Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impressions and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
“ Routine is the condition of survival.” – Flannery O’Connor
Is ritual necessary to the making of art? I hear arguments on both sides. While I have recently heard several writers I respect more or less say that for them writing rituals are anathema, the truth is that artists throughout history have settled themselves into the necessary frame of mind and physical space by marking the time set aside for the practice of their craft with some type of highly personal ritual. And it appears as though the having of a ritual is more the norm than not having one, at least that is one thing I gathered from exploring Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Curry.
One of Curry’s goals with the book is to “show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.” In essence, it is these small, often seemingly insignificant, routines and rituals that box off the incremental bits of time necessary to make art, that in fact create the space between daily life and artistic practice which allow an artist to set aside not only the time, but her very self, to become an instrument in service to her unique gift. Read more . . .
“I’m hyperventilating right now,” my 12-year-old son whispered to me and gripped my hand hard. He was waiting excitedly (and obviously breathlessly) for Marvel’s newest superhero film, Thor: The Dark World, to burst onto the screen in all its glorious action.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows our family that the Marvel heroes are preferred to the DC group and that my son measures time by when the next film, Lego set, or Nintendo game is scheduled for release. Thor was autumn’s happy milestone and now he has set the April release of Captain America as his spring marker. Not only does he spend countless hours reading his classic comics digests, lost in imaginative fantasy and wrestling with hefty issues of good and evil, but he hones his memory skills by memorizing intricate plot patterns and character details, regaling us with various character back stories, correcting egregious errors in the film or cartoon adaptations, while also filling in weak or missing elements in those same story lines. (And no, concerned reader, my son’s literary diet is not confined to comics. He gets plenty of classic literature, so have no fear. Also, consider how memorizing intricate story lines via the comics preps him for memorizing long passages of Shakespeare to rival Kenneth Branagh and you will see there is a method to this seeming madness.) Read more. . .
To everything there is a season . . .
Lots of changes have been taking place in my personal life which have encouraged me to re-examine and reorient my priorities such that regular readers will likely see less activity on Persephone Writes in the near future.
My newly increased teaching schedule is taking up the majority of my time, leaving precious little to devote to my writing. Finishing my novel is a priority (I’m so close!), and since some of my health issues have improved, I plan on directing my energy to finishing my book. To assist with meeting this goal, I enrolled in a writing class/workshop which comes with its own demands for my diminishing time. All of which means I have had to choose to spend less time and energy writing for both my blogs.
In addition, I have cause to celebrate. My journey towards living a literary life has opened up in other ways which I feel compelled to explore. Regular readers know my passion for exploring and living the nexus of my Catholic faith and the practice of my art. Many of my posts here explore that pointed focus, to which all of my creative energy is directed. An invitation to deepen this exploration came my way recently when I was invited to be a regular contributing writer to Deep Down Things, the blog affiliated with the gorgeous quarterly literary/art journal Dappled Things. This is a wonderful opportunity for me and I am excited to work with such an inspiring, enthusiastic, and devoted group of writers and editors. The entire Dappled Things project is truly a labor of love — all of the time to produce the journal and website/blog is donated by individuals committed to reinvigorating Catholic arts and letters. The combined effort of these talented people results in high caliber prose, poetry, and art, an unusually beautiful print edition of the journal, and a growing, engaging online presence. I hope you will celebrate this new opportunity with me and follow my writing on Deep Down Things and perhaps even consider taking a subscription to this unique literary journal. My first essay, a meditation on living the writing life inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux, can be found here.
I do plan to write here when time and energy allow, and I’ll definitely post updates to my pieces published on Deep Down Things. But my intention is to take something of a sabbatical and use it to focus and quiet my mind to make progress on those larger projects which are very important to me. I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned . . .
Neil Gaiman‘s 2012 commencement address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia is a moving testament to the beauty of following your creative vocation, no matter where it takes you. Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and be prepared to be inspired.
Some time ago I wrote a post about what Julia Child taught me about writing. This might be surprising for readers who don’t know Julia’s history, or the fact that she’d always wanted to write novels!
