“Survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention (…) The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”
Something about this quote from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has taken a hold of me and won’t let go. She’s written it by way of explaining her grandmother’s approach to enduring her husband’s years of careless living. The consequences of his actions inflicted much hardship, yet through it all, Grandmother focused on the positive, indulged her curiosities to stay sane, endure the bumpy ride.
Her approach to life is perfectly suited to a writer’s life. Our pursuits are sometimes put on hold due to life challenges, but for the most part, we push through difficult times and keep writing. To do this requires that we too pay attention and follow our curiosity. We infuse our imaginings with context, much like newly submerged tea leaves spreading their colour inside a cup.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A woman is like a tea bag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” I suspect Julia’s grandmother was that kind of woman, one who excelled in hot water. In letters to Julia, she’d write one sentence, “grandpa is coughing” (soon to pass away) and ends with, “the tiger lilies are blooming, the lizard has found that spot of sun, the roses are holding despite the heat”. Her ability to pay attention, to notice things, saved her from becoming myopic, stale and joyless. To pay attention is to cultivate curiosity. What’s over there? That’s new. How interesting! I’ll look that up.
I love the company of curious people. Our conversations leave me feeling lighter and joyful. New ideas tumble inside my head after we part ways. In correlation to curiosity, they are introspective and keenly interested in other people’s view points. Ideas, humanity, and the natural world light them up. They extend the pleasure of their discoveries to others.
Upon reflection, in detailing attributes of an interesting companion, I’ve also described a writer. Writers have a bottomless capacity for delight in newly acquired knowledge. Just ask one of us what’s new and we’ll talk your ear off. Forever travelling research roads seeking information, we often must tell ourselves to stop. It’s too much. I’m writing a story not a textbook. But often we continue for the sheer pleasure of encountering novel facts.
Author Amy Tan says a necessary ingredient for being a writer is curiosity paired with the need to learn about oneself. Every writer is trying to figure themselves out through the stories they tell. Sometimes I’m conscious doing that in nonfiction pieces. But in fiction, it’s not until I’ve finished writing a scene (or maybe an entire novel) that I realize I’ve in fact done this. In adulthood we re-enact our childhood to try and get it right. Perhaps writers tell stories that relive aspects of adulthood as a way of attaining justice or closure. Who would I be if life had zigged this way instead?
And now I’m turning back to the words survival and sanity. In the popular British drama series Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess of Grantham said, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve, first one and then the next and then the next, until at last we die.” I laughed out loud when I heard it. How true, how bleak; but then again, not. If we pay attention and stay curious, on and off the page, it’s possible to welcome lightness into darkness. There is survival and sanity in that.
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“For all the novel features characters that are alone, it is a story driven by human connections (…) With vivid descriptions, natural dialogue and in-depth characterization, Tuinman compels us to look beyond the surface. The ending is triumphant.” –Historical Novel Society