Francis Gasparini has been a writer for more than 30 years and has worked with Karen “Duff” Duffy for most of that time. With Duff, he’s written the New York Times bestseller “Model Patient”, “Backbone,” and now “Wise Up.” He’s also had extensive experience in documentary film and television. He has worked with documentarians including Michael Moore, RJ Cutler, Davis Guggenheim, Fernando Andrade, and Ryan White; Gasparini’s films have premiered at Sundance and SXSW. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife
Jennifer Wise, daughter Maria Lucia, and a crazy dog named Petunia.
How did you become interested in this area?
I came to it through my collaboration with my writing partner, Karen Duffy, aka Duff. Stoicism has always been a part of her life and it’s been a part of our work from the beginning, but it really flowered with our latest book, “Wise Up.” I don’t consider myselfany kind of expert in Stoicism, but I approach it in the way I make documentary films—my writing with Duff is an opportunity to learn about something that engages me and apply my craft to it.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
I mean the dichotomy of control is the beginning middle and end of it, isn’t it? But Duff and I are now working on a new project inspired in part by Marcus Aurelius’ words “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” Broadly speaking, we’re looking to inspire people to take action and make changes. Some people make fun of this line as being tautological and I understand that criticism, but I choose to interpret it as “Stop dithering and act on what you already know!” Useful advice at any time.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
When I write with Duff, I often access an almost ecstatic sense of celebrating life and its possibilities, and I hope that comes across to readers. Yes, life is hard and has more than its share of disappointments and cruelty and sadness, but there is always also beauty and joy. I hope that we’ve been able to communicate that Stoicism is a practical way to recognize and embrace those beautiful aspects of life.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
Epictetus’ maxim “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” This comes up a lot with my daughter, who is 15. As a nascent adult she runs across a lot of situations that aren’t ideal and we’ve always encouraged her to take action in response rather than accept them or just complain. Without getting into detail, she just had an unpleasant experience and took it upon herself to take action. She’s understood that she can’t change what happened, nor should she wallow in emotion—but she can take action in response. I was really proud to see her exercise the control she could in a pretty tough situation and thrilled to see how confident she was in herself.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
When it comes to writing, the most banal but truest advice is that you learn by doing, over and over and over and over. I was a creative writing major in college, which was extremely useful in that it gave me an outlet to write a lot and get a lot of bad writing out of my system. Needless to say, you don’t need to study creative writing in college to write a lot and hone your craft, but it did give me a structure. Also, the absolute pettiness and bottomless factionalism of zero-consequences college writing seminars helped me develop a thick skin about what I knew was good.
Another thing that helped was many years of writing for television, in which no one cares about your feelings or how hard you worked on something, it either works (for someone else!) or it doesn’t. I don’t think you need to suffer through all of that to be a good writer, but you do need to learn how to take criticism and distinguish what’s worth listening to. The dichotomy of control comes into play here too! Control how you respond—and maybe that response is “this cruelly phrased criticism is actually valid.”
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. How would you feel about that?
Um, overwhelmed and unworthy? The serious answer is that I’d be excited to talk about my creative process and how Stoicism has come to inform it. I write in collaboration with Duff. There is a great deal of tapping on the keyboard, but the most important part of the work is the lively discussion of what we want to say, what the Stoics say on the subject, and what crazy anecdote perfectly illustrates what we’re trying to communicate. In Stoic
terms, we never run into “writer’s block.” We rethink, we ruminate, we shoot the breeze, we digress, and in the end, as Marcus Aurelius says, “What stands in the way becomes