Archive for November, 2011

A couple of months ago, a friend—an artistic filmmaker—asked me: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, health and volunteering? She asked this not as a rhetorical question, but as someone who seemed truly to expect that I would have an answer for her. But the fact of the matter is, despite my having written one work of fiction and dreamed up the ideas for others amidst all those other responsibilities and activities, I have no idea. Really. It turns out that just because one has done something doesn’t mean one knows how to do it. Or at least, how to explain how to do it. Even to oneself.

I’m not sure what answer I gave her. I know I felt the need to give her some substance, some words of advice, a recipe she could hold onto and pull out whenever she does have children, a household that needs more tending, a cause for which she feels driven to volunteer, other demands on her time that take her away from her own creative work. That’s what I would have wanted had I been in her place, asking someone else. I suppose I made something up; it was probably neither eloquent nor useful nor satisfactory, although I know it was truthful. I have been to writers’ conferences in which a handful of established and successful authors have sat on a panel and fielded questions from hopeful writers, and on hearing their answers I’ve thought to myself: well, that’s not very helpful. And now I fear that, should I ever be honored enough to sit on such a panel, I will let others down in the same way. But I understand why.

It’s a question I ask myself a lot these days, and it comes in two parts. Part 1: How on Earth did I do it? And Part 2: How on Earth do I continue to do it? And now that I am no longer on the spot, that I have had some time to mull it over, I realize that the recipe is one that is unique to me. It’s a melange of my personality, my background, my circumstances. It won’t fit exactly for anyone else. There are no neat tablespoon measurements, no fixed stirring times. My ingredients:

Dogged—some might say stubborn—perseverance

The compulsion to use every shred of time toward accomplishing something

The belief that 20 minutes is enough time to accomplish something (this ingredient was given to me once I had children)

Patience (this was an ingredient I had to plant and nurture, not one I already had in my pantry)

Organization

(As you can see, none of these are particularly creative.)

I took all these things, and then I linked as many parts of my life as possible to some aspect of my creative pursuit: I take kathak dance classes (through which I get my exercise), I volunteer for the Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance, I incorporated the dance into my novel, and I enrolled my older daughter in a class that I teach. I’d like to say that this was all the result of a well-thought out plan, but no. It’s just how things happened.

The truth of the matter is, I just cram it in wherever I can, between work-related conference calls and school pick-up, during the younger one’s nap times while the older one plays with a friend, at a café while rehydrating and having some lunch after a dance practice, in the evening after tucking the little ones into bed and before their father returns from his martial arts class. As Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, said in a March 2002 interview on Writer Unboxed: “All my life I’ve been doing my work in the intervals between making a living and living my life.” (And if I could write a book half as beautiful and haunting as hers, I would feel fulfilled.)

And yet my version of cramming it in “wherever I can” pales in comparison to what I’ve read from other writers. I don’t have daily word-count goals, I don’t write at a specific time of day or week, I don’t get up an hour before the children as many writers suggest. I don’t think much about my creative projects while doing other things like shopping for groceries, I don’t compose dialogues among my characters while driving, because during those times I usually have chatterbox children with me, or I’m planning out family logistics or meals, or I just want to let my brain float. I don’t tend to work once the kids are in bed because that is my time to spend with my husband, and to catch up on other things like reading and reconnecting with friends on the phone. And honestly, I don’t always feel inspired to be creative. The pressure to produce something in a limited time can be counter-productive. Sometimes I manage to set aside a couple of hours to work on my book, and my mind is blank. But for me the key is to honor my decision and make sure I use that time for something at least related to writing. I read agent and editor blogs, I think about a blog post of my own, I daydream about ways to market my book once it’s published.

There is much room for improvement, and for increased efficiency. And so, while I’m not unhappy with my system, I am curious, and would still ask the same question of others: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, and the other demands on your time?

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I’ve previously bemoaned the existence of reading logs in elementary school. Seven year old K complains bitterly about her 20 minutes of required reading per day, even though she can choose to read whatever she wants, and has only to then write down the author, the title and the number of pages read. (Far better than last year’s onerous process of having to use a “strategy” from a list—noticing, picturing, guessing, figuring out, connecting and wondering—and writing a few lines about what she’d read, using this “strategy.”) I used to love reading at that age, and it saddens me to think that the well-intentioned initiative of requiring a certain amount of reading—and some kind of proof of it—every day has turned a joyful activity into a chore.

