Last night, I was emailing a friend some suggestions for an endeavor he’s about to embark upon—one that requires him to ask some tough questions of himself and define his voice before he puts it out there into the world in a big way. While I was trying to figure out some prompts to get him thinking about big things and little things and igniting some Really Deep Thoughts in the process, I decided to toss in a link to the Proust Questionnaire—that age-old list of questions French writer Marcel Proust himself didn’t invent, but rather, was known for trotting out among acquaintances as a sort of parlor game to get conversations rocking and rolling beyond the drudgery of small talk.
You know what? These are some great fucking questions.
I decided to sit down and dive into them myself (well, the modified Vanity Fair edition, anyway, because it was the most copy-and-paste-able version I could find in 30 seconds or fewer and I’m lazy), putting my responses in writing so I can come back to them later and see how my perspective changes over time. I think I might sit down and answer them again every year or so, without looking at my previous answers first, just to take my own philosophical pulse and see if I’m growing at all as a person as the years go by.
Here are my responses as of today. Feel free to answer these yourself, and ask the people you love (or want to get to know) to do the same. In fact, I’m fairly confident that one of the best (or worst) dates ever, be it between people who just met or who have known each other for decades, involves this questionnaire and a good, good bottle of red.
Off we go:
1.What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think it has something to do with the notion of flow. To be deep into something you’re creating or engaging in, where you’re just fully ensconced in your fascination with that thing, whether it’s a thing you’re writing/painting/singing/playing, or the endorphin high that comes from the act of doing something amazing with your body, or the intensity of the connection you feel with someone during a conversation you’re having, or the bliss of tasting something wonderful. The feeling of being fully in the moment and grateful for all of it is the essence of happiness to me.
2.What is your greatest fear?
That there’s nothing after this—that there’s just a void. Even with my very, very limited understanding of how the world works, I find comfort in the concept of energy never being created or destroyed, but transferred, because if our spirits or souls are really just energies, then they have to go somewhere, right? If, on the other hand, the end is the end is the end and that’s all there is, then I suppose it’s nothing to fear anyway since when you are nothing, you feel nothing, and you don’t even know that you’re nothing, so what’s the fuss all about? It’s just sleep, and this life is a gift, and what a bunch of selfish paranoid weirdos we all are. I think about this all the time.
3.What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4.What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Cruelty, especially under the guise of humor.
5.Which living person do you most admire?
Barack Obama. It’s true. I’m unoriginal. Sue me.
6.What is your greatest extravagance?
Food and travel. #notsorry
7.What is your current state of mind?
Gratefulness. Joy. Actively keeping worry at bay as best I can. Always sliding along the spectrum of contentment and restlessness, but pretty close to the contentment end today.
8.What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9.On what occasion do you lie?
Less often, the older I get. Sometimes out of politeness to people who probably wouldn’t be moved by the truth anyway. I’m working on it, though.
10.What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My stomach. And it’s stupid. My stomach is a sign of a life well-lived, of good food eaten and good drinks drunk. I really ought to let it go. We all should. It’s just stardust anyway.
11.Which living person do you most despise?
Naming names is silly, so I’ll describe them this way: people who mistake kindness for weakness, and who exploit that trait in others. People who step on other people to get where they’re going. People who backbite. People who do these things because they hate themselves and can’t figure out a better way to be. I feel sorry for them more than I despise them, I guess.
12.What is the quality you most like in a man?
13.What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14.Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“No worries,” but I remain steadfast in my overuse of it. It’s not going anywhere.
15.What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Is it trite to say my husband? It’s trite to say my husband. It’s also true. My parents and my friends are the loves of my life, too. So are some of the places I’ve been and the feelings I’ve felt. Bjork once said the most romantic thing: “I never really understood the word ‘loneliness.’ As far as I was concerned, I was in an orgy with the sky and the ocean, and with nature.” You can’t argue with that way of looking at the world. I can’t, anyway.
16.When and where were you happiest?
There’s not one particular moment or year or era. I experience little pockets of joy almost every day, even in the dark times. I think happiness, for the most part, is a choice. To some degree, I look at joy as a perspective that becomes a practice that becomes a habit that becomes a way of being. There’s a sense of ritual to it for me. I don’t know if it’s like that for other people or not. But I try to make room for it to come in and stay as much as possible, and I hope to keep doing that for as long as there’s breath in my chest.
