Tag Archive | writing

For my writer friends


It’s one thing waiting for the Muse, but if you’re at your desk the Muse knows where to find you.

This is why I don’t do inspiration or creative blogs. I just do the work, and hope for the best.

Because the difficult thing is to keep yourself open to the moment.

The trick is to keep yourself vulnerable and true, and this can be really tiring after a while. It can hurt, quite literally.

But if you do it properly — and it’s hard to do it properly — then the book will find its mark.

If it’s a real book, written for the right reasons, and with enough skill, then it will find its time and its readers.

It’ll be its own kind of success.

Anne Enright, Irish author, speaking on BBC4 Radio’s The Value of Failure.


1 Novel, 30 Days, 50,000 Words.

Real men, Real romance

What these boys don’t know about romance,  you don’t need to know!

Ah, November. Thirty days (and nights!) of literary abandon. Well, that can be true. A lot of people write a lot of words, most of which are not (yet) fit to be read.

Writers abound in my county, but they’re mostly paid professional working writers of some stripe. NaNoWriMo is ignored. We don’t have a single NaNoWriMo group. We’re just a dead space between Santa Barbara and LA counties.

I love NaNoWriMo, in theory, because it encourages people to write everyday and not worry about the consequences. On the other hand, whatever gets written, however wonderful, will need revision and edits and maybe some volunteer readers, before it’s submitted anywhere.

One local-ish library is doing a Write-In on Sunday afternoons this year. That’s not really as exciting a meeting up for an after-dark all-nighter at a cafe. I’d certainly go to that. But I’m already working to deadline on a book that fell behind the curve — because resource material being shipped from Bad Kreuznach (in Germany) only just got here yesterday, so  . . . I’ll have to put off experiencing my first NaNoWriMo for another year.

I do think a fast writer can turn out a good book. I remember once hearing about three men who worked in publishing. They went on a fishing trip, just for a few days, but it rained miserably. After a few beers, they hit upon the idea of writing a romance novel. It was done in by the time they left. They submitted anonymously under a pen name, it was picked up and published, and met with great popular success.

So really, if three men in a cabin, to say nothing of the fish, can write a book, I’m sure you could too.

Good Luck!

Because people are more than their work


Portrait of Madame X — which John Singer Sargent considered his best painting of his career even though it was one of his earliest works.

Recently someone asked me why I don’t blog about writing. Yawn. Is there anything more dull than writing about writing? Ok, maybe reading someone’s writings about writing. That could be worse.

People are so much more than what they do, even if they do something interesting and do it very well. Most of the time, people who do something well don’t even like what they do. Rare is the person at the peak of their profession who is also happy in that profession. But profession is the great American obsession. Almost every conversation starts with “And what do you do?”

Fortunately, I’m not very American or very obsessive. I suppose that’s why I’m so fascinated by humans’ beingness. You never know what’s behind the facade of a profession.

John Singer Sargent was a master of his profession. But, he was also fluent in French, Italian, and German, and played a mean piano. He became famous for a painting that also got him run out of town. He tried to “fix” the painting (you can see the original version here) but the damage was done. The girl’s mother thought her daughter had been made to look a whore (read the letter from Ralph Curtis to a friend on the same page). Commissions dried up, he had to leave.

Paris felt the Portrait of Madame X (fixed version above) was shockingly sexual. I suppose Paris might have thought some other things as well. JSS had pursued an introduction to Madame for months. It then took a year to do the painting. People probably thought there was something going on. However, JSS was actually gay.

JSS’s father was a doctor. Dr Sargent had moved the family to Europe after JSS’s older sister died and JSS’s mother had a nervous breakdown. Some years later, when JSS’s father fell very ill, he basically became his father’s nurse — while continuing to paint. JSS nursed his father till the day dad died. He did it with a patience, compassion, and tenderness that astonished his friends. It was the year after his father died that JSS became a big success. His father never lived to see it.

JSS had a great relationship with his mother. He took care of his mother, who lived with him remainder of her life.  His work gave his mother financial security and social status. It was a good life for her. But JSS really didn’t like being a portrait painter.  He called his work, “the second oldest profession.” JSS did about 900 paintings, but he did 2000 watercolors (and countless sketches and drawings). Although he’s known for portraits, he actually preferred being outdoors painting landscapes.

