chiaroscuro

Frustrated Writer – Help Needed! #wwwblogs #IAmWriting #WritingTips

 

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What I imagined…

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The reality…

So another week of solitude in Devon (read why here) and another attempt to get back into the writing.

This time though, I’ve hit a bit of a crisis.

When I began this second full-length novel (absolutely ages ago) I sort of knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted it to go. But, as often happens, when I came to write, it went off on a tangent and I’m not sure, at this point, how to get back on course. I’m not sure, anymore, exactly what this book is.

I do know that I’m not altogether happy with the direction it’s taken, or the way some of the characters have evolved. But 50,000 + words in, I’m a bit loath to start all over again.

So, do I give it all up as a bad job, or do I persevere and potentially waste more (precious) time?

The thought of ditching all that work, particularly as I find it so hard to fit in time for writing as it is, fills me with horror.

So where do I go from here?

Part of my issue is, I think, that I’m a great list-maker. I like to be organised and to have schedules and time tables and deadlines. And when, more often than not, I fail to reach those deadlines or stick to those schedules, it can feel like there’s no place left to go. And when a story, or an idea, or 50,000 words refuses to stick to my original idea, I find it hard to move on.

But 50,000 words is 50,000 words. I can’t and won’t ditch it all. I need instead to go back and read and read again, and evaluate every word, every twist, and every change in what I’ve written and try to get to the whys of it all. And perhaps too, I need to let go of that original idea of what the book was, and of what kind of writer I am.

I’m not starting again though.

So advice please, all you lovely writers out there – what would you do if you were me?

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The Joys of Solitude #wwwblogs #Iamwriting

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I’m not sure exactly where she gets it from, (it certainly isn’t me) but my daughter has a brain that leans towards maths and science. Which is a good thing, because she’s always wanted to be a vet. So a couple of weeks ago, the two of us set off for Devon – Jess to spend the week with the local farm vets in Holsworthy, and me to spend a week on my much neglected WIP.

While Jess really did have the proverbial arm up a cow’s backside (or three – cows, that is, not arms) and was literally counting sheep, I sat in the very sunny kitchen of our beautiful rented cottage and listened to the silence. Well, it was silent except for the mooing of nearby cows and an enormous amount of birdsong.

It was… weird.

At least it was at first. I’m normally a headless chicken (which Jess didn’t encounter last week), rushing from pillar to post, from editing work, to working for my husband’s business, to ironing and shopping and cooking and clearing up after the dogs. You get the picture. My life is exhausting, as is true for lots of people in this day and age. And it’s noisy too. Our house is not all that far from the M3, and I can just about hear the traffic during the day. My office is at the back of the house, and I do get the birdsong (from any birds not completely terrified my Milo, our massive cat)  but I also get  the lawn mowers, builders, DPD vans delivering endless parcels etc. etc. All of which can be rather distracting.

So the peace and quiet of this little corner of Devon took a bit of getting used to. For the first couple of days I felt a bit lost. Once Jess had gone off in the morning, there was just me, and a friendly robin that hopped on to the doorstep once or twice, and quite a few lady sparrows (not a gentleman sparrow in sight). There was a family (of people!) in the cottage next door, but they went out every day. The owners were close by too, but they were the perfect mix of there if you needed them without being obtrusive. So, it was quiet. I stared at my screen, avoiding the temptation of Facebook and Twitter. I’d made a promise to myself that there would be no social media. And my mind went blank.

Then I remembered that old adage about applying the seat of one’s pants or however it goes, and I made myself type.

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It got easier. And by Wednesday I was chilled, and writing well and keeping right away from social media (well, almost).

And by the time we were packing on Friday, I’d written more than I had in a long while, and, even better, I felt enthusiastic about my writing again, ready to continue with it.

So it was a luxury, this week of solitude, and one I was very lucky to have. I admire so much those writers I know that hold down a job, or two, and have young children or care for elderly parents. Those writers who still manage to write, despite all that. And I know I’m extremely lucky to have had that week in Devon, and to have the prospect of a second week in Devon later this month when Jess is working with another vet. And I know I’m lucky to have had that time to work in peace and quiet and reflect on my writing. It really was bliss.

