Creativity: Author Paula McGrath

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Paula McGrath lives in Dublin. A History of Running Away is her second novel. Her first, Generation, was published in 2015. She has a background in English Literature and a PhD in Creative Writing. She received an Arts Council literary bursary in 2016, and was Irish Writers Centre Writer-in-Residence in St Mark’s English Church, Florence. In another life she was a yoga teacher.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What strength do you admire in others?

Going to the desk is hard; sitting down is hard; beginning work for the day is hard; staying there is hardest of all. But about ten minutes in, there’s a brain-shift not unlike the one that happens in a yoga or meditation practice, or on a walk, or a run (I’m reliably informed), and you’re immersed in the world of your story where everything depends upon finding the right word. It’s an obsession. You look up after a while and several hours may have passed.

I read and admire those who resist the narrative—I’m thinking about Calvino, for example—and I find satisfaction there as a reader. But when I try to disrupt the narrative in my own work, it quickly feels academic, an exercise, and gives me little pleasure or satisfaction. I also admire the poets, their patience with finding the right word. (Though poets I know argue that writing novels requires a different type of patience they haven’t got.)

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I came to writing rather late so my problem is not a shortage of ideas but of time. Whether I want them or not, new ideas arise when I’m out walking, or from conversations, or documentaries, out of my reading, especially non-fiction, from a museum or gallery visit, seeing a play… The list is endless. I create a new ‘note’ for each one and scribble down everything I know about it as a sop to the part of the brain that’s always chasing the new and exciting, then I get back to the work in hand. I’ll never be stuck for ideas, but I’ll never get to all those notes, either.

When I’m teaching Creative Writing, I use writing prompts, cut-ups, images, nature walks… all the usual suspects, ‘usual’ because they seem to work. I think this is less down to the prompt itself than the writer’s reaction to being restricted in some way. A contrary bent, an instinct to push against imposition, whether that’s a prompt in a workshop or something else where more might be at stake, seems to be an essential part of the artist’s make-up. Prompts are artificial stimuli that spark off a reaction leading often to interesting results. Maybe they help us to identify, prepare for, and rehearse responses to the big ideas—and problems—when they come.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

Every time I close my Twitter tab forever, a but comes bubbling up: book recommendations, it says, project ideas, up-coming events. I’ve met lovely people online, even made a good friend in real life as a result of a Twitter interaction. I open it again; I scroll… Inevitable, there are moments of insecurity in the face of the screaming, dazzling next-big-thing, but I’ve fallen for the over-hyped product—let’s say ‘book’—enough times to be wary. Some of the best books I’ve read barely raised a line on social media—David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land comes to mind—because some of the most underwhelming were taking up all the oxygen. It’s all best taken with a grain of salt, as my granny would have said.

I had a blog when I first started writing because received wisdom said I should, and I hated it, for the reason you raise in your first question: I did not sound like myself. Until I understood that it’s possible to have more than one non-fiction voice, that the “I” that blogging depends on does not necessarily mean sharing parts of myself that are not for public consumption. Eventually, I decided not to waste what little writing time I had on barely-read, unremunerated blog posts. I tell myself the same about Twitter posts. I close tab, possibly forever…

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

There were always books around at home and at my grandparents’, and we made good use of the local library. I started writing soon after reading my first Enid Blyton; I think most children go through a stage of writing and illustrating stories. My parents made suitably encouraging noises and my aunt Mairee was kind enough to type a few of them out. Even the nuns were encouraging, in their way: I have a memory of being sent to the other Second Class classroom to read one of my stories, in a time when looking for attention was severely frowned upon.

I utterly reject the idea that being Irish somehow lends itself to writing in a way that having any other nationality does not. I was asked in a TV interview once why Ireland has produced so many great writers and I couldn’t answer, because while the interviewer wanted me to trot out something about Joyce and Beckett, I could not get past the question. The idea that writers with other nationalities to mine do not produce great literature is ridiculous. What about French literature? British? Russian, Argentinian, Australian? Japanese, Canadian, Spanish? The question of national identity interests me greatly. It is nothing more than an accident of birth—parents and place; or a migration; or a straight financial transaction. My first novel, Generation, explores this theme of migration, its nine point-of-view characters traversing as many borders over a period of seven decades, for a range of different reasons. As far as I’m concerned, the compulsion to migrate is part of what it means to be human.

There is a perception that writers are well-supported in Ireland, and it is true that there is Arts Council support—though not nearly enough—and an artist’s tax exemption; there is a thriving literary journal scene; Creative Writing programmes are busier than ever; literary festivals abound; libraries remain at the heart of our communities. But this is true of other places too. In my sister’s region of rural France, a hardcore literary group meets to share their eclectic and wide-ranging reading discoveries once a month; we both know about the lively the literary scene you were at the heart of in Florence, Mundy. Back in L.A. in the nineties, I read my poems at open mic nights. I could go on. Irish literary exceptionalism is limiting and, frankly, embarrassing.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

If I haven’t written for a while—between projects, or at times during my PhD, or during school holidays when my children where younger—I get contrary. What tends to happen is that creativity asserts itself some other way. I often wonder if my long-time yoga practice, itself a creative act, was what kept the writing at bay for so long.

Motherhood can make creativity a challenge. What differences did you notice before and after? Did it impact your creativity in a way that you didn’t expect i.e. did you change direction, lose or gain anything, etc.?

Is there a bigger word than ‘challenge’? Kids change everything. There are so many variables to factor in such as the age and number of the children, their state of health, stage in education, mood, current sugar intake… When I had my first child, I was appalled at the disruption to my yoga practice and peace of mind. I wasn’t writing at the time, but I couldn’t have strung a sentence together. He’s 22 now, and has three siblings, so I’ve had time to adjust! I began writing seriously around the time my twin boys were born. I don’t know what that was about, except that the urge to write, which was always there, became urgent and refused to be ignored.  I was, as you can imagine, very busy at the time, but this just made the pockets of time I did have all the more valuable; I remember—possibly inadvisedly—dashing out to a writers’ group between breastfeeds! If you’re serious about writing, you will find time. Sometimes I think about all the time I had in my early twenties and wish I’d got my act together sooner. It would have been nice to be eligible for those age-restricted prizes.

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How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I haven’t had terrible reviews (yet!), but I have had plenty of rejection. It comes with the territory. Keeping positive is all about perspective for me. In the context of a global pandemic, a recent rejection stings a little, but even a writer’s ego can’t pretend it matters in the bigger scheme. In more normal times, being an optimist helps, as does talking about it with friends or family. My failsafe positivity activities are yoga, walking down the Bull Wall and watching films that make me laugh, like Clueless, Bridget Jones, Strictly Ballroom, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, especially Sideways…

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Not yet, but I hope to do so shortly, pandemic permitting. I recently participated in an environment symposium, organised by the Royal Irish Academy and British Academy. Early Career Researchers from the UK and Ireland paired up to propose creative projects to address social and environmental crises, and I will be working with a writer and academic from the University of Liverpool on two ‘walkshops’, one in Merseyside and one on Bull Island, the primary output of which we be a co-authored non-fiction essay. It was a lot of fun putting the proposal together so I’m looking forward to the process and to seeing what we come with.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I had another career before I was a writer and am married to someone with a ‘real’ job, both of which help. I received Arts Council funding in 2016 which, though small in the scheme of things, allowed me to contribute to household expenses, specifically childcare. The Irish Research Council provided an income while I did my PhD. I also teach, part-time, in UCD.

I would feel a fraud giving anyone advice since my career trajectory involved stumbling into situations and developing a narrative around them afterwards. The best I can do is pass on the sensible advice I received—and ignored—which is to choose a career you can fall back on. You will need to pay rent and eat and the precarity of working in the arts cannot be overstated.

How does creativity enrich your life and help you in other areas?

My life has been filled with creative projects, so I don’t know any other kind. These days, most of my creativity is channelled into writing, but I’ve also renovated a yoga studio, built an eco-friendly house, planted a native woodland, travelled, practised and taught yoga, baked bread, cooked interesting meals, learned musical instruments, given birth, solved problems… and on and on. I can’t imagine my life without creativity, but then, I can’t imagine any life without it. Creativity is a fundamental part of our existence—our capacity to adapt depends on it—so it will always find a way to assert itself. Those described as “creatives” are just the ones who have figured out how to access their creativity on a regular basis.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

Artists are more valuable to society than society gives them credit, if remuneration is the measure. An unexpected consequence of our new Covid-19 circumstances is that artists and arts are being appreciated more. As sports meetings cease; cinemas, theatres, bookshops, concert halls, venues, galleries close; and favourite TV shows and movie-making and other collaborative projects are put on hold, our available arts—whether it’s a Netflix series, or the radio, or books we have stockpiled (ahem) or can download—are keeping us occupied and engaged and, hopefully, sane.

