Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Art of Writing (2)

June in Italy means the first groaningly hot days, bare shoulders and still-white legs. Campari spritz in the piazza at dusk, the first prosciutto crudo e melone of the season, some hefty holiday reading...


Midway through the month as some of you know I took off down to Tuscany to join Lisa Clifford's inaugural The Art of Writing Retreat. As I drove from Veneto in the north to the more arid and hilly middle Italy, I couldn't help thinking how many writers had been drawn to this bewitching area in search of inspiration. Florence. The Uffizzi. Siena. That arresting Tuscan accent. Lisa's family connections with the rolling hills of Casentino outside Florence made it an obvious choice for her event, and I must say I was glad to find myself in this quiet, forgotten area of a region that is so eyewateringly beautiful it can often be overrun by foreigners.

Captivating morning views
It was so quiet. Those lucky enough to be enrolled on the course were holed up in stone-walled lodgings in the hills, while we ladies (Lisa and assistant Penny Howard, guest tutors Deirdre Pirro and Morag Pringle) stayed in Lisa's family house tucked halfway down an astonishing valley where each day I was tempted to go for a long hike - but for the boars reportedly seen about!

Now over to the writing. Soon after arrival I gave a talk about 'Blogging from the Heart: Grassroots Book Promotion' which grew into a engrossing debate - aided by a round of local white wine. I learned that each morning participants worked through exercises with gifted writer and teacher Jim Friel. I joined in and had a lot of fun and some crystalline ideas (for a moment there) and will write more about these on the Pelt and Other Stories blog. It was quite an eye-opener for this set-in-her-ways writer, who is not at all used to sharing work or ideas. I learned that opening the creative door a crack can release a brickload of ideas. A lovely way to shake down the house.

Inspiring writerly talks
Jim also analysed beautiful texts - from James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graeme Green - inviting us to ponder language/character/action. I admit I was shaky initially, but felt the benefits were like a good head massage: tricky to let go at first, but then an irresistable warmth takes hold. Classes ranged from getting started on a project, to characters, structure and drafting, while individual afternoon sessions gave each participant the chance to share details of their projects with Jim. I noticed there were more memoir projects than fiction on the menu - and hope that all writers present make headway over the coming months! There is nothing like a gathering of writers to make one want to go home and work.

Lisa's guests also included vibrant U.S. agent April Eberhardt, who in a Skype interview outlined an indie approach to publishing and gave participants ideas for entering the expanding world of self-publishing. Lawyer/writer Michelle Fabio spoke of storylines - Michelle writes the wise and successful blog Bleeding Espresso.

Over to food. One cannot report on a stay in Tuscany without mentioning local food and wine. Carpaccio di zucchini, wonderful summer salads, local specialities with potatoes - were all washed down with Montepulciano and enchanting wines. More often than not, grappa, limoncello and intriguing talk followed the meals.

How many writers does it take...
to make fresh ricotta?
Okay I'll admit it. One of my favourite activities involved pecorino cheese! One afternoon the group travelled over the hills and faraway - a story in itself - to local pecorino (sheep cheese) producer Lorenzo Cipriani, where a bunch of writers watched a bunch of sheep being milked. Said writers then observed said sheeps' milk transformed before their eyes into ricotta and were of course invited inside for an endless sampling of indescribable cheese delights, sinfully good salami and gorgeous tomatoes - all washed down with buckets of red wine...

Dee-lish!! That day we embarked upon The Art of Eating!

With TAOW founder Lisa Clifford
I must say I had a blast. It was a very special few days with a lovely group of people, and I feel quite lucky to have been invited to take part. Great work Lisa, Penny and Jim and good luck with The Art of Writing next year.

*If you are interested enquire early as I think places are filling fast

Monday, 17 June 2013

How many kids does it take to make an author?

I was just about to write a post on my breathtaking few days at the Art of Writing retreat in Tuscany last week (endless tree-decked hills, feisty writerly company – stayed tuned next week) when this article caught my eye.

Zadie Smith criticises author who says more than one child limits career.

I have a soft spot for women writers with kids, which doesn't mean I have a hard spot for women writers who don't. And readers of this blog will know I can’t pipe down if there is a discussion on Career vs Motherhood and the myriad of life strategies there are in between. Throw the dilemmas of the writer into that stew, and you have my attention. Reader, do your thang.
Last week a Guardian journalist cobbled together a text based on Zadie Smith's and Jane Smiley's comments upon an Atlanta article written by Lauren Sandler, which has raised a few hackles. The Guardian then provided a study in graphs and pie charts to investigate the equation one child=genius. My first thought: Who says an author is a genius??Ahem.. I don’t necessarily. Brilliant yes, but a genius? Do you? 

Sandler, only child and mother of one, finds that several of her beloved writers are mothers of only children and wonders if their oeuvre might have been compromised by the production of further offspring. She cites a comment by Alice Walker (whose mother-daughter conflict is well-documented and painful to read): ‘..Because with one you can move. With more than one you’re a sitting duck.

Sandler goes on to lament,  Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?

