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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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dish rack kitchen

Pottering. It’s a lovely word, isn’t it?

The word makes me think of actual clay pots, or a backyard garden with sprays of flowering vines growing over a wooden fence. It calls to mind lazy afternoons, shafts of sunlight pouring down through the trees, mild breezes and blue skies. And work – but not the backbreaking kind. The gentle, satisfying kind. Moving things around, digging, arranging, fiddling a bit, until they’re just right.

I don’t usually associate “pottering” with housework. But recently I’ve realized they are often one and the same in my life.

As a writer and editor in this increasingly digital age, I do most of my paid work on a computer. After a day at the office, answering emails, writing news features, managing social media, my hands and eyes often long for something tangible. Something I can touch and see.

I get home, these days, when it’s just getting dark, my hands full of mail and books, my brain often tired and fragmented from the work of the day. I shuck off my coat, drop my bag on the bench by the kitchen door, and often, I plunge straight into some form of pottering.

It’s not what you’d call heavy housework, most days. I save those tasks for weekends, when the hubs is home and can split the work with me. The tidying and maintenance I do in the evenings is just that: tossing a load of laundry in the washing machine. Sorting a stack of mail (often recycling most of it). Pulling on my rubber gloves and tackling a sinkful of dishes. Moving papers, clothes and general clutter back where they belong.

Sometimes I trim the stems on a vase of flowers, or rearrange the stacks of books that cover most of the available surfaces in our apartment. Usually, there’s some cooking to be done, and then I often eat alone because the hubs is working late, saving leftovers for him. After dinner, there are more dishes to wash, or sometimes a bit of baking. At least twice a day – once in the morning and once at night – the red teakettle sings its whistling song.

It’s not always as idyllic as I make it sound. I admit it: sometimes I grumble at the multiplying properties of dirty dishes and balled-up socks. Occasionally there’s a stack of mail I walk by and ignore. The work is never done, exactly, even when the clothes are folded and the sink is empty and shining. But then, the work of making a home is never quite done, either. It is constant, ongoing. A process.

Like so many things, pottering isn’t a cure-all: sometimes I go to bed still worn out and enervated, or I despair of ever conquering the latest list of household tasks. But most of the time, I appreciate the chance to feel useful and productive while also relaxing a bit. It’s good for my brain, my body and my soul to sink, for a little while, into the work of my hands.

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journals bon voyage red stars

When we are unable to work, we can work at the work of getting ready to work. Writers can lay in supplies of paper and enticing pens, notepads that plead, “Please write on me.” Painters can prepare their canvases, clean their brushes, neaten their studio space. Potters can acquire a new lump of cool clay and clear the table spare where they will knead and shape it. Gentle things can be done.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I’ve written before about how Julia’s words – especially in this book – are touchstones for me. She writes honestly about the frustrations and fears of the creative life, but is always nudging herself and her readers gently forward: Easy does it, but do it.

Write a few pages by hand, she says. Slip in an “artist date” on your lunch break. Pick up a few books that inspire you. And then there’s the advice above: so small and simple that it’s easy to overlook. But on these long winter afternoons, it is saving my life.

Some days I am able to move quickly and efficiently through projects, crossing tasks off my to-do list. (I love those days.) Sometimes I have a deadline prodding me along, or a colleague who needs something from me. That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I know I need to do something – send an email, draft a piece, tackle a nagging task – but I can’t make myself get started. This is where Julia comes in.

I like the phrase “the work of getting ready to work.” For me, that sometimes looks like buying nice pens or vivid, lovely journals (see above). But more often, it’s an even smaller step: Creating a Word document. Starting an email. Making a list. Figuring out what a task actually entails, breaking it down into manageable steps, and then tackling the first one.

Sometimes, the very fact of that waiting Word doc or email draft or to-do list is a scaffold I can climb on, materials in hand, and start to build something good and true. It may be only a stark outline, but it’s often enough to nudge me forward, toward the real work. (Bonus: these things also mitigate the terror of the blank page or screen.)

How do you nudge yourself to get ready to work?