I don’t approach my writing with a sense of responsibility, rather, with an idea that interests me, which needs nurturing in order to keep it alive, that is, my writing practice and everything that feeds it. But my ideas and the work that comes out of them cannot be divorced from the rest of my life, so my concerns will inevitably appear in the work. The Eighth Amendment was a cause for anger for thirty years, so it’s not surprising that I wrote a book about female bodily autonomy (A History of Running Away), or that nature trauma is at the heart of what I’ve been working on lately.

Given the new situation the world finds itself in—with a virus that does not recognise class, gender or age—what role do you think creativity should play now and after this period has passed?

Given the means and conditions, everyone—not just artists—would be more creative. At the moment, out of necessity, governments across the planet are experimenting with universal income in various iterations and I hope this is something we keep beyond the current crisis, because when artists are free to do what they do, the world is a better place, for everyone.

Covid-19 is a harsh lesson in the interconnectedness of all life forms, one which won’t easily be brushed aside, post pandemic. One immediately observable effect has been the renewed respect for science among those who fancied they were better off without experts. My hope is that this will translate into climate action. Our inadequate response to the environmental crisis can be attributed to more than climate denial, though; we seem to have an inability to act in our own best interests until we experience first-hand the impact of what it means to do nothing. But now, while Covid-19 wreaks havoc, access to the world outside our homes has grown increasingly limited. (As I write, we in Ireland are restricted to a 2km radius of our house, for exercise or shopping.) The mass exodus to mountains and beaches when our freedoms began to be curtailed was our knee-jerk response: we do care about the environment, our animal-natures informed us, so we clogged up the roads to get out into it, let social distancing be damned. Our enforced separation from the natural world during Covid-19 might well be the key to closing the distance from it we have created, allowing us to recognise that it is a two-way relationship; that it is in jeopardy; and that we need to act. Greta Thunberg told us almost a year ago that we must unite behind the science to solve the environmental crisis. The creative and largely collaborative responses to the Covid-19 virus shows that we are capable of organising and acting quickly when we are left with no alternative; as with a writing prompt, creativity asserts itself when it is restricted. We need to apply the learning to the environmental crisis.

Creativity: Poet, Story Writer and Novelist Fred Johnston

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951 and educated there and in Toronto, Canada. In Belfast, he attended St Malachy’s College. He moved to Dublin, where he was to publish eight short stories over a period of time with the late David Marcus, in the New Irish Writing pages of The Irish Press. In 1972, he received a Hennessy Literary Award for prose. Working in Public Relations and later in journalism, in the mid-Seventies, along with playwright Peter Sheridan and novelist Neil Jordan, he founded The Irish Writers’ Co-operative (Co-Op Books.) Following a period in North Africa, he received The Sunday Independent Prose Award and followed it with their Poetry Award. In Galway, he founded the city’s annual international literature festival, Cúirt, in 1986 as a poetry-only festival. At this time, he wrote and broadcast for RTE radio a set of programmes on the new poets of the West of Ireland and produced a commercial cassette, ‘Poets in the West,’ featuring Sydney Bernard Smith, Paul Durcan, Gerald Dawe and some of his own work, accompanied by traditional Irish music from the late Charlie Brown (flute) and Sean Ryan (tin whistle.) Later, he founded the city’s Western Writers’ Centre, which ran for almost fifteen years. During this period, he received a Prix de l’Ambassade for translation of a French poet and was invited to be writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What strength do you admire in others?

Reading motivated me in my last years at school and afterwards. It was a great pleasure to be able to purchase one’s own sorts of books. When writing, one escapes into a world over which one has some sort of control, as it were. For an only child, it was a blessing, the world was very big. If I developed a ‘forte,’ it was a species of unbridled imagination! Again, a gift of most solitary children. Not always enough, of course. And sometimes it lags. I think there is the world of what we term reality and another, parallel world of the imagination and if you’re lucky as a writer they touch against one another at times. By others, I presume you mean other writers. I’m almost old-fashioned in my literary tastes and novelists such as Maugham and Greene, Durrell and Hemingway, Faulkner and Joyce and Steinbeck all had two things, great sense of style and a marvellous command of the English language. Often younger novelists tend to go for the former and let the latter slide. It’s a sort of fashion.

When the creative well is dry, do you have techniques you return to? I’d like to say I did, but I’m a rather moody writer.

The only technique that I have ever found to be efficacious is reading. If you want to write prose, then read prose; likewise if you wish to write poetry, read it. That’s the best kick-start I know to one’s own writing when one’s own stream runs dry. But one must accept dry spells. Like rejection, they are part of the game. Of course in every creative writer there is a hack waiting to get out, and if put to the pin of one’s collar a decent writer can churn out a thousand words on just about anything to pay the rent.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I’d be flattered to think I even do possess an authentic voice, either in poetry or prose. One is influenced by what one reads, that’s unavoidable. The authenticity is in what one says and how one says it, not particularly in the words one uses. Social media, media in general, doesn’t influence me towards a voice of any sort, really, though one wishes one possessed the facility, as some do, to read a current newspaper headline and create a novel from it. The Corona Virus blockbuster novel is, I dare say, just around the corner. People trapped on a cruise ship, that sort of thing. That may sound flippant, but wait and see. Likewise the volume of poetry entitled ‘Corona’ can’t be far off. I have serious doubts about that sort of thing. Social media has given a platform to some dreadful poetry, though. And allowed some people to think of themselves as poets who simply are not poets.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family?

I was driven to write – there’s no other verb really – from an early age, as I’ve said. Just as I was driven to play the guitar and sing folk-songs, for that matter; a need to express myself, shout out that I existed, I suppose. I suppose I was supported by my family insofar as they didn’t really object to either proposition; but my father did express the view that my writing would not make any money and he was correct there. A very literary man, he did come from an age when learning a good trade was considered vital. My mother, coming from an entertainment background, encouraged my performing. I think parents have to conceal their admiration as well as their distastes from their children. There comes a point where their opinions no longer carry weight with their offspring anyway. And young people in their late teens and early twenties are determinedly self-centred and rather in love with themselves, so a parent’s opinions come up against a very high wall.

In the 70’s you founded the Irish Writer’s Cooperative with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan and in the 80’s you founded the poetry festival Cúirt. What was the impetus behind these two cultural activities? Was the experience worthwhile?

The impetus behind the first was my having read of how the Scandanavian writers were forming groups and publishing one another in turn. I wrote letters to newspapers about it and received a call from playwright Peter Sheridan – might we meet up? In Captain America’s Restaurant in Dublin’s Grafton Street we met with Neil Jordan, a teacher at the time, and over a very decent burger we discussed the possibility of publishing a young contemporary named Desmond Hogan, he had a novel completed called ‘The Ikon Maker.’ To this point, writers really had to seek publishers abroad. We needed a collective name for grants purposes, and settled on The Irish Writers’ Co-operative, which in due course became Co-Op Books. Heady days indeed! The late journalist and publisher John Feeney and I left after a time, others came on board. Writers such as the late Leland Bardwell, Sebastian Barry, Neil himself, Des Hogan of course, Lucille Redmond, and others were all published by Co-Op Books. Irish literary histories, rehashed in newspapers or even in anthologies, fail to mention the organisation. I don’t know why this is. One might suggest with some validity that the Irish home-grown publishing scene would not exist had the Co-Op not come about. One supposes that there is a generation of young writers now who believe that Irish literary history started with them. It didn’t. They have it very easy now. And the younger they are, the better their publishing chances. It was not always so. Founding the Cúirt festival in 1985/6 came about from my reading of Daniel Corkery’s ‘The Hidden Ireland,’ in which there is mention of ‘courts’ of poetry, organised for the most part after the fall of the Gaelic order. I was working as a literary officer in Galway Arts Centre at the time, which was based in an old disused church. Now the title has been foreshortened. Originally it full title was ‘Cúirt Filíochta Idirnáisiúnta na Gaillimhe,’ which makes plain that it was a festival exclusively devoted to poetry. I can’t imagine who believed that it might also be an umbrella title for a gathering including music and prose and so on. The first outing was over a weekend, more or less, and featured great poets such as the late Iain Crichton Smith, John Cooper Clarke, Paul Durcan, Nuala ni Dhomnaill, John Hogan, and others. It was an extraordinary success – and naturally with that success came politicking and, frankly, a march of egos and a very unpleasant time for me. My view of the entire Galway City arts world was tainted by those experiences, at least some of which were, shamefully in my view, to rear their heads again. It wasn’t about money, or anything quite as grubby; it was about power. Who, in a city not far removed from its past as a cattle-market town in the West of Ireland, ought to be ‘in charge’ as it were, of elements of the emerging cultural scene. I was naive, I admit it, and had never thought of art as being linked to parochial power.

