How To Be Free

High on the list of books I cannot live without is Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece. My dogeared, pencil-lined copy is one of my prized, and most frequently reread, possessions. The following is from its final chapter.

I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endevours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will but some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favaour in a more liberalse sense, and he will live with the licence of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
~Henry David Thoreau

Choose Your Success Carefully

If people are highly successful in the professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes.
— Virginia Woolf

Further reading

Secrets of Success
Life is What Happens When You’re Making Other Plans

You Are What You Read

After finishing university with its routine of “required” reading I moved to London to work at a music magazine. To my sheer delight I was surrounded by, inundated with, magazines. All the monthlies I couldn’t afford arrived on subscription: Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, Details, plus Rolling Stone and a weekly dose of high-gloss, low-IQ celebrity fare from OK! and Hello. Plus unlimited access to Q, Mojo, Mixmag, and Arena which were produced in the offices around me.

With that journalistic goldmine to hand, I got out of the habit of reading actual books. The only two that made the trip from Philly to London were my dog-eared Franny & Zooey and a signed copy of Trainspotting, sentimental relics of my teenage years. Occasionally I borrowed a beach-read from my flatmate, but for the most part I read in 50 to 1500 word chunks of magazine-speak. A couple years later my company launched the future publishing phenomena that was Closer and Grazia, to join Heat in the ranks of the half-million-plus selling women’s weeklies. They were as were as brightly-wrapped as the contents of the office Cadbury Roses tin, and twice as addictive.

Books were passé. They were demanding and required concentration. Why bother when I could get instant fix on every page of Closer? At some point I said, half-joking, that I’d forgotten how to read: “Gossip magazines are turning me illiterate.” It wasn’t far off the truth. My attention span and love of words – honed over 17 years of serious reading – had fallen apart. My exposure to new ideas and information, and my ability to absorb and analyse, was being chipped away by a diet of mental junk food that bloated my mind with vapid nonsense. Realising that I had fallen into the mental equivalent of Supersize Me, I made a conscious decision to read more books.

It was like swapping chips for carrot sticks. Sure, it was good for me, but I had to work at reading books. There was a rhythm and a discipline to engaging with a long piece of text that I had lost. The shiny weeklies winked and pleaded: read me instead. I started rationing: Vanity Fair and Vogue once a month; Grazia or Closer as a Friday treat. Gradually, the diet of full paragraphs and polysyllabic words got easier to digest.

My main excuse for junk reading was the plea of many fast-food fiends: “I don’t have the time/money/energy to get something nutritious.” Turns out that, as with food, cheap and good-for-you is easy to come by if you know what you want and plan ahead. Thanks to Kindle, I have an accessible, wide-ranging selection of books perpetually to hand. But an e-reader is no more necessary to good literary fare than one of those prepared-meals delivery services is to a good diet. The best and most intriguing source of books is charity or second-hand shops. Unlike Amazon, which overwhelms with options and makes you wait for delivery, they offer an instant fix. Browsing the shelves you can snap up everything from the latest best-sellers to arcane anthropological tomes. Second-hand shops gifted me Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. They’ve introduced me to Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Mead, Anton Chekhov, Alice Walker, and Kurt Vonnegut. My handbag currently contains Hard Travelin’, Kenneth Allsop’s brilliant history of the migrant American workforce, purchased for £1.40 in a Marie Curie shop.

Accustomed, once again, to a feast of words and ideas, I happily turn my nose up at Metro and the gimcrack lure of Closer and its cousins. I still subscribe to Vogue, and occasionally spend an hour perusing magazines at Waterstone’s, but my compulsion to keep up with the Brangelina marriage saga, or to find out who has cellulite/forgot her mascara/fired her nanny is gone. Quitting junk food does a body good – and the same is doubly true of the mind.

Charity Shop Finder (UK)
London Book Swap
Oxfam Bookshop Finder (UK)

The Myth of the Writer’s Life

Keats House in Hampstead, North London, is a dangerous place for a writer. Walking through the spare, clean rooms; admiring the sketches of his boyish, elegantly wasted face it’s hard to feel anything but crushing inadequacy.

Keats was more than a Romantic poet. He was the apotheosis of popular notions of what constitutes the “writer’s life.” From the giving-up of a profitable career in order to write poetry, to the dying young, broken-hearted and far from home, Keats marked out territory generations of writers and wannabes have struggled to claim. In our minds, tragedy authenticates talent. We roll an envious eye at Hemingway’s suicide, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s tear-and-alcohol stained romance, and Flannery O’Connor’s terminal illness. Perhaps it is because we secretly long to be not only the tellers of stories, but also the heroes. Maybe the impulse to lionise flawed lives is a defence against overwhelming expectations (“I, too, would be a literary giant if I could escape the suburbs and spend my time drinking rum in Old Havana.”) Whatever the case, the unthinking acceptance of clichés about the “writer’s life” is absurd and dangerous.

