Patricia Hampl Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl

An interview with Patricia Hampl

A conversation with Patricia Hampl about The Art of the Wasted Day.

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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