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How to find yourself, Leonard Cohen on creativity and hard work, the art of self-renewal, and more
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Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You're Quitting
Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that "Dylan blew everybody's mind, except Leonard's." Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.
From Paul Zollo's impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) – which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration – comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:
There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There's always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That's what dignifies the song. Songs don't dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.
Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call "inspiration" – something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky ("A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood."), novelist Isabel Allende ("Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too."), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work."), beloved author E.B. White ("A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope ("My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best."), and designer Massimo Vignelli ("There is no design without discipline."). Cohen tells Zollo:
I'm writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I'm not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I'm not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I'm working most of the time.
To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency. To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering...
My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV... So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.
But why shouldn't my work be hard? Almost everybody's work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I'm not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.
He later adds:
Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just ... ideas. I don't have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.
It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn't help. It's just hard work. But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.
Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don't simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen's mind "is unpolluted by a single idea," which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of "just versions." When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:
[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.
Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot's thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:
If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often. It's a mysterious condition. It's much like the life of a Catholic nun. You're married to a mystery.
But Cohen's most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo's astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process – this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:
Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it... I can't discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.
Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:
I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind... I don't really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight... That you were really truly mortal.
Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:
It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, "Oh, man, I think I'm gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive." I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation...
We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently... So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you're fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.
Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo's conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.
At the age of twenty-one, artist and writer James Harmon chanced upon a copy of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and found himself mesmerized. Rilke's elegant exploration of the deepest human concerns – love, fear, art, doubt, sex – prompted young Harmon to wonder what the best advice to young people might be a century after Rilke – something that stood as an antidote to the "toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom" found in books "with the shelf life of a banana" that the contemporary publishing world peddled, so he reached out to some of the most "outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets." For the next decade, he dedicated himself to this labor-of-love project, released in 2002 as Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) – a compendium of sensitive, no-bullshit, luminous, life-tested letters of advice, including Martha Nussbaum on learning not to despise your inner world, Judith Butler on doubting love, and more contributions from such cultural icons as Mark Helprin, Lynda Barry, Katharine Hepburn, Cindy Sherman, George Saunders, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.
One of the most refreshing letters in the anthology comes from the American novelist, essayist, and journalist Florence King (b. 1936). Her message – about deconditioning our compulsion for instant success, cultivating the building blocks of self-esteem, and learning what it really means to be present with ourselves – runs boldly against the grain of our culturally-entrenched convention with a kind of Cheryl Strayed brutal, poetic honesty and applies just as poignantly to recent college graduates as it does to anyone, at any stage of life, looking to rediscover their inner center.
But adding to the timelessness of King's advice is a peculiar kind of timeliness – anyone who has ever tussled with the stereotypical millennial in the workplace or the classroom would instantly see what wonders King's counsel could do for the generation typified as entitled, impatient, devoid of humility, and allergic to hard work.
When I was getting ready to graduate from college in 1957, I was fed up and ready to drop from exhaustion, but still my mind kept telling me, "Hurry, hurry, hurry." I felt I had to do something, go on to the next step, whatever it was – career, graduate school, as long as it was important.
This is an American disease. Put yourself on cruise control and go into limbo for a year. I'm not talking about a neo-grand tour; don't bop around Europe, you'll just get in trouble. Nor am I talking about what your parents' generation called "dropping out." I mean forget about success for a while, get yourself an ordinary job, an ordinary place to live, and live without worrying about what Americans call, in uppercase, the Future.
Go somewhere different, but stay away from big cities. If you're from a place you call "godforsaken," go to a small city in another part of the country...
Get a dead-end job – they're plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you'll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee's farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: "You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed."
Live alone, even at a financial sacrifice. If you have a roommate, the whole college uproar will just start all over again. Get a one-room apartment, or simply a room in the home of a nice widow. Get to know her. She's dying to tell somebody the story of her life, so listen.
Have a radio for emergency news, but no TV. Read, read, read. When you don't have to worry about passing exams on them, subjects you studied in school suddenly become interesting. Read my "desert island book," the one I'd want with me if I were shipwrecked: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, a novel published in 1942. Girls will love it, and boys will learn more about women from it than anything I know of.
Stay chaste during your limbo year. Sex ruins reflection and self-knowledge; you're so busy analyzing the other person that you never get around to analyzing yourself.