Dangerous, because it creates and artificial distinction between writing and life, and diminishes the achievements of writers of every caste. Ian Sansom notes that his literary hero Flann O’Brien, “had a proper job and took his family responsibilities seriously” then adds lugubriously that, “in the end he was destroyed by them… [and] descended into journalism.” What arrogant nonsense. O’Brien wrote surreal, brilliant books that prompt other novelists to call him their literary hero. Why is it a cause for complaint that he also had a family and a profession?

Many great writers reconcile their art with other vocations. Edith Wharton was a designer before she was a novelist (her first book was about architecture) and she spent World War I in France doing relief work. George Orwell didn’t just write about the Spanish Civil War, he went to Catalonia and carried a gun. The truth is, few writers are exclusive. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf both wrote brilliant modernist literature. He did so by spending twelve hours a day at his desk; she also ran a printing press, gave lectures, and wrote spirited anti-war essays. That doesn’t make her less of a writer; it makes her more of a person.

Therein lies the nonsense of romanticising the short, solipsistic, stymied writer’s life. “Suffering doesn’t ennoble,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, “Why should it?” And if it doesn’t ennoble, why should it inspire? Conflating talent and tragedy asserts the unprovable theory that bad lives make good books. If Scott Fitzgerald were happy he wouldn’t have written Tender Is The Night but he might have written something better.

Mythologising the “writer’s life” is alluring because we can use it to justify recklessness, self-hatred, chemical excess, and emotional cruelty. All of which have a certain bent appeal. The problem with looking for artistic validation in unhappiness, though, is that only the unhappiness is guaranteed; the art is still up to us.

Henry Miller – How To Be A Writer

I’m a little bit hooked on Flavorwire – they turn up some amazing, inspiring creative content. Like this list of Henry Miller’s tips on how to be a writer.

Henry Miller Library, Big Sur

COMMANDMENTS

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Brilliant, no? Especially “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly”, which echoes Isak Dinesen’s advice to “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”

What commandments would you add?

Recommended Reading – Novels

Needing a Business Case for Reading Novels is an alien – and slightly depressing – concept. Nevertheless, any case for reading is a good one and Anne Kreamer’s argument that novel-reading can boost workplace fortunes by improving people’s ability to relate to others is admirably lucid. Her list of suggested reading is unfamiliar, apart from Something Happened, which is diabolically bad, so – hey – try my recommendations instead!

In no particular order…

Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day – Before you ask, the book is better. Ishiguro’s magnificent writing gradually reveals the depth of the narrator’s self-delusion, creating a complicated character who is deplorable, pitiable and ultimately heart-breaking.

Willa Cather The Professor’s House – Willa Cather was one of Truman Capote’s favourite writers, which is reason enough to read her. This compact tale is a beautiful reflection on aging, family life and responsibility.

Truman Capote Answered Prayers – Hilarious, salacious and brimming with Capote’s characteristic mix of mischief and malice, this unfinished novel infuriated his posh, real-life social circle by gleefully baring their secrets. Society murder, infidelity and lots of drinking is involved.

William Golding The Lord of the Flies – I put off reading this for a long time because I thought I knew what it was about. Mistake. It isn’t what it’s about that makes this brilliant, it’s Golding’s blinding use of perspective. You know what’s coming but the end still makes you gasp.

EM Forster A Room With A View – A compassionate but sharply observed account of the “muddles” people create when they lie to themselves. Essential reading for anyone who is ever tempted to do what they should, rather than what they feel (which is, I’m pretty sure, all of us).

William Faulker As I Lay Dying – Faulkner said he intended to create a masterpiece when he sat down to write As I Lay Dying, and did he ever. Each wretched detail of the Burden’s odyssey to bury their mother springs from the page, by the end you think you’re beyond shock, but you’re not.

Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse – A clear-eyed, yet subtle look at emotional interplay of family life. The stream of consciousness narrative heightens the effect by demanding attentive reading.

Henry James What Maisie Knew – Any James will do, but this is my favourite. His virtuouso prose reveals what Maisie knew, and a great deal more, without ever being so uncouth as to say it directly.

Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence – Wharton is another author you can’t go wrong with. She seems to know everything about human nature and the countless little ways we betray ourselves and each other.

F Scott Fitzgerald The Beautiful and Damned – The writing isn’t quite as spectacular as The Great Gatsby but this earlier novel is well worth a read for its handling of love, greed, vanity, ambition and failure.

Lady Gaga and Tattoos That Say Something


Not only is Lady Gaga the best pop songsmith on the planet, she has some of the best tattoos. The Rilke quote on her upper arm reads, in part: “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write.” C’est magnifique.