My Own Little Italy

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It’s been nearly two months now since I went to Sicily, Italy, for our team meetup (I’m a Happiness Engineer on the Store Team at Automattic, the division of the company whose twin purposes are to keep the WordPress.com Store running smoothly and to keep our Store clients happy), and I finally am getting around to posting the pics I took of that mad, 6-day working-and-eating bacchanalia.

As a reference point, we stayed at the Grand Hotel des Palmes in Palermo for the entire week, using it as our home base over the weekend while we ventured out on day trips to the historic site of Agrigento and the rustic fishing village of Cefalu. The hotel had a lot of…issues, many of them having to do with spotty wifi, which is verboten when your client is a cloud-based company that runs nearly a quarter of the world’s websites.

But in terms of location — just a fifteen-minute walk from the harbor and across the street from a charming little coffeehouse with a Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s theme (complete with a very large poster of Audrey Hepburn in that famous black dress — served as some compensation, and the expansive breakfast buffet, which included a seemingly endless supply of yummy cannoli, helped kick off each day on a high note. It was the first time I’d ever had cannoli ever, so it felt only fitting that I would finally indulge in that rich, melt-in-your-mouth dish in its native home.

(Note: These were all taken using my Nexus 4 camera and have yet to be edited. I just wanted them up and published!)

My latest favorite book (and inspiration)

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CT daily-rituals01.jpgI finished reading Mason Currey‘s Daily Rituals recently. It’s one of those books that you have to read with a highlighter in one hand and a hot cup of tea or coffee in the other. A notebook might be nice, too, but it’s not required.

I can’t remember how I first heard about this book (probably from Arts & Letters Daily, one of two websites I must read every single day if I’m going to feel complete before I tuck in at night — the other one being NPR.org), but I’m sure that when it happened, I must have immediately opened a browser tab and searched for it on Amazon. I went to several Barnes & Noble shops over the next few weeks, but not one of them had a copy. I guess I could have called each one rather than wasting so much time and gas traipsing from one to the other, but I like going to bookstores. Bookstores are my Tiffany’s — nothing bad could ever happen to you in there. You get rid of the mean reds, blues, violets, and blacks.

Except, of course, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, which was the case in my search for Currey’s book.

I wanted to give my local bookstore a chance to make me happy, especially after the disappearance of not one, but all of the brick-and-mortar bookstores in my town last year, but I finally gave in and ordered it from Amazon.com. Once I had it in my hands, I devoured it in two sittings.

It’s actually a pretty short, quick read. Currey collected interviews, essays, and vignettes about various creatives — over 200 of them — from Stephen King to Henri Matisse, Somerset Maugham to Twyla Tharp. You can dive in and read a one- or two-page written snapshot of how each creative professional worked, their routines and habits, even their tools. It’s not meant to be a little encyclopedia of artists, and Currey doesn’t really even bother explaining who these notable figures are. If you pay any attention at all to the worlds of arts and literature, you will likely at least have a passing familiarity with just about everyone featured in this book (Louise Bourgeois, Friedrich Schiller, Knut Hamsun, and Maira Kalman, are just a handful of folks mentioned whom I had to look up on Wikipedia), but really, it’s not really necessary.

Currey goes into intimate detail with many of his subjects, from Picasso’s habit of sleeping late and rising late as well, getting to his studio by 2pm to begin his work of the day; to Alexander Graham Bell’s own regimen of working around the clock, which he eventually had to modify to take his wife’s pregnancy into consideration. If you’re looking for techniques on how to be creative, or tips on how to call forth the muse when you’re stuck on a paragraph or a blank canvas, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

What I got instead, however, was a deep appreciation for the sacrifices artists must make in order to engage in the hard, unrelenting work of creating something: a book, a painting, a piece of music, or a piece of software. Austin-based writer, artist, and blogger Austin Kleon frequently laments the creative’s practice of sharing only finished work with the world and hiding all the messy, gut-wrenching process that made that work possible. Currey’s answer to that was this book, a wide-open door into what artists throughout history have had to do in order to make time and room for the act of creation in their lives. Whether it meant working feverishly around the margins of a day job, or a family’s demands, or crafting a rigid schedule of daily hours, these folks got it done.

I have it on my desk now as a reference, right next to a lot of history books and notebooks (and receipts, pens, random Post-Its, and folders), and dip into it frequently. I’m still working on a schedule that works for me and the many things I juggle with on a daily basis (home, work, dogs, volunteering, extended family needs, reading, and writing), and this book reminds me that others with far more demands on their time were able to carve out the space in their lives to make art.