What I am recommending is traditionally called "finding yourself." The difference is, there is no bohemian excess here, none of the "experiencing everything" that comprises nostalgia de la boúe. It's productive, constructive goofing-off. The widow will remember you ever afterward as "the nice boy/girl who used to live here," and your employer will shake his head wondering and say, "By God, I wish I could find more like that!"
In May of 1839, Herman Melville found himself riveted by an article in the New York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker about a "renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers" – a formidable albino whale named Mocha Dick, who had been terrorizing whaling ships with unprecedented ferocity for nearly half a century. Twelve years later, the beast was immortalized in Melville's Moby-Dick, a commercial failure in the author's lifetime that went on to be celebrated as one of the Great American Novels and is among the greatest books of all time.
Now, five years after self-taught artist Matt Kish illustrated every page of Moby-Dick, children's book author Brian Heinz and artist Randall Enos tell the story of the original white whale behind Melville's masterpiece in Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury (public library) – a captivating picture-book "biography" of the monster-turned-literary-legend, from how human aggression turned the "peaceful giant" into a ferocious beast to his first recorded attack near the South American island of Mocha off the coast of Chile to the final, fatal harpoon blow.
Suddenly, the whale burst through the waves, his jaws gnashing in the foam. One sweep of his flukes hurled the craft high into the air, spilling the crew into the sea. Twenty-six pairs of teeth as long as a man's hand clamped down on the boat. The huge head shook savagely until only splinters remained. Then the whale disappeared in the twilight. The remaining boats plucked up their comrades and rowed briskly to their whaler. Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.
Randall's gorgeous linocut collage illustrations, to which the screen does no justice whatsoever, lend Heinz's lyrical narrative dimension and magic that render the end result utterly enchanting.
The Art of Self-Renewal: A Timeless 1964 Field Guide to Keeping Your Company and Your Soul Vibrantly Alive
In 1964, the prolific social science writer John W. Gardner published Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) – a forgotten book of extraordinary prescience and warm wisdom, which rings even timelier today. It's a must-read as much for entrepreneurs and leaders seeking to infuse their organizations with ongoing vitality as it is for all of us as individuals, on our private trajectories of self-transcendence and personal growth.
Gardner explores what it takes for us – as individuals, as a society, even as a civilization – to cultivate the capacity for self-renewal so vital to countering "the dry rot produced by apathy, by rigidity and by moral emptiness," which often comes with attaining a certain level of complacent comfort or success. Referencing his previous book, Excellence – an equally prescient exploration of the educational system, its promise and its limitations, and the role of high standards in cultivating character – Gardner writes:
High standards are not enough. There are kinds of excellence – very important kinds – that are not necessarily associated with the capacity for renewal. A society that has reached heights of excellence may already be caught in the rigidities that will bring it down. An institution may hold itself to the highest standards and yet already be entombed in the complacency that will eventually spell its decline.
And yet, noting that "social renewal depends ultimately on individuals," Gardner writes:
If a society hopes to achieve renewal, it will have to be a hospitable environment for creative men and women. It will also have to produce men and women with the capacity for self-renewal… Men and women need not fall into a stupor of mind and spirit by the time they are middle-aged. They need not relinquish as early as they do the resilience of youth and the capacity to learn and grow.
Illustration from Tove Jansson's Alice in Wonderland
Self-renewal, he points out, requires a certain give-a-shitness – as E.B. White wrote in his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, "As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate." Gardner argues:
The renewal of societies and organizations can go forward only if someone cares. Apathy and lowered motivation are the most widely noted characteristics of a civilization on the downward path.
He later adds:
Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature... Institutions are renewed by individuals who refuse to be satisfied with the outer husks of things. And self-renewal requires somewhat the same impatience with empty forms.
In a sentiment that John Mooallem would come to echo half a century later ("Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything"), Gardner argues that self-renewal is impossible "unless we share a vision of something worth saving" and writes:
Unless we attend to the requirements of renewal, aging institutions and organizations will eventually bring our civilization to moldering ruin. Unless we cope with the ways in which modern society oppresses the individual, we shall lose the creative spark that renews both societies and [individuals]. Unless we foster versatile, innovative and self-renewing men and women, all the ingenious social arrangements in the world will not help us.