Julia’s long been a role model and mentor for me and in that post I wanted to call attention to the ways in which her skill in the kitchen translates and adapts to the writing life. (To find out how, click on the link above and read the post — the kitchen and the writer’s desk are not as far removed as you might think!) Julia truly had an artist’s heart — not only was she a splendid chef, but she was a prolific writer and lived life with a contagious joie de vivre which in turn brought joy to others. Living was an art for her.
In addition to reprising my earlier post, I’m happy to point interested readers in the direction of two delicious Julia tidbits that came my way in the last few days — aptly timed since Julia’s birthday was only a week or so ago.
The first is a glorious new visual biography of Julia’s life — thanks so much to Cinzia Robbiano for bringing it to my attention! The illustrations are vivid and charming, just like Julia herself, and depict with great accuracy and enthusiasm the vastly varied life experience of this amazing woman. It’s perfect for kids, of course — my son, who only recently became interested in watching old episodes of Julia’s The French Chef and is slowly developing a fascination with her, would truly appreciate the book — but Julia fans of all ages will be thrilled with the whimsical art and the humorous writing. Be sure to check out this beautifully detailed post about the book by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.
And that post by Maria led me to a review she’d written previously about the recently collected letters between Julia and her dear friend Avis DeVoto, which I also encourage you to read and enjoy. The book is called As Always, Julia:The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Maria provides a detailed review of the book, which catalogues the challenges Julia faced in writing and publishing Mastering The Art of French Cooking via her years of correspondence with Avis. The book also demonstrates the wonderful support a committed, giving friendship can provide to the realization of one’s art and is essential reading not only for Julia fans, but for artists of all sorts who are struggling to find a place for their work in the world. (On a side note, if you haven’t yet discovered Brain Pickings, you should. It’s a revelation, pure and simple. Consider the secondary purpose of this post a “heads up” for those readers who’ve been slow on the pick-up.)
One of the things that helps me the most as I soldier on towards deepening my living of a literary life is the example set by other artists. Mentors come and help us along on the journey from all fields and times. If you’ve not met Julia, or haven’t thought of her as a mentor in your creative endeavors, I hope this post and my previous one, as well as Maria’s reviews, will encourage you to make an introduction and strike up a friendship. Cheers!
One of the things I most appreciate about major league pitchers is their ability to throw a variety of different pitches. They have an entire repertoire at their disposal – the knuckle ball, spitball, slider, fast ball, curveball, change-up – and the pitch used varies depending on the need; however, it is possible for a pitcher to master a particular pitch, to become known as a career expert at throwing the fastball, for example.
Much like any other creative endeavor, the day to day of life on the mound is a variation between art and form: the action of art — the pitch — stays the same; but the form, or the way the pitch (the art) is expressed, can change based on need or change in circumstance. This practice presents a valuable lesson for writers trying to write through the curves their own lives. Too often, perhaps, we cling to a rigid practice of form when we might experience less stress and greater productivity if we allowed ourselves greater flexibility of form as the circumstances of our writing lives change.
Writers staring down the curveballs may become depressed or discouraged when they find they can no longer maintain the same momentum in their writing project. This is understandable. But like the pitcher that doesn’t give in to frustration because his slider isn’t working to strike out the batter he’s facing down, perhaps the answer lies in trying something else, in writing something else.
In my case, the parts of my brain required to build the world of my novel and live there for any length of time with the characters has become increasingly hard to access. This is largely due to the type of health problems I’m having, but there are other reasons as well, some of which I have alluded to in this series and all of which have escalated, hence the reason why the series is not yet finished. My own personal challenges here aren’t really relevant. The operative point is upheaval has changed my writing life to something unrecognizable. So what do I do? How do I keep writing when what I’m used to doing clearly won’t work right now? Like the pitcher, I continue on with the art of writing, but I feel free to change the form – I continue to work on my novel at less of a fever pitch, with less drive and force than I have been until now, and instead allow myself to write something else now and again. Like the pitcher, I don’t give up writing, I simply throw a different pitch by writing something else, by writing some other way. With the curveballs, it seems to me more important that I simply CONTINUE TO WRITE. As long as I am writing something, I’m in the game. To not write at all would be the death knell.