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red christmas books

December is a lovely month, but man, it’s full. Here’s what I have been reading in this holiday season:

Moonlight Over Paris, Jennifer Robson
After recovering from a broken engagement and a near-fatal illness, Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr moves to Paris in 1924 to reinvent herself as an artist. Robson writes enchanting historical fiction. I didn’t love Helena as much as her previous heroines (she’s rather timid), but still enjoyed this story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

The Admissions, Meg Mitchell Moore
Nora and Gabe Hawthorne have built a seemingly perfect life for themselves and their three daughters. But as their eldest works on her Harvard application, their youngest (age seven) struggles with reading, and both Gabe and Nora face mounting pressures at work, their carefully calibrated existence seems set to unravel. Funny, incisive and so real, written in Moore’s delicious, addictive prose. I devoured this one. (I also loved Moore’s previous two novels, The Arrivals and So Far Away.)

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, Eric Weiner
Why do some places seem to produce dozens of geniuses and brilliant ideas? Eric Weiner travels to seven great cities of ideas – Athens, Edinburgh, Vienna, even Silicon Valley – to explore the concept of genius and the conditions that help nourish it. Fascinating and dryly witty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Felicity, Mary Oliver
Oliver turns her attention to romantic love in this new poetry collection – a bit of a departure for her, though the natural world still makes frequent appearances. Slim and luminous.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
New York in the 1950s was a glittering whirl of parties, lunches and social maneuvering. At the center of it all were Truman Capote, flamboyant literary darling, and the socialites he called his “swans” – Babe Paley and a handful of other wealthy, gorgeous, married women. Benjamin explores their tangled, intimate relationships, focusing on Truman and Babe’s friendship, and how it all eventually went south. Richly detailed and full of both catty asides and moments of startling vulnerability. I also adored Benjamin’s previous novel, The Aviator’s Wife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 26).

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
It’s nearly Christmas in Mitford, and Father Tim Kavanagh is hard at work on a special project: restoring a battered Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other Mitford folks are making their own Christmas plans, and the mystery and wonder of the season sneaks in, often in unexpected ways. I love revisiting this story every year.

White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen
Written by a Russian Jewish immigrant, “White Christmas” has become the quintessential American secular carol. Rosen explores the life, career and musical heritage of Irving Berlin, and the historical and musical context in which the song became such a massive hit. Interesting, though I wanted more about the eponymous film, which I adore. Found at the Dogtown Book Shop in Gloucester, MA.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I love this gentle, hopeful story of five people who end up in a small Scottish village at Christmastime, each nursing different griefs and finding unexpected joy during their time together. I reread it every December.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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christmas lights tree dog slippers
I was struck recently by a couple of posts on Ali Edwards’ site about making her (our) own magic.

I love Ali’s thoughtful, practical approach to life and memory-keeping, and although I am not (nearly) the scrapbooker she is, I love seeing how she captures moments and memories for herself and her family, in each season. Her December Daily project is always so lovely, and though I haven’t participated in several years, I enjoy watching it unfold.

This year, Ali’s Day 4 post included some wise words for those of us who face challenges (personal, emotional, logistical) in this season: “Magic is something we make. We don’t always get to choose what story we step into, but we get to choose how we respond to it and how we move forward from there.”

I think this is part of the work of adulthood: recognizing that we are, largely, responsible for our own internal weather. We can choose – ideally, with wisdom and grace – how to respond to, and move forward from, what happens to us. (We can also choose to be gentle with ourselves when we don’t respond well initially. We are human, after all.)

In a season like this one, which can be fraught with so many expectations (our own and other people’s), this is key. We get to choose how we respond to the delights and pressures of the season.

Sometimes, that means making the effort to create our own magic – whether it’s wrapping your front porch with pine garland, as Ali did, or unraveling ten (!) strands of Christmas lights for the tree, as I did (see above).

Sometimes, it means taking a step back from all that work, and sitting quietly (even for a few minutes) to find some peace amid the bustle.

christmas tree cloister walk

I was lucky to grow up in a house where my parents worked hard to create a magic atmosphere at Christmas. My mother loves a tall, sparkling Christmas tree, and my dad gets so excited about playing “head elf” (filling stockings, distributing presents) every year. I’m still lucky to get to participate in (and contribute to) that magic when I go home for Christmas. But if I want Christmas magic in my own apartment here in Boston (oh, and I do), then it’s up to me to make it.

On Day 8, Ali wrote,  “Part of making your own magic includes setting stuff up in order to have it actually happen.” This resonated deeply with me too, because magic often takes effort and planning. There are processes – some which have solidified into traditions – in place for our magic-making. And even though it’s a lot of work sometimes, I do it, because I know I will love the outcome.