Echoing Buckminster Fuller's admonition against specialization and Frank Lloyd Wright's famous aphorism that "an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because 'he knows,'") Gardner outlines the process by which we fizzle out, socially and personally:
A society decays when its institutions and individuals lose their vitality... When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions. Call to mind the adaptability of youth, and the way in which that adaptability diminishes with the years. Call to mind the vigor and recklessness of some new organizations and societies – our own frontier settlements, for example – and reflect on how frequently these qualities are buried under the weight of tradition and history.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
Pointing to an infant's openness to experiences and gradual acquisition of habits for navigating the world, Gardner echoes Henry Miller's timeless wisdom on the secret of remaining young at heart and writes:
Each acquired attitude or habit, useful though it may be, makes [the infant] a little less receptive to alternative ways of thinking and acting. He becomes more competent to function in his own environment, less adaptive to changes.
All of this seems to suggest that the critical question is how to stay young. But youth implies immaturity. And though everyone wants to be young, no one wants to be immature. Unfortunately, as many a youth-seeker has learned, the two are intertwined.
From this springs the natural question of how one might "advance toward maturity without advancing toward rigidity and senility," to which Gardner answers:
There may be a point at which raw young vitality and mature competence and wisdom reach a kind of ideal balance, but there is no possibility of freezing change at that point, as one might stop the motion in a home movie. There is nothing static in these processes.
Once again, this brings to mind Henry Miller's memorable observation that "all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis," as well as his longtime lover and lifelong friend Anaïs Nin's defense of the fluid self. Gardner brings this paradox back to the notion of a vitally self-renewing society:
In the ever-renewing society what matters is a system or framework within which continuous innovation, renewal and rebirth can occur.
And yet, Gardner points out in a caveat all the more relevant today, it's important to understand that renewal is different from "innovation," more dimensional and integrated with the whole microcosm of life, more rooted in an appreciation of the fact that everything builds on what came before:
Renewal is not just innovation and change. It is also the process of bringing the results of change into line with our purposes. When our forebears invented the motor car, they had to devise rules of the road. Both are phases of renewal. When urban expansion threatens chaos, we must revive our conceptions of city planning and metropolitan government.
Mesmerized as we are by the idea of change, we must guard against the notion that continuity is a negligible – if not reprehensible – factor in human history. It is a vitally important ingredient in the life of individuals, organizations and societies. Particularly important to a society's continuity are its long-term purposes and values. These purposes and values also evolve in the long run; but by being relatively durable, they enable a society to absorb change without losing its distinctive character and style. They do much to determine the direction of change. They insure a society will not be buffeted in all directions by every wind that blows.
A sensible view of these matters sees an endless interweaving of continuity and change... The only stability possible is stability in motion.
Gardner goes on to explore all the ways in which we imprison ourselves – something Albert Camus had contemplated a decade earlier – and examines "the individual's own intricately designed, self-constructed prison [and] incapacity for self-renewal." In one particularly interesting aside, he points to the commencement address genre – arguably the modern secular sermon – as a testament to how, unless we guard against it, life pushes us from a capacity for self-renewal to chronic rigidity: One of the most common commencement messages is to keep on growing and never settle, and yet Gardner notes that many of the wide-eyed recipients of that message are "absolutely mummified" by middle age and "even some of the people who make the speeches are mummified." He considers what's at play:
As we mature we progressively narrow the scope and variety of our lives. Of all the interests we might pursue, we settle on a few. Of all the people with whom we might associate, we select a small number. We become caught in a web of fixed relationships. We develop set ways of doing things.
Half a century before modern cognitive science revealed the same, Gardner observes one of our most toxic existential tendencies:
As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception. We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the faces of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world.
Illustration from The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam
Echoing the ethos of the marvelous London Jungle Book, Gardner notes that the vivid experience of travel holds such allure to most of us precisely because it offers such "freshness of perception":
At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us. Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience. The exhilaration of travel has many sources, but surely one of them is that we recapture in some measure the unspoiled awareness of children.
So what can we do to "avert the hardening of the arteries" that attacks both societies and individuals? Decades before Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's pioneering work on "growth" vs. "fixed" mindsets, Gardner proposes a strikingly similar framework for understanding, and improving, our capacity for self-renewal:
Most human beings go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities.
Most abilities are not so readily evoked by the common circumstances of life. The "mute, inglorious Miltons" are more numerous than one might suppose, particularly in an age in which even an articulate Milton might go unnoticed, certainly unrewarded. Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives have never called them forth.
Exploration of the full range of his own potentialities is not something that the self-renewing man leaves to the chances of life. It is something he pursues systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of his days. He looks forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the claims of life – not only the claims he encounters but the claims he invents. And by potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range of his capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, aspiring.
