How to Fix Your Life: An Autumn Reading List
Woolfian Resolutions for “October, the Dawn of the Year”
Something happens near the end of August that signals a change. The days are still hot, but the heat feels tired. The humidity in the air somehow invokes a scent of dryness—the first fallen leaves, the tired weeds and grasses. Summer is on the wane and the cooler nights of September signal the start of fall.
For many, this is the beginning of the school year with new clothes, new notebooks, blank pages and empty days to fill. For others it marks the beginning of a new religious year. But for me, autumn has always felt like a fresh start—more than January first, and more than the first green days of spring.
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, back when they were the Stephen sisters, felt the same way. In a letter to Vanessa, when they were in their late twenties, Woolf wrote:
I always think of those curious long autumn walks with which we ended a summer holiday, talking of what we were going to do—‘autumn plans’ we called them. They always had reference to painting and writing and how to arrange social life and domestic life better… They were always connected with autumn, leaves falling, the country getting pale and wintry, our minds excited at the prospect of lights and streets and a new season of activity beginning—October the dawn of the year.
Ever since I read this, I, too, have been making autumn plans. More proactive than New Year’s resolutions, more far-reaching than spring cleaning, autumn plans address both the creative and the material, allowing both to flourish.
Here are some books to help motivate you to make your own autumn plans:
A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, Jane Dunn
To be inspired by Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, who managed to produce extraordinary work in the face of tragedy, family, madness, children, lovers, war, and more, read A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf by Jane Dunn. More than a double biography, this book examines the relationship between the sisters, and how their “conspiracy” with each other pushed each to excel in her own domain (“Vanessa claimed painting as her own, Virginia writing; Vanessa took sexuality and motherhood, Virginia intellectuality and imagination.”) At times unified, at other times traitorous, their ultimately symbiotic relationship both fueled their art and helped to inspire a new way of living. Starting at their shared lodging on Gordon Square—“where it was exhilarating… to have come to these white walls, large windows opening onto trees and lawns, to have one’s own rooms, be master of one’s own time”— the sisters formed the core of Bloomsbury, which became a name for their group of friends as well as a cultural movement that rejected their stuffy, conventional, Victorian past and embraced a new life of freedom, conversation, openness and depth.
Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden, Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson
For a gorgeous peek into how Vanessa Bell arranged her unconventional domestic life (both decoratively and romantically), read and ogle Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden by Quentin Bell (her son) and Virginia Nicholson (her granddaughter). Charleston was Vanessa’s house, but she shared it with her lover Duncan Grant as well as his (male) lovers, and sometimes her husband Clive, and sometimes other members of Bloomsbury. There were studios for both Vanessa and Duncan, a study for Clive, a pottery shed, a greenhouse, a garden, an orchard and a pond. Each room was decorated by the artists in residence, with painted mantles and panels and doors and screens. The book is full of color photographs that vividly show what the house looked (and still looks) like, and the text alternates between descriptions of the house and memories from those who lived there. “Above all,” Nicholson writes, “Charleston was a place where, for both children and adults, messy creativity was a way of life.”
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
To inspire your own creative pursuits, browse through Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. This book describes the daily routines of 161 writers, artists, composers, choreographers, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians. It explores “the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.” Perhaps you’ll want to start with Ben Franklin, famous for his plans to achieve “moral perfection” by practicing a new set of virtues each week. You may want to adopt his practice of rising early to “take the resolution of the day [and] prosecute the present study.” Or maybe his habit of taking “air baths” would be more to your liking: “I rise early almost every morning and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatsoever, half an hour or an hour … either reading or writing,” a practice that invigorates the work of the rest of the day. Beethoven began the day with carefully prepared coffee, Stravinsky with physical exercise; Picasso slept in. Frank Lloyd Wright did most of his designing “between 4 and 7 o’clock in the morning,” and Gertrude Stein liked to write after a bath, wrapped in a woolen robe. The psychologist William James struggled with routine but recognized its benefits; he thought that by forming good habits we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” But if you have difficulty…
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron can help you overcome creative blocks. Described as “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self,” The Artist’s Way is set up as a twelve-step program to be completed in twelve weeks, but its basic tenets are set out at the very beginning. The first is “morning pages,” which, in practice, are very simple: “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness” written first thing in the morning. What you write doesn’t matter; that you write matters a great deal. This practice will, among other things, help you “get to the other side” of whatever is blocking you and allow you see how “the Censor” hampers creative work. The other basic tool is “the artist date.” This is a date you take yourself on—no one else—to help nurture your artistic self. You could go to a fancy museum, but it need not be so lofty; a long walk, an afternoon exploring a new neighborhood, a visit to a used record store—all of these could be artist dates. After morning pages and artist dates, each week of the twelve-week program focuses on recovering a particular aspect of creativity: a sense of safety, of identity, or power, of possibility. By the end of the course you will be ready to start a new season of creativity, whatever form it takes for you.
