What does it mean to be a “literary” person?

I just watched the first two episodes of the show “You” on Netflix, and it has me thinking about what it means to be “literary.” One of the main characters, Beck, is an aspiring poet earning her MFA in New York City. She graduated from Brown University and hangs out with the granddaughter of J.D. Salinger. She also meets the narrator at the bookstore where he works, and they bond over Paula Fox (while hating on the plebs who read Dan Brown). In other words, she is a literary person.

I’ve been wondering what this means for a long time. Does it mean going to parties with other literary people? Does it mean reading a certain number of books from the English canon, and understanding references to them? Does it mean calling yourself a writer, editor, or publisher? Does it mean getting an MFA, or being published and having a long list of award-winning books under your name (or being friends with people who have those things on their websites)? Or does it simply involve sitting in your local coffee shop with a book you enjoy?

First off, there is no getting around the recent debate re: the English literary canon. Traditionally, if you want to even begin approaching “literary” territory, you need to read (and enjoy reading?) the works of everyone listed on this page, which is unfortunate, because a good amount of them are not enjoyable, even for people who consider reading one of their hobbies. Although the canon is beginning to include more writers of color, no one seems to have successfully argued for the deletion of any of the (old, white, male) works already on that list. Those texts are here to stay; the number only grows from here.

Actually reading this mass of work takes thousands of hours, which is probably why so many of the people concerned with “literaryness” have English degrees, so we can get away with pretending we’ve digested most of this stuff. These people probably also enjoy writing poems, plays, or short stories, and the most ambitious of them might write novels. However, “literaryness” seems to be so much more than actually reading and writing; its foundation appears to be making sure that others perceive you as a well-read, talented writer. Instead of writing and then putting your work out there, you start with the intention of becoming a well-established author, and craft pieces in order to fulfill that goal. Maybe this is because writer earnings have fallen 42% over the last 10 years, and the median annual income for authors is now around $13,000. Considering how writers never made that much to begin with and the relatively new invention of the MFA (Masters in Fine Arts, the terminal degree for many creative professions), it makes sense to have the following attitude: If I’m going to take this writing thing seriously (and potentially pay tens of thousands of dollars for an MFA), it better give me dividends. I need to have my eye on the prize, or else there’s no way that prize (a stacked resume and paid opportunities to further my craft) will ever materialize, right? 

This focus on “productivity” and “clout” for writers can hamper the very thing that drove them towards literature in the first place: creative spark and a love of language. Austin Kleon has a great blog post about this:

“I actually kind of hate writing books. I often tell people I became a professional writer so I could be a professional reader, and I feel like they never believe me. What I really, really love is reading books.

Everything I do has its origins in being a fan first. I was such a fan that I desperately wanted to join in the fun, you know?”

This precisely sums up how I feel towards the “literary” world as I understand it today. At one point, I wanted to be the author in front of the room giving a reading, selling copies of their work. I confused my love for them, with a desire to become them. I’ve since discovered that the act of publishing a poem is only mildly gratifying for me (not that I’ve done much of that), and I’d much rather read fantastic poems written by others all day long.

Maybe “literaryness” can be found in simply taking joy in reading, writing, and sharing your adventures in these things when the time feels right. I’m finding myself caring less about reading the books and poems that I’m “supposed” to have read, and simply reveling in whatever catches my eye. Instead of feeling anxious that I’m not writing “enough,” I can take joy in the fact that I have this urge to write in the first place, which is a beautiful and precious thing. Instead of comparing myself to other writers, I can re-focus on the many pieces I’ve read that inspire me to live more fully.

I’ll close out this post with another great quote from Roxanne Gay:

Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work.”

Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

I picked up this book because I saw metta (or lovingkindness) meditation as a growth area of mine. I had been working on mindfulness meditation, which involves observing everything that arises (thoughts, moods, sounds, sensations in the body, anything that arises in consciousness). Although I’d done a bit of metta meditation and experienced the pleasant “expansive mind” that tends to happen after sending well-wishes to people, essentially praying for their good health and happiness, I wanted to learn the practice of metta in more detail. This book is the classic on metta meditation for English readers, and it’s easy to see why. Salzberg refers to Buddhists texts when outlining the benefits of metta, uses relevant anecdotes from her decades of meditation experience, and provides plenty of great meditation exercises for the reader to integrate into their practice. She also does an amazing job at tackling the different negative thinking patterns that can hinder people from developing true lovingkindness.

