Beauty Hunting in Livraria Lello: How Creative Writing Gives Us Access to Our True Selves

Beauty Hunting in Livraria Lello: How Creative Writing Gives Us Access to Our True Selves

Visiting Porto over the puente with my husband last weekend, we stumbled upon a long queue snaking along the tree-shaded Rua das Carmelitas. It’d been a long time since I’d seen so many people standing in line for something more exciting than a security checkpoint. Intrigued, I approached the front of the queue. As I struggled to read the Gothic-style letters inscribed on the building, my husband declared: It’s a bookstore! And not just any bookstore: one of the oldest in the world. For a brief moment, I felt my faith in humanity completely restored.

From baby-wearing dads to skinny-jeaned hipsters, tourists of all kinds waited patiently outside the magical-looking building. Still a little dazed from our 5:30am wakeup, we sat down in the café next to Livraria Lello. I spent the next hour staring wide-eyed at the throes of (presumably) book-loving individuals entering and existing the bookshop. Meanwhile, my very practical husband was on his phone purchasing premium, non-queue-necessary tickets for the next day.

When I finally stepped inside Livraria Lello the following morning, I was struck by contrast. Intricate stain-glassed windows on the ceiling. Crimson red steps on the stairway to the second floor. Dark spaces oozing with ancient wisdom. Meanwhile, on the ground: a group of teenagers swarming the Harry Potter section (J.K. Rowling is said to have been inspired by Livraria Lello). A gray-haired man nose-deep in a miniature-sized version of the Art of War. Towards the end of the store, a bright geometric pant-suited woman posing seductively in front of the Art Books. As I walked along reading titles, I remembered writer and yogi Jennifer Pastiloff’s awesome phrase: beauty hunting. Usually when in a bookstore, I’m beauty-hunting for a book that’s off the beaten path, a hidden gem that doesn’t fit neatly into any Barnes & Noble category. In Livraria Lello, however, I found myself beauty-hunting for something different. Seeing people from all walks of life engage with this place of wisdom generated a strange feeling. It was absolute sanctity combined with over-the-top tourism.

Long after leaving Porto, the bookshop experience stayed with me. I thought about how lucky we all are in this day and age. We don’t need to visit an old bookshop to find a good story. Story-telling is all around us: in street signs, shoe labels, kindles, blogs. And when we enter the reading experience, we each have our own individual choices to make. We can simply enjoy the parallel universe, or we can analyze everything to pieces, or, somewhere in-between these two extremes, we can identify the parts of ourselves that live in these stories.

If you were to ask me: what kind of reader am I? The answer is always: it depends on which “I” you’re referring to.  As a child I liked to lose myself in any book I could get my hands on, from The Babysitter’s Club series to the thick John Grisham novels collecting dust in my father’s bookcase. As I grew older, I learned to analyze. I spent most of my high-school/university/early career life doing a lot of academic writing. Thirsty for meaning, I believed my intellectual pursuits were a sure-fire route to life’s answers. And although I gained a lot of useful skills on this road, at some point my obsessive categorization of the world became a barrier to my own truth. I may have learned a lot about a few things, but I was clueless about myself.

It wasn’t until I started writing memoir in my early 30s that I began to reflect on my own life. To my surprise, the knowledge I’d gained from books no longer illuminated me; instead it formed a hard shell that protected me from the outside world. Yes, mine was a strong and sturdy shell glazed with many years of hard work and intellectual vigor. When I started writing memoir, I finally saw the shell. Many more years later, I gained the desire to crack it open. Many more years later, I gathered the courage to break it. When I finally started breaking through, rays of light seeped through the cracks: these were glimpses of my true self.

Very often, I see parts of my experience in my own students. Traditionally, students are taught to read and write with their brains. What did the author mean in this passage?  We show them how to arrange ideas in neatly organized paragraphs. Even when they write poems, we box them into a specific amount of syllables or stanzas. Yes, I value analytical thinking and organization: they have been critical to my own formation. However, I also highly value the creative and more reflective side of writing. At the same time, I understand that creative writing is a very difficult thing to do when there’s a curriculum teachers have to get through and a grade hanging over students’ heads.

In my workshops, I encourage students to focus on the feelings and emotions that come up for them when they read. How does this passage make you feel? I make time for free writing, where we sacrifice organization for the sake of creativity. Most important of all, I create a safe space where all writing is good writing, as long it belongs to each student. In my mind, the only rule in creative writing is that there are no rules.

When it comes to the college essay, every year I work with at least one student whose essay reads more like an academic assignment than a personal story. In these cases, guiding students from the brain to the heart is a slow, subtle process. Week after week, I nudge my students forward, asking them tough questions about their experiences. Somewhere along the journey, they crack open their shell and find their authentic story.

What kind of reader am I today? Somedays I’m still like a child, hoping to lose myself in story. I still always have a pen in hand because let’s face it: there’s always something to underline. And yet, when I stumble upon a 100-year old bookstore on vacation, I’m no longer only searching for truth in books. There’s so much beauty happening in the strange interplay between past and present.