True Fiction

A few weeks ago a friend posted this picture true fictionon Facebook and asked whether it bothered anyone else? My friend is humorous, she writes humour, but it’s not always obvious to me when she’s being ironic. I asked, “Does it bother you?” I didn’t get a reply. Then other Facebook friends piled on with comments that, although funny at times, were written to ridicule whoever had come up with such an ignorant sign. Guffaw, guffaw. (In their defense, not that they need any from me, I  am certain their conscious intentions were not meant to ridicule the person who had written the sign, but the sign itself. But, I ask: in this instance, can we actually separate the two? If it were any group of FB people other than writers commenting, perhaps I would have had an entirely different emotional response to the whole thing.)

I have to admit it bothered me. I felt like an outsider on this thread, and although I am certain my friend, and even the Facebook friends who posted their comments, plus other friends in real life would say, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”; and Mark Manson would say, “Your giving away one of your fucks when, really, who gives a fuck what all those other people were doing?”; the truth is, I did give a fuck. And I was right to–but it was for the wrong reason.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but today it came to me: There is such a thing as True Fiction–it’s called a Roman à clef.

A roman à clef is “a novel about real life overlaid with a façade of fiction.” [Wikipedia entry on roman à clef.] Now, maybe, the sign in this bookshop or thrift shop or wherever this bookcase of books for sale resides was wrong in its naming of these particular books. But no one, and certainly not I, on that thread of writers mentioned the possibility of true fiction being a legitimate category.

By definition a novel is a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes. I’m pretty certain this assumed definition of a novel is what raised everyone’s guffaws to a raucous decibel of ridicule for this poor sign.

Now, it is very likely that ridiculing the notion anyone could think “true fiction” is a real category pricked my personal sensibility. Because I am attempting to write, among many other writing projects, exactly that: True Fiction, a roman à clef, using my parents’ extraordinary talents and lives, together and apart, as a jumping off point to write about my time as a teenager in London during the “Swinging Sixties.” (Which, along with fashion and music, also generated the term “Swingers”.)

So what did I see again for myself today when I remembered roman à clef ? I saw the importance of trusting one’s instincts and not becoming intimidated by the crowd.

“What?! You?! Intimidated by the crowd”? I can hear the incredulity of people who know me on Facebook, and in real life.

“Yes, I.” I am intimidated by a great many things. Feeling like an outsider, even though I hate to run with the crowd merely for the sake of company, triggers this most strongly. Because I grew up an outsider in my home country–being a brown-skinned girl in a then predominantly white, largely xenophobic, country, whose monarchs had colonized the greater part of the world before the sun finally began to set on the Empire.


When I watch something like this glorious performance by Sarah Connolly it awakens mixed feelings inside my body and heart. On the one hand, I remember standing in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall for the last night of many a Prom, singing, with all my heart, Rule Britannia. On the other, I was always an outsider in England, because of the colour of my skin. Always. I can’t count the number of times people asked, “Where are you from?” And when I said, “London,” the questions would escalate from, “No, where were you born?” [“London.”] to “No, where were your parents born?”

I have this sense that if we were able to see our internal culture through a specimen of our bone marrow under a microscope, mine would be British through and through, in spite of my parents’ ancestry. I don’t know if this is because all outsiders attempt, on an unconscious level, to assimilate themselves so fully that they will “pass”; or if it’s because, by and large, in my family home the most important thing was talent and the future it could create; rather than the past and what tradition naturally carries within it: something unchanged and passed down from generation to generation, with the goal of preserving it forever.

My parents were all about breaking with the moulds of the past and creating their own. They were often outsiders–foreigners–to the majority of English people who didn’t know them. But, in the wisdom of Mark Manson, they didn’t give a fuck. And, so, the only real culture I know is that of my birth country and not the one of my ancestors.

Things have changed in England, a bit, it’s true: there are now too many people “of colour” for things not to have shifted a little. But the underlying belief that the Empire still exists, and that people of colour (a strange turn of phrase) are somehow intellectually inferior, still pervades my home country. But, I digress.

Trust in oneself. That’s what I felt strongly to write about today.

Perhaps the realization “True Fiction,” under the banner of roman à clef, was triggered by an email I received this morning from my playwright friend, Seth Michael Donsky. [Take note, Marta Pelrine-Bacon, this post could well be about hidden motives, although I have an actual post to write about that particular topic. It’s certainly a post about Meg Rosoff’s colander.]

To help my friend understand that he knows exactly what he needs to know in order to write the play he wants to write, I suggested an old writing exercise to him before Christmas: In his case, take any play he admires, and type or write out the whole thing, including the stage directions. For a while he argued he didn’t want to waste his writing time to do this. I understood, because he has a crazily busy schedule. But I really believe in this particular exercise. And so, eventually, after a certain amount of persuasion on my part that the benefits would outweigh the loss of personal writing time and, in the long run, return rewards to him in spades, he chose Noel Coward‘s Hay Fever.


