Elevators to success are out of order

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Let’s pretend this is my elusive creative genie and I in a moment of respite.

order |noun| the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method

This weekend, at a creative writing workshop, I found myself having lunch with a stranger by a very windy version of Lake Geneva. We started by ordering coffee and, when we found our conversation to be a comfortable fit, added two bowls of soup to our bill. “Great,” I told her. “I always wanted to have a backwards lunch!” To which she smiled and responded that maybe we should ask each other’s names first. Just like our lunch, our conversation was made-up of the right steps in the wrong order. As we teetered around different topics, a lowered soup spoon revealed an unexpectedly knowing smile. “What?”, I asked. Turns out, we were both lawyers in differing verb tenses – hers present, mine past tense.

This has become such a familiar tune – frustrated lawyers drawing their pens for a more soulful use of words. They seem to flock to every literary island where I’ve perched in my year of “island hopping”. My Leicester writing class had an ex-Magic Circle solicitor. (If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry. It’s not as cool as it sounds. No capes, no wands and certainly no magic). My Milanese online course was rife with would-be authors inhabiting the fringes of the law. And now in Geneva, there sat before me this lovely Belgian lawyer with lots of smart things to say about writing.

My path from law to letters, from lex to lexicon has been a long and winding one. Where some people may see mistakes, I see the right steps in the right order. True, I’m still looking for ways to avoid telling people my literary career began in Leicester. But I’m more than fine with facing up to the one year of literature at university that turned into a law degree that turned into a decade of armor-clad lawyering that swerved back into literature. I still trust those decisions and stand behind each and every one.

I don’t know much, but I know enough to recognize that although failure in this task (and the task is to be a good writer) is highly likely, the alternative of not heeding this call is much worse. Although convoluted, this path gave me things essential to my life today – my husband included. It also gave me some pretty damn useful street smarts – like how to smell an ulterior motive when it’s drenched in perfume. Case in point, if I performed all of the vital tasks spun by the Social Media Merlins, I’d have no time left over to write. I’d be like that popular blogger-guy blogging about writing his first novel… instead of writing his first novel! And here silly me thought writing was the whole point of being a writer. But, as I keep saying, what the hell do I know!? In any case, I’m not buying into that bogus magic either. As the bumper sticker says, there is no elevator to success; you have to take the stairs – you have to write a good book.

So until proof to the contrary, I’m going to stick to my guns and say that what makes a writer a writer is that she writes. Publishing seems to be highly advisable as well. (Go figure!) As does making a best-seller list, snagging some awards and a film option. Being nominated by Oprah for her Book of the Month Club is a financial jackpot – but none of these things are what makes you a writer. None of these things will save you from lit-oblit (literary obliteration) if you haven’t written a kick-ass good book. And for that, you must write, write, write and rub a “hole into your head in the process”. That was the sage advice I got from seasoned author Bret Lott in my writing workshop (http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Jewel-by-Bret-Lott. I’d link to his author website… but he doesn’t have one! The social media strategy box is the only of the above boxes he doesn’t tick and for that he is my hero.) Many other writers would say the same. One of my favorites, Flannery O’Connor, said “writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” So I better have a damn good reason to want to do this, because odds are it will wreak havoc on my looks. Plus – me being me – I don’t want to just do it à la Nike, I want to be good… drive is a remnant of my law laps, I guess. But you won’t see me pushing it out the door any time soon.

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Some naughty little boys need to be convinced they will be good.

When it comes to art, there are no prizes for trying. You are judged on what you produce. To add insult to injury, no one knows exactly how this mysterious thing of writing is done. There are no magic recipes. So it looks like we are just as badly off as the Magic Circle and Social Media Merlins. We do have something close to magic though: the “elusive creative genie” Elizabeth Gilbert insightfully reminded us of in her fabulous Ted Talk that I will not shut-up about (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA).

The great books will be the ones that indelibly describe something about our human existence – now isn’t that concrete and helpful? But that is the task, I think: to master the ability to combine those arbitrary little graphic designs called letters in such a way that their reach is wider than the ink and pixels that embody them. After that, we – as readers and writers – have to keep our fingers crossed that the good books will be the ones to get published and celebrated. But as Flannery also said, “there’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

In any case, no masterpiece is slipping out of my fingers any time soon. I’m still quite clumsily stringing words together and wrestling with my genie. I am well aware I will most likely fail in my endeavors (“no one gets published, female writers even less so, and even if you get published, no one will read it, and if they do, they’ll hate it”… yeah, yeah, I know). But everyday, I pry open my MacBook and pound away with an idiosyncratic mixture of method and madness, joy and desperation, tea and gin. People are the only creatures on the earth that desire things larger than themselves. That is what art is about and why it is a necessity. To dedicate my time and energy to this seems like a pretty good use of a life to me. Flannery O’Connor put it this way, “people without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.”