We use different parts of our brains for different writing tasks – kind of like you use different muscles for different exercises or sports. Writing something else – a poem, a short story, an essay, a letter, a blog post, a book review, a lesson plan, a writing journal, etc. — can be a relief, especially if that other form comes easier for you than the one you typically work in. For me, writing nonfiction is like breathing, while fiction writing is new and more difficult. At this challenging time in my life, as long as I can fall back on the form of writing that comes easiest to me and keep my mind and imagination limber, while still making time to engage my fiction, I am being faithful to my call to write.
So if things on your plate are roiling like a maelstrom, try writing something else – blog posts, essays, poetry, journals, letters to people you know or would like to know. The important thing is to keep exercising those muscles, keep writing. Something is better than nothing at all and your project isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there for those moments when you are able to attend to it.
In the film 42, the major curveball rookie Jack Robinson has to deal with is his race. As the only black man in an all-white ball club in all-white league at the height of the racial segregation issues that plagued America through the better part of the 20th century, Robinson simply isn’t able to remain near where the other players live, at least initially. There is a poignant scene near the beginning of the film where Robinson and his wife are taken to a place apart, a “safe” place where he can reside while starting on the farm team, thus allowing him to keep his focus on the game and not on the major disruption his race will cause. The fact of this evasive action in light of the curve isn’t right, but it is necessary, both for Jack’s safety and for the practice of his craft.
When curveballs create an imbalance in our own lives, sometimes the best way to deal with them is to go somewhere else. This doesn’t mean ignoring them; rather, it means simply acknowledging that they exist and that there is no right way to deal with them head on, at least maybe not right now. Sometimes it becomes impossible to continue writing in the place you’re used to. Going someplace else doesn’t mean you can’t ever come back to where you were. It simply means that the place you had before no longer serves, no longer functions for you, the way it did before you began struggling with the curveballs.
What kind of space a writer needs and even if the writer needs a place apart depends upon a lot of factors. I need complete quiet to think, especially to get into the fantasy world of my novel. I do not thrive on noise and busy-ness, though I know some people who do. My temperament is such that I simply shut down after too much stimulation. Other writers may be able to tune our external stimuli to a greater degree. In my case, a lot of health problems and emotional challenges at home, coupled with the chaos of indefinite construction projects, the ensuing drastic schedule changes and nearly constant interruptions by the work crew have engulfed both my writing place and time and have made quiet in my home next to unknown – the conditions under which I wrote previously simply no longer exist. There will come a time when my schedule will revert back to what it was and my space and time will be more my own again. For now, however, to continue to write at all it’s become necessary to leave the emotional and physical chaos of my home. For the last few months, I was blessed with a quiet room of my own where I could escape the chaos for hours at a time on alternate weekends, a place where I could write, think, read, nap, and recharge. There I was given the concentrated quiet I need to enter deeply into the made up world of my novel and live there awhile. It was a place where I could breathe and think clearly and process everything that I was struggling to deal with. My place apart helped me to both work and strategize my troubles with the curveballs, enabling me to better see my way clear to dealing with them. And that’s what a place apart should do for you.
One additional curveball has been the recent loss of my studio. Even though it’s difficult to give up the space, it has served its purpose. The most important lesson having a room of my own has taught me is learning to commit to making the time to going there and doing the work. I know that I can still take those alternate weekend times and maybe head over to the library to work by one of the fountains for a couple of hours. It’s the work that matters and being in the space taught me to see possibility where none seemed to exist before. I’ve learned to take the initiative, find a space, and continue on with the work.
In a recent inspiring interview on the radio show Writers on Writing, memoirist Allison Singh Gee recounts how she composed her new book, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, A Prince, and the Search For Home, at a table at work on her lunch breaks. As a busy working mother with a three year old at home, Singh Gee says she just couldn’t find a way or a place to write except to do it somewhere else. Finding a place didn’t mean she was abandoning her child and her home. It simply meant that in order to practice her craft and do the work of being a writer she needed to find a place elsewhere – home was not conducive to doing the work she needed to do. Finding a place apart enabled Singh Gee to deal with the curveball and complete her book.
