I love to read, and there’s one aspect of reading I particularly love: it’s when a writer describes an emotion or thought that I’ve had without quite realizing it, and so makes my own experience more clear to me.
A writer gives me a new word or phrase to describe something, so that I can describe the world or human nature more accurately…or a writer describes an experience that I’ve had, but assumed that no one else in the world had felt the same way. In this way, reading someone else’s reflections makes my own life richer.
For instance, I experienced this heightened clarity recently when I was reading I.M., the brilliant memoir by Isaac Mizrahi.
Now, if you don’t know much about Isaac Mizrahi, there’s a lot to learn. He’s an American fashion designer, TV presenter, and Chief Designer of the Isaac Mizrahi brand for Xcel Brands. Based in New York City, he is best known for his eponymous fashion lines. Mizrahi currently serves as a judge on Project Runway: All Stars. You may have seen the 1995 documentary Unzipped about the creation of one of his fashion shows.
I was struck by many of the observations and incidents in the memoir, but one stood out in particular, because he described something that I feel often, and very strongly, when I’m confronted by some work of art, whether visual or written, that I truly love. I’ve tried to describe my version of this feeling to my daughters Eliza and Eleanor, but I didn’t put it into words as well as he did.
Here’s what Mizrahi writes about seeing the movie Funny Girl in his childhood:
“It’s such a cliché: a kid sitting in a dark theatre, the world opening up—a kind of shifting. And yet that’s truly the way it happened…That moment marked another first for me. This flood of inspiration was accompanied by a feeling of dread and a hint of resigned exhaustion. This particular mix of emotions has become a regular event in my life. Whenever I feel most inspired, I’m simultaneously struck by a feeling of sadness and exhaustion at seeing the distance left to go, the labor ahead to achieve anything near to capturing perfection on that level.”
And he describes having the same feeling again, in his adult life:
[Spring 1978 – at the Metropolitan Museum at a visit to an exhibit, “Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-1976”]
“Inspiration presented its usual double-edged sword. The Avedon exhibit filled me with inspiration, ideas, and an impulse to get to work, followed again by the familiar tinge of spiritual nausea. I floated among the beauty in that gallery. But I also sensed that the level of greatness could never be equaled. Contemplating the arduous road ahead trying to get anywhere near that level of perfection, I felt defeat.”
Reading him describe his experience helped me articulate my own experience, which is a bit different. I have a feeling of exhaustion too, and being overwhelmed, but also a feeling of frustration or obstruction, that things can’t flow, a kind of pent-up pressure for what I see to be turned into something else, to be put to work by me—it’s not enough to read it or see it, I have to make something else out of it, transform it, or copy it myself.
And the problem is that, as Mizrahi points out, whatever I create or copy would be so inferior to whatever I’m responding to, it’s discouraging and frustrating.
Just as learning about ourselves can help us understand other people better, learning about other people can help us understand ourselves better.