Acceptance Speeches and Gratitude

JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.
JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.

Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.

I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.

Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable…  good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’

What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.

I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.

I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?

This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?

Patricia Arquette's rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.
Patricia Arquette’s rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.

Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!

What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…

What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.

OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write –  haven’t you had enough time during the day?

Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.
Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.

This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.

I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’

I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.

Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.

‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’

 

This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:

P1020409

 

 

Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?

 

 

Positives of the Year 2014

No matter how horribilis an annus horribilis is, there is always a mirabilis aspect to it as well. Translation: no year is so bad that it doesn’t have its golden moments. Readers of one of my more self-pitying previous posts will know that 2014 was not that great for me. But what are some of the things that I will remember with pleasure?

BookPile21) Reading: quantity and quality. 189 books, roughly 56200 pages, exploring new horizons, huge diversity in terms of languages, themes and genres. 14 of those got 5 star reads on my Goodreads ticker tape (mostly poetry and non-fiction, oddly enough). Only 1 got one star (Katherine Pancol, in case you’re wondering. Not that my modest opinion will affect her outstanding sales figures!). And although quite a large chunk of the books I read were published after 2000, there was quite a good spread of decades, going back to 1908. I’m not sure how they count the classics published before the 20th century!

2) Poetry: I’ve not only started reading more poetry this year in printed format (full collections rather than the odd poem here and there online), but I’ve also completed a poetry course via Fish Publishing, from which I learnt so much (even if it has temporarily paralysed me a little with self-censorship). I’ve also been much braver about submitting poetry, even if it has tailed off in the last few months of the year. I submitted to 17 literary journals and anthologies (multiple poems in each submission, I hasten to add) and have had a total of 9 poems published. (I’m still awaiting a couple of responses.) One of my poems was also longlisted for a poetry prize, which was an additional boost to morale.

3) Community: It may seem sad, but the online community of writers, readers and bloggers has become more real to me than the people who physically surround me. Call it expat isolation, arrogance or depression, but I choose to put a more positive spin on it. It’s easier to establish common ground and become friends with people who share your passions, even if they are scattered all over the globe, rather than try to pretend common passions with the people with whom you just happen to be living in close proximity. As a global nomad, I’ve become used to the fact that most of my best friends are an email or telephone call away in another country, rather than within easy visiting distance. It simply makes the times we spend together even more precious!

Having said all of the above, I should add that the Geneva Writers’ Group has been a wonderful ‘real’ community of people passionate about literature. Even if I haven’t been able to attend all of their workshops, it is a wonderfully diverse, supportive and inspiring group of people.

Zozo54) My Cat: This year in February, a cat finally came into my life, after about 4 decades of hoping and wishing for one. I say ‘my’ because she is most certainly ‘my girl’, rather than the family cat. She ignores my husband, tolerates my sons and even sometimes plays with them… and adores me. She follows me around everywhere, and is happiest when she is cuddling up to me, kneading the blanket and sucking onto it – I must remind her of her mother. She may be a bit of a wuss when it comes to other cats and dogs in the neighbourhood, but she’s a good climber and outdoorsy type. She is the most gentle, affectionate, obedient cat you can imagine. She has taught me so much about patience, unconditional love, quiet support (with a purr and a rub) and just generally being calm and relaxed.

5) My Boys: Well, you didn’t think I was going to forget about them, did you? They’ve been one of the greatest sources of stress and anxiety this year, but also one of the biggest joys. Intelligent, opinionated, argumentative, droll and completely unsentimental, they make me laugh and cry many, many times… each day! I just hope I won’t mess them up too much on their way to adulthood.

DrawMama

 

Hope you’ve all found plenty of positives in your year, and here’s to wishing you all a very good 2015! Thank you very much for your wonderful company and see you in the New Year.

Winners and Losers in Literature

Ion Luca Caragiale, from Wikipedia.
Ion Luca Caragiale, from Wikipedia.

People love those great romantics

with their self-absorbed delirium

especially if they die of tuberculosis or worse or alone.

