … You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

And yet even the most compassionate among us have one sizable blind spot: the self. Our culture’s epidemic of self-criticism has left us woefully unskilled at self-compassion — that essential anchor of sanity, which both grounds and elevates our spirit.

In this short, immensely helpful exercise, The School of Life offers a daily self-compassion practice so simple that cynics might mistake it for simplistic — and yet out of its simplicity arises a profound reorientation to our own selves.

To survive in this high-pressured, crazy world, most of us have to become highly adept at self-criticism. We learn how to tell ourselves off for our failures, and for not working hard or smart enough. But so good are we at this that we’re sometimes in danger of falling prey to an excessive version of self-criticism — what we might call self-flagellation: a rather dangerous state, which just ushers in depression and underperformance. We might simply lose the will to get out of bed.

For those moments, we need a corrective — we need to carve out time for an emotional state of which many of us are profoundly suspicious: self-compassion. We’re suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity. But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.

Complement with my commencement address on the discipline of resisting cynicism and self-compassion and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the most important ingredient in making art, then revisit the School of Life’s sensitive and sobering animated essays on higher consciousness, what great books do for the soul, how to stop letting habit blunt your aliveness, what philosophy is for, how to find fulfilling work, and what comes after religion.


Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths

“See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”

Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths

“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. How to inhabit that pleasurable, perilous place of uncertainty is what George Saunders explores throughout his conversation with Deborah Eisenberg, found in Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (public library) — that marvelous record of public encounters between literary titans at the Rare Book Room of New York’s iconic Strand bookstore, which gave us Junot Díaz on our limiting mythos of success and which features such celebrated writers as Alison Bechdel, A.M. Homes, Renata Adler, Wendy Lesser, and Mark Strand (who is not related to the famed bookstore but is, via paternity, to the volume’s editor, Jessica Strand).


Two generations after William Faulkner asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that the role of the writer is “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Saunders shares a reflection wonderfully countercultural amid our era of marketable tragedy and rampant cynicism:

When I was younger, I was for some stupid reason really taken aback by the realization that capitalism could be harsh. It had never occurred to me before. So my work tended to be a little preoccupied with that notion, maybe. My wife and I fell head over heels, and had our daughters pretty quickly. Now we’ve been married for twenty-six years and our daughters are grown up and wonderful. So lately my feeling is there ought to be a place for some fictional corollary of the fact that sometimes things actually work… An artist can sometimes represent the idea that things can be wonderful.

Responding to the observation that a line from a short story of his — “Can goodness win?” — encapsulates an undergirding concern across all of his work, Saunders adds:

Why not? Yes, it can win. But it can also lose — can get humiliated. It can also cause other people problems, by morphing into self-righteousness. I think what a fiction writer does is represent different viewpoints vividly. And without necessarily seeming to prefer one over the other. “Can goodness win?” “Yes, it does all the time.” “No, it cannot: it loses all the time.” Both true.


See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true. You, little mind, actually don’t have to decide. That’s a great place to try to be. And for a fiction writer, that’s the best place to be: you’ve put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you’re just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth is … that opposition.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Denise Levertov’s notion of the midwifery of creative work, Saunders suggests that even if one were to inhabit that opposition, one can’t forcibly wrest out of it the sort of aliveness that makes art. Rather than trying to will it, one ought to be willing to let it come into a life of its own. He reflects on having this pivotal realization when he was starting out as a writer and finding his own voice:

I found out that the same minute I had an idea about what I wanted to write, life would go out of it. I’m a Bear of Little Brain, as Winnie the Pooh would say. My challenge is to try to keep the themes out of what I’m writing as long as possible… Einstein said it better: “No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception.” … It’s got more integrity if it comes in of its own accord.

At the end of the event, in answering a reader’s question, Saunders returns to the inherent duality of life and the notion that although we’re animated by conflicting impulses and irrepressible moral imperfection, we can still live rich and beautiful lives. Echoing Parker Palmer’s ennobling assertion that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” Saunders observes:

At any given moment you’re failing to see the way things actually are. The manifestation is that you’re failing to be kind. You’re anxious. You’re neurotic. I don’t think it’s so much about external things. I think you could be a very happy, high-functioning person and still note the moment-to-moment failures.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Upstairs at the Strand — a trove of unscripted wisdom on literature and life from some of the greatest writers of our time — with George Saunders’s moving commencement address about the power of kindness, then revisit this evolving library of notable wisdom on writing, including Hemingway’s advice to young writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.


Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.”

Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon wrote in what remains the finest advice on the creative life I’ve ever encountered. But what, exactly, are the practicalities of that stewardship?

Incidentally, Kenyon was married to Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928), another poet of enduring wisdom on writing, who addresses this question in the advice peppered throughout his Essays After Eighty (public library) — the terrific volume that gave us Hall on growing old and our cultural attitude toward the elderly.

Generations after Hemingway extolled the rewards of revision, Hall writes:

The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.


Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.


Hall goes on to offer some practical advice on composition and structure:

As I work over clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey. Sentences can be long, three or more complete clauses dancing together, or two clauses with one leaning on the other, or an added phrase of only a few syllables. Sentences and paragraphs are as various as human beings. I like the effect — see John McPhee — of a paragraph three pages long, glued together by transitions that never sound like transitions.

After a three-page paragraph, maybe a one-line blurt.

Half a century after Jack Kerouac contemplated whether writers are born or made, Hall wastes no time on the unanswerable question of genius and instead considers the “problems in writing one can learn to avoid”:

Almost always, in my poems or essays, the end goes on too long. “In case you don’t get it, this is what I just said.” Cut it out. Let the words flash a conclusion, then get out of the way. Sometimes the writer intrudes — me, myself, and I — between the reader and the page. Don’t begin paragraphs with “I.” For that matter, try not to begin sentences with the personal pronoun. Avoid “me” and “my” when you can. Writing memoir, don’t say, “I remember that in my childhood nothing happened to me.” Say, “In childhood nothing happened.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind Cheryl Strayed’s assertion that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Hall adds:

Avoid the personal pronoun when you can — but not the personal. My first book of poems said “I,” but the word was distant, a stiff and poetic “I.” In my best poems and prose I’ve become steadily more naked, with a nakedness that disguises itself by wearing clothes. A scrupulous passion of style — word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity — sets forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.

But Hall’s finest point of advice deals with the psychology rather than the practicality of the craft — and it applies as much to writing as it does to every field of human endeavor. With an eye to the fine line between gratification and grandiosity, he counsels:

It’s okay to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it… It is best to believe the praiser and dismiss the praise.

Complement Essays After Eighty with this evolving collection of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.


Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In 1977, Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932–February 19, 2016) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of lists, lover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.


You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.


The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.


We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Ann Patchett, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.


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