Sunday, September 16, 2012


A few days ago Rozzie and Atli, Ben and I went to Dumbarton Oaks and wandered round the gardens.  This place has been among our favorites for the last twenty years.  We used to go there when the children were little, so now Rozzie wanted to share it with Atli, who had never been to Washington.

Each garden, terraced down the hillside, forms a different room. There are ponds and fountains, a rose garden, small patios and woodland stretches, and a wide sweep of lawn in front of the house which reminds me of Henry James.  I always imagine Isabel Archer sitting here drinking tea in the opening scene of Portrait of a Lady.

We climbed the brick steps, lined with boxwood, the scent of it perfuming the air.  And every view down every path invited the imagination to explore new vistas. Not overwhelming ones on a grand scale, but contained vistas which seemed somehow achievable.

We sat on a little stone patio.  "This is where I'm going to live," I said. 

"Yes," said Rozzie. "It's decided."  And she took this picture of me and Atli.

I haven't been writing lately.  Haven't been working on stories much. This week I half-heartedly worked on a book review, dabbled a bit with changes in a couple of pieces I'm writing, but mostly I've been teaching and hanging out with Rozzie and Atli while they are visiting from England. We sat outside drinking kir royale, while Ben cooked chicken on the grill, and we watched the dogs race round the garden and talked about everything under the sun.

It's important to nourish the soul. We say that a lot, I know, and it sounds cliche.  But really, it's vital to be kind to yourself. To lift up your head and pause in your work and see what other people are up to, different beautiful work - at the National Portrait Gallery where Ben and I went last week, for instance, or the gallery opening we all attended of painter and friend Sheep Jones. You can't do your own work all of the time; you need to make time for inspiration.

When you feed yourself with beauty you add to the store of that inspiration. I always think the old adage about 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration takes up the point from the wrong end.  Of course it's hard work to come up with original and well crafted writing. But without that 10% inspiration, you risk a still-born story. And by still-born, I mean a story that while technically perfect, doesn't move the reader with its own inner life.

Stories need to breathe. They need to be inspired.  And if you are inspired, you will put in that 90% hard work and it won't feel as painful as you expect!  You will be buoyed along on the swift currents of inspiration.  I'm talking to myself here, perhaps.  And also to one or two friends who are struggling right now with their work. But that's all right.

Another thought: sometimes writing is rather like cooking.  You put something in the metaphorical oven and it just has to cook for a while. You can't take it out before it's ready or keep worrying while it's cooking.  It will be ready in its own good time.  Then, surprisingly, other work comes easily. You whip it up in seconds flat and somehow it turns out without much fuss.

We all have work to do.  That's not in question.  But we must also pause and marvel at other people's work -their beautiful books and beautiful paintings and beautiful gardens too.  Then we can return to our own work full of new ideas and breaths of fresh air.

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