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The Art of the Wasted Day

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
Hardcover
Apr 17, 2018 | 288 Pages
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Praise

“It’s impossible to do justice to the cumulative power of Hampl’s dream-weaver writing style by just quoting a few lines. You have to go on the whole voyage with her . . . by wasting some of your time with Hampl, you’ll understand more of what makes life worth living.” Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air”

“Hampl’s lyrical repetitions and abstractions can be as poetic as prayer.” – The Wall Street Journal

The Art of the Wasted Day is literary art in and of itself . . . Hampl invites readers to take a journey to explore the idea of a life steeped in leisure without schedules.” The Washington Post

“A wise and beautiful ode to the imagination – from a child’s daydreams, to the unexpected revelations encountered in solitary travel, meditation, and reading, to the flights of creativity taken by writers, artists, and philosophers.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“A moving, lyrical, intellectually bracing read. . .part essay, part travelogue, part interrogative memoir, part mourning love letter, The Art of the Wasted Day touches on a head-spinning range of historical and literary phenomena . . . Hampl dexterously turns all these topics into lenses bent on a central concern:  the value of a certain kind of psychic space, which she refers to as ‘leisure.’” Commonweal

“About how rich life is when one focuses, at least part of the time, on being rather than on doing . . . it’s about being still, being aware, about seeing what is in front of your eyes, about being open to what one thinks and remembers and feels.” The Chicago Tribune
 
 “Hampl [is] an eloquent apologist for solitude.  It is not just important to the creative life, she proposes, but a cornerstone of spiritual well-being.  Its prime function, and prize, is a closer experience of reality.” The Boston Globe

“Hampl lets her mind wander, as one does on a wasted day. Readers familiar with her work will recognize the confident tone and poetry-infused language.” – Ploughshares

“Delightfully nebulous – dangling somewhere between travelogue, literary criticism, memoir, and love letter . . . Hampl’s style is so lithe and lively that I happily followed her anywhere . . . reading her thoughts is a bit of magic that allows us to share in the solitude of ideas together.” The American Scholar

“A wonderfully lavish and leisurely exploration of the art of daydreaming . . . [a] remarkable and touching book.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An exquisite anatomy of mind and an incandescent reflection on nature, being, and rapture . . . Memoirist extraordinaire Hampl [is] a master of judiciously elegant vignettes and surprising, slowing unfurling connections.”ALA Booklist (starred)

“Lucent, tender, and wise . . .  a captivating and revelatory memoir.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Vivid, passionate, bursting with ideas and insights, Patricia Hampl’s new book is a summation of a lifetime of sensitive searching and thinking.  A love story, a meditation on death, travel, Americanness, Catholicism, integrity and Montaigne, this beautiful journey is finally about the education of a soul.”  –Phillip Lopate
 
“This book, tender, curious and crazily wise, brings to mind Michel de Montaigne’s saying that ‘A spirited mind never stops within itself; it is always aspiring and going beyond its strength.’” – Azar Nafisi

“What ties together this beautiful book are the imaginary conversations born of Hampl’s mourning for her life companion.  An elegy, a reader’s pilgrimage, a reflection on the writing life, full of humor, surprises, and wisdom gently given, The Art of the Wasted Day is a book for the ages.” –Alice Kaplan

“The art of Patricia Hampl is the art of a lyrical, contemplative self, a self as instrument attuned to the world’s vibrations. Through reflection and investigation, vignette and daydream, she roams centuries and continents in this book.” –Margo Jefferson

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Patricia Hampl
 

In THE ART OF THE WASTED DAY, you talk about the “particular battle between striving and serenity” being distinctly American. Can you describe that battle, and explain how you think this notion of pursuit has shaped Americans? Where should the line between striving and serenity be drawn?
 
That reference is at the front of the book, in the chapter after my panic attack where I’m wondering how a daydreamer like me as a child turned into a multi-taking to-do list adult, racing around, never “serene” at all. I go on to suggest that our “founding document,” the Declaration of Independence, makes the pursuit of happiness a core value for Americans, a deeply held belief in how we should live. Serenity may in fact be the most fundamental kind of happiness, but we are encouraged to the pursuit of happiness. That word—pursuit—is the vexing part of our relation to happiness. Pursuit is another word for striving. We strive to be happy—is that crazy-making? Striving is effort-filled. Yet it is serenity that assures happiness. It is fundamental paradox, one at the heart of the American Dream. Your question is a good one—in fact, it’s my question, the very conundrum that sent me on the road to write this book. The book is my attempt to answer (to pursue?!) this question, to track it down, lay it to rest.
 
 
Where did you discover the exemplars of leisure that you focus on in the book? What inspired to you travel to their homes?
 
Early on I thought of the opposing injunctions posed by those writers (Kafka, Pascal) who believe in the silence and quiet of solitary life (stay home!) and those proposed by the adventurers (like Chaucer) who see the journey—pilgrimage—as the way to “pursue happiness.” I was surprised to see this opposition, this distinction everywhere I looked in literature. To Go or To Stay became a pattern. Pretty soon, I was collecting “specimens” of each type. Probably I ended up with a book that is largely a travelogue because of the inevitable sensation of loss, of being at loose ends after my husband’s death, and a structural need to find a sturdy narrative line for what is a meandering inquiry about leisure.  To be widowed was to lose “home,” in a sense. So “to stay” became more problematical. “To go” became a personal as well as narrative imperative. Though I began the book before my husband’s death, the form only came to me afterwards.
 
