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 . . .
“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” – Marcel Proust
The book was small, hard-covered, with a broken binding. My grandmother held it carefully as she told me the book had belonged to my mother when she was my age. She had discovered it when she was cleaning out “the little house” – a small cottage on the back of their property filled to the brim with heirlooms spanning generations – and she thought I might like to have it.
The book was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I had no idea then what the story was about. Read more . . .
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.
I’ve never been much of a princess chick. Not only have none of them ever looked like me, but they are almost always passive, helpless, and silent, waiting for someone to come and rescue them from life. This has never been my style.
Enter my hero, Merida from Disney/Pixar’s film Brave (well, she looks nothing like me either, but just go with me on this) — spunky, obstinate, independent, spirited, intelligent, gifted, and perfectly capable of speaking and acting for herself. She’s feisty, quirky, graceless, and wild and she simply doesn’t fit in to the prescribed roles available to her. Boy, does she have a lot to learn. But that’s one of the things I love about her. She’s flawed and growing and not afraid (to adapt a saying from a dear friend) “to go through life hard.” Merida is certainly unlike any other princess unleashed by Disney. But I think that’s the point. Merida is authentic in a way no other “princess” is: she’s a person first, as opposed to a type, and that is key.
My favorite scene in the film is when Merida secretly enters the archery competition to determine which one of the clan suitors will be given her hand in marriage.
This scene speaks to me for a number of reasons, both as a woman and as a writer. Merida deliberately resists the conventions that seek to confine and define her. It isn’t so much that she doesn’t understand or respect these conventions; it’s simply that she feels she cannot follow them, at least not at this point in her life. She rebels against the fact that there are no other options, neither are any other options considered. When she rips through the ornate gown restricting her natural movements, she is in effect tearing through the cloth symbol of the suffocating life that awaits her if she bows to the pressure to marry one of the “men” on offer. It isn’t that she WON’T marry, she simply doesn’t want to marry in THIS way: because she is told to and has to for the sake of preserving tradition. Her reasons are good, even if she goes about defying them in the wrong way.
Words as much as arrows are Merida’s tools. Words are important to Merida; throughout the film we see her use them to express her feelings, articulate her needs, tell stories, think through problems, argue and curse and warn, and finally forgive and ask for forgiveness. She speaks, loud and clear; she isn’t a passive, helpless observer or victim. In the scene shared above, Merida proudly asserts that “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” She states clearly and emphatically that no one can take from her what she herself refuses to give — her ablility to choose her own path in life.
And this is why I believe as a character Merida has such value and why she can serve as a model for women and writers. Merida lives in a world where story is paramount, where decisions are made and relationships are built upon the stories and roles of the past. These are important, both to her people and to who Merida is, but ultimately Merida’s desire is to write her own story, one in which she isn’t wholly defined by anyone else, but one in which she can coexist with the stories of those who have gone before, necessarily bridging with those elements that still hold true, but with the complementary freedom to write bridges to new ways of thinking, doing, and being, as well. The scar on her cheek in the close-up in the archery scene is telling: Merida is real, not a pristine untouched and untouchable beauty. She has been hurt in the past and has survived. She isn’t afraid to get hurt again fighting and speaking out for what she believes in. In this, she reminds me so much of the Madonna of Czestochowa, whose cheek is also marred and who serves a symbol for millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for resilience, perseverance and the growth, power, and quiet strength of character that come through suffering properly ordered.
As a result, one of the things Merida has to learn is that her words and choices have great power: to heal and bring positive change — by way of telling the truth and being honest — as well as to inflict great pain and destruction — through lies and uncontrolled anger. Merida has to confront the truth not only of her bad actions, but of her failure to use words accurately to reflect and illuminate truth: because of her pride, she chooses wrongly to use words to obscure and manipulate truth. As women and as writers, this is always the wrong choice and Merida’s journey shows us the cost — to self, family, and community — when we fail to act and speak in union with truth.
So often, bravery is based on the way the world judges actions. But Merida shows that true bravery first means letting go of pride and having the humility to acknowledge the truth about oneself, including one’s needs and limitations. This is a quiet, everyday type of bravery, but at times no less daunting than an all-out physical battle. Bravery also means refusing to be silenced when the core of who you are and what you believe is being violated. Bravery means using the gift of language and words to express yourself in clear precise truth, it means having the courage to hear another’s truth and listen fully and honestly without judging, and it means telling the story of that sharing and listening in the very best and most accurate way you know how. Being a woman and a writer requires the tempered kind of bravery Merida exemplifies every day, often on a very great scale.
I have a picture of Merida, poised to let that arrow fly with extreme accuracy and precision, to remind me to go through hard, and to tell the truth of my experience, in both words and deed, with all of the accuracy and precision I can muster.
As an extension of this reflection, my dear friend sent this Sara Bareilles song my way today — a very happy event. Entitled “Brave,” it seems to me an apt theme song for all of us “Meridas” in the world. I include it here as a thank you to K., who inspired this post, and as an inspiration to others who might be searching for the courage to let their arrows fly. Cheers, all.