If you are interested in Buddhism or meditation, I could not recommend this book enough. I think this passage really captures the care of Salzberg’s writing. Here, she explains why it is beneficial to cultivate “skillful” states of mind:

“The integrity we develop along a spiritual path comes from being able to distinguish for ourselves the habits and influences in the mind which are skillful and lead to love and awareness, from those which are unskillful and reinforce our false sense of separation . . . Abandoning unskillful states that cause suffering is not something we do out of fear or of contempt from those states, or out of contempt for ourselves for having those states arise in the mind. Abandoning the unskillful states isn’t accomplished by angrily shoving or pushing away our habits of separation. Rather it comes as we learn to truly love ourselves and all beings, so that love provides the light by which we bear witness to those burdens, watching them simply fall away.”

The book outlines four Buddhist virtues, brahma-viharas (heavenly home in Pali):

  • Metta (lovingkindness)
  • Karuna (compassion)
  • Mudita (sympathetic joy)
  • Upekkha (equanimity)

Continue reading “Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg”

My Meditation Journey

Alternative title: An honest, in-depth review of the Waking Up App 

Growing up, I watched my mom’s interest in Buddhism develop from that of a casual student to a serious practitioner. From the time I was in middle school, books by the Dalai Lama, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and other Buddhist authors began lining our family’s bookshelves. When I went on long-winded rants as a young teenager, she would always tell me that I thought too much and explained the Buddhist principles she was learning at the time — the ego was an illusion, suffering was a part of life primarily generated by the ego, karma was like a bank account that you could accumulate over lifetimes. Over the years, her metaphors became more and more sophisticated, my favorite being this one: Consciousness is similar to a deep lake, and if there are ripples or disturbances on the surface of the lake, the bottom remains peaceful.

My well-meaning mother would always advise me to meditate, but as a distracted and angsty teenager with a laptop, sitting cross-legged and staring at a wall for even five minutes sounded like a hellish idea, and the benefits were never really clear to me. Wouldn’t I feel just as rejuvenated by taking a nap? All of her advice made sense in a hazy way, but I never took them seriously enough to put into practice until recently.

After maturing a bit more on my own, I’m starting to think that previously non-religious adults generally don’t become interested in religion or spirituality until their mental health hits the fan. If everything’s going great in your life and you’re a naturally positive person, there’s little reason to examine the voice in your head and begin distancing yourself from it. However, if you’re so stressed that your mind reacts to minor, everyday problems as if they are major emergencies, you may become desperate to find anything that soothes your neuroticism, even for a little bit. I’m not saying that every person who experiences mental illness becomes religious or spiritual, but for some of those who decide to make a change in that direction, suffering seems to play a significant role.

In my case, the stresses of college and work brought me to meditation. As I mentioned in a previous post, reading Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier was the first time the thought “Hey, I should really start meditating” went through my mind. My mother told me about monks going on years-long meditation retreats and how some of them achieved “enlightenment,” but I always figured that happened to special Buddhists who could devote their entire lives to a monastery. Learning that a “flow state” (where one can clearly see the nature of the mind and transcend it) could be accessed by anyone who put a week or two into an intensive meditation retreat changed my entire perspective on meditation. Even if I couldn’t dive in to the deep end of a 10-day retreat like Dan, he took the time to describe the immediate benefits of meditating a few minutes each day. He wrote that he was still distracted by thoughts most of the time, but meditation gave him the ability and space to observe his thoughts, rather than being completely identified with them.

This was all incredibly appealing. Still, just reading the book was not enough for me to start practicing. If I had known that Dan had a meditation app (also titled 10% Happier), maybe I would have tried it out and started meditating earlier.