 
What drew you to Montaigne’s as the hero of your book?
 
Here was a man just at the pivot of modernity who bears in his writing vestiges of a medieval world view (he remains a Catholic while immediate members of his family become Protestants—the new, the “modern” faith), and yet he is sometimes breathtakingly immediate and modern. But I suppose what really caught me was that he “retreated” to his room, this man who was most happy (he says) on his horse. Very much a “To Go” man who decided, finally, To Stay. His decision to inquire of his own mind is refreshing in part because it bears virtually no resemblance to our own age’s tedious, self-regarding “search for a self.” Montaigne is not searching for himself. He isn’t his subject. He uses himself as an instrument to investigate and articulate the world.
 
 
What value do you see in the personal essay as exemplified by Montaigne? What purpose has the form served for you throughout your life?
 
The essay—his word—meant for him just a try, taking a shot at a thought. It was not a literary genre, not a tedious freshman theme. It was the tracery of a mind encountering the passing world. “Passing” is a big part of it. Nothing gets nailed down by the essay. Rather it is a form (a wonderfully formless form) that encounters a subject, tours it. The essay may be the most heartening genre of our own age because it allows anyone to consider and talk about—well, anything. We are beset with experts, with a world marvelously (but also monstrously) complicated, an expertise that thrills but also overwhelms us, ever reminding us of our limitations. How to contend with the complexity of contemporary life? How to feel some kind of genuine agency? The essay offers a model, even a kind of consolation: it tracks life as it passes before—and often, painfully, through—us. This means the essay is not an argument (it wasn’t for Montaigne), but a meditation, or simply a sketch.  Notes taken along the ragged way. The essay allows a person to stand on the small square of her own life and consider great subjects. The “authority” of this writing is bedded in the natural humbleness of being just one person alive on the planet. It is not about expertise. It’s about integrity. It’s about saying what you see. As I say, that’s heartening.
 
 
You touch on the trope of “the woman who dines alone” as having a “postmodern valor” that you struggle to claim. Can you expand on that idea?
 
It never ceases to surprise—even astonish—me that being a woman requires not only vigilance but moxie.  It’s like being a change-up pitcher. Sometimes expectations laid on women (by others, but also by ourselves) are ancient and conservative, sometimes they move with warp speed into raw versions of masculinity—ambition, sexual appetite. Being a “woman who dines alone” should, in a truly egalitarian culture, have no meaning. There is no particular meaning, for example, in speaking of “a man who dines alone.” But alas, a woman dining alone has plenty of meaning—a sense of vulnerability, of jeopardy even.  It is an emblem of one braving the world in what should be the least threatening position—a restaurant table where you are about to be served, rather than serve. Why should that be scary or at least unsettling? Because you’re a woman.

If to-do lists are an attempt to organize and complete menial tasks so that we can live our Real Lives, what do we do when they feel unending and how do we get to our Real Lives? Additionally, how can we avoid “postmodern to-do” lists (meditate, yoga, etc.)?
 
The distinction isn’t, maybe, that our to-do lists are about getting menial tasks out of the way. Rather, it’s about not seeing life as a list of things to do—including Write My Novel or other seemingly non-menial work. The to-do list in The Art of the Wasted Day is real but also another emblem—it stands for all the ways we deny the integrity of just living, just being. I’m not sure I mean that anyone should “avoid” doing yoga, for example. Only that seeing yoga and meditation as yet another string of things to put on the to-do list—that’s the worry. It only loads more on to the frail and fretful over-achiever.
 
 
Where does the impulse to write come from? Many writers, specifically memoirists, talk about writing feeling gratuitous. If you’ve experienced this feeling, how do you push through to keep writing?
 
I was one of those kids who sat at the kitchen table writing stories before I really commanded a pencil. I had to ask my mother how to spell most of the words. So writing was always there, I’m not sure where it came from. Maybe from reading—or being read to. How I loved those sentences coming in a steady pattern as my mother read me Charlotte’s Web. I wanted to do that. I would say the thing that has surprised me—and continues to surprise me—is that I keep writing from the first person voice, from my life, if not about my life all the time. I think everyone should do some version of this—writing from life. So I’ve never thought of it as either gratuitous or indulgent. Maybe I’m deluding myself…
 
 
You respond to Montaigne’s statement, “it is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully” by saying that “there’s a touch of envy…to be so perfect in your being. To enjoy rightfully.” Do you think there are any specific ways that we can achieve contentment in simply being, as opposed to doing?
 
By writing essays, of course! There is something about being in perfect register with the world in all its troubling, beautiful, cruel complexity that writing accomplishes. For a moment. For a sentence, maybe a paragraph. To articulate loss acutely and accurately, for example, is to be filled, not emptied, companioned, not bereft.
 
 
Why do you feel that solitude is the heart of writing?
 
It’s a dirty business—has to be done alone.
 
 
What do you hope your readers take away from THE ART OF THE WASTED DAY?
 
What I always hope—a confirmation of their own lives and instincts. Many years ago, after reading a passage from my first book about my grandmother’s Sunday dinners—culinary extravaganzas from a working class woman who worked as a cook for rich families—I came to see that when someone in the audience came up afterwards and said, “I loved the part about your grandmother’s Sunday dinners!”—that was the last we heard about my grandmother. These people always went into little rhapsodies about their grandmothers, and those dinners. That’s the proper economy of literature—if I write my life (and if I’m lucky), you get yours.

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