Sometime last week, as he was transcribing Hay Fever, he had a major breakthrough with his own play. Then, this morning, he wrote that although he wasn’t yet convinced he could write this or any other kind of script, he no longer believed that he couldn’t.

That was the whole point of doing the exercise: To understand and experience for oneself, how powerful the subconscious is–that it will give us everything we need, in order to express the creativity that we, uniquely, have appeared in the stream of Life to realize and share with Life itself. That everything we need is already inside us. Not the thing itself; that has yet to be born and fully realized. But the wherewithal to make it happen is inherent in every human being. I am so proud of my friend for having the trust in himself to do this exercise, even if it began as blind faith and trust in another.

Trust is the bridge that leads us across the uncharted waters of our own creativity, to the possibility of producing something that is uniquely us.


The thank you note

When I was in Salem last November I met a writer with whom I connected immediately. Amanda Orr. We had apparently exchanged a couple of words on a pre-conference group in which she called me a nerd. Not directly, because she’s too polite for that until she knows you in real life, but her response to something I had said put me into the “nerd category.” It was a compliment, and so I obliged her by feigning the obligatory indignance. Not to the full measure of Spencer in his Faerie Queene–Full of fiers fury, and indignant hate–but to a level that created in words one of those gawkish emoticons that would, if it could speak through its punctuated mouth, say: Moi? Are you calling me a nerd? Inane indignance at its finest, and in a foreign language, no less.

Over Christmas we exchanged gifts. Or rather I sent her children some books because that is what I do at Christmas, I send children books. Amanda sent Zuli Souza and me each a Christmas gift. (Actually, I received two gifts because I am at least twice Zuli’s height and width). Eventually, last night, I had to write a thank you note to her online because as I said in my digital thanks: In my mind, every day, I write you a thank you note from Madam Zuli and me on real paper with a real pen, and it’s put into a real envelope with a real stamp and put into a real post box. Every night I go to sleep and it remains a thank you note in my head.

A short story I began last year, when I joined a closed group on Facebook called Bradbury’s 52 (set up for writers to write a short story every week, because Ray Bradbury defied any writer to write 52 bad stories in a row), went nowhere. I had an initial impulse and idea for it but the prompt words did not resonate with me. They were brothel, teacher, and broom.

First of all, I don’t like writing to prompts. They immediately constrain my free flow of ideas and images. This is obviously not true for every writer. Many love prompts: to them, I say, “Go at ’em.” But these particular prompts were baldly unappealing to me.

However, there was something on the day I saw the prompts that I wanted to write about. (I have a feeling it had nothing to do with the prompts and everything to do with a close friend and his partner, with whom I had spent the previous evening, and whose relationship was on my mind.) I kept thinking about Auden’s Stop All the Clocks and began to write, attempting to use the prompt words, then stopped. I kept thinking I would get back to the story, that I would get over my loathing of the prompts, but I did not.

And then, today, I read an article on the front page of The New York Times, and I know how I want to write the story. My guides will be W.H. Auden the poet and Petroclus the Homerian warrior. This makes me happy. The goal of writing so many blog posts has been to attune myself to writing again after the long absence of it last year. I am not an every day kind of writer because I subscribe to the philosophy that sometimes you have to wait for the writing to come to you. But when your writing is out of shape, as mine is, you have to join the gym–which in my case, is my blog. It’s not my favourite kind of exercise–dancing is. But to get my words to dance, they need to become agile again.

I welcome my words to the Blog Gymnasium, and thank them for at least turning up, even though they are far from eloquent in their form.



I Fail, to exist

Wonder Woman – DC Comics

I was reading Marta Pelrine-Bacon’s post Speaking of Failure and it got me thinking. Partly, because my cleaning lady whom I call Wonder Woman is here today, and I feel energised by her company to tackle the last of the unpacked boxes that have remained unapologetically stalwart against the wall opposite my bed. As I was unpacking a box of materials I’ve bought over time to make various projects, most of which have been used, a few that have not, I thought of Marta’s post and her collection of unused supplies, and put mine aside to send to her. Better that they clutter up her house, right? (After all, she has a whole house in Texas; whereas I only have a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.)

I went back and forth, of course, in my mind: should I keep them for myself…just in case? But, just in case, what? I ever get around to making something with them? Unlikely. There are only so many hours in the day and thinking up more projects is not part of my plan for January, or February, or the rest of the months leading to Summer and beyond.

But I also began to think about whether there is such a thing as failure in the creation of, well, anything?

