Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Doerr's love letter to the world

Anthony Doerr's memoir about his year in Rome was inspiring to a new blogger. It was especially interesting to me because I spent last fall studying the history and literature of Rome for a university course.

"A good journal entry -- like a good song, or sketch, or photograph -- ought to break up the habitual and lift away the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart. A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world."--Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome 

Novelist Anthony Doerr would make one heck of a blogger. The Pulitzer-prize-winning author has better things to do with his talents, of course, but a journal he kept when he spent a year in Rome with his wife and infant twin sons is a lesson for anyone trying to blog, trying to transform the experiences of daily life into something readable, enlightening, even delightful.

Doerr had a lot of material to work with: Here was a man from Boise, Idaho, with no Italian, suddenly thrust into the heart of Rome. Shopping, getting around, handling the basics of daily life, were all an adventure. There was also the issue of new fatherhood, with its sleeplessness, worries and wonders. Then there was the city itself. For someone like Doerr, whose brilliance comes through in his fascination for all aspects of the world around him, a city as old as Rome was an infinite treasure trove. History, science, art, architecture, literature, nature -- everything was there and he wanted to delve into all of it.

I had just started my blog when I began reading his journal-turned-memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, so was struck by the similarities between what we were both trying to do: present aspects of our daily lives in an interesting manner that tried to go deeper than surface observations. Watching a master at work was exciting, and inevitably, educational. Here are some of his lessons:

- Details are key -- the right, vivid details. Here's his description of taking his kids out on a hot day: "...we walk stultified through the city, sky throbbing, stroller tires rubbery on the cobbles, the axles flexing, as if the metal is softening and the whole contraption might collapse.... the heat is like having my brain removed and a bunch of hot, wet cotton stuffed behind my eyes."

- Pay attention: You can't include details unless you notice them first. He notes poet Tom Andrews "once asked the Lord to 'afflict me with Attention Surplus Disorder so I can see what is in front of my face.'" Doerr says being in a new city, doing things there for the first time, awakened him from the inattention that comes with familiarity. "Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience -- buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello -- become new all over again."

- Be open. Doerr's hallmark is his insatiable curiosity, which makes him open to new experiences, new places, new ideas. He read as many of the 37 books of Piny the Elder's Natural History as he could while in Rome, entranced by their frequently off-base coverage of everything from the stars all the way down to polyps. Ultimately, Doerr said, the books presented "a panorama of an ancient world crawling with myth and misinformation, but also elegant and ordered and deeply beautiful."

- Be life-affirming. Curmudgeons can be fun to read too, but an attitude that embraces life gives readers something uplifting to take away. "I'm kind of in love with life," Doerr said in an interview about one of his books. In his memoir, he quotes from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead: "There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient."

Doerr, who had won a fellowship to spend a year in Rome, says at the end of the book that the main thing he learned from his time there is "not to count on too much." But characteristically, he adds: "Look closely and the picturesque inevitably cracks apart and becomes more interesting."

He had hoped to use his year in Rome to work on a Second World War novel he had begun, but exhaustion from new fatherhood and the distractions and exhilaration of the city brought the project to a halt. Instead, he read Dante and Pliny, he wrote a short story, and he kept a journal. Eleven years later, that impossible-to-write war novel, All The Light We Cannot See, won him the 2015 Pulitzer prize for fiction.

A testimony to all the things he stands for, including accepting that things are probably not going to turn out as you expect.

Here are couple more quotes from Doerr's Rome book:

"Not knowing is always more thrilling than knowing. Not-knowing is where hope and art and possibility and invention come from. It is not-knowing, that old, old thing, that allows everything to be renewed."

"Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We'd pass out every time we saw -- actually saw -- a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there'd be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs."

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, perhaps that's why I'm not really missing my sunsets and spectacular view...too much beauty!