How do you keep positive if an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Well, if it’s a short story that’s not going one’s way, or a poem for that matter, one leaves it aside – never throw anything out! You are parent to your creation, after all. Negative feedback, in terms of reviews, for instance? You have to expect those. Maybe a reviewer genuinely doesn’t like your work or genuinely doesn’t like you. In Ireland there’s a lot of the latter. Nothing to be done about it. A writer should never attack his reviewers. They have a job to do, as one also has a job to do and that’s that. If one doesn’t like negative criticism, then one should do well to look elsewhere for a job. I have known some writers to stoop very low indeed to uproot a reviewer of whom they didn’t approve. Very bad form. Demeaning to literature, if you wish. Insulting. There should be a literary Coventry to which such individuals can be exiled.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Did your work evolve/change in some way after the experience?

I have collaborated with translators, of course. And with a French poet whom I translated. And composers. I would dearly enjoy to work with a visual artist. I think poets are closet visual artists anyway. Translation allows one to see one’s work in a new light and working with a composer who is composing his music around one’s poem is always illuminating. Different transmutations take place. Different elements fold into one another. One gets back more than one puts in and consequently it’s all quite humbling. A new work has been created. It is different from what one started out with, of necessity. I should think it would be very exciting to work, as others have, on a lengthy project involving music and poetry. There are some very fine expressionistic artists working in sound-forms, one such being Danny McCarthy in Cork, who has made several recordings. All of that is extremely interesting.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you give to someone starting out?

I should advise anyone starting out, much as my father might, to find a job that makes some decent money, or a patron who’ll give one decent hand-outs. Much easier to find the former nowadays. In seriousness, writing, even for those with several novels out, is not a money-spinner. The Stephen Kings are rare, we shouldn’t forget that. Some Irish novelists with, publicly, considerable literary success, nonetheless found themselves having to return to nine-to-five employment. And there is no money in poetry, unless you are very good at ‘networking’ and can find one’s self invited to literary festivals all around the place. One might live on that, and ancillary things, like reviewing or giving workshops. I’m retired now, but generally speaking I’ve worked as a journalist, PR man, sub-editor, loaded train wagons, dug a trench or two, and even giving writerly advice. And experienced long periods on the dole. Most art is created on the dole, by the way. Only arts administrators make money. Which is a bizarre situation. Yet I’ve yet to hear someone at the launching of their new collection of poems say “I wish to thank the Department of Social Welfare. without whose regular payments this work would not have been possible.” They’re far too snobbish to admit that. And most arty audiences are too snobbish to want to hear it.

Do you think your national identity influences you and/or gives you a unique perspective on the world stage?

I was born in Northern Ireland and have lived all my live, save for my childhood in Canada, in the Republic. I have always had an interest in, but never a deep patriotic feeling towards, Ireland. Though I admire those who do. I believe that Republican writers should have their work featuring on the educational curriculum, especially those who sacrificed much in the conflict of Northern Ireland. Loyalist writers, too. I left Belfast before what are called the ‘Troubles’ really got under way, so I don’t feel qualified to write about that period too much. Then again an entire school of writing has come out during that period. Unfortunately it has overshadowed much Northern Irish, or Ulster, writing that went before it. Ask a young Belfast writer who Sam Hanna Bell was, hear what he or she replies. I have written poems from an exile’s point of view, so to speak. I ought to say, perhaps at some risk, that writers of my generation in the Republic were never too concerned about the North and perhaps rather envied how quickly big British publishers took up poets and novelists from there. Conflict is always artistically sexy. In the Republic some writers clearly desire to be English writers. Irish-language writers have stayed true to their country in a way some others have not. I see myself as a European writer and admire the French. They have a history in philosophy which we do not, for one thing. Their writing is infused with it. And they have a very healthy suspicion of institutional politics.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

Yes, one does have such a responsibility and any artist who says he or she is ‘above’ or ‘outside’ politics is simply dodging it, usually because they fear political engagement might taint them in some manner or interfere with their careers. But writing is not a career. It’s a vocation, and I won’t lean heavily on that word. How can one proclaim that one looks at the world in one’s work and ignore social or political distress? The very first political act is in a word, when one first learns one’s name. The first poem, the first story one publishes declares who one is at a higher level. You cannot look at what Israel is doing in Gaza, for instance, call yourself a writer and at the same time never write so much as a letter to a paper about it. The artist of whatever discipline must speak, make utterance literary or visual against injustice even in a story about love. Look at Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ It’s an act of love. And defiance. And witness. Self-censorship is a dreadful thing. God knows, one’s fellow writers can do a good enough job of trying to censor you.

Given the new situation the world finds itself in—with a virus that does not recognise class, gender or age—what role do you think creativity should play now and after this period has passed?

That’s a fascinating question, for one senses the world will have been changed in many ways. Some we cannot yet imagine. And that ought to happen, we cannot simply slide back into our old ways. Here we have a natural phenomenon, quite deadly to many, that doesn’t take into account how many shares you hold or how much interest you have running on Wall Street. Yet what one term’s the ‘great’ powers dithered and prevaricated and allowed people to die because they didn’t know how to respond. These same powers pour enormous amounts of money into rogue states in real cash terms or militarily and without a blink. They support very dubious regimes to kill and maim and dispossess other people. Yet no one has come up with a cure for cancer or even the common cold. Now this mutated common virus comes along and starts wiping us out – the arms sales continue, the support for nasty regimes continues. Art may explain some things, point out some unpalatable truths when this is over, if it ever is. But politicians do not listen to what art has to say. Besides, the great novels that spoke of totalitarianism, the great poems that warned us, have been written out of former conflicts and we haven’t learned a thing. Art has been allowed to become entertainment. Art should upset people, disturb them, uplift them surely, but most of all move them. You may not be able to hang a riot on a wall, but you can paint something that produces a just anger. A poem means nothing to a starving child, but a poem about a starving child just might move someone to action, however modest. If we are wise as writers and artists, we will look back on this time and think. If we are done with thinking, as many have been in history once a plague has passed, then it’s all irrelevant anyway. Bring on the next plague, the next illegal annexation, the next atrocity. This is not a thinking age. Our iPods and various similar devices have taken care of thinking. A teenager may kill for a pair of expensive runners. But when was the last time a teenager killed someone for a copy of ‘War and Peace?’

 

Creativity: The Gloss Beauty Editor Sarah Halliwell

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Writing about beauty and beyond for 20 years plus. Beauty editor at The Gloss Magazine since 2011. Previously freelanced, writing for publications including Elle, the Observer, and worked on Time Out magazine for several years. Originally from Yorkshire, UK, I’ve lived by the sea in Dublin since 2010.

What about your work motivates you? What would you say is your forte?

I just feel really lucky to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s all I ever wanted to do, and it still takes me by surprise that I get to do it every day. Working with the brilliant, dedicated, inspiring team at The Gloss – who always strive for better even when it’s harder to do so – is a massive motivator. You don’t go into publishing or writing to make lots of money – it’s for the beauty of expressing yourself and doing something you love every day.

I’m far better at listing my weaknesses. But I think I can be a good listener, which helps when doing interviews. And I try to convey my enthusiasm and passion for things in my writing.

What inspires you in the beauty industry today? How has it evolved and where do you think it is headed?

What inspires me most about the beauty industry is meeting creative and passionate people. I find perfumers particularly interesting and have been lucky enough to meet several, from Jean-Claude Ellena, the genius ex-Hermès perfumer, to Olivier Polge at Chanel. It’s like meeting an artist or composer – I never get tired of hearing them talk about ingredients, stories and different approaches to creating unforgettable scents. I also love writing about, and hopefully supporting, small Irish companies working to create sustainable, beautiful things with a focus on local ingredients.

The way the industry is evolving is fascinating, and currently the big focus is sustainability and “slow beauty”. Brands are falling over themselves to show off their eco-friendly credentials, and it’s a positive thing that we’re becoming more discerning and careful about what we consume in terms of beauty products. It’s also a particularly vibrant time for Irish beauty – there are so many brilliant homegrown brands that are truly authentic and passionate about what they do, from the Burren Perfumery to Cloon Keen in Galway and Benoit Nicol’s The Nature of Things.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

When I worked at Time Out magazine in London back in 2000, it was one of the only few truly independent voices in print. The ethos was built around honesty – giving genuine opinions, remaining independent from advertisers and, above all, being true to the audience. Similarly at The Gloss, we all try to take a refreshing and independent approach. At a time when so much of social media has an agenda, or is sponsored – endless influencers being paid to say how much they love a particular fake tan – print seems more important than ever, an alternative to the relentless noise of social media. When it comes to the beauty industry, I’ve always tried to maintain a healthy scepticism. There’s a lot of nonsense talked!

When did you know that you wanted to work the beauty industry? Were you influenced/inspired by your family, friends, etc?

