Saturday, June 29, 2013


I must have spent hours last weekend trying to capture Livia's mouth in clay.  I was taking a sculptural portraiture workshop, and Livia was our model.  The corners of her mouth held me captivated.  I wanted to reproduce the exact shape of the upper lip and the way it slanted back and underneath, and the muscles that ran from the corner of her lips and down towards the chin, and the tiny crease next to the larger crease which delineated her cheeks.  If I couldn't understand the particular way she held the corners of her mouth,  it would be impossible for me to capture her facial expression.

Livia took this photograph of me sculpting her.

There are so many tiny differences in the way we hold our mouths.  Also in the muscles around our eyes.   There's a muscle, for instance, in the center of the eye that only comes into play when we are beaming with delight. It doesn't tighten when we are merely amused. Only when we're ecstatic. And everybody knows that if we fake a smile out of social politeness, the muscles round our eyes remain motionless.

Years ago I pored over a book by Paul Ekman called Emotions Revealed. He has analysed facial expressions throughout his career in law enforcement, and it was his work that gave rise to the tv series Lie to Me. In fact, he was a consultant for that show.

When I recall my fascination with his book today, I see that it held a future utility which I hadn't then understood. I only started figurative sculpture about six years ago and grew interested in sculptural portraiture about three years ago.

My friend Gail says that all my years of writing fiction have fed me as a sculptor.  I don't quite know how they've done this, but I have a feeling she's right.  So in a sense, it doesn't matter that I'm such a late bloomer.

It's amazing to have discovered such joy in sculpture this late in my life.  I took it up almost by accident, when we lived in Rome.  I met a sculptor, Claire Nelson, at a school fete. She had her busts of children on display and a little sign which said, "You can do this too!" So I began taking figurative sculpture classes with her at the Palacio de Venecia.  I went there on the tram from Piazza del Populo, and headed up the steps of Mussolini's palace, through the galleries and down corridors to a sculpture studio and here I found a new creativity which has become one of the most rewarding and nourishing things in my life.

I want to say that we should never underestimate  the ability of life to surprise us, to open up new doors and teach us about ourselves, to change how we view and interpret the world.

How could I spend hours last weekend trying to capture the muscles in the corner of Livia's mouth?  Why did it not seem an utter waste of time! Why was it so fascinating to me, actually not just fascinating, but deeply gratifying!

Today I hollowed out the finished bust.  It's a funny process. You take off the top of the head with a wire and scoop out the clay inside, so that the piece won't be so heavy - and so that when you fire it, it won't blow up in the kiln.  It feels a little creepy, looking down at the face as you scoop clay out of the top of the head.

I can trace my initial interest in sculpture to my girlhood in Surbiton, where a sculptor lived across the road. Her name was Rose Deering.  I was fascinated by her studio. It resonated for me. But her work seemed far beyond me and I didn't know how to articulate my longing, nor would I necessarily have defined it as a longing to try my hand at sculpture too.  I suppose I was right.  Because it was decades into my future before I would begin to do just that.

Perhaps we should trust our early longings and our earliest purest instincts. After all, we are going to be learning who we are up until we die!

#sculptural portraiture  #creativity 

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Surely this is the only door that matters.

At the end of our midsummer night's dream party on Friday,  I went to the bottom of the garden where my son Elliot and his friends were sitting around the firepit.  The night was still warm, and the fire was aglow, as were the faery lights high in the trees.  And  these friends of his were having a very familiar conversation. 

They were talking about the limited and unimaginative constraints of certain college assignments they'd encountered. They had failed to impress their professors, because rather than do what the professors had asked, these friends had been trying their hand at something different.  Something more heartfelt and real.

 As I listened, I thought to myself, this is the conversation I've been having all my life.  I'm still having variations of this conversation.  

Nothing has changed. 

 I've had similar conversations about  one of the books I've written. I poured into it the best of myself and the most heartfelt rendition of what I know about life and the craft of writing fiction, and yet I kept finding time and time again that it didn't meet market criteria.  

Another example: Today, I finished a two day workshop on figurative sculpture. It was one of the most fulfilling activities I've done all year.  At one point while we worked, our teacher, a portrait sculptor with some pedigree, spoke about when he was a student, and discovered that all they wanted was installations.  They wanted the students to produce something trendy. Something memorable (and the shortcut to memorable was often found in shock value). He said he had felt almost embarrassed and apologetic for his adherence to the old fashioned craft of figurative and sculptural portraiture.  There's a lot of technique and artistry involved in what he does, but somehow it wasn't sexy enough, and therefore was dismissed.

So it was with a tinge of sadness that I listed to my son's friends speak along similar lines.  Because these young artists, whose talent is evident, are destined to meet with marketers further down the line, who have, let's face it, lesser expectations.  They aren't looking for craft.  What do they know about that?  They only want something that sells.  And the highest level of craftsmanship doesn't often converge with what sells.

On Friday I received an email from a dear friend, a fiction writer teaching at Oxford.  She writes,  "Some of them ( her students) are trying so hard and they are really sincere and hard working and then they send their work to an agent and they just get told 'insufficient commercial' and it makes me so cross."

On we plod.  Without hope.  With our laughable standards and ideals. But mistaken or otherwise, this is who we are.

So although I am sorry that my son and his friends are facing the same kinds of resistance to their artistic offerings, something in me cheers them on.  Because they are on my TEAM.   They answer their inner convictions.  They are the future.  Or if they aren't the future - they are what I wish the future was.  

 I came home from my sculptural workshop yesterday, to find an enormous package waiting for me on the table.  It was wrapped in white paper and my name and address were hand written on the outside in a beautiful cursive hand.  I tore the package open, and underneath the pink and purple tissue paper, discovered a box with a card affixed to the top.  "Happy Birthday!" it said.  And inside, "You've got mail!"