And it made me realise how important it is to try and find a bit of peace and quiet, if we can, in our everyday lives. I can’t swan off to Devon every time I need to get on with my writing, however much I’d love to, so I need to make sure I try and recapture that sense of peace and calm. I know it won’t be easy now I’m firmly back in the midst of the responsibilities of daily life, but I’m determined to try.

And if you’re planning a trip to Devon (and do, it is utterly beautiful) then I recommend Staddon Barns. The Post House, that we stayed in, had everything we could have asked for, was charmingly furnished and spotlessly clean. Details here.

Staddon

 

 

Delacroix at the National Gallery #wwwblogs

 

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The National Gallery

My current work in progress – Chiaroscuro – was inspired by and features the French painter Eugene Delacroix. I love visiting art galleries and have been lucky enough to visit the National Gallery, Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So I was thrilled when I found out that the National Gallery currently has an exhibition of Delacroix’s work, focussing on his influence on modern art.

So on Easter Monday my husband, son and I went off to London. I’m very lucky that my son shares my love of art and isn’t above accompanying me to galleries. Plus my daughter, who has no interest at all, was on a college trip to the Belizean rain forest (much more her thing) so I didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving her out!

The exhibition was amazing. I know it might sound over the top, but to actually see Delacroix’s paintings in front of me was truly awe-inspiring. And to learn how he was so influential on so many artist who came after him, many of who are certainly more well-known than he is, was really interesting. I don’t know many other people who count Delacroix as their favourite artist, so it was heartening to know that I wasn’t alone and that he was held in such high esteem by artists of the calibre of Renoir, Van Gough, Cezanne, Picasso and Signac, to name but a few; I felt in very good company!

Delacroix is known for his lavish use of colour, but it truly isn’t until you are actually standing in front of his work that you can really appreciate just what that means. And while the paintings by others accompanying his were by artists considered geniuses in their own right, for me their works paled in comparison. As you moved from room to room, it was the Delacroixs that stood out, that captured your eyes and imagination.

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‘Homage to Delacroix’ (1864) Henri Fantin-Latour

The most touching part of the exhibition came at the end though. The wall outside the exhibition is adorned with a print of Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘Homage to Delacroix’. Fantin-Latour painted this tribute to give Delacroix the recognition, the respect and the admiration that had more or less eluded him in his lifetime. Artists and writers, among them Whistler, Manet, Baudelaire and Fantin-Latour himself, cluster around a portrait of Delacroix – if the critics had not liked him, his contemporaries and those that followed certainly did. And as the exhibition shows, Delacroix’s influence was far-reaching and long-lived. Indeed, Picasso’s ‘The Women of Algiers’ painted in 1955 was one of a series of his variations on Old Masters and was a take on Delacroix’s magnificent painting of 1834. Picasso’s painting sold in 2015 for $179 million, causing a bit of a sensation. Delacroix’s original never made nearly as much, but caused a sensation because of its subject matter and its sexual connotations. And while I admire the Picasso, having seen Delacroix’s amazing painting in reality, I know which I prefer.

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‘Women of Algiers in their Apartment’ (1834) Eugene Delacroix 

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© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ARN Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) by Pablo Picasso. 

The exhibition is at the National Gallery until 22nd May.

The Role of the Life Model #wwwblogs #Writinganovel

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Study for ‘Liberty Leading the People’

Two of the characters in my WIP ‘Chiaroscuro’ work as life models – one models for Eugene Delacroix as he paints his controversial work ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, while the other, a 21st Century student, supplements her income posing at the local university.

It’s one of those jobs that many people find fascinating. What must it be like to take your clothes off in front of all those people? What sort of person does that for a living?

Well, a surprisingly varied type of person! As part of my research, I read many articles and blogs written by and about life models. They come from all walks of life and come in all shapes and sizes – life modelling is definitely a modelling job where difference is celebrated, where you don’t need to be a size six, and any ‘unusual’ physical features are welcomed, not disparaged.

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Study for ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’

Life models are vital for the development of artists.  Drawing a real person, with all the imperfections, nuances and attributes that come with the human body, is essential practice.  The students are appreciative of their models and respect and realise their importance. So what does it take to be a life model? And what is it actually like?