All I ever wanted to do was write. It was my favourite thing to do and the thing I was good at from primary school onwards. I was never pushed or pressured at school which meant you just had to focus on what you were good at. In the 1980s, careers advice at a girls’ school was not the most useful; I remember asking what I could do with an English degree, and the one suggestion was to become a librarian … After a first job working in an eccentric private art collection, I eventually got into book publishing, where my perfectionist editor pushed me out of my comfort zone all the time, making me braver. I became interested in beauty when I was editing the shopping and fashion section at Time Out, and continued from there.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

A small word of encouragement can make a huge difference when you write. You always think that when you’re older, you’ll be full of confidence and authority, but I still feel nervous when I file a piece of work, and rarely feel confident about it; I always want to do it better. However I’m pretty hardy, and genuinely happy to take constructive criticism from people I respect. Getting nominated for a Jasmine Award last year for writing about perfume was a lovely confidence boost. I do think when you get to 50, though, you generally care less about what people think of you and that is definitely liberating. Being able to let irrelevant things go over your head is actually a vital skill.

Have you collaborated within the beauty industry and/or with professionals in other fields? Was the experience worthwhile?

Not really – but I’d love to work with a perfumer someday and create my own perfume, or even lipstick colour; sadly I was utterly useless at science at school and it would take me a lifetime to pass even the most basic chemistry exam so I can’t make them myself …

Outside of the beauty industry, where do you draw inspiration? Do you have certain people you turn to?

I am inspired by travel – seeing what’s new in cities. I (usually) go to Paris and London quite often for beauty launches, and have been further afield too. I love to explore local beauty finds, such as the incredibly atmospheric hammams in Marrakech. Also, reading: I’m a huge fan of Luca Turin’s wonderfully opinionated writing about perfume, and admire many brilliant Irish writers, such as Colum McCann and Sara Baume. And designers like Dries Van Noten. I play a lot of tennis and, in these strange times, am finding a tennis mindset helpful: in a match, you focus on just winning each point at a time, rather than the end result, and it’s the same now – taking everything just one day at a time.

Do you think your national identity influences you and/or gives you a unique perspective on the world stage?

My national identity is slightly blurred at this stage. Though I was born in Yorkshire, I have been in Ireland for ten years now and hope to get an Irish passport. I fell in love with Irish literature and countryside (and an Irishman, now my husband) 30 years ago and absolutely love living here; I wear Stable of Ireland’s tricolour scarf with pride. I’m glad to have worked in London and had that experience, though; I do think it gives you a different perspective to move away from home, and to survive in a big city you have to up your game.

How does creativity enrich your life?

In so many ways. I feel so lucky to be able to work flexibly (now more than ever), travel to interesting places and see behind the scenes of how beautiful things are created, from meeting the lady who designs Chanel’s perfume bottles to talking about colour, creativity and Elizabeth Taylor with Philip Treacy in his studio. I constantly have to do new things, such as make videos, or host beauty events in front of audiences ­and, much as you dread these things at first, new challenges, that push you out of your comfort zone, always keep things interesting. I love doing a job that’s different every day – it never gets boring.

Lastly, you live by the sea, does it play a role in your life, creatively or otherwise?

Living by the sea is one of the biggest benefits of living in Dublin for me – I absolutely love it and swim whenever I can throughout the year. A cold swim instantly changes your mood, uplifts you and clears your head. You certainly know you’re alive! At the moment it’s a particular lifesaver, and I love seeing the older men and women fearlessly wade into the icy water every morning without flinching. I find it endlessly calming and restoring, and feel immensely lucky to have a desk that overlooks the bay.

Creativity: Author Nuala O’Connor

 

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir (aka Nuala O’Connor) lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in the US, Ireland and the UK. Her forthcoming novel is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

It’s a great question, motivation. I think it changes, over the years. I’m twenty plus years writing seriously and, at the start, it was pure joy and love of the act of writing. Now it’s my job so the motivations are to share my work, to be published and read, and to earn a living.
The joy remains, but there’s a different impetus added to it.
As for my forte, in terms of writing I’d say it’s fiction. In terms of craft, I’d say it’s stick-with-it-ability and a willingness to always learn and grow.
I admire writers like Salinger and Ferrante who, to whatever extent, managed to extricate themselves from the PR roundabout and just get on with the writing. That’s what important for creatives: doing the work. Not the promo and public appearances – creating.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I rarely get a dry spell. I can’t write poems, often, but my fictional well doesn’t dry up. I have a lot of stories whirling in my mind that I want to tell. The problem is trying to get the time and space to commit to projects. Having said that, my new year’s resolution this year was to not begin a new novel (once the one in hand is done). I want to give my head room and space to think over some stories and, hopefully, some poems.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I don’t tend to feel infected by other people’s voices, I’m confident that I have my own voice and style; I know what I’m doing with my writing, most of the time. That doesn’t mean I think everything I do is great, or that I’m always happy at my desk but, once I’m enjoying myself, that’s good enough for me.
I do sometimes get down about the emphasis on literary prizes. I don’t write prize-winny, zeitgeisty novels; I don’t have one eye on the market. I can only write about things I’m passionate about. Literary prizes can seem like cynical exercises and they also seem to be the only things that the public responds to. So, if you’re not winning prizes, few people seem to care about your books.

I started entering short story comps again in the last couple of years to see if I could up my profile a bit. I live in a very quiet, non-literary town and, sometimes, I feel out-of-it. I wish that prizes weren’t the only thing – we need more quality reviewing outlets. In Ireland The Dublin Review is great, for example, but it can be hard to get quiet books – like the ones I write – noticed.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I come from a creative family: my parents both painted and acted for pleasure, my mother made our clothes (for seven of us!); my sisters are artists, photographers, costume makers, editors. My mother fed me books as a child too, I’d read a book a day, and she supported me in that brilliantly. I always wanted to be a writer but I thought it was for magic people with special insider knowledge, not for working class girls like me. It took until I was twenty-eight for me to really grab writing by the neck and say, ‘You’re for me.’
Yes, I’m very Irish. I love the bones of the place and I love our languages –Irish and English – and all things colloquial and native. I love our ability to laugh at our own absurdity, to talk long and hard, and to enjoy ourselves. That influences my writing.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I go a bit nuts; I get cranky and hard to live with. Writing keeps me on an even keel, keeps me sane and happy.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I cry it out, rant and rave to my husband, who listens well. My agent is super supportive too and she’s honest, which I love. Some things are harder to get over than others because you set your heart on certain outcomes and then, if they fail, it’s very disappointing. Some failures and disappointments still hurt me, but you have to just get on with it. The creative life is hugely about tenacity. I can see why some writers give up and disappear, the rejections and setbacks are constant; there’s no endpoint with this, it’s all journey.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Yes, I’ve collaborated with other writers and visual artists – writing works prompted by their (art) works. I love that, it’s a different way to work, a little daunting, but always worthwhile. You write things that would never have occurred to you otherwise.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

The financial side is hard. There are very few writers earning good livings. I supplement book advances with other work: mentoring new writers, articles, essays, appearances at literary festivals, teaching creative writing etc. I apply for bursaries too. Also my husband has a real job, with regular wages, so we never starve. But we live in an affordable part of the country and we live modestly.
If you’re starting out, and can afford to, work part time and organise your remaining time well – use it to write often, commit to one main project and work at it regularly. Routine is helpful – it keeps you connected to the work, immersed in the headspace of it, and that helps with moving it along.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I’m deeply introverted and also shy, so I love working alone and being my own boss. I like that I’m in charge of my own time and can devote as many hours as I need to my writing.
Because I’m happy at my work, that rubs off on my children. They see my contentment but, because I work from home, also my disappointments and concerns about the creative life. I doubt they have any illusions about it. That’s maybe why my boys are determined to become computer programmers and engineers. My daughter (at the moment) wants be a crazy cat lady/writer. She didn’t pick that off the stones 😉
When I write, I’m happy, so it’s important to me to write every day or, at least, five days a week.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

You have a responsibility to what you’re writing and the people you write about. The artist should shine a torch down the well of time, to help people understand various eras, including our own. It’s not necessarily the artist’s role to wave placards on the street but we can if we want. We can be subversive and political in what we write but that’s up to the individual. As a feminist I write from that perspective but I’m way more interested in story.

Creativity: Author and Artist Jalina Mhyana

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Jalina Mhyana is an American artist and author of three poetry books, one of which won publication in Pudding House poetry chapbook competition, as well as the hybrid collection Dreaming in Night Vision. Mhyana holds an MFA in literature and creative writing from Bennington College. Her poetry, essays, and prose appear in or is forthcoming from The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, CutBank, The Roanoke Review, Structo, and many others, and she is currently collaborating with artists around the world to illustrate her most recent collection of prose. Learn more at www.jalina.co.uk.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte?

Mallarme wrote, “Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; the interconnections; the puns or bridges, the correspondence.” I’ve always found connections between disparate elements and created something completely new from the juxtaposition, whether that’s art, poetry, or some kind of revelation.

Rough drafts motivate me; how forgiving they are, how they offer themselves up for violence under my pen or my knife. At the end of several hours’ work I love that I’m ankle-deep in discarded words and confetti from my papercut artwork. All the discarded negative space from my composition and all the words that have gone unsaid is just as important as what I choose to leave whole and choose to say. In that sense, every work of art and every book has so many conversations going on beneath the surface, so many lives before they reach the cover or the frame.

