Sunday, May 31, 2015

Inspired by Julia Cameron's memoir of a writing year, The Creative Life

Walter Mason reviews Julia Cameron's charming account of a year of creative frustration in New York City.

“I’m sixty-one years old, a veteran writer, I still get scared, and I am safe.”

Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron has become such a sage for so many writers that almost anything she writes about writing becomes an instant classic. The same goes for The Creative Life, her 2010 diary of a year spent struggling with writing and meeting with and encouraging more creatively productive friends. There is something meta about the book in that she describes the process of writing the book you are reading and how it came to take its present form. It is a book about not being able to write a book, and this book is the finished product. And as such it is totally fascinating.

Cameron’s life is filled with creative people doing amazing things, some famous and some less so. She writes enthusiastically, for example, about her brothers new CD and her pride in his musical accomplishments. She describes his humble pleasure in her praise, reminding us all that our encouragement of other creative people is always needed, though it might only be hastily noted. Though the recipient may be shy or embarrassed, one’s words of praise always have an effect.

I remember years ago reading about her idyllic life in Taos, New Mexico. But in this book it becomes clear that Taos was to become a place of sorrow for Cameron, the site of a creative and mental breakdown so serious that she feels she can never return there. An enthusiastic old friend comes to New York City and urges her to re-visit:

“"Taos has become a writer’s mecca,” he tells me. He describes the new cafĂ© and coffee bar that is ideal for writing. “You’d love it,” he concludes, knowing that I made a habit of writing in Dori’s bakery, now defunct.”

Here we are in thorough Cameronian territory – going outside to write, being in the world and an observer of the world. This is what the whole of The Creative Life is about: turning one’s own life into “material.” She renders the quotidian delicately poignant, occasionally remarkable and always fascinating. This is what makes her such an extraordinary writer and not just another self-help guru with a couple of good ideas. And the ideas keep popping up in this book, though it is in no sense intended to be a practical manual of writing tips. They emerge through the course of her description, and are often attributed to other people (a hallmark of Cameron’s honesty, integrity and generosity). Having attended a wonderful concert of American song, her flatmate and composer friend says:

“That is what I’m meant to be doing,” Emma whispers excitedly as we file out: “I think I should write ninety songs in ninety days again.”
“Maybe I’ll join you at that,” I respond.

Ninety songs in ninety days! A wonderful idea, though I will probably never write a song, not having the skills. Still, it caused me to take up my notebook and scribble down the possible alternatives: ninety blog posts in ninety days, ninety essays in ninety days, ninety poems in ninety days or even, most ambitiously, ninety chapters in ninety days. It is the idea of such self-encapsulated, easily grasped projects that is so stimulating to the creative mind, and it is Cameron’s genius that she recognises this. Putting a time limit and quantity on something works like magic, just as the length and structure of a novena inspires those wanting to pray more.

The experience of ageing is, Cameron suggests, is one that doesn’t diminish our creative capacities but instead increases them:

“Plainly, Tracy doesn’t like “taking it easy.” I remember her cantering through the woods in Central Park. I remember her flying through traffic on her roller skates. It occurs to me that Tracey must hold similar images of me. I no longer own a horse, and I no longer roller-skate. Tracy and I hold each other’s daredevil history. Our adventures now are artistic, not physical.”

The Creative Life is a terrific read, from beginning to end, and one of those rare books that I felt I always had to run back to in order to read just one more page. It is a book about friendship, eating, meeting others and looking for creative stimulation on the work of others. It is about the art of conversation and how more successful companions should be inspirations rather than sources of envy. It is a book about what inspires and how to allow yourself to be inspired, and a wonderful antidote to some of the cynicism of this occasionally confusing existence.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Discovering the brilliant novel, The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

 Dr Stephanie Dowrick reviews Monique Truong's 
quite brilliantly imagined novel, The Book of Salt

How fortunate we are in this Book Club that we are not locked in to reviewing the "latest". Our freedom is to review what we are currently excited about and that certainly describes my response to Monique Truong's quite brilliantly imagined novel, The Book of Salt.

It was recommended to me some time ago by Walter Mason, my co-host here on this book club website, and I bought it immediately but then let it sit for some time on my shelves until I was traveling and could give it the attention he assured me it would deserve. And it does! Oh, indeed it does. The novel is enchanting and immensely skillful. It evokes a most fascinating time (Paris in the 1930s) with strongly evocative glimpses back to a Vietnam occupied by the French where our narrator, Binh (though that is not his real name), was never going to fit.

1930s Vietnam
Binh is, through the life of the novel, cook to surrealist writer Gertrude Stein and her companion-wife Alice B. Toklas. He is their cook. They are his "Mesdames". That famous pair emerge strongly here - much of the novel revolves around their Paris lives - but they emerge with unexpected weaknesses as well as vulnerabilities. Truong is masterful in how she lets little bits of their stories and especially the portrait of their relationship slip onto the page, like sand slipping through the cracks between fingers. The women's shared, passionate devotion to one another, and their unquestioning devotion to the genius of the one Binh calls GertrudeStein, is never over-played. There is distance here, and even a kind of forgiveness of the ignorance that allows the women flamboyantly to pet and spoil their obnoxious dogs while ignoring the pain of their talented, highly sensitive, exiled-from-home-and-family cook.

Many readers will be attracted to this novel to know more about the quite fascinating Stein and Toklas. They will get that in plenty. And they will be given and will "get" the uneasy decade that preceded the "impossible" Second World War. But what few readers will predict is the pitch-perfect portrait of Binh. Servants - like Binh - are valued, but always conditionally and highly superficially. If their work is not "up to scratch", they cease to exist as valued people. The images of exile flow through this novel like incoming tides. Binh is homosexual (long before anyone was "gay"). The risks of this, especially for an "Asiatique" who was neither wealthy nor valued for anything but his culinary talents, made him almost as vulnerable in Paris as he has been in Vietnam.

Truong writes like a poet but tells stories like a master. She never lets the reader go; she never abandons or sentimentalises Binh. In an interview a few years ago she was asked about how she builds character. Her reply:

I begin with a character who fascinates me. I focus first on that character’s voice. Reading aloud is a large part of my writing process because I want to “hear” my characters. So far, I’ve written novels only in the first person voice. I don’t see that changing. I like the limitations of the first person voice. I like working within the restrictions of a particular character’s vocabulary and emotional range or lack thereof. I’m also a firm believer that for every story there are many other versions of that story that are not being told. The first person voice, for me, is all about highlighting that sharing and withholding.

The story of Binh that Truong tells - no, brings fully to life - is a story rarely told. The creative playfulness of pitching this next to the story of Stein and Toklas - over-feted, over-valued, at least in literary terms - takes nothing from the seriousness of this writer's intent, nor from the immense satisfaction of reading her exquisite novel. The blurb for The Book of Salt also draws our attention to the walk-on roles of Paul Robeson and the very young Ho Chi Minh. But it's the life that Truong gives to the invisible Binh and to all the countless and uncounted other Binhs that moved me most. Brilliant? Yes.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick co-hosts this book club and is herself a widely published writer. Please consider using our book store links to give a small returning % to us for admin. (All our reviews are voluntary.) The direct link for this book is HERE. Your comments are welcome. You can find Stephanie and also Walter Mason on Facebook. They also both blog on their own websites and contribute widely to the media.