It’s not as simple as it might appear – it’s not just a case of taking your clothes off and standing there. The Register of Artists’ Models offers some very sound advice. You will need to be comfortable with your body – and happy to be naked in a room full of strangers. You’ll need to be unconcerned by a tutor mentioning your defects over and over again. You’ll need patience and stamina – standing or sitting in the same position for up to forty-five minutes at a time can be uncomfortable, to say the least. And can you come up with interesting poses? Often a teacher will ask you to improvise so you’ll need to be able to think up new positions.

You’ll also need to be reliable – often life models are booked for a run of sessions, posing in the same position so that students can work on a painting or sculpture. You need to be able to guarantee that you’ll be there.

The blogs and articles I’ve read are mostly filled with positive and sometimes extremely funny experiences. Many say that they were worried at first at the reaction their imperfect bodies would fetch from the students, but found that no one was bothered by a middle-aged paunch or too much body hair or dimples, freckles and birthmarks.

So far from being a nudge-nudge wink-wink type of job, life-modelling seems to me to be rather life-affirming and rather good for a positive body image too. A way of celebrating our imperfections (and we all have them) rather than hiding them. And a refreshing antidote to the photo-shopped and honestly rather weird nude selfies pumped out on a regular basis by certain attention-seeking celebrities.

And as the sketches here show, life models are a vital resource for artists – the men, women and even animals that modelled for Delacroix helped to add the vitality and richness that the figures in his paintings possess.

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Crouching woman

Sardanapalus – The Man Behind the Painting #wwwblogs

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My current WIP involves three different centuries and was inspired by a painting by Eugene Delacroix. The painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ portrays a man watching as his possessions (including concubines, slaves and animals) are destroyed around him. The painting is lavish and in some ways shocking. So just who was Sardanapalus and why did he allow this to happen?

One of the problems with trying to write about such an ancient subject is the lack of information. But I have been able to find out a surprising amount – how much is accurate, how much actually happened, is, of course, debatable, but as with all historical research, you can only learn from what’s there, keeping an open but questioning mind.

According to the Greek writer Ctesias of Cnidus (I’d be really interested to know how to pronounce that!) Sardanapalus was the last king of Assyria. Already though, it’s not that simple. The last king of Assyria was actually Ashur-Uballit II. Ctesias was a physician and historian. He wrote a series of books about the history of Assyria and Persia called ‘Persica’. Unfortunately, the books are lost. There are fragments included in other books and abridgements, but not the originals. In the account written by Diodorus, a Greek historian writing in about 30 to 60 BC. who used Ctesias as a source, we get an idea of Sardanapalus as he is later known – a decadent man, self-indulgent, concerned mainly with physical gratification.

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Diodorus

The name Sardanapalus is most likely a corruption of the name Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Neo Assyrian Empire. However, Ashurbanipal was, by all accounts, completely different to Sardanapalus; he was a scholar, a military man, powerful and efficient. The similarities seem to lie in the fact that Ashurbanipal fell out with his brother, as does Sardanapalus in Diodorus’ account, and it is this brother’s death that bears a passing resemblance to Sardanapalus’ fate. However, nether Ashurbanipal or his brother led the type of life that Sardanapalus is associated with. Confused yet?

Delacroix was apparently not inspired by either Ctesias or Diodorus though. He took his inspriarion from the play by Lord Byron, who was inspired by Diodorus. So by the time we get to Delacroix’s painting, we are seeing something inspired by a play inspired by a Greek historian writing hundreds of years before, who was inspired by a Greek physician and historian writing about three to four hundred years before that. It’s not really surprising that things might not be completely historically accurate but we are left with this enduring idea of a lascivious, decadent, self-indulgent man who lived for pleasure.

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It is this that is depicted so well and so shockingly by Delacroix – the moment when, his city besieged, Sardanapalus has everything he owns made into a huge pyre, and awaits the moment when all will be set alight, including him. It is his expression, his apparent lack of concern that really stays with you.

Of course, the painting didn’t go down too well at the time. The violence, the nudity, the actual style of the painting itself and the techniques used brought Delacroix much criticism. It was only in later years that the painting became valued for its boldness and its bravery.