How to Eat, Nigella Lawson
To arrange domestic and social life better, start in the kitchen with How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. Even if you’re not quite ready to tackle grouse with mascarpone and thyme or oxtail with stout and marjoram, Lawson’s easy tone (it’s almost as if she’s perched on the countertop sipping a glass of wine as you chop your onions or grease your pan) will likely persuade you to try something simple, like the first recipe, for roast chicken. The core of this recipe is only three lines long, but its narrative is written over many paragraphs, with phrases advising you to anoint the chicken “with the tiniest amount of extra virgin olive oil or butter—as if [you] were putting on very expensive hand cream” and a confession that, to Lawson, a roast chicken “smells of home, of family, of food that carries some important extra-culinary weight.” You can serve this chicken to family and friends or entertain in style with some of the more elaborate recipes from the lunch and dinner chapters such as the Bolstering Weekend Lunch for 6; Lunch, Tentatively Outside, for 8; or the Camp, But Only Slightly, Dinner for 6; or the Tarted-Up Homey Dinner for 6. Or, if you’d rather buck convention and stay at home to practice your art, the section “One and Two” has quick and easy recipes that you can eat at your desk, in bed, or perhaps after a bath wrapped in a woolen robe. Because of the narrative properties of this book, How to Eat really feels more like How to Live—talking you through both the preparation of food and the variety of ways—alone or with others—you can eat it.
Dinner, A Love Story, Jenny Rosenstrach
But perhaps you are in a different stage in life, new to cooking or new to a spouse or—most life-alteringly—new to being a parent. In this case, turn to Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner, A Love Story which will talk you through these domestic stages. The book is organized into three sections: Just Married, which is about “establishing a dinner routine, building a repertoire and a relationship in the kitchen,” New Parenthood, or “the year it felt like a bomb exploded any semblance or routine and normalcy in the kitchen,” and Family Dinner, or “the years the angels began to sing.” Each section starts with a short memoir about that stage of life and then follows with the recipes that complement it. Interspersed are the stories behind different recipe successes (and failures), mini reviews of the cookbooks that have held up over time, and a terrific page called Medicine, which is in the New Parenthood section and lists four easy and delicious cocktails to ease you through the dinner hour. Photographs of the prepared meals (beautiful) are tempered by pictures of scrawled entries in baby books and recipes written on the backs of cabinet doors (realistic), and the balance of these two makes Dinner: A Love Story both inspiring and down-to-earth—the best combination for a cookbook catered to families.
Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs
A very down-to-earth book (which is inspiring in its own way) is Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors by Jeanne E. Arnold and Anthony P. Graesch. While the text is a little academic, the many photographs, floor plans, charts and tables show us the way we live now—not the way magazines, TV shows and movies pretend we do. It “presents a visual ethnography of middle-class American households, dateline AD 2001-2005, southern California.” But ten years later, regardless of where you live, I think you’ll recognize some aspects of your own life in these pages, especially when it comes to stuff. The second chapter, “Material Saturation: Mountains of Possessions” is especially revealing. One photograph shows a huge pile of laundry spills out of an unused shower stall; in another toys and clothes cover a couch presumably meant for people; another shows three children that look as if they’re playing hide and seek in a garage packed with filing cabinets, basketballs, lamps, printers, lawn chairs, exercise equipment, soda bottles and more. The next chapter, on food, shows pantries as similarly crowded with bulk purchases from stores like Costco, and reveals that we think we eat together as a family far more often than we actually do. Other chapters show that families spend most of their time in the kitchen and around the TV and almost no time outside in yards, on patios, or in pools. Looking at—and reading about—the way these families live makes you think about your own life and how and where you spend your time and money. Perhaps this autumn is the time to make some changes.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, offers a radical solution to the problem of clutter and promises that after you clear it using her particular method, “you’ll never revert to clutter again.” Her directive is to declutter everything in one fell swoop, by category (not location), and to ask of each item you own, “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. It’s that simple (and radical!). Start with clothes, move on to books and papers, end with mementos. Once you have only things that spark joy, decide where to store them and treat them with gratitude. “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy.” And who doesn’t want that?
The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
To ensure happiness—or at least try to—read The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin. (The subtitle lets you know what you’re in for, if you try to follow suit.) Inspired in part by Ben Franklin’s plan of acquiring virtues, Rubin made a broad goal for each month of the year (January’s is to “Boost Energy”) and then set smaller goals to help achieve it (to boost energy she vows to go to sleep earlier, exercise better, and to toss, restore and organize her belongings; it seems that clutter-clearing is almost universally important in achieving happiness). Some of the other big goals are to “Remember Love,” “Make Time for Friends,” “Aim Higher,” and “Lighten Up.” October’s resolution is to “Pay Attention,” and perhaps that it at the root of making autumn plans—to pay attention to our lives, to see what is needed, and then to attend to those needs.
Woolf wrote to her sister that in her October “leaves [were] falling, the country getting pale and wintry, our minds excited at the prospect of lights and streets and a new season of activity beginning—October the dawn of the year.”
It’s time to make some plans. What will your year bring?