These early iterations urge me on and give me confidence.

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What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte?

As a writer and artist, I’m always looking for the “underglimmer” – what the Japanese poet Basho described as deeply meaningful or poetic moments hidden in the mundane. My attention is always attuned to these discoveries, being a beachcomber in everyday life, filling my pockets with scribbled passages in lieu of seashells. Like Pippi Longstocking being a Thing-Finder; I’m without a doubt a thing-finder, though my “things” are usually ideas put in motion by my experiences.

What strength do you admire in others?

I admire integrity and honesty. Artists and writers who strip their souls to the bone. Billy Chyldish, Gide, Forché, Oswold, Dickey, and Thoreau, for instance.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it?

A well presupposes a finite and individual store of creativity. I don’t see it as a well but rather I feel that inspiration is as ever-present and communal as rain. In that sense it can never run dry and it’s accessible to all.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have creative problems.

My problem is, I have too many ideas. I’m in a perpetual state of rhapsodic inspiration which is a curse if you ever want to get anything done. My studio is filled with half-finished projects that I’m desperate to share/ publish/ send to contests/ show, but halfway through I’m already flirting with the next idea, the next project. My roving eye is truly the bane of my existence. I have countless canvases and manuscripts everywhere. It’s such a tease.

What fills me up? Hmmm. My journals fill me up. I’ve written journals since I was twelve – they’re the one place I can be as honest as the writers I admire. I often draw upon my journals, not just for inspiration but also when I’m writing lyrical essays. After being deported from the UK, my journals helped me chronicle my three-year exile in Italy for my memoir A Natural History of the Sky.

Curiously, editors of literary journals most often publish my rough drafts and journal entries over my more polished work. They tend to be enthusiastic about the pieces that my self-consciousness hasn’t had a chance to ransack yet. The pieces are feral and wild, even sort of mortifying, actually – but their acceptance in the better journals confirms what I believe; that what we need is honesty over artifice.

Do you have techniques you return to?

When I’m having moments of self-doubt, which happens to me often, the best cure is to hide, to burrow into my books and journals and my imagination, which is partially because I’m agoraphobic and have difficulty leaving my apartment in the first place. But artists are known for being highly sensitive – we need to escape the chatter, noise, smells, sounds, temperatures of the outside world in order to wipe the slate clean and regenerate. To make space for new ideas. Otherwise I become so saturated with the world, I feel I’m disappearing beneath the weight of it.

I stay in my apartment for months on end. If you look at my social media pages, you’ll notice months at a time when I just go missing. My friends and I call it “falling off the edge of the earth.” Which is apropos, because when I’m creating, I always push myself off the edges of my comfort zone. Without this rest cure, being able to hibernate or go fallow and create, I wouldn’t be able to cope. The body and soul know what they need. They demand it.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice?

That’s a good question! This circles back around to my response to question one and the artists and writers that I love. They aren’t bound by any trendy moral conventions and you can pick out a line from their painting or writing and recognize their voices instantly. I like to think that I push myself until I feel mortified and totally exposed – that’s when I know I’m doing it right. It can be paralysing, but I’m very bold when I’m alone in my writing studio. Ask me to explain my work face to face and I’d probably crumble, but behind my keyboard I’m like the great and powerful Oz.

Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

Though I’m all over the internet in one way or another, I have to say that nothing stops me in my tracks and makes me doubt myself like social media. It’s been said a million times, but it’s true: the way people present themselves in a perfect light on social media makes it difficult to be authentic and flawed. I tend to adopt an insincere voice, and as I write I’m thinking of all of my “friends” who might read it, and so my posts are censored by dozens of people before they even reach the keyboard. It’s so much easier writing for strangers in literary journals. On social media I am not the great and powerful Oz. It draws the curtain aside and reveals me as a self-aggrandizing coward.

I really miss the idea of writers and artists being unpredictable renegades and rock stars of sorts leading glorious, fever-pitched lives. It seems to me that artists and writers these days are expected to be perfectly responsible business people who print out charts to organise their weekly social media posts in advance in an effort to publicize their latest book or show. It seems such a shame to me. I try to do the publicity thing too but ultimately feel like an impostor and can’t stand myself.

I’m definitely more the old-school type of artist – the eccentric, awkward one that’s always a day late and a dollar short, whose life is stranger than fiction. On social media I tend to tone myself down and hide anything that’s sacred and real. My voice suffers for being hidden.

I can think of several people who are engaging and witty on my feed, though – they have fantastic conversations with people and they manage to be completely genuine. They’re endlessly followable and likeable. I don’t understand how they do it nonstop, day in and day out, 24/7. I just feel stifled and bewildered by it all and can’t take more than an hour a week or so.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way?

I won an art contest when I was nine. This was the first time I was singled out and given recognition for anything. When I was seventeen I won poetry competitions and was encouraged by the poet Bob Arnold, who made me believe I had promise. Even back then my writing was very visceral and shocking and it was this self-awareness that won me accolades. By then I had the itch. I had to create.

But I had no idea how to make a career as an artist/writer so I had many false starts and my creative work became relegated to hobby status. It wasn’t until I was thirty, living in Japan, that poet Laurie Kuntz took me under her wing. With her encouragement I went on to get my MFA in creative writing and my manuscript won an international poetry award. From then on, my loyalty to my artistic impulse has remained steadfast and passionate but it was subjugated for a long time.

I often regret that I didn’t pursue my art more diligently through the years, but I was busy raising two incredible daughters, volunteering, and adjusting to living in new countries all of the time. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I can concentrate on my artwork and writing.

Were you encouraged and supported by your family?

My family always supported my writing; for instance, my grandmother bought me a thesaurus when I was a teenager with an inscription that read, “To help with your writing career, Lina Girl!” My parents have always nurtured my creativity and built me up. When I’m down, my dad reminds me that with my creativity, I can create a whole new world for myself, a better world. This reminds me of Anais Nin: “I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live.”

Does your national identity influence you?

After living overseas for over twenty years I don’t feel that I have a national identity. I envy writers and artists of place who have roots in a specific culture or tradition. I’d give anything to feel rooted in that way, to have my voice be a product of the terroir or ancestors. To be the voice of a specific place and time in history.

But instead my itinerant lifestyle makes me feel that I’m a perpetual visitor in other people’s cultures. Last year when I was homeless I went on a solo pilgrimage across Europe from Canterbury to Rome, alternating walking, hiking and train travel. This journey was the pinnacle of my peripatetic lifestyle and my rebellion against exile. If I couldn’t have a home, I would live in monasteries, hostels, and on church floors. I’m writing a sort of nomad’s poetic travelogue called Vagabond Reverie– a pillow book of poems, journal entries, texts, emails, travel lore, saints’ miracles, and mythology that recounts my journey.

At Canterbury cathedral as I was receiving my pilgrim’s blessing, the Deacon told me not to expect any pillow softer than stone on my trek. These were the words given to The Archbishop Sigeric who started the via Francigena pilgrim route in the year 990. So, I decided to make my own pillow – a “pillow book” filled with scraps, brochures, receipts, musings, and poems. The makura no soshiliterary genre brings me back to Japanese culture – Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Bookas well as Basho and his search for underglimmer on his pilgrimage through northern Japan.

My cultural identity is tied up with being a wanderer and being in exile. There is strength in numbers and in heritage, without which I often feel alone. But I like to think that my writing addresses this issue and that maybe it can give a voice to other uprooted people such as myself, people who long for a home they once had, or long for a home they’ve never had. That feeling of sehnsucht, or nostalgia for home is at once bittersweet and vicious.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I lose my identity and become depressed. I also become jealous of other people who have found the sweet spot of purpose in their lives. Of course, envy is ugly but I like to think of it as an indication of what’s missing and use it as a signpost. Whenever I feel a pang of envy, I know that I’m not being true to myself. Envy exists for a reason and isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s what we do with it that defines us.

It fuels me.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

No writer or artist is unilaterally applauded. Having been a member of writers’ groups from Vermont to Heidelburg to Oxford to Florence, I can honestly say that criticism doesn’t bother me like it used to and sometimes it proves really instructive. I usually need to let a critique sit for a few months before I act on it, though, because it’s too raw.

I used to be too easily influenced by my peers so these days I take time to weigh the voices in critiques against my own. Sometimes people can give revelatory feedback but at other times there can be too many cooks in the kitchen. If I go against my intuition, my writing comes out timid and disjointed, a Frankenstein’s monster kind of hybrid that has nothing to do with me anymore.

My favorite authors have been dragged through the mud again and again. Gide, for instance, collected his bad reviews – hundreds of scathing attacks of his writing and his character – but went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Public favor waxes and wanes. I don’t take much stock in it. The same goes for praise – it makes me happy, but I know how terribly subjective it is.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

My husband and I are currently collaborating on a monograph of his self portrait photography. I’m writing responses to his gender fluid images which are visually as provocative as my writing. He is a strange boy and I like to think of him as my own personal Frida Kahlo, so I delight in passing my hand into the frame of his photographs and poeticising him to the world. This is only possible because he believes in me and there is a total absence of ego between us. There aren’t many people I would be able to be so open and vulnerable with.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this?

