Life is so complex and confusing these days that it’s good to go back to basics. I like to collect aphorisms and simple truths that hit me like bolts of lightning. I keep them in the back of my journal and like to return to them when the noise of the world becomes too deafening.
Here are a few “old rules”:
“The first rule of life is to have a good time.” – Brendan Gill
The polymath who wrote for The New Yorker for many years really nails it with this one. The Picses in me responds to any call for pleasure. But it’s more than that: here is the full context of Gill’s quote from HERE AT THE NEW YORKER –
“… since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of
death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time;
and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the
course of doing so. There is no third rule.”
It’s the beginning of a philosophy.
“The greatest thing in the world is for a man to know how to be himself.” – Michel de Montaigne
Montaigne was a very smart man, one of the first “modern” men, the creator of the essay, a major influence on Shakespeare, etc. (I quote him in WHAT IT WAS LIKE: “The truest sign of wisdom is cheerfulness” – another rule I try to live by.)
This simple-sounding pronouncement of Montaigne’s cuts deeply. It makes me think – about myself, who I am and how I’ve changed, about how I tried to raise my kids to be “themselves.” I’ve always been a pretty happy, confident person, but I think, when it gets down to it, I’m still becoming myself. This next book will tell me a lot.
“Be secret and exult / Because of all things known / That is most difficult.” – W.B. Yeats, from To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing
This was almost the epigraph on WHAT IT WAS LIKE – paired with a lyric from Alejandro Escovedo – but it was the wrong thing to have an epigraph on the novel. It would have destroyed the “found object” nature of the way the book is presented … even though that’s, of course, shaded with a little humor. The last line of the whole thing is “The writer reviewed the galleys and has approved this edition of his manuscript.” You think so?
I studied Yeats in Dublin when I was in college, and I still read him to this day. I have a variorum edition of Yeats right near my bed. Is that nerdy enough? Yeats is as relevant as ever. Any time someone says, “the center cannot hold” or “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” Yeats is being quoted.
The quotation above is from Responsibilities, an important mid-career Yeats volume, and it means a lot to me. For a long time, I couldn’t get anything produced or published, yet I had to keep writing, I had to “be secret and exult” to keep myself going, to keep my enthusiasm and energy up. I still do, but the great reception I’ve gotten for WHAT IT WAS LIKE makes it a little easier to write every day, knowing that some people out there like my stuff.
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” — Henry Miller in TROPIC OF CAPRICORN
I live a quiet life, nothing as wild as the Brooklyn-Paris-Greece-Big Sur-Pacific Palisades route that Henry Miller traveled. And I’ve been married once, not five times. But I sympathize with the garrulous old operator’s thirst for life.
I’m lucky in that my work is all about awareness. Being a writer means being aware of my characters’ lives – their feelings, their actions, their reactions – and I think that helps me, when I come back to “Earth,” be aware of my own feelings, actions, etc. My style of writing, what I’m interested in, depends on awareness and presence at the individual, actual moment: what was it like?
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett from WORSTWORD HO
I always go back to Beckett. I can’t think of any other writer whose work I’ve loved for as long as I’ve loved his. I’m looking at his autograph right now, on my wall. I especially love late Beckett, even though it’s ridiculously hard reading. (That’s why I made my novel super-easy to read: sometimes you have to do the exact opposite of your idols.)
I love his humor, his rhythm, his honesty, his sense of humor, and his brave and dramatic reduction of life to its absolute essentials.
It seems like all I do is “fail better,” but Sam gives me hope that I can get a good laugh out of the experience.
As the great reggae band The Heptones said in their classic song “Book of Rules,”
“Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mask, and a book of rules.”
THE HEPTONES – “Book of Rules” with strings(?)
Each person must ask: “What are my tools? What is my mask? What are my rules?”
— and for pure fun –
Kristen Chenoweth – “My New Philosophy”