Penelope Fitzgerald's writing advice

Today, in the Guardian:

"I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken."

In this light, I should have had TONS of inspiration. At least for the novel part.


A Novel's Help

These days, it is not very often that I come across a book that simply sweeps me off my feet, that makes me want to read it slowly and carefully, underling sentences and writing comments on the margins. Recently, I really enjoyed the The Glass Castle, a memoir which I bought at the airport in São Paulo and read the whole thing in Portuguese on the plane to London, from the American journalist Jeannette Walls (in this YouTube clip her idiosyncratic and often irritatingly free-spirited mother appears, while she happily summarises her story to the camera like an E! presenter. I found that annoying.)

But for the past 2 weeks I've been completely engrossed in Siri Hustvedt's novel What I Loved. It is beautifully written in a sort of careful, elaborate narrative that forces you to decelarate and enjoy the language and the comprehensive pondering of the characters' emotional behaviours. Until I finished the novel today and started combing the internet for people's impressions and opinions, I was also amazed at Hustvedt's imaginary capacity to create such a complex plot (the book explores 25 years of two New York 'art' couples), but then I found a couple of articles that mentioned the similarity of several sections of the book to Hustvedt and her husband Paul Auster's lives, and then my awe faded a little. Apparently, both authors are well-known in the literary world for "dressing" facts from their own lives, as a journalist wrote, and incorporate them into their work.

That said, knowing this doesn't affect my infatuation with this book. In this little audio clip, she says that if you look at people sitting around the table of a dinner party, you could bet that every single one has stories about love and loss, and how both have been largely influential on how those people turned out. She says "I'm interested in why people become what they become. When my daughter was 3, I was giving her a bath, and she asked me: 'Mom, when I grow up, will I still be Sophie?' That was a very dramatic question about human life, and this novel is about those ideas, the role of culture in shaping people's character."

I just loved that. In my own troubled relationship with my family and friends, I've often tried to put breaks on my own judgement of them and simply tried to understand what was behind their acts and behaviour. It made things easier, at least for me, and opened space for forgiveness. Reading this novel and hearing that comment clarified a lot what I have - often unconsciously - tried to do, and shone a light into a practice that needs to be exercised by anyone who wants to be some kind of writer/artist.

I'm looking forward to read her other novels.


The Written Word

Talking about not recognising my former self.

Just the other day I've realised that although I'm somewhat more comfortable with who I am at the moment, there's also a shadowy side to this recent moment of enlightenment.

I still think I should be doing more.

6 years ago I saw myself as someone who saw intellectuality, the workings of the mind, as a goal, as a way of life, something to aspire to. My heros always have been writers, people who spent most of their days thinking and translating conclusions, deliberations and observations into words who would be read by others. At the same time, I've always loved fashion, and always thought of it as a way to show the world, albeit in a superficial way, one's own ideas. It was my way to single myself out from the crowd, to challenge conventional patterns of behaviour and beauty, capturing attention of people who would be willing to trade similar ideas with me, and repel conformists.

But for me it has always been far from dignifying to spend one's day thinking about shoes, for instance. Or thinking about how to coordinate outfits. Or thinking about how to find a ridiculous amount of money to spend in a piece of (brilliantly designed, I must say) fabric. It's not how anyone with a brain should choose to spend a life in.

Then the other day I suddenly registered that that is exactly what I've doing most of my days.
Since I left the world of jobs to try and make it on my own, all I think about is shopping, seasons, celebrities, shoes, pouring over endless cuttings from Vogue and i-D and Elle, gradually assimilating 7 decades of fashion (I just reinvented myself as a vintage fashion "dealer"/ stylist). I love it. It gives me a lot of pleasure to stumble upon a gem, and it thrills me to suddenly understand what works for whom, and how to bring the coolest side of someone. But this is all TOO visual.

All my life I've trained myself to use WORDS to express myself. WRITTEN words. I don't sing, or play any instrument, I'm a horrible drawer/painter, and although I have been an above average dancer, I could never make a career out of it - or any sport, for that matter. But the written word is my instrument, is where I feel more at ease, is my hometown, my motherland, my native language. And if I spend too long away from it, with time I start feeling very, very pointless.

I might not be a very good writer, and maybe I'll never make it into fiction like I've always thought I would, someday. But it gives me pleasure to be alone in a silent room with only the tic-tic of the keyboard for soundtrack, to elaborate sentences that are not important for anybody else but me, to create passages of stories that never connect to each other, that never see a beginning or and end (that's my main ability).

To me, this is how you turn a pointless day into a rewarding one. No pair of shoes can give anyone the same joy.