 

Valle dei Templi: Agrigento, Sicily

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Marjorie R. Asturias:

Part of working at Automattic is being able to travel on occasion to connect with your team. Since we’re distributed the rest of the year and thus work from wherever we happen to be (in my case, that would mostly be my home office), it’s a bonus perk when I can not only travel to some exotic place of our choosing, but also to hang out with some of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with!

And this was our most recent (and my first!) team meetup, this time in Sicily, Italy. Ah, corporate life.

Originally posted on Wendy M. Scott:

During my recent trip to Italy, one of the excursions I was lucky enough to do was a day trip from home base in Palermo on the northern coast of Sicily to Agrigento, which is on the southern coast.

Simply put, it was stunning.

The views from the top of the hill were amazing…Greek temples set against a rolling hillside leading to patches of farms and then on to the azure bands of the Mediterranean Sea.

We were so mesmerized by the view and the temples that we just kept snap-snap-snapping pictures, all while the sky darkened and the wind picked up. Finally, it occurred to us that perhaps we should head down off the hill and seek shelter, but it was a bit too late. Long story short, we ran down the hill in a downpour and all got soaked, but it sure was fun!

(photo credit for the…

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And now for something completely different

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Change is good. Good change is even better.

Change is good. Good change is even better.

If you read my previous post — written waaaaay back in October 2013 — you may have caught a hint of the dissatisfaction I was feeling in my life. My writing was beyond neglected. My life had become a roller coaster of activity, crammed with errands, endless to-do lists, money woes, sleepless nights, and this gnawing feeling that I’d lost my way. Somehow, in the previous four years, I’d launched a business, taken on an investor, adopted four dogs, fostered countless more, wrote a book, hired and fired employees, gained a few very unwanted pounds, landed in the ER, and oh, wrote very, very little of that novel that I began in 2006.

In other words, I’d lost my way.

If you read my short bio the left sidebar, you’ll know that things have changed. And if you used to read my blog back when it was hosted at Blogger, you’ll see that I’ve moved, too.

I’m now working at my dream job as Happiness Engineer at Automattic, helping WordPress.com users publish and share their thoughts with the world, and am winding down my marketing agency. I only recently started the job, and already I’m in love. If it’s at all possible to be madly in love with a job, this must be how it feels.

I’ll still write about books, films, writing, travel, and yes, the occasional posts about my family, but I’ll also be diving into the fascinating worlds of open source computing and publishing and the way the world has changed to allow the most ordinary folks in the most ordinary places to have their voices heard. It’s going to be a wild ride, too, but this time, it’ll be both fun and fulfilling.

Photo by emdot on Flickr.

And four years later…

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I can’t believe it’s been more than four (!!) years since I last wrote in this blog. In the meantime, Blogger has apparently decided to get its act together and revamp its entire dashboard, allowing, for example, for custom templates, custom URLs (for free!), and all kinds of other goodies. I’d long since transferred my other blog, My Inner French Girl, from Blogger to WordPress precisely because I wanted the ease of use and customization options that that platform has always offered, but I never quite got around to switching this one over.

Not that I would have had much time to do it. I started a little social media and content marketing company called Blue Volcano Media (also on WordPress, natch), and before I knew it, I was/am working excruciatingly long hours and wondering how I managed to hit the big 4-oh without too much fuss. Anyone can launch a startup, but I can see why so many of the featured startup stars in Inc. and Entrepreneur are in their twenties — it takes a tremendous amount of physical, financial and emotional sacrifices to not only launch but also sustain and grow a startup, and I daresay that for most people, the twenties are when we are most likely to have these in abundance. By the time you hit your late thirties, you have families, mortgages, car payments, and a dispiriting number of friends who are far higher up the socioeconomic ladder than you are. Starting a new business isn’t just a big, terrifying leap into the unknown at that point — it can be downright insane.

So I jumped into the insanity.

It’s been a big, crazy ride, one that I’m still on, but I’ve also had to step back a little as I realize how much of my writing I’ve sacrificed as well. For a writer, financial and even physical sacrifices are painful, but sacrificing writing is heart-ripping. It unmoors you and leaves you feeling almost vulnerable, even fragile. When your identity has been wrapped so tightly and intimately with writing — the act of it, the thought of it, the very idea of it — not engaging in it for so long leaves an insidious sense of being unwell. Maybe that’s why I’ve often been sick the past four years.

Thus, returning to this blog is my attempt to heal myself. To return to what makes me whole and hope that all the pieces are still here, lying around waiting for me to put them back together again. For me, writing is more than an act of faith. It’s an act of hope and survival as well.