Your place apart could be anywhere – a library, a café, a park, even your car. If you simply cannot physically LEAVE, then maybe try working outside or in another room. A friend of mine shuts herself up in the bathroom just to have some peace and quiet. Doors work wonders – don’t be afraid to close a door, position a screen, hang a drapery to block out the noise or chaos or whatever it is preventing you from focusing on your project.
If you simply can’t grow where you’re planted, don’t beat your head against the wall trying to force the situation to conform to your expectations or your old way of doing things (see Tip #1). Find another place to put down roots, even if only temporarily. Doing so can make the difference between writing and not writing.
Where do you write? How do you create a place apart to ensure your creative life is able to weather the curves?
Regular readers of Persephone Writes will already know about my literary obsession with Paris. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that I absolutely loved The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain, our second book pick for the Literary Wives series. It is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time: the story is riveting and absorbing, and the book is a brilliant study in craft. It’s a tour de force, an epic love story as well as a trip back to one of the most romantic literary periods in history.
The novel is based on the real-life love affair and marriage of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson. As the title of the book implies, there is more than one wife: Hem was married four times, and Hadley was his first wife – the Paris wife. The couple spent the better part of their five year marriage in Paris among the many literary expatriates who flocked there in the late 1920s. As you might expect, the book is peopled with writers: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sherwood Anderson, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and others, all deftly and brilliantly brought to life under McClain’s pen.
Hadley is an emotionally wounded and directionless 28-year-old when she meets the much younger, attractive, and ambitious Hemingway at a party. The two begin an intense courtship, against the advice of well-meaning friends, and ultimately marry. After a short impoverished stint with Ernest working as a journalist in Chicago, they risk everything and move to Paris, where they’ve been told by Anderson the writing world is “happening.” Something about Ernest brings out another side of Hadley, one less cautious and reserved, one more willing to take the chances necessary to live and experience life rather than to simply exist as an observer on the fringes. Hadley brings out Ernest’s vulnerable side. He feels safe with her and empowered to be the writer he knows he can be. The two enter Paris unprepared for the challenges and temptations that await them, eventually forcing them to make the most important, difficult, and painful decision of their lives.
The theme of choice is prominent throughout the novel. From the beginning, it is clear that Hadley chooses Ernest and everything about him and the life they will lead. She makes this choice again and again, resolutely, throughout the novel even as circumstances and personalities change. Love isn’t portrayed here as something neat and tidy. Hadley and Ernest’s romance is messy and painful, but attractive and sustaining, as well. It is clear that one of the traits Hadley best exhibits as a wife is her understanding that for marriage to survive, each spouse must at some time or another, or even very often, CHOOSE to continue on in the relationship, choose to continue to try and make things work, choose to love. Unfortunately, sometimes one or the other spouse is incapable or unwilling to make the choice. Hadley is not blind. She makes her choice with her eyes open, albeit often unable to see clearly what is around the next bend. She has a maturity and a wisdom that few others in their world possess and it is this that sets the Hemingways apart from their social-literary set, both in Paris and around Europe. It is clear that Hadley’s choice to continue on with Ernest hurts her. But she persists in hope, confident that whatever else happens between them, she truly loves him. It is this aspect of her character that I admired the most, especially as I approach the 20-year anniversary in two weeks of my own marriage. Hadley has the stick-to-itiveness that marriage needs if it is going to survive, and in our own current climate, when so many marriages fail to make it even to the three-year mark, her example is one to be emulated.
Hadley’s clarity of intention is much of what keeps the novel moving forward. By all accounts, Hemingway was not an easy man to be married to. He seems to see his wife of the moment, and the wives subsequent, as necessary muses. They function as support for his ego when he can’t muster the will to do it on his own. And yet these strong women, Hadley being the first among four, for some reason subsume their own deeply creative aspirations and talents in order to nurture Ernest’s gifts. Hadley is an exceptional pianist, and yet she sets her passion aside and even doubts her own talent, becoming more deeply embroiled in the literate swirl of the Parisian expat set, committing herself instead to supporting and nurturing Ernest. The obvious problem here is that, over time, a woman in this scenario becomes half a self — regardless of how much she is living the rest of her life to the fullest, the denial of her creative spirit and unique gifts has profound psychological ramifications. Hadley clearly struggles with this unhealthy tension throughout the book and it is unfortunate that Ernest sees the truth of her as a whole person so dimly that he fails to support her efforts until it is too late.
