Friday, March 26, 2010

The Office

I love seeing pictures of the places where writers work. Perhaps this is because I’m basically nosy and like seeing the insides of people’s houses.

My office is at the back of the house, shoddily added on by the previous owners, who neglected to provide access to heat. In the winter, I usually work upstairs or in front of the living room fireplace, where it is warmer.

In its favor, my office does have high ceilings and a bay window.

Here it is:

Bookshelves make a room. I need more:

Bookshelf detail: Galsworthy, a tiny picture of Big Ben, a bust of Dickens, a Pabst Beer opener from Robert commemorating one of our first dates:

Here’s my desk:

Desk details: my Bryn Mawr mug full of pens and pencils:

A spider made for me by a fan of Spider Storch, made at a reading at Cal State Fullerton:

Some of my inspirers: John Updike, my kids when they were babies:

The couch, where I work when the desk chair gets uncomfortable:

Sometimes I write at a local coffee shop, just to get out of the house. Great people watching, great hot chocolate, and there’s heat. But even if I’ve worked there, I like to spend a little time in my office every day anyway. It’s where I can be in the presence of pictures of my kids, vacation souvenirs, my favorite books.

Room of one’s own and all that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coq Au Vin, Creativity, and What Aline Hallenbeck Said To Me In Eighth-Grade Home Ec

Our friends Roy and Josine came down for drinks, dinner, and Rummy-O today. I made coq au vin, which always makes me feel as though I should be wearing an apron with frills and pockets, like the one I made in Mrs. Nebeker’s eighth-grade home ec. class in 1970. (Note: I almost failed this class. I massacred that apron. Aline Hallenbeck said she didn’t like my hair color [brown] with my eye color [brown]. Barbara Lamon gave an oral report about skin care and could not utter the word “pimple” without dissolving. All in all, a massively stressful experience.)

When I tell people I’m not creative, they often say, But you write books! You must be creative. It’s a reasonable thing to think. I would say it to writers if I weren’t one. But because I am, I know that writing is a supremely laborious task bearing little resemblance to what I think of as creativity. There are no sparks of inspiration, no bursts of epiphanic realizations. (Well, very few, anyway.) There is just sitting and typing out a sentence and then deleting a word or a comma and sitting again. The process is “creative” only in the sense that something eventually gets made. But I, myself, am no more creative than the person who “makes” a spreadsheet or a diagnosis or a driveway.

Now, entertaining: that’s creative. I get to cut and arrange flowers,

design a menu (coq au vin over egg noodles, buttered green beans, blueberry crisp with vanilla ice cream) and cook it, pick the music (Benny Goodman, Marvin Gaye, Ray LaMontagne), and choose which china and napkins and wineglasses to use:

On thinking it through, I guess entertaining feels creative because it’s fun. Writing feels like a job. An important job—a job I adore, a job I think is vitally important, a job I am lucky to have—but a job. It’s slow-moving, often financially unrewarding. Not as stressful as having my appearance critiqued in eighth-grade home ec., but stressful nonetheless.

(Aline and I eventually became friends. She spent three hours on the phone with me one night in eleventh grade trying to get me to join Young Life and never held it against me when I chose not to. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. The horrors of eighth grade don’t last forever? First impressions aren’t always accurate? Hair- and eye-color preferences change over time?)

At any rate, Roy and Josie and Robert and I had a blast playing Rummy-O.

A night with good friends can do much to revive one’s midweek spirits.

I’ll bet Aline Hallenbeck is a killer Rummy-O player.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Of Good Conversation and Grace Under Pressure

This week, I watched two new TV shows, “The Marriage Ref” and “The Ricky Gervais Show.” In the first, three celebrities (who have thus far included Jerry Seinfeld [the show’s creator], Alec Baldwin, Larry David, Madonna, Tina Fey, and others) discuss ordinary couples’ marriage problems; in the second, animated versions of Gervais and two of his collaborators sit around a table and discuss whatever pops into their oversized cartoon heads. Both shows feature discussion among bright, engaging, funny people (Madonna being the exception, but I digress).

I think we’re hungry for good conversation. For too many years, we’ve been watching the Kardashian sisters spew drivel and “real” housewives gossip and whine like nine-year-olds. Late-night talk shows used to provide a forum for intelligent, witty banter, but now, often, the guests are there simply to hawk a movie they’ve made. Their ulterior motives show; they aren’t up for an interaction that is both revealing and entertaining. If they are under twenty-five, they aren’t capable of it.

People don’t know how to talk well these days. I don’t mean “speak well,” i.e., use proper grammar and words appropriate to context. I mean they don’t know how to engage in discourse. There is an art to conversation, to sustaining a rhythm that includes equal measures of self-revelation, interest in the topic at hand, and genuine concern for what other participants have to say. I worry that it is dying, that the only people left talking on television will be bickering reality-show contestants and tongue-tied celebrity nitwits.

I may have to watch sports (with the sound off).


On the book front: During the holidays, I received from Bryn Mawr classmate and friend Maureen ’78 A VERY PRIVATE EYE, a memoir (told in journal entries and letters) by British author Barbara Pym. Wonderful! Descriptions of 1930s Oxford, trips to pre-War Germany, conversations with literate friends (see above). I enjoyed the memoir so much that I went out and bought one of Pym’s novels, A GLASS OF BLESSINGS. (All of Pym’s books have marvelous titles.) Also wonderful. Pym is often described as a sort of mid-20th-century Jane Austen, a term not to be bandied about. It’s accurate, I think.

One of the signal events of Pym’s life as a writer was her publisher’s decision in the early ‘60s to stop publishing her. Despite having a loyal and small-but-significant fan base, she was deemed too old-fashioned and not enough of a money-maker. She took the blow in her usual stride, saying all sorts of stoic and very British things, but I know she must have been heartbroken. Her rejection at the hands of money-hungry publishers is emblematic of the contempt in which artists are held and with which many writers I know are sadly familiar.

Rejection notwithstanding, she kept writing and enjoyed a measure of success and redemption before her death in 1980. Now she is my hero. She reminds me not to give up and to take setbacks with grace. (I may not be very good at this last one.)

Sometimes I wish I had Kim Kardashian’s ass (which really is spectacular). But I’d settle happily for Barbara Pym’s stiff upper lip.