17.Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to speak eloquently to a room full of people without being eaten alive by crippling self-doubt before the first syllable comes out (or afterward, for that matter).
18.If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
See responses #17 and #10.
19.What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Carving out a life for myself that feels the way I want it to… a little creative, a little unconventional, mostly unfettered by things that don’t matter to me. I can’t take all the credit for getting here, but I’ll take a fraction of it.
20.If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Since things don’t have souls, as far as we know, I wouldn’t come back as an inanimate object, given the choice. I wouldn’t come back as an animal, either, because my god, look at how we treat them all. I guess I’d come back as a person with a strong voice and a will to make the world a kinder place. I suppose I’m already the second part of that sentence, still working on the first part.
21.Where would you most like to live?
Right where I am today.
22.What is your most treasured possession?
I try not to be too enamored of material things, but I have a real affinity for an old teal typewriter I picked up on eBay for maybe $30 about 8 years ago. I think it signified a shift in the way I viewed myself and my place in the world. It reminded me to write, and I like thinking about the letters and memos and stories and who knows what else that may have been tapped out on those keys in the 80+ years before I got my hands on it.
23.What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24.What is your favorite occupation?
25.What is your most marked characteristic?
26.What do you most value in your friends?
Their open hearts. For as diverse as their personalities, political leanings and perspectives on the world might be, they’re all kind people who exercise their ability to see the good in others.
27.Who are your favorite writers?
In the general order in which I discovered their stuff: Judy Blume, Harper Lee, e.e. cummings, Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Klosterman, Joan Didion, Cord Jefferson, my friend Tolly Moseley, Cheryl Strayed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and my friend Clara Bensen.
I also loved Pablo Neruda until I found out he was a rapist who even wrote about his crime. Tell all your friends.
28.Who is your hero of fiction?
I have absolutely no idea.
29.Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’ve been a little obsessed with Nellie Bly lately. I don’t do any of the things she did, exactly, but I like what she stood for.
30.Who are your heroes in real life?
My parents and my friends.
31.What are your favorite names?
I’m not planning on having kids, so I don’t have names picked out. I do have an affinity for musicians named Stevie (Nicks, Wonder) and Jimmy/Jimi (Page, Hendrix), though, so that’s something.
32.What is it that you most dislike?
Cruelty and pigheadedness. To a lesser extent, the sound of people chewing and CRACKING THEIR KNUCKLES OH MY GOD. Also, the sound of liquid being poured into a glass. Those commercials where you hear the soda can open, followed by the sound of a glass filling up with whatever carbonated beverage they’re selling? No. No. No.
Mostly cruelty and pigheadedness, though.
33.What is your greatest regret?
Not spending more quality time with my mom before she died. We were on great terms, as usual, and the last thing I said to her was “I love you,” having no idea it would be the last time we’d speak and that she’d be gone the following afternoon. But I could have stopped procrastinating and booked that trip to London (one she never knew about because I was going to surprise my parents with it) years earlier, when she would have been able to enjoy it. I could have stayed with her a little longer the last time I visited. I could have hugged her tighter. These realizations affect the way I treat people today, ten years later, probably for the better. But back then, I should have loved her harder on the surface and not just deep down underneath it all, where she might not have been able to see it as clearly.
34.How would you like to die?
I want to die old (and I mean OLD), tired and ready. I want to have said all my “goodbye”s, “I love you”s, “thank you”s, and “fuck you”s. I want to finish all my business as best I can, reach the end with very few regrets about what I did and didn’t do during my time here, and then I want to slide quietly and painlessly into a good long nap. I know it’s not sexy. I don’t care. I’m just not drawn to the romance of a dramatic exit; there’s been plenty of drama in the living years, and there’s sure to be more before it’s over. Toward the end, I hope it’s just a tranquil send-off into whatever the hereafter might be. I’d also like for my remaining sack of nonsense to help a tree grow big and strong.
35.What is your motto?
- “If you see something beautiful in someone, speak it.” -Ruthie Lindsay
“Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.” -paraphrased from Alan Watts
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” -Bill Nye
photo source: public domain