I opened the box to find a tiny painted door, with a bell pull beside it made out of an acorn. A little mailbox at one side contained an envelope the size of a fingernail.  It was so small I couldn't read the writing.  But my son Elliot took the letter out of the envelope.  "Happy Birthday," it said. "with love from Stephanie, Dylan, Oliver and Emmett."

My sister and her family. My sister who teaches drama at a children's workshop in San Francisco - working long hours and pouring her heart into her work - not for the money but for the love of the craft.

It is the little door you see in the photograph above this blog post.  Elliot and I placed it underneath our tallest silver maple tree.  You've never seen a more inviting door.  If only I could open it.  And yet it will not open.  It isn't a door to anywhere at all.  But it is the very best door I can imagine. I will be knocking on doors quite like it, for the rest of my life.  So will my sculpture teacher.  So will my son and his friends.  So will my sister Stephanie. God Bless Them All.  May it lead to wonderful vistas!!!

Saturday, June 15, 2013


In my yoga practice this week, one of the instructors suggested that we are all really trying to recover the self we were at ten years old.  And at the end of a different practice, while in the final Savasana, another instructor asked us to return to who we really were, deep inside.

But who are we?  And how do we undo the ego built around selfhood, or let go of personal history or forget personal identity - our names and the roles that we play.

Authenticity.  That's what we're always looking for.  Or if we aren't looking for it, something in us longs to find it.  And responds to it when we see it.

Over the last two days, I've also been reading a book: Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg.  He asks the reader to let go of the sense that writing flows - to build instead one sentence after another - simple short sentences - and to get used to thinking and observing but not always rushing to write things down.

As I write this,  I'm in my library and looking at books - the books that Ben and I have accumulated over decades.  Is this who I am?  The person who has entertained these other ideas, these other writers and thinkers, who has read these things and absorbed them into my consciousness - or hoped to absorb them.  Some books we don't choose to keep. Some get recycled or given away. Other books are treasured.

Maybe my selfhood at ten years old included the consciousness that would entertain the writers I have read and the pieces of writing I would ultimately try to write.

Right now, though, I'm a little stuck in my writing.  Every day I've been writing around a particular confrontation - one I want to explore between two fictional characters.  I'm working up to their interaction.  I'm trying to invest it with truth - a truth of something that comes from deep inside.  But it isn't coming easily.

I asked one of my yoga instructors on Friday if he had ever heard of Emotional Contagion.  He seemed perplexed.  Then I explained the concept - which comes from one of the books in this library by Elaine Hatfield, John T Cacioppo and Richard L Rapson.  It hypothesizes that we are susceptible to mirroring the physical gestures of those with whom we interact, and in this way, we feel emotions which don't always belong to us.    I have noticed often, whilst practicing yoga, that I am particularly susceptible to this phenomenon.  Perhaps it's because we are in a Bikram class, and going through the same 26 postures together.  But if I see somebody growing faint, or taking a break on their mat, I need to guard myself against doing the same.  Often in a single class, several people will feel unable to continue - or they might even begin to leave the room. This seems to happen in waves, like dominoes. And when that happens it's hard to remember who it is you are inside, very hard not to follow the herd mentality.

When I started writing this blog post, these ideas seemed to hang together.  Now that I've written them down, I'm not so sure they do.  But since it's only a blog, I'll let it stand as is.  Make the connections you want to make.  Or don't.

And Namaste!

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran

Here's a wonderful debut novel full of memorable characters sure to delight readers across the English speaking world   The Hope Factory by Lavanya Sankaran is a kind of Indian "Upstairs Downstairs".  Read my review and pick up a copy~ you won't want to put it down, and won't want the book to end.



I have a deep respect for privacy.  This goes back to when I was little  and my mother told me off for opening an envelope addressed to her. "You must never open a letter addressed to someone else," she scolded.  I must have been about four.

"Why?" I asked.

 "What if it is private?" she replied.

Private. The word was sobering.  From then on, I understood it as a barrier beyond which I should not go.

But later, visiting my father at the theater where he was performing, I remember the joy, the sense of being special when once we were invited into the private room of the director. The mahogany door was marked "Private" and in the interval we ran down red carpeted corridors where other audience members milled around and we entered through this door marked private. The door which only we were permitted to go through.  Theater-goers were lining up for the ladies room or the concession stand and I remember a strange woman opened the private door after me, and grabbed my arm. "You can’t go in there," she said. "It’s private."

 "I know," I said. "But I am allowed."

"Oh," she said, startled.

Yes.  I was allowed and she was not.  A special feeling.

Somehow I find myself back on the subject of private gardens, like the one at Gramercy Park, and remembering in particular a gate marked private at a hotel where we once stayed as children. The hotel was called Owlswick and it had tall trees and there were wood pigeons singing in the garden.  The lawn was sweeping and the property huge, as though without boundaries, except for a wall which circled a very small garden in the middle - the private garden belonging to the proprietors of the hotel.  The proprietor’s children played in this garden, you could hear them laughing behind the wall - and after we befriended them, they invited us inside. 

"Sorry," I told them. "I cannot go."

"Why not?" asked the little girl.

"Because it says private," I answered, refusing to enter.

The Garden of Eden was also private once Adam and Eve had been kicked out.  That marked their downfall. Then it was off limits to them. They were expelled from the garden.

Being kicked out or not let in.  Are they the same thing? I think I understand it as the feeling of futility, the feeling of smallness and insignificance when you cannot make your dreams come true.  When you do the best you can and your best is not good enough.  You are not allowed in the garden.  Or else you are expelled.  The garden is private and you are not invited.