This follows on nicely from the last question because just this month my husband and I started a graphic design business in our studio here in Florence, which is the ultimate collaboration. It’s hard work but also great fun. The opportunity to harness my artistic skills and have people pay for the things I create is an enormous pleasure.

Last year I started an editing business that was going pretty well, but the work was sporadic and I wasn’t able to make a decent living. On a lark, my husband and I branched out into design, and we were astonished by the reception we received.

We don’t mind living on meager artists’ income. We usually work for several hours, then take naps or play ping-pong across the studio space with a balled sock. Playfulness breathes life into the creative process and lets us escape the feeling of having been glued to a computer screen all day. We overcome the struggle of 16-hour workdays by breaking them up with naps. Our clients are international, so we nap between time zones, working on our contracts in Amsterdam, Paris, etc all day, then communicating with the USA around 3 pm, and around midnight, Australia gets going and we can interact with our clients there. We usually have our biggest nap at around 5 am, sitting in bed together gazing out at the hills of Fiesole just as the market vendors trundle by with their stalls below.

It’s a lovely, gentle workday and work environment that accommodates my chaotic and taciturn nature. I could never work in an office, so being able to make art for a living is a dream come true.

What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I’d say to cultivate a love of small pleasures. No one can take these away from you. A modest wish list will allow you to sustain a life centered around your art. Other than that, I don’t have much advice. I can only say that my writing and art sucked for about twenty years. If I’d given up I’d be really unhappy today. Don’t do that to yourself.

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What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being an artist is to be awake and pliable, in an eternal state of learning. My dad lovingly jokes that my husband and I spend our days in a fort under the table together, creating art and playing games by candlelight like children. This is astonishingly accurate. Playfulness permeates all aspects of my life. The artist in me refuses to grow old, and my childlike sense of wonder has helped me survive grievous episodes in life.

How do you view the role of the arts in society?

Virginia Woolf wrote, “We need the poets to imagine for us. The duty of Heaven-making should be attached to the office of the Poet Laureate.” Similarly, a housemate once told me that poets are “engineers of the soul.” I confessed to her that being a poet feels insignificant in the modern world, that I sometimes feel silly when I tell people I write poetry. Her occupation – green engineering – struck me as so much more beneficial to mankind than metaphors.

Ever since she mentioned engineers of the soul, I’ve noticed it in myself; how my soul is patched together with a rich brocade of poets’ words, or the poetic images of artists. Poetic gestures, too – some of the best poets I’ve known never wrote a single line of poetry. They don’t have to. They live and breathe poetry in the way they move, the way they make connections, the way they see things. They have a bit of magic about them. These things have engineered my sensibilities.

I remember reading Sartre’s The Words twenty years ago and thinking that he was writing my own thoughts, that he was a more articulate and brazen version of myself. He and so many others became my literary family. Sartre felt he knew the great authors personally. I share that sentiment, that sense of possession – the artists and writers I love are my tribe. I loathe talking about literature and art because I don’t want to muddy my affections or to whore my loves around. I think it was Ayn Rand who wrote that what we hold dearest to us we keep from promiscuous sharing. Art has the power of making us feel that it was made for us alone.

I believe that the arts allow us to be deeply human. I’ve cried so many times over books that spoke my secrets and reminded me that I wasn’t alone. This is sacred work. We have to approach it, as Casanova wrote, “with the knees of the mind bent.”

What is the role of the artist?

To expose the vulnerabilities and folly of humanity? To be a sort of cultural barometer, maybe?

But really, there’s no prescribed way of being or expectation or yolk the artist must wear. We’re all artists in our own unique way – if our path were defined, there would be no artistry, no seeking. We must set off into the wild and stamp down our own paths and create our own expectations of ourselves.

That said, in my own writing I sometimes explore charged issues, to be a spokesperson for this or that. For instance, I write a lot about mental health disorders, gender fluidity, open marriage, childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, drug addiction, exile, and poverty. But I don’t write these things because I feel I have a responsibility to make a statement. I write about these things because they’re part of my life and have shaped who I am. It would be strange not to write about them. But if someone told me that I have a responsibility to do so? I’d balk at the enormity of the burden.

One of my readers wrote me a letter a couple of years ago saying that my book saved her life. I would have never imagined such beautiful feedback, especially since I didn’t set out to save anybody. When we share our deepest selves, we connect. It happens accidentally, serendipitously.

The pieces that move my readers most – the poems, essays or prose pieces that they recite to me in letters or what have you – are almost always throwaways. Things that would have never made my favorites list. We never know how our words will be interpreted and how they’ll help someone.

Another reader wrote to me, saying that he felt understood for the first time in his life. It was revelatory to me that I was beginning to do for others what Sartre, Rilke, Mavor and Exupery, etc. did for me – that I was making people feel less alone. I’m so happy that my writing has a ripple effect. But if I set out to achieve any of this, my writing would be tedious, wooden, and unforgivably dogmatic. I leave it all to fate and coincidence.

Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I believe that as humans we all have a responsibility to stand up for those in weaker positions and to demand justice.

The literal meaning of responsibility – the ability to respond – is inherent in the artistic process. In essence, responding is what artists do – they respond to ideas, to culture, to the environment. That is our entire creative act – responding.

But the idea of artists “having a responsibility” is dangerous. I always bristle when this question is raised, as I believe the only thing artists should be concerned with is being honest to themselves. This may sound indulgent, but the minute artists and writers feel the need to be responsible, we start to question ourselves. We become preachers and advocates rather than artists. Or we just seize up under the weight of expectation.

The artist’s debt to society or moral code or intention is irrelevant. Art is a vessel to hold viewers’ emotions. Schopenhauer wrote, “Something, and indeed the final thingmust always be left over for the (beholder’s) imagination to do.” We all bring our own visions and humanity to artwork and literature and invest it with our interpretations. It’s a lot like Rorschach tests or cloud-busting. The artist’s sole responsibility is to make art – to do more is to deny the beholder the gift of completing the work themselves, of collaborating in the heady process of soul-engineering.

One of my favorite aphorisms goes something like: “Two girls find the meaning of life in a single line of poetry. I, who wrote the line, don’t know the meaning.” My teacher read that aloud in 10th grade and I’ve repeated it a thousand times since. Funny that one of my favorite quotes is about a quote that wasn’t intended to be meaningful.

Another approach to this question is artists’ ethics, though I bristle at this as well: when people expect artists to lead lives beyond reproach, sometimes to the point of boycotting their art if they fall short. “So-and-so was a chauvinist, so I’m not going to read his books/ watch his films/ listen to his music.” This feels so wasteful to me, since art inevitably takes on a life of its own and shouldn’t be constrained to or defined by a single fallible life. Art transcends the individual.

Besides, how would we judge ancient writers? How about Homer? Ovid? Catallus? Fast forward 1,600 years to Marlowe, Shakespeare, Tintoretto. Were they chauvinists? How could we possibly know for sure? Honestly, we would have to disavow the entirety of the western canon if we were to judge artists and writers by their scruples, held up against modern social norms.

Speaking of fallible lives, the fabulous historical fiction writer Christine De Melo and I recently gave a reading at St. Marks for Florence Writers entitled THE FLAWED PROTAGONIST – a glimpse into the lives of two very different fictional women who tell their shocking stories without apologies; one a modern American expat living in Germany, and the other a 14th century Veronese woman. The talented writer/translator Lori Hetherington asked us questions that really got to the bottom of the flawed heroine stereotype, and we decided that being flawed is being human.

At the end of the month I’ll be interviewed by a NYC journal called Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics, and Culture – about my experience of deportation from the UK and subsequent exile in Florence, from the perspective of a writer and artist. I’ve been writing a memoir about my experiences here that is a bit of an antithesis to the popular “middle aged woman comes to Florence and kisses an Italian man on Ponte Vecchio” sub-genre. It’s much grittier than that, and examines my personal exile in the context of today’s immigration climate, Brexit, Trump’s wall, etc. as well as historical instances of exile (Dante, Ovid, etc.). The personal becomes slightly political. The first chapter of my memoir, entitled “Prospecting,” if forthcoming from The Southeast Review.

I hope my experiences as a flawed protagonist in my own flawed life might shed some light on the brutality of draconian immigration policy and make people think twice before drawing lines in the sand designed to keep people apart. My husband and I are finally living together after three years apart, but Italy is the only country that will allow this. Our own countries – England and the US – won’t allow us to live together, despite spending tens of thousands of pounds on bureaucracy that has come to naught. Though Italy was never where we imagined ourselves living, or even wanted to live, we will be eternally grateful for the welcome we have received by the local government as well as the wonderful community of artists, writers, and friends in Florence.