But garrets are passé, starving is forever,

and audiences matter.

As long as you don’t let it show.

 

Unnecessary, it seems to me,

your sighing, your plaintive distress.

We know, we’ve been there, no need to tarry.

Mere hint and then whisk over.

Sunlight lingering on a teardrop

Is more effective by far than a November soaking.

 

Madam, if I may… tell you that you whinge

and use a hundred words

where a spatter of six will do.

Your ears so waxed with self-pity and doubts,

your voice so coarsened by years of neglect,

that you forget to listen and render with fidelity,

you lose the joy of using a microscope.

Cut smaller still your canvas,

till you can stitch it to perfection.

Be precious, not so greedy to spit out the half-digested…

Polish your gemstones for years.

Mock, but with purpose,

yourself before all others.

 

And then perhaps some decades hence

you’ll learn to make it look

effortless, spontaneous.

 

Perhaps not quite the right response to the prompt about winning and losing for dVerse Poets, but I am having an internal dialogue with my writing hero, Caragiale, Romanian playwright, journalist and short story writer. Every word perfectly chosen and placed. Unlike my gushing, spouting self. I know I will be a winner when I finally learn to control the rawness and shape the internal world more gracefully.

Friday Fun: Artists’ Studios

As writers, we may be able to write in a bustling café, on a crowded kitchen table, in a cave with poor lighting, even in the shower with the right tools . But if we did have an artists’ studio, with perfect lighting, wouldn’t we be able to write even better?

Simon Starling, from the Independent.
Simon Starling, from the Independent.

 

ChanderConstruction
Studio for wildlife illustrator, Chander Construction.
Georgie Wolton's studio, planetpropertyblog.co.uk
Georgie Wolton’s studio, planetpropertyblog.co.uk
Josh Keyes studio, Bookish-ambition.blogspot.com
Josh Keyes studio, Bookish-ambition.blogspot.com

Bonus point: all those paintings/illustrations/pictures are really inspiring! But perhaps, after a while, you just get so used to them hanging around on your walls that you no longer see them. Over at dVerse Poets, Björn has us re-examining the familiar, disassociating ourselves from it, so that we can see it with fresh eyes once more. I’ve chosen the third of Tolstoy’s techniques  – use of dialect or a foreign language – to create this sense of ‘strangeness’.

Tablouri, desene, întinse pe jos,

pe pereţi, o dezordine în care nu găseşti

şi nu gândeşti

nimic

decit inspiraţie.

Nani? Hontoo?

Bitte schwätz langsamer…

(Just playing around in Romanian, Japanese and Swiss German. Translation is roughly: Paintings, sketches, scattered on floors, on the walls, a mess in which you can find and think nothing but inspiration. What? Really? Please talk more slowly…)

Friday Fun: Get Thee to a Lighthouse

It’s a grey, gloomy Friday over here, with menacing clouds and raindrops all the way. Time to imagine an escape, methinks… And where better to escape than to a lighthouse. Or is that as unattainable as in Virginia Woolf’s novel?

www.besthotelbreaks.com
http://www.besthotelbreaks.com
Godrevy Lighthouse, the one said to have inspired Virginia Woolf. From Wikipedia.
Godrevy Lighthouse, the one said to have inspired Virginia Woolf. From Wikipedia.
More modest proportions and one you can buy. www.lighthousesforsale.com
More modest proportions and one you can buy. http://www.lighthousesforsale.com
Russian Nuclear Polar Lighthouse (decommissioned). www.englishrussia.com
Russian Nuclear Polar Lighthouse (decommissioned). http://www.englishrussia.com
www.unc.edu
http://www.unc.edu
White Shoal, www.ipl.org
White Shoal, http://www.ipl.org

Just think of all the writing you could get done with no interruptions, no Internet, perhaps just the occasional storm to keep you awake…

Novel No. 2 is waiting for you, Madam…

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that 'engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier'. Maybe that's what I need to find time to write?
luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that ‘engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier’. Maybe that’s what I need to find time to write?

Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…

I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?

So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?

After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?