Continue reading “My Meditation Journey”

2019 Syllabus & Goals (Now-June)

Syllabus (more to be added) 

Philosophy/History:

  1. On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
  2. The Denial of Death by Ernst Becker
  3. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
  4. Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz
  5. Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
  6. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
  7. Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work by Michael P. Farrell
  8. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
  9. Figuring by Maria Popova (Released 2/5/2019)

Fiction/Poetry:

  1. Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
  2. Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
  3. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
  4. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  5. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Mindfulness/Buddhism:

  1. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein
  2. Interconnected by Karmapa
  3. Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzburg

Bolded books are ones I am currently starting off with. I finished Oceanic the other day, but as with all poetry books, it deserves a re-reading with a pen/highlighter. I will definitely update this with more texts as the months go on, but these 17 books seem to be enough ground to cover for now.

2019 Goals

  1. Start budgeting and saving deliberately (either with an app or spreadsheet)
  2. Work out 4x a week
  3. Eat a home-cooked meal at least 1x every day (lunch or dinner), ideally twice
  4. Meditate daily
  5. Give thanks at least once a day
  6. Write every day, even if it’s just in my “one line a day” memory book
  7. Only check Instagram and Twitter twice a day — during moments when I would normally use them, listen to a podcast, read an article, meditate/be present, or write instead. Best to go on there only when I have something to say/share.
  8. Ask “Well, why not?” after saying or thinking “I wish I could…”

The most impactful books I read in 2018

Around this time last year, I realized that I had read an abysmal number of books in 2017 — no more than 3, including books I was obligated to read for my English classes. Of course I hadn’t read 90% of what I’d been assigned for class, but who does?

Anyway, a year ago I made a commitment to read at least 20 books in 2018. 20 seemed like a good number; about one book every two weeks. If I counted poetry books in this (alongside novels and nonfiction books), I could easily read over one book each week.

Over the course of this year I discovered many problems with counting for the sake of counting. Namely that this whole “tracking” thing was supposed to measure my reading “output,” but it turns out I do a majority of my reading online — PDF articles linked on Canvas, journalistic articles, tweeted screenshots of poems. I continued counting despite this, and finished 23 books this year.

To me, there still seems to be something uniquely whole and cohesive about books. Here are seven that stayed with me long after I read them, in no particular order. They are a mix of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

Continue reading “The most impactful books I read in 2018”

Community

In “The Growing Problem of Loneliness” published earlier this year in The Lancet, two neurologists from the University of Chicago highlight a counter-intuitive feature of loneliness:

“Loneliness has been associated with objective social isolation, depression, introversion, or poor social skills. However, studies have shown these characterizations are incorrect, and that loneliness is a unique condition in which an individual perceives himself or herself to be socially isolated even when among other people. Furthermore, human longitudinal studies and animal models indicate that the deleterious effects of loneliness are not attributable to some peculiarity of individuals who are lonely, instead they are due to the effects of loneliness on ordinary people.”

In other words, loneliness is not necessarily about being physically alone; the effects can be felt even when we are surrounded by other people. Many young people who have experienced chronic loneliness know this to be true, yet deny the possibility of their loneliness because they come in contact other human beings regularly.

According to the researchers, the effects of loneliness include feeling “irritable, depressed, and self-centered,” and are associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. A third of people in industrialized countries are affected, with one in 12 affected severely. Interestingly enough, common-sense solutions such as social skills training and increased social contact are not effective at combating high levels of loneliness. If more interactions with people is not the cure, what could it be?

Like many people, I easily fall into self-isolating habits. There’s no reason to leave my apartment if I have enough food and entertainment to last all week, right? Nonetheless, the research hit home for me because it reveals how loneliness is a mental affliction as much as (or even more than) a physical state. There is a direct correlation between depression and loneliness, yet loneliness never occurred to me as something I was experiencing. I was not cooped up in a nursing home or otherwise barred from seeing other people, and as a result, I didn’t register myself as lonely. College was supposed to be the opposite of loneliness, where you are constantly meeting new people and being exposed to interesting social events. Nonetheless, I tended to feel detached from others for long periods of time. Entering and engaging with a supportive community thus became a crucial aspect of maintaining my mental health.

Continue reading “Community”

Why start?

I’ve wanted to start a blog for a long time, but figured I needed to pick a topic/theme to write about first. I’ve started to think of things differently — if I give myself a container, a space to fill, a deadline, something will eventually come to fill it. If not, my ideas will just float back to wherever they came from.