Saturday, April 28, 2012

Curious about...

...Anne Tyler's books.

"When I get there, I will have an 11-year-old daughter, be in the middle of a novel, and will have a new puppy."
 - Anne Tyler's definition of heaven, as told to her audience at the recent Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

I had been vaguely aware of Anne Tyler and her work before she came out of decades of avoiding publicity, but now she is everywhere, and reading various interviews and articles has made me curious about her novels and her life. Since I have mountains of books at home I still haven't read, I will hold off a bit, but there most certainly is a list (I am undecided whether to start with her new one, The Beginner's Goodbye, or one of the earlier novels).

Two weeks ago, there was an interview with her in the Guardian, in which she shared some of her writing secrets (I love reading about writers' routines, and they can generally be applied to other art forms, too, especially the bits relating to discipline and inspiration):

-She has no time for the idea of waiting until you feel inspired and instead believes in discipline and showing up.

-She collects ideas in an index box and lets them ripen for years - I do this with ideas for paintings and other things; I have notebooks full and love revisiting them. The looser format of an index box appeals to me - the sequence can be changed; it shakes things up a bit.

-She reckons The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman is "the most valuable book a novelist could read", helping with the showing-rather-than-telling that is so important for creative writing.

-She feels very strongly that she has to like her characters.

-Her actual writing process involves, among other things, "quite small and distinct" handwriting and reading into a tape recorder. 

I am interested in artists living a reclusive or any alternative lifestyle and how it affects their art, so it was particularly fascinating to read about Tyler's upbringing in a Quaker commune in the mountains of North Carolina. She credits this upbringing with giving her "that slight distance", enabling her to "look at the world as if I were a sociologist a little bit".

Apparently she writes male characters really well, and a lot of her protagonists, including narrators, are men. I am in awe of authors who successfully put themselves in the shoes of someone of the opposite sex and/or a very different age (Siri Hustvedt told What I Loved from the perspective of an old man; Nicole Krauss did the same in The History of Love).

I am already slightly obsessed with the world of Anne Tyler, which may sound strange considering I haven't read any of her books yet, but I love that sense of anticipation and discovery. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Morning and evening light

While I enjoyed winter's cosy dark mornings and early nights (any excuse for lighting candles), I am embracing the longer days spring has brought. On sunny days the lovely light in my house, especially the early morning and evening light, makes staying indoors as tempting as going outside. I usually end up doing both.

The light makes me want to eat raw vegetables and paint in the evenings and open the windows and move my office outside - a few cushions, a blanket, the teapot and whatever I am working on, plus sunscreen. It also makes me want to go down to the seashore first thing in the morning or when I get home from work. Sometimes I take my beautiful surroundings for granted. These days I stop to take in the view from my house every now and again when I am pottering around. I am working on a series of paintings that document the changing light across the bay as seen from my kitchen window.

These are the times I wish I either had a better camera or could finally make an effort to figure out how to use mine properly (the Luddite in me resists), but the photos still captured it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Today is a day of feeling blue after saying goodbye to my visitors (my mom and my sister's mother-in-law) and getting ready for a packed week ahead. Packed in a good way, for the most part. Discipline and rewards will be required. So many things are happening, and I am about to say yes to another project that has a deadline that makes me feel a bit queasy, but I am so happy that the life I had always dreamed of living is actually taking shape instead of my always projecting into the future. And I trust I will get it all done.

Making time for my own personal art and crafts projects is important, too. I love being immersed in something without worrying about the outcome or the time it takes.

My studio is really too small to work on several things at the same time, but between the easel in the corner, a desk easel and some surface space I have been able to work on four or five canvases - and convinced the neat-freak voice in my head that work-in-progress does not constitute clutter.

paint drying between layers

I have also been working with one of my favourite yarns (lovely soft baby bamboo)...

...snatching a few minutes here and there to do some knitting (will post the result soon). I often stop knitting once winter is over, but this year I am determined to continue.


All powered by pots of tea, cake and chocolate (and chlorella and coconut oil for undoing the damage the sugar does to my immune system. The no-sugar thing is most certainly not happening at the moment).

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Music, words, lentils

Listening to "These Days" by Ane Brun. I have discovered so many great new-to-me singers through listening to RTÉ lyric fm in the car. Since I always have to write everything down and it drives me crazy when I have very-important-to-me-thoughts that I worry I might forget, I often spend the rest of the car journey memorising the singer's name, the song title or album by repeating them in my head over and over again. With this song the line "you spelled your name in charcoal all over my body" drew me in.

Reading The Happiness Project. I have been a fan of Gretchen Rubin's blog for a long time and finally bought the book. On the very first page she says "I often learn more from one person's highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies", and I couldn't agree more. That's why I enjoy reading personal blogs, for instance. I love finding out about people's quirky habits, things unique to them, and these tend to be what comes into my mind first when I think of someone. (And contrary to the often-repeated objection to those of us sharing bits of our lives, I actually want to know what you had for breakfast.)
The book is interspersed with quotes by writers and philosophers on happiness, and there is an appendix with suggestions for further reading - she researched her topic very well.

I am taking my time with On Not Being Able To Paint - learning a lot about psychoanalysis.

Eating: rocket salad and puy lentils as side dishes to 70 % of our meals. They are a great complement to sweet potato or aubergine main courses.


Picture: I spent a satisfying hour repotting plants earlier this week - they are beginning to perk up.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cinnamon and ylang ylang...