It would have been easy for Hadley to become spiteful and vindictive with all she has to put up with. Her dogged persistence continues even when her consistent effort might be the thing that is really doing herself the most harm. One of the things the wife in this novel has to learn is that love cannot be forced or manipulated. An interesting lesson for a woman who seems to be fully cognizant of the truth that love is a choice.
It is clear that McClain’s intention in allowing Hadley to tell the story from her perspective is to give the reader a glimpse into a little explored room in Hemingway’s faceted life. Hadley “knew him when” – before he achieved the canonical status he would later command. And yet, Hadley never figured in his work. It is as though she moves through the back rooms of their life together as a grey ghost: silent, clearly present, but unacknowledged. And yet, were it not for her strength and her resilient belief in Ernest, he might never have become the writer he eventually became. The tension caused by his unwilling realization of this fact drives his choices. It is as if he both knows and refuses to accept his reliance on Hadley and makes choices that will deliberately liberate him from his reliance and thus give him the illusion of competent solitary self-reliance. This is hard to read about, because it is so incredibly self-destructive and so damaging to Hadley. Yet she emerges, in my opinion, as the stronger of the two. Perhaps this is because she never veers from the truth and she can look back and say that she has no regrets, that she did all she could. Her conscience is clear and she ultimately achieves a wholeness Ernest is not capable of.
McClain allows Hadley’s story to be told from her perspective, with an honesty and candor that is particularly touching and very refreshing after American Wife, last month’s Literary Wives choice. Hadley doesn’t try to hide her flaws or Ernest’s. She simply tells the story. I never felt the need to question her reliability. Neither did I question her repetitive choice to stay and love and work the marriage through its ups and downs. Her experience of being a wife in the novel was an experience I could relate to on many levels. When she married, she committed her life to Ernest and she made sure she did what she could to honor and live up to that commitment, even when it was excruciatingly painful.
Ernest did finally, at the end of his life, write about his time with Hadley in Paris and it was this book, A Moveable Feast, which inspired McClain to find out more about the woman who had been so clearly dear to the great writer. The Paris Wife is McClain’s way of trying to give voice and substance to this wife who stood by her man to the end. Hadley clearly believed the risk of loving Hemingway was something she could not live without and she was a better, more whole person for loving him. This comes through so beautifully in the novel and reminds us that love exacts a price from us. In order to love truly, we must agree to submit ourselves to the crucible and to be changed by the experience. Love can hurt, love can devastate. It can also elevate and raise one to sublime heights. But it always changes one, and that is the true risk. Hadley chooses to take this risk not once but many times and seems to come to the conclusion that if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn’t hesitate to choose the same.
Do whatever you have to do to get this book on your nightstand or into your beach tote. It’s romantic, dreamy, and brilliantly told. Plus, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to travel back in time to jazz-age Paris, even if it is only via the arm (or beach) chair?
If you’ve already read The Paris Wife, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book. Also, don’t forget to stop by The Bookshelf of Emily J., One Little Library, and Unabridged Chick to see what my Literary Wives co-hosts thought of this month’s pick. Our next title is A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. Are you in? 🙂
Here are a few tunes that, for me, recall themes and moods of The Paris Wife. Enjoy!
“Jai un message pour toi,” by Josephine Baker, because it sounds like the cafe beneath Hadley and Ernest’s Paris apartment.
“Azure-te,” by Nat King Cole, because Hadley surely has the Paris blues at the outset of the Hemingway’s journey, and then on and off throughout the novel, for all of the reasons he sings about.
“C’est Magnifique,” by Lucienne Delyle, because being in love in Paris can be spectacular, but it can also be painful.
“J’ai deux amour,” by Madeleine Peyroux, because…well…..Hadley is the Paris wife.
“La Vie en Rose,” by Edith Piaf, because it is the essence of Paris.