As I put the kettle on to make tea for Wonder Woman and me, the Monkee’s playing in the background, I thought back to my days as a director and the rehearsal room. Was everything that got “rejected,” “set aside,” “discarded,” “abandoned,” a failure? If we had kept every idea the actor or I, or the designers had, what a bloody mess the whole thing would have been. And nothing successful to show for it; other than a kind of hoarder mentality. Instead, what I learned from Jerzy Grotowski was that you look at the seed of what the actor brings into the room and peel away everything extraneous to the truth.

Isn’t that also the case of all seemingly abandoned “art” projects? Didn’t they begin with an idea, an impulse, an inspiration, to create something that glimmered or flashed for an instant in our mind’s eye? Or perhaps had been contemplated for a long time and finally the moment to begin appeared to knock on our personal doorway to Time. “Here I am,” it said, “do with me what you will. Except I will tell you when you’re doing it wrong by not making it right.”

From there my thoughts carried me to here: What if whatever you believe or think brought about the Big Bang or evolution had never begun? What if [it] had said, “I won’t begin, because I will fail.”? How could we get to know the truth, in even the smallest measure, of how infinite the powers of creation, beauty and love are, if only for an instant?



Theory is all well and good

Frank Porcu

I was going to write about the colander effect–a term coined by Meg Rosoff, which I heard her speak about in Salem last November. In fact, I began a post with that title and how the effect manifested in my January 1 post with the unexpected appearance of Miss Barbara Wace, a renowned journalist and travel writer who was one of my mother’s clients. But then the phone rang and it was my friend Seth Michael Donsky with whom I became acquainted during my graduate years at U.C. Irvine in the MFA directing programme for theatre, under the mentorship of Keith Fowler. Seth was an undergraduate at the time. I admired him for his perseverance, his tenacity, his will power, and his desire to do something different, to experiment with creativity. We lost touch after I left New York in 1994 and did not reconnect until he found me again through my website, in 2013.

He called this morning to talk about a play he saw last night, largely, because it wrestles with many of the themes he is exploring in his own play in progress, Irregardless. We covered a lot of ground in our short conversation, most of which is hard to replicate in a post, but three things stay with me.

The first is the death of our own creativity every time we compare ourselves to other people’s successes. So much of what makes creativity successful is having confidence in the truth of our own instincts and work.

Zuli Souza sleeping-at-lamp
Zuli Souza

Last night I went to drawing class with Frank Porcu for the first time in two months. First, I missed class in October because I was ill with bronchitis. Then I was away in Salem, the first week of November. As soon as I returned I had to pack up my apartment on the west side and move myself into the apartment I bought last summer on the east side. After which I had to unpack everything and get Zuli Souza settled. As a result of so much extra activity, so soon after my illness, I didn’t regain enough strength to do more than sit on my sofa and catch up with myself. I decided to wait until the New Year before returning to class. As always, being in class with Frank was inspiring and gave me much to think about, including some of what I’m writing about today.

As Frank went around the class, he told a student who had over-corrected her first instinct–what she had actually seen on the model–that she must trust herself, even if the initial line she had put down looked wrong to her brain. Her instinct, he told her, had shown her the truth.

He spoke of how hard it was for him as a teacher when he started out to have that kind of confidence when he was trying to show students how to see the truth that was in front of them. Because the brain, through the eye, was telling him–and them–something else. “Of course,” he said, “after you’ve gone home and drawn it four hundred times you feel confident in telling students, ‘this is how to see the truth of the model.’ But for a long time I couldn’t call what I was teaching a method, because I couldn’t prove it.”

There will always be people infinitely more talented than we are who go unrecognized. (I feel that way about Frank Porcu’s genius at the Art Students League. So few recognize him as a direct succesor of Bridgeman. Or, to take it farther back, as Frank himself has, to Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael.) There will equally be many people who are not as talented as we are and who will garner successes beyond measure.

The most important thing is to trust the truth we instinctively see.

And to let go of everything else.

The goal of all theories is to prove their veracity. But the theory itself can only go so far. This was the starting point of this post. It was inspired by something Frank said to an advanced student in yesterday’s class. But I think it must wait until another day, in order to be explored in more depth, and in a way that captures the essence of what Frank was trying to convey.

Of the third thing I wanted to write about today–hidden motive–it too must wait.




How the New Year Began

I spent a fair bit of yesterday watching the Making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (posted below) a conversation between Hilary Mantel and Fay Weldon (also posted below), a short interview with Hilary Mantel and the Guardian newspaper on Wolf Hall, and writing some text for my forthcoming work site. As I watched the various videos, I transcribed portions of conversation that struck me as immediately relevant to my current writing, or how to think about it, for myself but perhaps when talking with other writers as well. Of everything I listened to, the three things that stay with me most strongly are Hilary Mantel’s comment on painting a writer’s portrait,  her goal to capture Cromwell’s thought flow in every scene of Wolf Hall, and Paul McCartney’s desire for Sgt. Pepper’s to represent the very best of their [the Beatles’] thinking at that time.