JSS never married. I suppose he liked his freedom and was too honest about his orientation to go through with a sham marriage. His friends knew he was gay, as did most of his sitters I’m sure. How could they not?  Before starting a portrait, he went a lady’s house and had her maid lay out all her gowns and baubles. Then he picked exactly what his female sitter would wear for her portrait!

When JSS’s mother died, he stopped taking portrait commissions. He finished out his remaining scheduled portraits, which took a year, then closed his studio — for good. For the remaining 18 years of his life, he travelled, socialized, and painted what he liked. Although we think of him as an American painter, he really was European. He was born to American parents, in Florence, and spent the vast majority of his life abroad in Europe.

All of this plays in my head when I look at a JSS’s work.


President Theodore Roosevelt by JSS, in 1903

I feel there were other artists working in portraiture, around the same time as JSS, who were better at it. To me, the work of JSS has an insipid formal distance, a staged quality, and a whiff of “I don’t really like doing this (or you)”  most of the time. The exceptions occur only when JSS sketched or painted actual friends. Don’t misunderstand, JSS’s art still great art, But the even greater artists of his era, and their works, to this day still lie hidden in his cast shadow. And when I look at JSS’s work, I think about those artists’ lives too.


Same subject, by Philip De Laszlo, 1908 — of which this is a 1968 copy!! by adrian lamb — and it’s still a way better portrait. It pulses with life and the subject’s actual personality. (And Teddy’s wife liked this one better too, for just those reasons!)

It’s good to do something well. It’s good to understand the ins and outs of a profession. It’s good to be able to cast a critical eye on others of that ilk. It’s good to be able to stand back and objectively consider one’s work and that of others. But in the end, it’s only the person that’s interesting. It’s all the emotional, subjective, goofy, quirky bits of life that are of interest, that make a person a person. Profession? That’s mostly incidental.

If a person’s profession is all you see when you meet them, you don’t see anything. If a person’s profession is all you know about someone when you encounter her/his work, you really don’t understand that work. You can’t truly appreciate Lizst or Rachmaninoff or Tolstoy or Van Gogh without knowing their lives. And every life is like that.

Take for instance my grandmother’s friend’s granddaughter. I’ve never met her. All I know is she’s young, paid a lot of money, and works in military intelligence as an interrogator — at various places around the globe. I suppose I could wing off about extraordinary rendition. But really, she’s someone granddaughter. Just like I am. Her gran is proud of her. Just like my gran is proud of me. She travels a lot. Just like I do. She’s a young woman. Like I am. Maybe she’s the kind of person I could be friends with the way my gran is friends with her gran. What she does is just work she came to do. I’m sure it’s interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the woman herself and how can you understand the work apart from the person?

And now, if you were paying close attention, you’ll understand that I actually just wrote about writing while writing about why I don’t write about writing.

Home, home on the grange

I’m not sure that Nature abhors a vacuum so much as I do, but I do admits to some blank spaces in my book of life which are begging for a good grangering.

In the 18th century, book margins were miniscule and blank pages were unheard of as paper was quite expensive. But in 1769, Rev James Granger, published his Illustrated Biographical History of England with a revolutionary feature: generous blank areas!

Granger thought “modern” readers might wish customize their book by adding all manner of personal thoughts, illustrations, autographs, press notices, whatever. (Try doing that on a Nook/Kindle/iPad!) Granger’s gambled that customizable space was something reader’s would willingly pay for was daring — and paid off handsomely.

Readers went mad for personalization. Indeed, Granger unleashed a tidal wave of creative — some would argue destructive — enthusiasm. Throughout the 19th century and into our own time, “filling up a Granger” was a popular pastime to which all books became subject. (For a modern Grangerite’s work, check out this post on Things To Make and Do, in which a book about Blackpool was grangerised with relevant material.)

Grangerisation was one of the main reasons publishers of books and even newspapers began to print illustrations with blank reverse pages. This way they could be removed  / defaced / “extra illustrated” without the book losing literary integrity or value. Although today, often an otherwise mundane, near worthless, old book found bearing grangerisation, becomes a rare treasure.

Some people thought of Grangerites as vandals, but I prefer to see them as artists, inventors, philosphers, individuals who are unafraid to leave their stamp on something (of their own).   This weed, as we celebrate the freedom of being an individual, I plan to find a little blank space in my book life, and grangerise the devil out of it!