... are burning in my oil burner right now. And suddenly everything is alright with the world again. It's amazing how scents can lift you out of a low. Cinnamon may feel a bit Christmassy after this glorious spring day (I must remember to wear SPF again - I spent too long in the sun today, and it shows), but it is one of my favourite smells (I have ground cinnamon every single day, sprinkled on my breakfast), and sometimes I need a warm wooden scent among all the florals of this time of the year, especially in the evening. And it is still chilly, after all.

The longer days mean I can spend evenings at the easel painting for hours - in my aspirational life. Yesterday and today books and DVDs won. But it does happen more often now. I am getting the hang of this discipline thing and am no longer waiting for the muse.

 I do still procrastinate, however. The idea of a completely bare studio (apart from painting paraphernalia, obviously) makes sense to me when I get distracted by the décor of my little studio/office and feel the need to spend an entire afternoon changing things around when there are deadlines looming. I can see why a lot of writers prefer to work at a desk facing a naked wall rather than at a window.

At the same time I like being surrounded by inspiration and things that are meaningful to me. My pin board is a bit cluttered, as I keep adding bits without taking others down.

Among the exhibition invitations, photos and cards are a sketch of a stove drawn by my mom and a Clemens Brentano quote* written out by my sister on a scrap of paper (not pictured: a cat drawn by my other sister) - these are the things I treasure above everything else. I look at the board every day, and I have read the quote a thousand times, and it always warms my heart. 


[I love Lowry's people -the feet!- and the little dog in the card in the first photo. The two square pictures in the second picture are reproductions of work by Conor Gallagher]

* Translation: "Love alone knows the secret of making gifts to others and getting rich within."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Good right now

I have spent most Easter Sundays over the last nine years away from my family, often alone, and they never featured eggs. Or decoration. In the lead-up to Christmas I hang one bauble in my house; that's the extent of my festive décor. Easter, nothing. I like to surround myself with beautiful things and good smells, but I have never really changed my house with the seasons, and I will never be the person with boxes and boxes of decorations that come out at different times of the year.

This year, this Easter, I miss my family a lot, even though I only saw them last week. I think it's because I know that they are all together, with cakes in the shape of little lambs and egg cracking contests, whereas my Easter weekend is in danger of being just like any other weekend. Suddenly I feel the need to mark different parts of the year and the seasons and observe family traditions. So this morning I made an Easter cake. And we went away for an overnight island trip on Friday. The cake and the island have reminded me that there are a lot of things that are good right now, in between the fretting and doubts and general anxiety of late.

For instance:

|  Slow baking (even though I ignored the one-egg-at-a-time bit). Grating orange and lemon peel by hand is much more fun than tearing open a packet, and while it may not be ideal when in a hurry, a bowl and a wooden spoon are sufficient for most of the things I make, and also a great upper-body-workout.

|  Snail mail communication about one of the illustration projects I am working on - since this kind of thing is usually done via e-mail these days, it feels extra special, and handwriting can convey that little bit more (I really want to send more snail mail to friends and family).

|  Edible reminders of a friend's visit - a bag of walnuts in their shells from Spain

|  Sketching, and carrying a sketchbook in my bag even if I don't end up using it (I have been relying on the camera too much).

|  Watching a sheepdog in action on Achill Island (and then fleeing as the sheep ran towards us)

|  Great flavour combinations - wild cherry tea and Tunisian orange cake in the cutest little café in town

|  Roasted buckwheat muesli almost every morning (I go through phases of the same meal for days or weeks in a row)

|  An almost effortless-seeming run and feeling strong (swimming, on the other hand, feels like hard work at the moment)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Into Spring

That sense of urgency and excitement I described in the last post is still here now that I am back in Ireland, but it is tempered by extreme tiredness (I fell into bed at 2am). So instead of tackling the things that are at the top of the list, today I have been  procrastinating with domestic tasks, lazy coffee breaks in the uni and organising. And I may watch another part of Mildred Pierce tonight - I am making the five-part series last a few weeks instead of watching it all within a couple of days, as I sometimes do with DVDs.


| What remains from my trip home - a fast-disintegrating manicure with my mom's coral nail polish that I cannot bring myself to take off just yet. The sunlight is deceiving; it is bitterly cold, with sleet and hailstones. I dressed rather optimistically in a linen skirt (with tights, Mama!) this morning...


| Books:
-I am reading this Deirdre Madden book - because I loved Molly Fox's Birthday - and am trying to get Authenticity as well; she is such a brilliant writer. I haven't finished this yet, but am enjoying it (if that is the right word - it is not a light read).
-My notebook and I are inseparable. Now that I try to practise restraint with my diary, this is where all the mad scribbling takes place, but at least it has different categories.
-A friend lent me Drawing Texts - an anthology of essays by artists and other people in the arts about the activity of drawing - years ago and I have found it refreshing and valuable for both my teaching and for myself. Earlier this year I came across it in a second-hand bookshop and I am rereading it.


 |  Sorting through my wardrobe. My bedroom is small; the wardrobe is small. While part of me would like a bigger wardrobe, the minimalist in me is pleased, and I find that I still only wear less than half of my clothes regularly. Nice dresses are displayed on the doors and the wall. I am careful with any new purchases; they have to be good quality and ideally ethical and go well with lots of different things. My kitchen cupboards are next. Both with food and clothes I can be extremely impractical (weird food combinations due to lack of planning, lots of flimsy camisoles, but no proper jumpers, and so on), and I need to be better organised.

I am looking forward to the long Easter weekend. We will be working a bit, but the plan is to do something nice, maybe a day trip, and bake Easter cakes (something I haven't done in years). In my family we used to have a Polish Easter cake made with lots of eggs, so I might try that.