One prerequisite for self-renewal, Gardner argues, is self-knowledge – something all the more relevant today, when we're so busy being productive that we neglect to be present, lulling ourselves into a trance of doing as we forget to be, becoming absent from our own lives. Gardner writes:
We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within… By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.
The individual who has become a stranger to himself has lost the capacity for genuine self-renewal.
Another characteristic of the self-renewing man is that he has mutually fruitful relations with other human beings. He is capable of accepting love and capable of giving it – both more difficult achievements than is commonly thought. He is capable of depending on others and of being depended upon. He can see life through another's eyes and feel it through another's heart…
The man or woman who cannot achieve these relationships is imprisoned, cut off from a great part of the world of experience. The joy and suffering of those we love are part of our own experience. We feel their triumphs and defeats, their hopes and fears, their anger and pity, and our lives are richer for it…
Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.
Half a century later, Self-Renewal remains a remarkable and prescient read in its entirety – Gardner goes on to explore how we can optimize our capacity for self-renewal by understanding its obstacles and essential conditions, the limits of individuality, how our attitudes toward the future impact it, its relationship with creativity and innovation, and more. Complement it with another wonderful read on learning to see the familiar world with new eyes.
Barbara Walters on the Art of Conversation, How to Talk to Bores, and What Truman Capote Teaches Us About Being Interesting
What The Paris Review has done for the art of the interview in print, Barbara Walters has done for it on television. By the time she was forty, Walters was seen by more people than any other woman on TV and had grown famous for her ability not only to land interviews with seemingly unapproachable guests – presidents and politicians, actors and writers, tycoons and entrepreneurs – but also to crack open even the hardest shells and coax into the open the tender humanity within. In the late 1960s, Walters gathered her strategies, tricks, and learnings on the art of conversation in How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) – a perceptive and witty guide to just what the cover promises, extending her experience of interviewing greats to everyday life and outlining "how to talk easily with anyone, anywhere [and] how to get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication."
Walters, never one to shy away from strong opinions, begins by debunking a common myth about the key to great conversation:
I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn't a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely. Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he'll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.
A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.
Walters goes on to outline a number of conversation strategies for different situations. In one of the most compelling chapters, titled "How to Talk to Difficult People," she offers an essential caveat and advocates for listening as an act of sorely needed compassion, especially in those conversations where our impulse may be to flee. Her warm wisdom rings all the more urgent, if more difficult to enact, in our age of online conversation characterized by a propensity for knee-jerk reaction over thoughtful response. Walters writes:
I'm not in favor of escape as a unilateral policy. There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say. Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another's sympathy and friendship in order to survive emotionally...
Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least lovable. People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can't get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen. You're paying your membership dues in the human race.
Among the several conversation partner archetypes particularly deserving of such compassion is "the bore." Walters offers some humbling perspective:
A bore has feelings. Very often he will interrupt something boring he is saying to comment that he is a bore. His wife comes over and inquires sweetly, "Is he boring you?"
If he is, maybe it's your fault. "Being interested makes one interesting," Dr. Erich Fromm observed, to which I would add that you generally get out of a conversation what you put into it.
Truman Capote by Irving Penn, 1965
She points to one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century to illustrate this intricate art, a practical embodiment of Susan Sontag's memorable assertion that "a writer is a professional observer." Walters writes:
Truman Capote has a natural gift that makes him a great guest at a dinner party: he is always interested in whomever he's talking to. For one thing, he really looks at the person he is with. Most of us see outlines of one another, but Truman is noting skin texture, voice tone, details of clothing.
One of the reasons that Truman is always interested in people is that he won't allow himself to be bored. He told me that when he meets a truly crashing bore he asks himself, "Why am I so bored? What is it about this person that is making me yawn?" He ponders, "What should this person do that he hasn't done? What does he lack that might intrigue me?"
He catalogues thoughtfully the bore's face, his hair style, his mannerisms, his speech patterns. He tries to imagine how the bore feels about himself, what kind of a wife he might have, what he likes and dislikes. To get the answers, he starts to ask some of these questions aloud. In short, Truman gets so absorbed in finding out why he is bored that he is no longer bored at all.
What a wonderful manifestation of why the capacity for boredom is essential to a full life.
Complement How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, which is both pragmatic and delightful in its entirety, with this timeless 1866 guide to the art of conversation and John Freeman on what makes a great interview.
Thanks, Ruth Ann
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