I loved making collages during a short course at CityLit: the simple-yet-not-simple task of putting disparate pieces together to make something else.
When I sit down to write I have an idea of what will happen, or at least what I want to happen. Collage starts with a blank page too, but – because it is new to me and maybe also because it’s without pressure – feels impossibly open-ended.
I liked the surprise of the decollage technique – pasting layers then removing elements to create something entirely new. It is unpredictable: some people in the class said they didn’t enjoy the lack of control.
I liked the tutor’s suggestion to have multiple pieces on the go at once, to shift without thinking from one to the next and back again, to see things afresh, to start noticing themes or connections that tie them together. Above all, he said, it stops you being too precious, it frees you.
Twenty years ago a British artist gathered up 7,227 things he owned and spent two weeks methodically breaking them into pieces. In the heart of consumerist London – in a closed-down C&A store on Oxford Street – his paintings, hi-fi, clothes, love letters, cat food, passport, car and more became bits of metal, glass, ceramic, textiles. The pieces were sent to landfill until his only remaining possession was the boilersuit he was wearing.
Whatever you think about performance art – or about destroying things for art’s sake, in an age of environmental crisis – the work says something about our complicated attachment to material possessions. As Landy told the FT: “At the time I spoke about how I was witnessing my own death and also moments of elation and it being the happiest two weeks of my life.”
Everything feels different or disjointed: the air oppressively warm; my knowledge of Spanish buried too many years ago to find the words I need; and it should be afternoon, but I’m the first to order breakfast. Eggs with tomatoes and onion, fruit, black coffee to shake off a six-hour time difference.
Last week an overnight flight took me to Cartagena de Indias, a city of around 1 million on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where men push carts piled high with mangoes through busy streets, where horse-drawn carts join traffic jams, where friends pose for selfies amid flags or pink umbrellas or street art. A dark history – a one-time slave trade hub, and one of three seats of the Catholic Inquisition in the Americas — but the city has since become a UNESCO heritage site, and tourists come nowadays for the colour, the nightlife, the nearby islands, the easy stroll along thick fortress walls.
Years of formal education have drummed into us the idea of essay as formula, a rigid structure to follow. That structure may have helped to organise your thinking, but essay-writing also sparks less positive memories: of set titles that fail to inspire, non-negotiable deadlines, struggles to meet a particular word count.
Go back to the original meaning of the term, though – from the French essayer, ‘to try’ – and the essay becomes a whole lot more interesting.
I was reminded of this in a recent Vox podcast about the work of Albert Camus, which also explores why he chose the essay form.
“An essai is a trial, it’s an attempt. And… success is not guaranteed,” says Robert Zaretsky, a philosopher and historian, interviewed on the podcast.
Four years ago today I had a nerve-wracking morning in a Brussels hotel room, as news emerged of a first, then a second explosion in the city. It was a relief to be able to instantly contact family and friends back home, but the hours of uncertainty were frightening, and unclear information and people’s conflicting advice paralysed me. Stay in my room? Try to leave the city before they shut down transport? Wait in case something else happens?Continue reading “Hold on”→
Here’s my new more-or-less monthly update: sharing three things – a person, idea, story, event or something else – that have grabbed me and that I think people should know about.
Not exactly brain surgery
Another day, another phone interview. This one stood out though: over a fairly crackly phone line – from an echoing meeting room in central London to a Bangalore hospital – Devi Shetty told me he’d just finished a heart operation and seen around 60 patients that day. “It’s energising”, the 60-something year-old told me. “Where else do you get to interact with that many people?”Continue reading “Surgery, personal obsessions, and artist dates: three things this month”→
Before I get into the next project — and before descending too far down the inevitable path of hopelessness/doubt/boredom as illustrated by Austin Kleon — I’m trying to keep in mind the stuff I learned from the last one.
The last project turned into a 40-minute film, ‘Unladylike’, about women and girls who box. It was the first time I’d made a documentary and the first time I’d worked with my two co-filmmakers.
After ten years abroad, my friend Débora moved back to her hometown, Lisbon, last year. People there sometimes ask why she came back. Surely there are so many more opportunities abroad?
Sometimes Débora wonders why, too. After Bonn, Leipzig, Brussels, Geneva and London, it’s taking a while to adjust to the laid-back Portuguese attitude to planning, the open-ended work meetings and the buses that don’t turn up. Not to mention eating dinner so late.
It’s not only the reverse culture shock; for many returning to Portugal, there’s also a financial one, in a country where the minimum monthly wage is under EUR 600. Continue reading “Europe’s hottest hub”→
“Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time…. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
That reassurance is from the late journalist and teacher William Zinsser, whose book ‘On Writing Well’ I just read. It’s an excellent guide, mixing the micro (such as why you should rarely use an exclamation mark; or why most adverbs are unnecessary), the techniques (how to construct a strong opening; how to adapt quotes yet stay true to your interviewee), and the principles (putting your own voice into your writing; homing in on ‘one corner’ of your subject). First published in 1976, it’s bang-on relevant today.
At a panel discussion last month about young people and technology, the most telling moment came towards the end, when someone in the audience raised her hand. She worked for an organisation that recruits numerous young volunteers, she told us, and one of the questions they always ask at interviews is: “What are your hobbies?”. For the first time not long ago, a 16-year-old girl had responded: “Going on my phone”.
There was a collective, sharp intake of breath among the audience, most of us of generations who remember life before the Internet. We may be just as attached to endless scrolling, and just as afflicted by powernoia as adolescents; but unlike them, we automatically think that’s a bad thing.