 

‘Liberty Leading the People’

Anyone who reads my blog or who knows me at all will know how much I love France. I’ve spent many, many happy holidays there and plan to move there permanently. I don’t want to sound overly emotional but I am being completely genuine when I say that the French people I have met have been, without exception, welcoming, friendly and warm. They really do have a fabulous attitude to life and to living that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

My WIP is partially based in Paris and the great French artist Eugene Delacroix features. I have spent a great deal of time researching Paris, reading about its history, its culture, its people. And I have been planning a trip – it is a city I have always wanted to visit, but have only passed through (usually accidently when the satnav goes wonky).

Delacroix painted ‘Liberty Leading the People’ in 1830. It has often been seen as a painting commemorating the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century. However, the scene he painted actually relates to what took place on July 28th, 1830.

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After the revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, the Bourbons were restored to the throne,with the brother of the executed King Louis XVI becoming king. Charles X became king in 1824 and he immediately set about undoing the work of the revolution. In July 1830, among other measures, he abolished freedom of the press. This lead to a virtually bloodless revolution; resistance to the king spread quickly and civil war broke out, people refused to work, and crowds gathered shouting ‘Down with the king’. The king tried to solve things by abdicating and making his grandson king. The Chamber of Deputies refused to accept this and the king went into exile.

Delacroix’s painting symbolises this moment – when anything seemed possible.

It has been used as an image for that first revolution – but that, to me, doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the values it represents. The will of the people.  Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). Liberty, of course, is the symbol of the French Republic, also known as Marianne.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on the events of last Friday, nor do I feel it is my place to do so. But this painting by Mathilde Adorno, using Delacroix’s famous image, says it all for me. Marianne is as apt a symbol today as she was when Delacroix painted her in 1830.

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Eugene Delacroix and the lost art of letter writing

Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix

Researching my new WIP, I’ve been reading the selected letters of Eugène Delacroix.

Delacroix was a rather controversial 19th Century artist. His painting invoked strong reactions for their use of bold colour and for his refusal to conform to the ideas of the day. I think that’s why I like him so much. He’s pretty hard to research however, despite the fact that he is regarded as the father of the French Romantic movement.

These letters then are indispensable and a godsend. They are also entertaining, intelligent, beautifully written (and translated) and hugely insightful. Without them, I would be at rather a loss to put any flesh on the bones of the man whose paintings I so admire.

The letters that are relevant to the period I am researching, when Delacroix was a young man, are written to friends and family. They contain within them clues to Delacroix’s passions, his values, his admiration for his close friends and hints of the rather strained relationship he had with his sister. But what if Delacroix was alive today? How would I find out what makes him tick?

Well, you could argue that it would be a lot easier. That I would just have to look at his Twitter account or Google him to find out the latest gossip, or read interviews in magazines or on websites. But would that give me a true picture? I somehow doubt it. Here, in these personal letters, we have something precious – a real insight into a man that many consider a genius. For today’s artists, musicians, actors and celebrities, what we usually get is a PR approved, carefully constructed, watered-down version of a personality, a life that the artist (or their management company) wants you to see. Yes, we might get to read an autobiography (but this would be run through the usual PR checks), we might read on Twitter what they had for breakfast, but is that a real insight?

And it’s not just in the area of celebrity that something has been lost. The art of writing letters is lost to us on the whole. We write quick emails, tweet or text each other. We don’t sit down and write to each other about our feelings, our ambitions, our desires and our disappointments as Delacroix did. Even our moments of the greatest grief or the greatest joy are now more often posted on Facebook. I’ve seen people ‘share’ the loss of a parent in a post and the response has been a range of sad emoticons. That takes a few seconds. Compare that to Delacroix’s letter to his great friend J.B. Pierret, written after the death of Perret’s father. The letter is awash with empathy, with sympathy, with real feeling, real concern and real emotion. How much more comfort would that give than a ‘sad face’?

I’m not one of those people who think that everything was better in the past – far from it. But I do think in this age where everything is quick, everything is automated, our responses have become automated too. And I do think we’re the poorer for that.