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Book art for the hopeful – by Veronica & Isaac Salazar

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A Neuchâtelean Archi-tour – now doesn’t that sound fancy?

creation |noun| the action or process of bringing something into existence

Writers shouldn’t paint, at least that’s the moral I took away from the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel. But if they can’t be stopped and you feel exceedingly pressured to showcase their artwork, at least do us the favor of getting a world-class architect on board. You owe it to us to give us something aesthetically pleasing to look at! So my sincere appreciation to the folks that snagged Mario Botta for the gallery where the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s artwork is permanently on display.

I had already gathered from my investigations that this fellow wouldn’t have been the liveliest of dinner guests. Not only were his literary works mostly philosophical crime stories and macabre satire plays, but he also considered a story finished only “when it took a turn for the worst”. And not in a witty Oscar Wilde kind of way. As for the sole difference between humans and wild animals, humans – he said – pray before they commit murder. Perhaps these statements can be better understood if we recall that the author was 18 when the Second World War broke out – although Switzerland was, as always, neutral and therefore not directly involved.

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David Bowie in front of some unfortunate Bowieart.

The inclination of certain celebrities to self-express through painting is a wonderful thing. Truly. All my support goes out to Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé, Steve Tyler, Michelle Pfeiffer, Slash and Josh Hartnett who all claim to paint. If, however, samples of your tinkering happen to slip into the public arena, please don’t expect us to like it just because you clobbered the Nazi’s in World War II… or you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have the highest number of covered songs in the world… or you are the very embodiment of glam rock and London’s V&A Museum has recently inaugurated a box-office-record-breaking retrospective of your career. (To be fair, Winston Churchill’s work is discreetly displayed at his Chartwell studio and is not too bad, but Dylan’s horrendous tempera tantrums were recently exhibited at none other than the Palazzo Reale in Milan (http://www.halcyongallery.com/news/bob-dylan-at-the-palazzo-reale-milan) – explain that! Bowie’s unfortunate pieces have their own website and brand (Bowieart: http://www.bowieart.com/default.asp), where it is abundantly clear he takes his art a lot more seriously than I do.)

As for the artwork of the decidedly less famous Dürrenmatt, Francis Bacon was dark, as was Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Hieronymus Bosch. And I love them. But their work is to Dürrenmatt’s, like truffles to turds. I can’t shake the feeling that Botta may not have been an admirer of Dürrenmatt’s paintings either. After all, for a space meant to showcase the man’s artwork, all of the tributes in the design are to elements of his literary output.

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The cave-like gallery of the Centre Durrenmatt, complete with skylights and door to the exterior.

With such harsh views, you may be inclined to avoid that stark climb up the Neuchâtelean hills to where the Centre Dürrenmatt is perched. But please don’t. Thanks to Mario Botta, it is a beautiful space with incredible views that are decidedly less harsh than my own about the elaborate wall stains within. Dürrenmatt’s work may be hard to swallow, but at least it has given occasion to some truly remarkable architecture. Beautiful things can spring from bad beginnings.

I am a sucker for good contemporary architecture and the Swiss are surprisingly skilled at it. (I say surprisingly, because industrial ingenuity seems more in Swiss character than aesthetic genius.) Le Corbusier may have preceded the coining of the phrase “starchitect”, but Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (think Tate Modern, the Beijing Olympic Stadium), Peter Zumthor (think Therme Vals, the Brother Klaus Field Chapel) and Mario Botta (Saint John the Baptist Chapel, Spa Tschuggen) certainly came just in time for it. Being fans of architecture and spas, the Swiss have even given rise to a new niche – spachitecture!

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The theatrical balcony suspended over the valley and Lake Neuchâtel.

My first impression of Neuchâtel was marked by the rich yellow hue of the Jura stones found everywhere in the historical center. It’s as if the sun’s dying light perennially lingers on their façades. Back in the 19th century, a visiting Alexandre Dumas said the town looked like a toy sculpted out of butter. In contrast, Botta’s design for the Centre Dürrenmatt is in black slate, a tribute to the author’s dark outlook on life. And just as his literary work digs into the depths of the human soul, so does the space created by Botta resemble an unexpected cave carved into the heart of the mountain. The visitor feels protected and yet illuminated by the light that mercifully pours in from above. The crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly the balcony suspended high over Lake Neuchâtel. Botta called it a stage, the visitor the protagonist.

