Marcus Aurelius's One Question to Beat Procrastination, Whining, and Struggle

Author Jessica Francis Kane explains how the Roman emperor's words about perseverance have helped her career.

Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

When I asked Jessica Francis Kane, author of acclaimed short-story collection This Close, to write about a favorite passage from literature, she chose a paragraph by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Composed between 170 and 180 CE, the 12 books of Aurelius's Meditations list pithy aphorisms willy-nilly; reading him can be like thumbing through a book of Great Quotes. An advocate for seriousness of purpose, moral steadfastness, and an even-keeled approach to stark challenges, Aurelius is a tincture for both politician and serial procrastinator. His philosophy, of course, serves the novelist well—as Kane has learned, with time.

The stories in This Close explore the intimacy that can stem from relationships of forced proximity—the family you're born into, the college roommate chosen for you by another, the suburban neighbor on the block, the stranger next in line at CVS. Kane is also of the novel The Report and a collection of stories Bending Heaven. A former book publicist for W. W. Norton—her wry story how to "How to Become a Publicist" skewers the absurdities of the trade—she lives in New York City.

Jessica Francis Kane: Sometime in the spring of my 17th year, for reasons I don't entirely understand, I recorded on an index card the following passage from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations:

Book 8, #36

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: 'What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?' You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.

I had never done anything like this before. I was a reader and a good student, but I didn't keep a commonplace book or anything like that. I didn't have a journal. I wouldn't even start keeping a more traditional writer's notebook for another seven years. But I stuck this index card in the front pocket of my three-ring binder, and when I went to college the following year, I pinned it on the bulletin board over my desk, where it stayed all four years, fading in the sun. After college I moved to New York and bought a new desk and lived in a studio so small I don't remember having room for a bulletin board. I lost track of that index card, I'm sorry to say, but never the words, especially the heart of it, which I often repeated to myself as I worked an entry-level publishing job and tried to make time for writing in the mornings:

What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?

Sometimes I thought surviving on peanut butter and ramen noodles might be it. Other times I thought about how Marcus Aurelius's concerns and mine differed, but I was inspired by the idea that the spirit of them, separated by so many centuries, was similar. His words helped me get to the desk, and stay there, during all the years it took me to write my first good story. Writing is hard, but is it unbearable? Who would say that it is? Even asking the question, I'm reminded of the one exclamation in the passage: "You would be ashamed to confess it!" His words helped me navigate rejection, which is certainly no fun, but if you ask yourself if it's unbearable, you find yourself preparing the next self-addressed stamped envelope pretty quickly. The words helped me survive the protracted sale of my first novel, and they reminded me to start writing again after a long hiatus after the birth of my first child. I wasn't sure how to make room for writing with a baby. It is difficult, but beyond endurance? I got myself back to the desk.

Over the years I've found the passage works well when applied to the writing life, but I'm not sure I agree with Marcus Aurelius that there is nothing beyond endurance. We could all make our own list, I suppose. My first novel, The Report, was about a community trying to endure a terrible accident in wartime. My new story collection is about the difficulties associated with living on the same street for 30 years, or having the same family for 40. I'm inspired by the idea of endurance, but often want to write about how, when, and where it begins to break down.

At 17 I didn't know I wanted to be a writer, but that same year I happened to read something else that meant a lot to me, a sentence from "The Jelly-Bean" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Jim lived in a white house on a green corner." I wanted to write sentences like that, and somehow I knew I had a lot of years of practice ahead of me before I would be able to get down something so simple, beautiful, and revealing. The words of Marcus Aurelius kept me focused on the present, the sentence or story at hand, then and now, and that has been very valuable.