I’m not going to try to fight the established system, at least not this one, not right now. It seems reading logs are a nation-wide phenomenon. Instead, I am trying to stock K’s shelves full of good books, in the hopes that she’ll one day get so immersed in one that she will forget to ask me repeatedly how long it’s been, and when is it 20 minutes, and how can it not be twenty minutes yet, and can I just stop now?

In my quest for copies of some of the books I loved as a child, I naively entered “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” into the Amazon search field. What I found was a list of dozens of options, including the “Movie Tie-in Edition,” a “Guide for Using The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the Classroom,” a “Read-Aloud” Edition, (what happened to just, you know, reading aloud from a regular book?), a “Family Guide” to the book, a graphic novel version, a “Teacher’s Guide,” the “Official Illustrated Movie Companion,” a “Full-Length New Dramatization,” a “Devotional Quest Into the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and a “Movie Storybook,” all in just the first two pages of results.

Whoah. All I want is just the regular book. But even once I managed to whittle down the results to what I thought was the original text, I was confronted with the next major decision: which edition to get. Because it turns out there is a vast array of cover designs, each one of which seeming to promise a completely different experience, and as children most definitely do judge a book by its cover (or at least mine does—don’t they all?), it is a matter of extreme relevance what the cover looks like. (Side anecdote: when I was about 10 or so, I had a hardcover book on my shelves called “Illustrated Minute Biographies.” That was the extent of the title visible on the spine. Because there was also a small image of Abraham Lincoln as well as a battleground scene, and because one side of my family hails from the Boston area, I always read the word “minute” here as the interval of time as opposed to a synonym for very small. How does this make sense, I hear you ask? Well, I assumed it had to do with Minutemen. You know, from the American Revolutionary War. And since at that age I had no interest in that aspect of history, I immediately dismissed the entire book. Years later I encountered it, read the full title, and realized that it was in fact a collection of 150 minute—as in very short—biographies of famous people. I read most of it, and learned a lot. )

Anyway, Back to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are the first four editions I considered. (And I’ll preface this by saying that I mean no disrespect to the cover designers. I simply tried to approach this from what I imagined would be the viewpoint of my child.) First I give you my impression, and my prediction of K’s reaction. Then follows her actual reaction, which I solicited later:

The 2005 HarperFestival edition:

My take: In this one, apparently, Aslan has accidentally meandered into Hogwarts. I suspect my girly daughter will be completely put off by the armor-sporting, blade-wielding boy and the archer. She is NOT a Harry Potter fan. That said, since most kids her age are, I give kudos to this one, and the 719 reviews attest to its popularity. If it gets children to read the book, then it’s a fantastic cover. Just not the right one for my kid.

K’s take: “Looks a little weird, the scary face and fighty guys. Maybe when I’m in middle school I’ll like that kind of thing, but not now.”

The 2004 Harper Collins edition (which, on closer inspection of the description, is only 48 pages long. Hmm. Ah yes, now I see, it is “based on the text…”):

 

My take: Here a cold and miserable boy has apparently lost his way in Sweden and ended up among a cast of soulless, mean and/or spooky creatures. K will not go for this, either. At least the previous edition had a beautiful lion’s face on the cover.

K’s take: “I don’t really know what the experience of the book is. I might want to read it, but I might not. I would look through the pages first, though, and then decide.”

The 2009 Harper Collins Deluxe Edition:

My take: The lion running with two children on his back holds some promise, but the bleak, mushroom-colored background and the twin pair of strange, semi-naked horned creatures clutching waving stems of beet greens will be a turn-off.

K’s take: “No, because it looks a little crazy. I don’t like the two people swinging from branches. I don’t think I’d like this book based on this cover.”

 

 

 

Then there’s the Harper Collins Childs 1998 edition…

… in which the wardrobe in question appears to have been constructed by Pa and placed in the Little House on the Prairie. This conjures up entirely the wrong images for me, but as K has not yet read that series (hmm, I should look that one up, too), this is irrelevant. Still, I don’t think she’ll be keen on this one.

K’s take: “This looks like it would be in the Amazon. Why is there a lion in the Amazon? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t think I’d be interested in this.”

So there you have it. A wonderful, magical, classic, transportive text, and I don’t know how to entice my child to read it. My own copy, a few decades ago, was a plain-ish one, but I remember a combination of intriguing looking magical characters along with normal-looking children, and a pleasing blue-ishness. But perhaps what mattered most was that it had been my older brother’s copy, and therefore I felt honored to be in possession of it. So there’s hope for K’s little sister, at least!

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