As I stand out on that balcony gazing down at the vast lake, I feel certain you cannot look at something that breath-taking day after day and not be profoundly affected by it. And yet this beauty failed to permeate the exhibited artwork. Surely, Dürrenmatt must have loved that lake, the Jura mountains beyond it, the green pastures that frame it. Otherwise, he would not have chosen this spot to live. Yet such was the strength of his angst that he chose to dam himself up in it.

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The dam-like wall that delineates the gallery space and supports the balcony above it.

Botta’s design seems to reflect this same perception, with the massive valley-facing wall that both delineates the exposition space and buttresses the balcony. “When I am inside the space,” he said “I also feel the emptiness of the valley, I feel the lake, the city. The wall is like a dam: it holds back an internal energy against the outside world.” Curiously, Botta cut out a door smack in the middle of this dam, as well as vast skylights. This leaves the visitor standing in an exhibition space that is far from the dark empty pit felt in the artworks. The combination of these elements (light, lake and door) make Botta’s building a space of hopefulness – despite the sharp torment of Dürrenmatt’s oeuvre. This is fitting. It gives us a more complete picture. Man cannot live without hope – and that is what, I believe, distinguishes humans from wild animals.

Chewing the Swiss fat

Go Base GVA for this fabulous Open Switzerland  project: http://www.openswitzerland.org/index.php

Go Base GVA for this fabulous Open Switzerland project:
http://www.openswitzerland.org/index.php

conformity |noun| compliance with standards, rules, or laws

Only tourists have fondue when it’s hot and our Swiss permits clearly state we are not tourists. We are temporary residents. With this status comes great responsibility. Not only are all sorts of insurance and registrations required of us, but we are also expected to play the part. My investigations tell me conformity is very popular in Switzerland.

We knew we were cutting it close with our little Gruyères expedition, so we convened to discuss. The weather predictions for Sunday were a big yellow smiley-faced sun, but Saturday the sky was slightly overcast and a light jacket was warranted. Deliberation: we could still go and save face.

Thank God, because fondue is heaven. It is not to be missed – it’s oozy, it’s creamy, it’s a delight. We looked like a mini representation of the UN as we huddled around our Bunsen burner – an American, an Emirati, a South African and 2 Portuguese. (Two? But, of course! This is Switzerland where 12,32% of the foreign population is made up of Portuguese immigrants.) Losing your chunk of bread in the pot is tantamount to national disgrace. Unfortunately, I failed miserably, but Luís did pretty well, so the end balance was neutral – another thing the Swiss hold dear to their precise little tickers.

For dessert, the waitress brought round little wooden tubs of truly decadent Gruyères cream. Those strawberries were a mere afterthought and fooled no one. This last morsel was perhaps overkill. So we resolutely set to work recovering from our traumatic lunch with a stroll around the hilltop. With its one street (complete with cobble stones, fountain, castle and a not at all random Alien movie museum), this little hilltop town is the perfect setting for a modern day Brothers Grimm reunion – come Cindy, come (Rap)Zella, come Comatose Beauty, come Girl from the Hood. Some may call it too touristy. I find it whimsical.

Gruyères - you haven't had Gruyère until you've had Gruyère in Gruyères.

Gruyères – you haven’t had Gruyère until you’ve had Gruyère in Gruyères. (See Gruyères up on the hilltop? See the overcast ski? See the snow in the background? We were totally still in season.

To add insult to injury, we ended the day with a visit to the nearby Cailler chocolate factory in Broc – the oldest brand of Swiss chocolate still in production. The lack of oompa-loompas did not go unnoticed, but we were determined not to let that dampen our enjoyment of the voyage through the sexual undertones of chocolate assimilation in Europe back in the day. Apparently, people couldn’t make up their minds about it. At one point, it was considered such a powerful aphrodisiac that monks and nuns of the 1600’s were forbidden to touch the stuff; while later on, its medicinal powers were thought so effective that noble ladies drank it in church to avoid fainting spells. Thankfully, today the world has converted to chocolate liberalism en masse and we are less depressed, more energetic and have better cardiovascular health for it.

