There’s only one activity that writers should do more than write, with the exception perhaps of breathing. That is reading.
As we head into a new year, this is a good time to pause to consider how exploring the works of yesteryear that can be inspiring, motivating and challenging at the same time. There’s wisdom there.
When a professor gave me How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, I was intrigued. Certainly such an iconic writer, albeit famously difficult to read, had much to teach through his work.
Part biography, part self-help manual, de Botton’s book is a look at Proust’s chef d’oeuvre In Search of Lost Time as a basis for the power of literature. But it’s more than that. This is Proust ideals and style as it can be applied to all matters if life, from the deeply philosophical, such as how to love, to the more pragmatic, such how to choose a doctor.
Though the book is full of gems of knowledge, the most useful for life and writing came in chapter three, “How to take your time.”
As a man who wrote one and a quarter million words for one book, Proust would seemingly have much to say about the art of taking one’s time. And he does.
As de Botton puts it, “It may have been a Proustian slogan: ‘N’allez pas trop vite’ (‘Don’t go too fast’). The phrase comes as a piece of advice from Proust to his friend Harold Nicholson, who relays a story of a recent meeting. Nicholson summarizes the event, as most would, starting with “Well we generally meet at 10.00.”
But Proust prods Nicholson for more details: the car he took to the meeting, what happened when they met, the sounds and scents of the room. He keeps nudging so that a terse statement expands “to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons––the macaroon acting as a useful symbol in its seductive sweetness.”
When Proust heard a story, he was not looking for the bare plot points. He was looking for the details that told the greater story. What was the mood? What was the food? What was life like for this person?
He asked more of his storytellers. He asked them to see the world in more detail. He demanded that writers abandon clichés and find the most precise ways of describing even the minutest details of life. He uses precision in language in his own work so that the simple phrase “the moon that shines discreetly” is replaced by a more precise metaphor:
“Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself”
Proust may have taken the notion of slowing down to the extreme, considering he wrote pages and pages about an act as simple as falling asleep. But in doing so, he took his writing and philosophy to a new level.
It may be in order for the new year that we all implement a little Proustian style into our work, if only as an exercise. It could be that we are all missing the perfect symbols already present in everyday life, like the macaroons in Nicholson’s story.