Tagged: Artist Date

Friday Writing Experiment No. 33: A Little Bird Told You


This week’s Friday Writing Experiment celebrates the publication next week of Donna Tartt’s very exciting new novel The Goldfinch.

It’s getting the fantastic reviews it deserves, but I do suggest you don’t read any of them until you’ve read the novel itself, as too many reveal far too much. Even things such as the settings are best left to unfold for themselves – the second (or maybe it’s the third) act of the book took me someplace quite unexpected, and it’s richly rendered and full of further surprises. And that is what much of reading for pleasure is about: the surprises, the narrative tension.

This is touched upon in this very inspiring (and spoiler-free) clip from an interview with Donna Tartt shown on the BBC this week:

When asked what she wants people to read her books for, she answers:

First I want them to have fun. Reading’s no good unless it’s fun … What I always want is the one quality I look for in books and it’s very hard to find … I love that childhood quality of just that gleeful, greedy reading, can’t-get-enough-of-it, what’s-happening-to-these-people, the breathless kind of turning of the pages. That’s what I want in a book. But I also want something that’s well constructed, too. I like to be able to drop down in. Dickens goes so fast, he goes like lightning, but at the same time any sentence you can lift up and it’s a marvel and it’s a miracle. To me, I want those two qualities, the two qualities of any great art: density and speed. Density and speed.

Kirsty also says that her books are about secrets, and Donna replies that all books are about secrets and have mysteries at their heart. ‘Every book has some secret, there’s always a secret.’

One thing that can probably be revealed (something I knew before reading – not least as it’s on the cover) is that the story involves a painting. A painting of a little bird: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius (and if you don’t know much about it, maybe don’t follow that link till you’ve read the novel either: let the novel bring it into your world in its own way). It’s a beautiful, beautiful painting, or so I believe – I’ve never seen the original, but we’ll all want to now, and thanks to Donna Tartt for describing it so well.

This set me to thinking about ekphrastic writing, which is writing that in some way describes art or uses it as an inspiration. Some examples are mentioned here. I remember my friend and co-teacher Stephanie Heit using Pictures From Brueghel in a workshop at Naropa.

Something further: that bird, that little bird. My goddess, that little bird really haunted me – its exquisite form, its vulnerability, ‘a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle’. A little bird painted three and a half centuries ago comes to stand for so much, and mining this meaning allows for the depth and richness of reading this great book.

For this week’s writing experiment, create a piece that takes The Goldfinch as a model for writing:

* As an inspiration, use a painting of a bird or an animal, or maybe a fish or a lizard or an insect.

* And then also place a secret at the heart of this piece.

* And it might not hurt to aspire towards density and speed in your work, too: perhaps some of its sentences can be marvels and miracles.

* Most of all, your readers must have FUN.

If you’d like to explore some inspirations, try Animals In Art or even visit the Animal Art Fair. Or take yourself on an artist date to one of your favourite galleries, or root around in gallery websites. Really take in all the details of an artwork featuring your own little bird or animal, and in your own writing embody whatever it – and its subject – might mean.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 4: A Date With An Artist

Today I had the great pleasure of spending the afternoon with my good and special friend the magical, starry writer Bhanu Kapil. We drank tea, ate plum muffins, took a ferry across the Thames with a lanky Alsatian, gossiped, walked in the rain, and read tarot cards as I drank chai and she drank energy tea. (I also cleaned house before her arrival. That special a friend.)

We also did some serious writerly stuff: read poetry; talked about teaching; shared our notebooks; discussed approaches to structure and form; set targets (mine from Bhanu included a list of gratitudes); the general upbeat coaching, coaxing, and bullying you can do with those you know and those who know you (and those who know those you both know). Except it never felt serious. It was playful, fun, rejuvenating.

(Also, we sat at a table numbered 108, which is a magic number. It’s the number of beads in a seat of Hindu prayer beads, it has all sorts of association with the number of 3 – it inspired, e.g., the number of sections in Eat Pray Love: look at all the multiples of 3 that it’s divisible by. Accidental magics.)

But this is supposed to be a Friday Writing Experiment (and I have twenty minutes left of Friday).

This week, put a twist on the warm and wonderful Julia Cameron’s idea of the Artist Date (and see video below). Julia asks us to take ourselves on a ‘once-weekly, festive, solo expedition’ to fire up the imagination and rediscover our sense of play; how about taking such an expedition with a good friend? Maybe they write too, or practise other forms of art, or maybe they’re just inspiring. Call them, or email them, and arrange to take yourselves to some place that’s new to at least one of you: a garden, a new coffeeshop, a neighbourhood a short train journey away. Or maybe this is your chance to try a videocall on Skype for the first time? You could also visit a gallery, or attend a literary event, but make sure you make time for each other too; go somewhere that you can talk and look at each other without needing to be polite to things on sales racks or in exhibition cases. The only other requirements are a notebook and pen.

Then do some/all of the following:

* Document the meeting.

* Read aloud some of your recent work.

* Discuss some of the accomplishments and challenges in your recent writing.

* Gossip. (Gossip is at the heart of all the best stories. Gossip gives voice. Gossip is good.)

* Make an offering (we left a petal and a berry on a statue of Ganesh, but you can leave any old rock under a tree, if you wish – just pick both rock and tree purposefully).

* Later on, or there and then if you have time, take two random images/words/sounds from your time together and create a story or poem that unites these items.

* Give each other writing experiments, but only do them there and there if it feels fun; otherwise do them that evening before you go to bed.

* Commit acts of creative divination.

* Look for the tilts in the landscape. Seek out the points of entry and departure. Be alert for the unexpected, and accidental magics.

* Bring/buy each other an inexpensive gift that is in some way meaningful to your meeting and/or each other’s practice.

* Take photographs.

* Bring an umbrella.

At the very least, write something inspired by this meeting, even if it’s just a journal entry, or an email describing the day to another friend. But a story or a poem could be even nicer.

Most of all: be sustained. Creative health relies on such friendships. As my date said in correspondence later:

Gossip recalibrates, talking about writing reminds one of one’s fate. Being with a friend rejuvenates.


Basic Tool: Artist Date from Julia Cameron on Vimeo.