These past three years have been really fertile for me as a writer and artist, though – and I’m just beginning to share my work again after going feral or fallow for a long time. I’m pleased to announce that my book of poems – ECHO BOREALIS – one such project completed here in Florence – is available on Amazon. I’m excited to share my collected works, some of which were originally published by Bad Moon Books and Pudding House Publications, as well as various literary journals. The Echo Borealis book cover seen here is an example of my artwork – and an art magazine recently asked to feature my work! So I feel that after a long hiatus in exile here, not knowing which way was up, I am finally reclaiming my creativity and getting it out into the world. It feels fantastic.

Here is a sample poem that will actually be included in my book-length narrative poem about my solo pilgrimage from Canterbury Cathedral to St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican last year. I walked about 500 miles and took a motley assortment of trains, bikes, random rides, etc the rest of the way. As the requirement to obtain a pilgrim certificate of completion is 100 KM, I managed 5X the average though I was incredibly ill-equipped, hadn’t practiced hiking, wearing a pack, and had no map or guide or plan…The following poem, A Piedi Nudi, begins in Lucca and follows on through San Gimignano.

A Piedi Nudi

I shed pilgrim footprints
like a medieval sinner
within Lucca’s city walls.
Is this exorcism
or penitence
dragged along Roman roads?
This is my survival: all
candles burned low
between soul
and skin. This is my demon
suit, my body hell.

I double back in spirals,
trace my steps to
a cathedral portico where
a thumbprint is chiseled
in stone like Borge’s
Labyrinth in a column
of Carrara marble.
The maze is smooth
with caresses, Cretan
helix worn by Theseus’
fingertips and all of us
pilgrims following his
lead to the demon
inside us.

Double back,
retrace your steps.
Listen for the roar,
feel its tremor
in city walls.

You’re getting closer.

In San Gimignano
I may as well be
a piedi nudi,
despite my well-worn shoes.
My feet are strapped with gauze,
prayer, and bit-lip bravado.
They shred and peel,
bad fruit.

With torch in mouth
I tend them: antibiotics,
lighter and safety pin
under a tent of paper sheets
at the convent.
I trail blood from
cot to shower as if
nightmares followed
me out of bed.
I kneel and scrub my wound
from Tuscan stone.

My body molts without
shade or shame,
no private pain or modest skin.
I break apart; a burst pod
or seed, a village spectacle.
Tourists with selfie sticks
and African bracelets
can scent me.
Sense that I am feral
and ripe, sweaty,
all blood and nipple.

Slightly crippled, my swagger
leans on a limp.
There should
be flies and young men
alert to this sweet
pitch of musk, slanted
sun and dust motes
dance through pheromones.
In an hour
I’d turn
and be no good.

Keep going.

Downward dog eyes
roll soft, gentle gaze
lets the world
be the world. It gives
me wilted flowers for my hair
and soft-sand river
banks for burying my
feet. Screams
fill with silt
up to the silent ankle bone.
Water sighs with me,
lets itself go lax and dally
whereit will. Path of least
resistance. I envy
its faith in gravity,
in deltas and tributaries.
Its belief in the sea.

Villages become neverlands,
all imagination.
Italy is one long vineyard.
I meet no one,
don’t speak for days save
curses and prayers.
Maybe curses are my prayer,
my savage fear:
rapists in every cave
and abandoned
building along
the forest path.
Straps hold me to this pack
and this parcel
of land.

If a man came at me
I wouldn’t shed
my gear fast enough—
breast buckle, shoulder hitches,
waist cinch;
the rucksack a built-in
bed, ready-made—
duct tape and sailor’s knots.
I’m more attached
to this pack
than my own skin
that sloughs away like the landscape
as I crest horizons.
I clench stones in my hands
to double my fists,
just in case,
and will myself
a kilometer farther
into this madness.

On lonely treks
I follow footsteps
of pilgrims who came
before me:
treads with leaf patterns,
diamonds, spirals.
They come and go.
When they reappear
I greet them, say hello
old friend, where
have you been?
Like inmates talking to spiders,
all the heart spilling over
to connect with
something outside
ourselves. I step in
their footprints, my tread
on theirs, like dancing
on my father’s toes.

Another day closes.
I climb a metal bunk ladder
in a monastery,
all squeaks and painful insoles
beneath the rung campanile.
I walk in my sleep, miles
of sheets,
looking for pilgrim
emblems
on sign posts
leading the way
to Rome.

Creativity: Author Christine de Melo

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

After obtaining an Art History degree from UMASS Dartmouth, Christine de Melo was hired by an American university to coordinate educational programs throughout Italy. In 2007, she settled in Florence to work as a tour guide. Visit her Amazon page for info on all her books, including Allegra, her latest set in 16th Florence.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at this/curious about this aspect? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I love a good story. My Portuguese grandmother could keep me enthralled for hours with her fantastic tales. Luckily, I inherited her gift. When I worked as an educational tour guide in Florence, I performed “CPR” on historical figures and recounted facts in the form of exciting stories. I definitely admire anyone who can tackle topics like history, science, math, etc. and present them to the general public in a way that’s not only informative but also entertaining.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Writer’s block—the bane of every writer’s existence! I’ve learned to simply walk away whenever I get stuck. There’s always something brewing in my creative cauldron, so I have plenty of other work to do. For example, right now I have two audiobooks in production, I’m negotiating deals with bookstores, and I’m writing a new novel. I also do my own marketing and personally respond to each email received from readers. Sooner or later inspiration strikes—it always does. Also, I take a lot of walks in the countryside to clear my head.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I have finally arrived at that point in life where I’m comfortable in my own skin. This being the case, it’s natural for me to infuse my female protagonists with many of my personality traits, the most notable being rebelliousness and an aversion to patriarchal/religious oppression. “Write the book you want to read” has been my motto from the start of my writing career, so my writing style reflects my taste as a reader: concise rather than verbose, and clever dialogue to show rather than tell (keeping in mind that what isn’t said is as important as what is said). I also like suspense. Ultimately, maintaining consistency in voice and style is what makes an author’s books identifiable to readers, which goes hand in hand with branding/marketing.

Social media, when used correctly, can be a good thing. Featuring creative people on my professional C. De Melo Facebook page brings me pleasure (as many artists, sculptors, poets, musicians, writers, and dancers already know). Positive Karma is definitely a boomerang! On the flip side, I think social media can potentially harm new or young writers who haven’t yet developed their voices. They may be inclined to compare themselves to experienced authors or—worse—attempt to copy them.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Did/Does your family support/encourage you?

Despite being an extremely artistic and creative child, I was neither supported nor encouraged. The fundamentalist religion that I grew up in forbade college or any other “worldly” pursuit. At the age of 27, I finally took Shakespeare’s advice to be true to myself and never looked back. Today, many people in my family are proud of my accomplishments.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while?

Bad things happen—insomnia, depression, anxiety, to mention a few. When I get inspired to write a story, it’s like there’s a beehive inside of me and hundreds of swarming bees are demanding to get out. That’s the best analogy I can muster to illustrate my need to “release the creative kraken.”

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get a bad review? How do you cope with the negative feedback?

Learn from it, brush it off, and do better next time. Legitimate criticism is actually useful because it fosters growth and sharpens skill. The secret to dealing with negative feedback and bad reviews is to distance yourself from your work and view your book as a product. Bury your ego in the backyard. If you want to be a professional writer, you need to develop thick skin and not take things personally. Everyone is entitled to an opinion of your work, and it’s none of your business what they think of it. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are crucial to authors, but I don’t obsess over them and I never engage with reviewers.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

In addition to being a lone wolf, I’m an obsessive-compulsive control freak and a total workaholic. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never collaborated with anyone on writing projects. As far as my artwork, my pieces have been showcased in a few group shows in US art galleries.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I wrote as a hobby for nearly two decades while working jobs that stifled my creativity. On a fluke, I self -published my first novel (SABINA) on Amazon in 2011 while working as a tour guide. I wrote other books, too, all the while keeping my “day job” for money. To my surprise and immense delight, SABINA hit #1 in Renaissance Fiction in 2014. A few months later, a literary agent found my book online and contacted me. I was briefly represented by a big NYC publishing house and, although it didn’t work out with them, that experience provided the push I needed to focus exclusively on my craft. In other words, I finally felt “good enough” to go for it. My advice is so cliché, but it’s true. Persevere. Keep writing. Dream big. The road is far from easy, but it’s so worth it.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Is there anything better than doing what you love and getting paid for it? To me, that’s the epitome of professional and personal satisfaction. When you love your work, that positive energy naturally spills into your personal life. My husband and I travel frequently and I am so grateful that I can write from anywhere in the world.

How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

My degree is in Art History so I see “the arts” as a visual language. Art and Society are mirrors reflecting each other, so it’s crucial for artists to express themselves honestly and—more importantly—freely. Historically, censorship and bleak societal landscapes go hand in hand. Political or religious oppression kills creativity as well as the spirit. The arts, in their various forms, are vital to the overall good health of humankind. The open exchange of ideas (verbal or in material form) stimulates the intellect and prompts conversation, which is the hallmark of a civilized society. My responsibility as an artist, a writer, a storyteller is to express myself in a manner that is truthful and, hopefully, poignant.