Although the Swiss did not discover the stuff or even bring it to Europe (those pesky foreigners with their colonies did that), they did make a pivotal contribution to the sweet ingestible thing we so adore today: they added milk – an ingredient the Swiss have in abundance. In short, the world will never be the same. So the next time you dig into a Swiss chocolate bar, pause for a moment and thank Mr. Daniel Peter (the first one to mix this concoction), Mr. François-Louis Cailler (whose chocolate has oddly inappropriate pharmaceutical sounding names, such as Femina and Frigor), Mr. Philippe Suchard (whose original shop still sells the goods in Neuchâtel’s Rue Seyon), Mr. Rodolphe Lindt (thank you, thank you for your new line of Lindt Excellence bars), Mr. Theodor Toblr (the pop of the duty free shop). We showed our appreciation to these industrious men through the stamina with which we embraced the chocolate tasting that wrapped up our tour. At this point, I had begrudgingly come to terms with the fact that Willy Wonka (more Johnny Depp, less Gene Wilder) would not be making an appearance, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disconcertingly like Violet Beauregarde as I rolled towards the exit – the part about her being round as a ball, that is, not the blue part.

Coo coo - Moo moo -and cocoa. Nice combo.

Coo coo, moo moo and cocoa. Nice combo.

It was a good thing that sunshine the next day. A 30km bike ride near Neuchâtel was most certainly in order.

Cracking preconceptions – a tough little nut

Roger Federer and Heidi's grandfather - promoting all things Swiss!

Roger Federer and Heidi’s grandfather – promoting all things Swiss! 

ignorance |noun| lack of knowledge or information

This may sound like a non-topic rather than an actual topic, but this blog post is all about what I don’t know. I’m writing about ignorance, the absence of veritable knowledge, those free spaces in our brains where dust tends to accumulate unless otherwise engaged. This is why ignorance is sometimes associated with sneezing fits. Ah-choo!

Truth is, when you scratch beneath the surface, I know very little about Switzerland. I am, however, full of preconceptions – just like everybody else. All of us have preconceptions. We just do different things with them. Maybe we can think about these little devils as a stepping-stone between curiosity and knowledge. In the end, preconceptions are a natural stage of our learning dynamic. The danger is only when we go no further than that stepping stone.  But who wants to be stuck mid-river anyway – stuck in a precarious balance atop a stone meant to be a boost, not a dwelling? I don’t know – maybe you’re the kind of person that likes getting your socks wet. No judgment.

If I had to create an image to represent my own Swiss preconception, it would look something like this: Roger Federer poses for another Credit Suisse or Rolex ad, while walking a massive Saint Bernard… who’s carrying a Toblerone around it’s neck… which matches the Matterhorn in the background… atop which is a sun (actually a massive Gruyère cheese)… and the little flowers at Roger’s feet match the delicately embroidered ones on his Lederhosen. The animated iPad version of this ad comes with the added treat of hearing Federer yodeling “we pay really low taxes and have a great public transport system – bitches!”

Whenever you settle into a new place, there are always high initial costs. In Switzerland, you can add a big fat zero to those costs. Today, for example, I was faced with the questionable and yet highly entertaining Botox Tax: a 120 CHF (about 99 EUR, 84 GBP) doozy to register my bad-ass little friend with the Swiss police (a compulsory bureaucracy that even comes with some doggie bling – a little medallion for his collar.)

As my conversation with the very nice Swiss policewoman progressed, this is what was going through my head: “My stay in Switzerland is temporary. I have provided evidence that I am financially sound. And there are no discernable negative side effects to my pet-owning (assuming I pick-up after my dog and pay for all his needs out of my own pocket, both of which I do). So, exactly what undesirable side effects of my pet-owning are the Swiss being compensated for? What am I not getting here? Hmm, methinks the arguments behind this tax are as holey as the cheese in our fridge.”

And yet what did I say to the nice Swiss policelady?: “Bien sûr, madame. May I pay in cash?”

And what was the stepping stone between these two poles? Elementary. Clearly, my lawyerly habits had caught up with me. If I abandon the premise that rules should be proportional and logical, I feel so much more at peace, so much more able to enjoy the beautiful Swiss mountains. If I forget the general principle of natural law whereby rules should serve man and not the other way around, the splendid Neuchâtel Lake shines so much brighter. And I’d much rather spend my time and energy here hiking and writing, than trying to change that which I cannot change. (Wait, isn’t that the Serenity Prayer? Great, one week in Switzerland and I’m already saying the AA mantra!) Be that as it may, this is my strategy and I’m sticking to it. Who knows, maybe on one of my ambles I’ll even run into Roger walking Toblerone St. Bernard – for us Switzerland will be one massive canine country club. I’ve paid my dues. I hope Toblerone St. Bernard has paid his.

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