I hang the stockings, haul the boxes of ornaments up from the basement, dig out the Christmas CDs. I buy the mint M&Ms to fill the candy dish (and some plain M&Ms, too, because my husband likes those better). I keep apple cider in the fridge. I buy wrapping paper and extra Scotch tape and order Christmas cards. My husband chips in to help, of course, but I am the chief magic-maker at our house. And it feels good. Satisfying. Magical, even.

How do you make magic for yourself in this season?

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stories matter nanowrimo sticker

A story is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle that would cover the whole floor of a room with its tiny pieces. But it’s not the sort of puzzle that comes with a box. There is no lid with a picture on it so that you can see what the puzzle will look like when it’s finished. And you have only some of the pieces.

All you can do is keep looking and listening, sniffing about in all sorts of places, until you find the next piece. And then you’ll be amazed where that next piece will take you.”

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks

I read Finding Serendipity in mid-November, and this quote struck me as perfect for NaNoWriMo.

Most people (including me) start NaNo with a shiny but elusive idea, and we spend the month chasing those ideas – or, as Banks would have it, sniffing about for the next puzzle piece. Some folks work from detailed outlines, but I tend to make a few notes and then plunge in.

My first two weeks of NaNo were, shall we say, prolific. I was a little hopped up on both caffeine and words by the end of Week 1:

 

I wrote so much, in fact, that my wrists and hands (not to mention my tired brain) began to protest:

 

I slowed my pace a little during the second half of November, but I still made an effort to crank out a thousand words or so every day. My story is full of plot holes (and too much dialogue), but I’m proud to say I hit 50,000 words over Thanksgiving weekend, which makes me a NaNoWriMo winner.

nanowrimo 2015 winner banner

My novel, Pies and Plies, isn’t nearly done, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day. But that isn’t the point. It’s flawed in a hundred places, but I still love the premise – which came to me in a dream this summer – of a family running a ballet studio-cum-pizza parlor (hence the title).

Every time I attempt NaNo, I take on a new creative challenge. This time, I enjoyed the process of drafting a young adult novel. (I read a ton of YA novels, but I’d never attempted to write one.) This story is set in the suburbs of Boston (instead of Oxford, where my previous two NaNoNovels take place). And while all my narrators end up sharing some of my thoughts and preoccupations, this narrator, Elise, is not a carbon copy of me. That was also a creative stretch, and a satisfying one.

I don’t think I’m a fiction writer at heart. I tend to write about what I know, or more specifically, what I think about what I know, and what happens to me. But I love stories and I believe that they matter, and I love joining in this annual, gleeful, worldwide burst of creativity. And it’s so satisfying to say it: I won!

Onward to December – wherein I will still be writing, but giving my wrists (and brain) a bit of a break. Whew!

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nanowrimo laptop chai darwins

We are deep into November: golden leaves, crisp blue skies, vivid orange sunsets (which come all too soon every day now). And I am deep into my NaNoWriMo novel, because November is the month when writers around the world pick up their pens (or open their laptops) and begin writing furiously, trying to draft a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, my wrists and fingers are sore. But it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice before, writing a novel set in Oxford (mostly to assuage my deep homesickness) in 2008, and drafting a murder mystery, also set in Oxford, last year. This time around, I’m doing something a little different.

One morning this summer, I woke up from a dream about a combination pizza parlor and ballet studio, run by the same family. When I told my husband about it, he said, “That sounds like a young adult novel.” I came up with a title (Pies and Pliés) and put it on the back burner until November. Now, I’m in the thick of it, carving out chunks of time to write each day, in between job applications and freelance work and snapping pictures of leaves.

I love NaNo for many reasons. It’s a small but exuberant nonprofit run by fun people; it encourages school-age writers through its Young Writers Program; it provides writerly entertainment on Twitter for those of us plugging away at our projects. But mostly I love it because it celebrates creativity, and stories. The folks at NaNo believe passionately that stories matter, and they spend all year – especially November – encouraging others to put their stories out into the world.

There are several tricks to winning NaNoWriMo – “winning” being defined as producing 50,000 words on a new manuscript over the course of November. I’ve found it helpful to have an idea I’m really excited about, and to do a little noodling, a little plotting and note-taking, ahead of time. I haven’t worked from a detailed outline, though I know some writers do (and some writers simply open up a new Word doc and fly by the seat of their pants).

I also find it helpful, like Hemingway, to stop in the middle – of a scene, a chapter or a narrative event (not necessarily a sentence). Then I jot down a few notes so I have somewhere to start from the next day. And, most importantly, I’m enjoying the process. It’s fun.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or have you done it before? (Or attempted a similarly insane creative challenge?) I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

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