Indignant Zadie Smith commented that ‘ the parent of multiples I can assure Ms. Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.’

Not all mine
Hmm. While I do remember typing out my first novel with my eldest in a basket on the floor in Mogadishu, my recollection of the faraway time when I had (just) two offspring brings back the less lyrical image of Older Son driving a train over Baby Son’s face. I’d love to agree with Zadie that children entertain themselves quietly, but in my household this has rarely been the case. Illness, fighting, food, mean that Mummy is nurse, referee, shopper all at once, on-and-off during the day.  Child care? Well, until writing pays for that and the bills, I have the school system to thank for that. 

Sandler’s article also reflects upon the lives of her ‘revered’ authors, citing cases such as Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick and Alice Walker, and though it serves the purpose of her argument that greatness is limited by multiple reproduction, it feels a little like peeking through the rubbish bin behind a famous person’s house – too much information. Would she have been the same writer, had she had more children to drop by with in-laws, or less quiet time to workshop her novels? Was she selfish? Is this how greatness was achieved?

While heartfelt, it seems rather limited. And – even more silly – in the Guardian piece that examines the ratio of larger families to literary genius, it appears that most successful novelists produce zero children, although the second most popular number is two. Thirty-eight percent of females in the literary genius category (Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee) have no children compared to twenty-seven percent of males. Novelists have more kids than poets. Norman Mailer rocked the survey by having eight children. With four kids, I find myself in the same category as John Updike, E. Annie Proulx (a late starter) and Saul Bellow. So there's hope for this writing junkie yet.

As Zadie Smith rightly says, there are so many factors essential to a writer’s career. An understanding partner, childcare, family support. And there are so many elements that might limit a writer’s – or anyone’s – career. Health, personal and economic issues quickly come to mind. Lack of determination, lack of clarity of purpose, even plain bad luck.

So where are we with all this? There are big egos and neglected children in every sector. Writing takes time and endless belief. Kids are a timesuck but they can save you from yourself, enrich, impair. And there’s no easy way to become a literary genius, or even a halfway happy published writer, with or without sprogs calling you up all the time, expecting cash, emptying the fridge, stealing your clothes and telling you you’re clueless...

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Venice on my mind

This skinny writer has been flitting around. Not internationally. On trains, in cars, in boats, on heels. I was invited to the Australian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale, and rocked up with my accent and previously mentioned handbag. I felt a little silly and couldn't find my friend (hello, telephone?). But it was so lovely to be swept up by art works and gorgeous lighting and swanky people and that bubbly didn't hurt either...

The Venice Biennale is like the Oscars of art ceremonies, with most of the countries you can think of represented in national pavillions in the Giardini at the the north of the island, or in the vast halls of the ancient Arsenale nearby. If you pay the entry fee of 25e you can see either one, then come back another day and see the other. There are also free exhibits are scattered across the city in curious rooms lapped by canal water, or elegantly decaying palazzi overlooking boats swishing past. Grab a map in a bar or at the station, and start hiking (sometimes you have to catch a vaporetto and it's a good idea to buy an all-day travel card). Do wear a hat.

Ai Weiwei watched by prison guards
It's tremendously exciting, even if you don't quite understand what you find before you. And such a thrill to see the machinations of art at work. I saw Tibetan monks preparing coloured sand mandalas and a friend's fabulous design on show. I hiked up to the church of Sant'Antonin to see SACRED, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's six massive steel boxes placed incongruously on the dazzling marble floor. Through tiny window holes you can see the 81-day prison experience of Weiwei in a series of dioramas depicting the lack of privacy and the sense of menace inside the cell, complete with the artist sitting on the toilet watched by guards.

Congolese soldiers in a hot pink war - can beauty convey suffering?
Though I spent three days walking about I still feel I haven't seen enough. And some works were so compelling you want to see them again. Like the Irish Pavillion, which showed the film documentary of artist Richard Mosse, the culmination of three years of exploration of war-torn Congo. Shown on multiple screens in a darkened room (you sit on the floor with boats gurgling past), you are surrounded by gun skirmishes, a discarded body on the road, an endless refugee camp - all shot on discontinued military film intended for camouflage detection. The result is a viciously beautiful voyage in jarring colour through a country frayed by war. Local sounds, songs and metallic music accompany the series of scenes which offers no narrative, no exit. I found it compelling.

On my last day I wandered into a palazzo called the Future Generation Art Prize, and I joined a small group of people in a lavishly furnished Venetian room. They were watching a young man dry-humping the white sheets of a four-poster bed. I watched for a few minutes, thinking how lusty and naughty in the afternoon, feeling like a total voyeuse. What cheek(s)!

No photographs of that, sorry ladies, but here are some other arty glimpses.
Jeremy Deller's English Magic - hawk clutches Range Rover in his critique of wealth
David Bowie steps out on hIs 1972 tour, a year Deller examines through image
Chinese sweetness and kitsch
This man is an island - from the Finnish Pavillion

The marvellous and manic work of Sarah Sze from the USA

Body talk on the lagoon
Sumptuous palazzo detail - sigh !