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Author Jessie Chaffee

Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was selected as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017. It is forthcoming in translation in the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, and Turkey. Chaffee completed the novel with the support of a Fulbright grant to Italy, during which time she was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words without Borders, an online magazine of international literature.

What book (not written by you) comes closest to capturing something about you? What is this aspect?

Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight was one of the inspirations for Florence in Ecstasy. I first read it in my twenties and I was completely absorbed by the novel, which is about a British woman alone in Paris who is descending into alcoholism. Rhys perfectly captures the duality of addiction—the pain and ecstasy of it—that’s at the heart of my own novel. While I’m fairly upbeat and optimistic, like most people, I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve become a stranger to myself—Good Morning, Midnight cuts right to the heart of those experiences. It is a stunning, visceral portrait of the loneliness, rawness, and also the power of being outside of oneself.

You spent a considerable amount of time in Tuscany to write Florence in Ecstasy. Clearly, Saint Catherine of Siena was an inspiration for the novel; the Arno river could be considered another “character” in the book. Are there less tangible aspects of Tuscany or Florence that were fundamental to the telling of this story?

That Florence is saturated with beauty and history is a cliché, but it’s also true, and because of the roles that both beauty and history play for my protagonist, Hannah, I don’t think her story could have happened anywhere but Florence. I’m not sure what it is that makes the aesthetic of the city so unique—the quality of the light, the art and architecture, the way that the dense chaos of the city center transitions so quickly into tranquillity in the hills that surround it—but that beauty is unique and it’s palpable. Likewise, the history—you can feel the layers of it in a way that you don’t in, say, New York, where I’m from. It was easy for me to imagine the lives of the saints who were local to Florence because they still feel present to me in the city. Every city has its own rhythm, sounds, and choreography, and so those also really shaped the book. For example, many times a day you can hear the bells of Florence’s churches ringing throughout the city, and that kind of repeated intoning—the feeling of being lifted up and then emptied out by the sound—influenced both the content of the book and also the rhythm of the prose in a way that was completely unconscious.

What is the biggest personal obstacle you must overcome in order to write?

Self-doubt, always. I’ve written for most of my life, but the blank page never gets less scary. I’ve found ways around it—I’ll give myself the task of writing x number of pages, even if they’re awful, and that allows me to write my way into the good stuff, into the moments where the writing takes over. Those moments are the high and they’re what keep me coming back to the blank page again and again, in spite of the doubt.

Read the rest of the interview on The Sigh Press.

 

Essay: Biological Clock by Kamin Mohammadi

Once an internal and private decision, motherhood and consequently creating a family (or not), has become a very public topic. Other people, maybe even strangers, suddenly have an opinion on whether you should or shouldn’t have children, putting pressure on an important and life-changing decision that is already fraught with the unknown and, without a crystal ball, is one that often comes down to fate. We may make a decision but we have little control over it or know if it is the right one.

Author and Journalist Kamin Mohammadi was one of the first writers I met when I arrived in Florence, fresh-faced and eager to set up Florence Writers. She gave a reading of The Cypress Tree back in the spring of 2014, which helped kick things off. The Cypress Tree talks about Iran and her family’s experience during the 1970’s revolution, followed by her family’s eventual relocation to London. It made me want to visit Iran immediately, such the vibrant colours, tastes and passion she used to describe a country very close to her heart.

We published Kamin’s essay ‘The Biological Clock’ for Winter 2017 issue of The Sigh Press. I was blown away by the honesty with which she wrote about whether or not to have a baby and the consequences of that decision–especially as I am now pregnant myself–and how her definition of the role of parent has changed.

Her latest book, ‘Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way, is out now.

The Biological Clock by Kamin Mohammadi (excerpt)

I often wonder what would have happened to my father should we not have kept him. Had my mother thrown him out all those years ago when he betrayed her instead of forgiving him and keeping him so that now that he’s old, he has us to take care of him. What if he was alone now? How would he cope with these appointments, the tests, the failing faculties, everything getting slower, harder to hear, to see, to understand? I know the question I am really asking is: how will I cope with these appointments when my time comes. What if I reach the age of 90, who will hold my hand and lead me through the hospital?

I am 45 and it looks unlikely that I will have children. This decision – or non-decision – is fast shaping up to be a fact as the months pass and the years disappear behind me. It is a subject I rarely think about, and it is only here in the corridors of this hospital, when I bring my father for these appointments, that I visit that place in the distant future where my old age is located and wonder how it will look, what that landscape will be, who will be there with me. My mother had offered, just the other night, to pay for me to have IVF, one last chance at having a baby, at shoring up the future against loneliness and helplessness. If I got pregnant naturally that would be fine – but I didn’t want to seek it out at the end of needles delivering hormone shots. I said no, dashing her hopes of being a granny. At 45, she had said, don’t you feel any maternal longing, any calling from your biological clock?

My biological clock. I’d never heard mine. Or been aware of it ticking. Apparently we all have one, but where was mine? I partied through my twenties laughing out loud any time anyone asked me if I had kids. “Me?” I would say with astonishment. I felt barely older than a child myself, was taken aback that anyone should mistake me for an adult. Had my clock been ticking, I would never have heard it over the thumping bass anyway.

In my thirties I did start to hear the clock. Not mine, I hasten to add, but my friends’. Close girlfriends’ conversations closed in on the topic, they got pregnant, started families – they actually planned these things. I was amazed, and doubly so when the babies started arriving. They were magical, interesting, and they smelt so good. I loved all our babies, and I collected quite a few godchildren. But I still didn’t particularly yearn for one of my own.

I was busy. Working and building a career; it was writing, commissions and book deals which preoccupied me, not babies and setting up home. The only clock I heard was the one ticking out the remaining hours of one writing deadline after another. My best friend Clare described her own wish for a baby not as a ticking clock, but as a sort of tsunami of longing which had washed over her one day with such intensely that it had left her breathless. Another friend (two kids, the first of our group to have children) made me promise her that should I be approaching 40 and still alone then she could help me choose a sperm donor and operate the turkey baster… I played along but I was so appalled with this suggestion that I quietly cut her out of my life, so that, by the approach of 40 some five years later, she and her turkey baster had disappeared from my circle.

As my 30s wore on, it did start to seem odd that there was no sign of this ticking, no tsunami, not even the faintest desire. No tick and definitely no tock. I had nothing against babies, and was a pretty good godmother to all my little ones, spending lots of time with them and having them round on Sunday afternoons. But, like any sane person, when they left after these visits, I breathed a sigh of relief as I tidied up the devastation and thanked God that I could give my delightful godchildren back after a few hours.

And then, there was the longing to write. This eventually crystallised into one solid idea, The Book. This was my tsunami of desire. The commission came when I was 37, and in the years I should have been thinking urgently about finding a man and having a baby, I preoccupied myself with giving birth to a book. Not just any book, but The Book, the one I had always wanted to write, the one about my past and my family, my country Iran and the heartbreak. Patient friends, the audience for so many of my complicated family stories, had begged me to write this book for years, tired of trying to follow the Iranian names and web of family relationships. Just as I should have been reaching out into the world to find a mate and build a family, I closed myself away and instead reached deep inside myself to tell my family story and heal the wound of the revolution and having to leave Iran. And it worked, my book was published as Mille farfalle nel sole in 2012 and I emerged whole and happy – and 42. That clock should have been ticking wildly by now but I still heard nothing.

Along the way I had ended up living in Italy and fallen in love too. I met Antonio when I was 39, was just coming up for air after delivering the first draft and was looking for nothing so much as a bit of fun in my new town of Florence, where I had fled to write and where I had decided to stay, seduced by its beauty, the gentler pace of life and the tastiness of the tomatoes. And Antonio was super fun. Which was lucky because he was also weighed down by two broken marriages and trailed behind him an assortment of children by different mothers. Three children and two mothers to be precise. One of his first statements to me was that he was done with marriage and kids. The kind of declarations men make as they are about to take you to bed, knowing full well you are not really listening, that your mind is on other things, but they put it out there to clear their conscience, to be able to say in the months and years after – “but I TOLD you! It was your choice.”

I took no great notice of Antonio’s statement. Not so much because I wanted marriage and kids but more because I didn’t care; I didn’t take him seriously as a life mate – all those children and ex-wives – and it seemed irrelevant. “Don’t worry,” I had said airily to my mother. “I won’t be falling in love with him, he’s just for fun.”
Famous last words, inevitably. Antonio turned out to have the kindest heart anyone had ever placed in my hands and before long, I too fell in love with him and, slowly over the months and years, I started to take him seriously. So I took on his baggage and found myself a stepmother.

Read the full essay in the Winter 2017 issue of The Sigh Press Literary Journal.

You can also read the TSP Ampersand interview 7 with Kamin from Autumn 2017.

Photo from Steppes Travel.