Sprawled on a great lawn in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts years ago, listening to classical music. Exploring ancient ruins last November in pursuit of the Greek gods. What links these memories besides sunshine and delight?
Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in a cottage on what are now the grounds of the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival when he wrote A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1851), retelling six Greek myths. He frames them as loose adaptations by college student Eustace Bright to entertain younger cousins at a Berkshire country house named Tanglewood. Tanglewood Tales (1853) tells six more.
If you grew up on King Midas’s touch or Pandora’s box, a children’s book of such tales may seem like no big deal. In Hawthorne’s day it was remarkable. Greek mythology—full of sex, violence, and dubious morality—was for classical scholars, not for children. Hawthorne’s delightful retellings opened a new world to young and old. On holiday from college libraries and classrooms, Eustace Bright exhibits a lively imagination his professors would doubtless disapprove.
Just to be clear, I don’t find “success” a particularly useful concept in the arts or life. Still, I admit the word sometimes crosses my mind on a cloudy day. We hear of a successful painter, actor, novelist, or musician. They tend to be the famous ones; that’s why we hear of them. Comparing oneself to them is probably unconstructive.
Success is the achievement of a goal. Whether you’re successful depends what you’re aiming for. That needn’t be fame and fortune. It needn’t be overt; some people like explicit goals, some don’t. For decades of freelancing, I aimed to earn a living by writing and succeeded in doing so. Now I aim to do what I love and improve my craft. My most useful measurable goals are the little ones: finish drafting a chapter by the end of next week, post a blog entry every Monday, pull weeds around the irises. Where it all may lead, I’m willing to wait and see.
Life is a collaborative, creative, improvisational art. I’ve been trying to apply Tina Fey’s four rules for improvisation:
1. Always agree and say yes. Respect what your partner has created.
2. Yes, and. Add something of your own; don’t be afraid to contribute.
3. Make statements. Don’t just ask questions or point out obstacles; be part of the solution.
4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.
When I remember, this approach does wonders for my relationships with self, others, and life. I’ll chug merrily along on some plan or routine till life ups and changes everything: “Hey, Sarah, how about this?” The creative improv response is to go with it and decide my next move. Acceptance, yes, but far from passive.
Improv makes you pay attention and stay in the present. There’s no time to second-guess yourself or fret over how people see you. Granted, life can’t always be improv. Sometimes an issue requires reflection, and agreement isn’t always possible. More often, though, living as improvisation can pull me out of myself to say yes and move on.
Thanks to Rev. Karen Armina of Madison WI for suggesting this take on the rules adapted from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (2011).
Does anyone else remember “memory lines” from high school and before? In English classes, we chose the poems to memorize, up to an assigned number of lines. In social studies, we memorized the opening of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the United States Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Having such bounty at my mental fingertips is a gift, for instance when I’m in the dentist’s chair wanting something to focus the mind.
Memorization went out of fashion years ago. Educators argued that it stifled creativity or analytical reasoning. Now people ask, why remember anything when you can look it up on your phone? I submit that the process of memorization exercises mental muscles, so to speak. It promotes gray matter and neuroplasticity. Creative connections draw on a supply of remembered material to connect.
When my late mother-in-law could no longer carry on a conversation, she loved to join in reciting Christopher Robin poems familiar since childhood. In a hopefully distant future, I’d like to think snippets of memorized poetry will still be with me after all else fades into oblivion.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.