Who’s intimidated by Virginia Woolf?

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Well, I am, for instance.

Am reading Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and am impressed by the woman’s energy and devotion to — obsession with — writing. Despite being beset by frequent headaches, debilitating illnesses and awful depression, she managed to crank out brilliant short stories, books and reviews throughout her relatively short life. I loved that to her, the work was the most important thing. She saw her art as her profession, her vocation, something to take seriously. I struggle with this myself, sometimes imagining people telling me that writing is but a hobby, a frivolous activity that should only take place outside of the restricted hours of a real job. Woolf absolutely believed not only that her writing was her gift but the work that she was put on this earth to do. Would that I could have so much self-confidence.

I knew that she had created a publishing company with her husband Leonard (Hogarth Press) but didn’t know much about it until recently. Apparently much of her work was actually published by Hogarth Press, making her one of those “self-published authors” so many people disdain nowadays. (I have a dear friend who still looks down on self-published books as a bunch of drivel written by ignorant amateurs who couldn’t hack it with a real publisher. Yes, we’re still friends, but we definitely don’t agree on that point.) I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have my own publishing company, not just for my own work but for others. Now would be the absolute worst time to be a publisher, of course, not with all these consolidations and bankruptcies, but wouldn’t it be something? Mine would likely focus primarily on works by women, both fiction and nonfiction, biographies, literary essays, philosophy, feminism, that sort of thing. Not so much the academic volumes but the more accessible work that can reach a broader, mainstream audience, the people who wouldn’t ordinarily visit a feminist bookstore, for example. I’d love to work with writers such as Jessica Valenti and Amy Richards, writers from my generation and younger who have such exciting ideas about politics and social and global issues.

Maybe someday, if I win the Texas Lotto. Awfully nice to dream about it, though.

Movies as guides to narrative structure

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One of my favorite “teaching moments” this past weekend at the D/FW Writers’ Conference was Bob Mayer‘s frequent use of actual film scenes — which he would incorporate into his PowerPoint presentations — to illustrate the power of a solid narrative structure. I listed these in my notes as some of the films he mentioned and the specific scenes he cites:

  • Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scene
  • The Verdict, most notably: the scenes where he photographs the woman in the hospital; he meets the judge at the latter’s home and begs to settle; the final scene in his office
  • L.A. Confidential
  • Broken Arrow, with John Travolta and Christian Slater
  • Walk the Line, specifically the scene where Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and his bandmates are auditioning for someone and are told that the man doesn’t think Cash “feels” the song. Mayer mentioned this scene several times throughout his presentations as a wonderful example of how artists must be passionate about their work, or their readers will immediately see through the artifice and lack of story

He mentioned many others, but these are the ones that stand out the most. I totally loved this unique perspective, since I’m such a huge film buff. He emphasized the importance of watching quality films closely, including all those special features on the DVD’s, to see how scenes are structured and titled; how they build upon each other to create tension, a narrative arc; how characters are introduced, including the antagonist; how dialogue is written to distinguish one character from another. Mayer recommended that writers watch film commentaries, too, to hear how filmmakers decide on details to include in each scene, whether it’s the burning cigarette in the ash tray in the background or the color of a woman’s barrette. These little details are what add punch and interest to a story, the defining characteristics of the people and places and plots that make up a really good book.

I got to thinking about Battlestar Galactica, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and how each episode built upon all the previous ones, how the narrative structure stayed so tight, even through multiple storylines and characters and over four long years. What made BSG such compelling TV were the characters and dialogue, really, more than the storyline itself. [Spoiler alert!] Who knew that the Cylons would end up being allies to the humans? Who knew that the last shot of the entire series would include the “angels” of a Cylon and human? When did we, the audience, begin caring for the Cylons, sometimes more than we did about the humans? That’s some good stuff there, and I bet if I go back and watch it all over again, studying each episode’s structure and dialogue, I’ll learn even more not only about the story — because we always catch details upon repeat viewings and repeat readings that weren’t obvious during the first go-round, and which almost always give us clues as to the author’s or screenwriter’s overall vision — but about the characters themselves.

So now I’m raring up our Netflix account again, getting it ready for our move this weekend to our new apartment. We’ve had it suspended the last two months, but delivery should start up again this Saturday. We’ve a backlog of several hundred films, if you can believe that, but now I have an even more attractive reason to park myself in front of the TV and watch movies: it’s research for my novel.

By the way, if you’re interested in knowing more about how a successful screenwriter thinks and works, John August (Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, The Nines, among others) has a great blog in which he discusses the art and science of his craft and answers questions from readers.