Hilary Mantel in conversation with Fay Weldon.


On the difficulty of capturing the essence of a writer in a portrait painting.

I was saying to him [the painter], being commissioned to paint a writer was the hardest thing of all. Because, to state the obvious, nothing of what we do shows on the surface. Nothing of what we are is there to be seen. And you know this because, in films where writers are part of the story, you always see the excruciating difficulty of portraying them. And writers are always shown despairing, tearing their hair, ripping up their work, and, in extremity, throwing their typewriter out of the window. And so they’re shown not writing. But the act of writing itself: what’s to see? You know, someone with a grim expression, scratching away. And I said to the painter, photographers come, and sometimes they are there all day, and they take scores of photographs, and you think–I think–“What do you want? Tell me what you want and I’ll try to give it to you.” But there is a real paradox here. You’re constantly being looked at, but unable to show anything, except on the page. … You can only show people on the page what you are.


I am not a writer who begins at the beginning. Whether I’m writing contemporary fiction or historical fiction, I write scenes, and I amass material, and build up some parts of the book quite intensively, while others remain quite sketchy. And then at quite a late stage I have to stitch it all together. This means that I can never say to my publisher, ‘Well, I am two hundred thousand words in.’—I could offer to weigh it if you like—all I can say is, ‘It needs eighteen months.’ But I could never say, ‘I’m up to this point,’ because I’m always up to six different points, simultaneously. That’s really the only way I know how to do it.


To me, there are two great problems with historical dramas: an old one and a new one. The old one is exposition, characters telling each other what they already know. And it hangs so heavy on historical fiction. And on historical fiction it’s just more obvious when it’s on the screen. And you have to be clever, you have to find indirect and cunning ways of giving the reader, the viewer, indirectly what they need to know as background. But I did say to Peter Kosminsky [director of the forthcoming BBC adaption of Wolf Hall], ‘If you have to have an audience spoon-fed or baffled, which will you take?’ And he said, ‘Baffled,’ which I always vote for. Give people the credit for being able to work things out. If not immediately, then, when they think about it later.

I hope [referring to the BBC production] that we will have no period flummery. And, I hope, none of the second vice, which is something that’s overtaken historical drama very recently, which is empty gorgeousness. … I don’t know if anyone has seen the Borgias. Would anyone admit to having seen the Borgias? Well, you know, I sit before the screen open-mouthed at the effects they make, the beautiful, beautiful pictures, and then you realize that what you are watching is, at best, the equivalent of a comic strip. It is complete nonsense. It looks so beautiful, but it’s too easy.


What I’ve been trying to do is catch the flow of thought, and you see him [Cromwell] manoeuvering for advantage in every situation, every conversation, and you are right there as it happens, moment by moment. This often seems to be missing from the historical novel: the story stays on the surface; it doesn’t try to construct a rounded human being. It’s quite an ambitious agenda when you think you also have to keep the reader very informed of the political world, the world of fact, the world of macro-history.


The Making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

I remember, we walked into an antique shop in Seven Oakes in Kent, and we were looking at what they had there, and John pulled out this thing that he found which was said, ‘The Benefit of Mr. Kite,’ and it was virtually all the lyrics to that song. …. That’s how you do it, you know, you get ideas, you hear people say stuff, or you hear a phrase that sounds good and you write it down and you remember it. – George Harrison (on how John Lennon wrote For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.)


We were changing our method of working at that time. Instead of now looking for catchy singles, catchy singles, catchy singles, it was more like writing your novel. Sgt. Pepper, for me, definitely, it was much more an overall concept, “Wow,” you know? And you can see that in the packaging [the cover art]. Paul McCartney


Cover art in the middle sixties hadn’t really been exploited, up to Pepper. And when the boys decided what they wanted—they wanted, really, to put all of their heroes on the album, in some form or another—and by recruiting Peter Blake, who was an avant-garde artist, again to assemble their ideas and realize them in the same way I was realizing the music, they did, I think, a pretty smart thing. George Martin


I think we thought, ‘We’ll do the very best we can,’ in this very far out new way that we had of thinking. Get it to be something … I still think that is the best philosophy: to really try and please yourself. Paul McCartney



2015: The year we stand on stars


It’s a new year. It’s the year I’ll turn 64. The Beatles’ song has played in my head often these past few months. I think back to when I heard it for the first time. I had just turned sixteen. I was at a party with a boy named Keith I’d had a crush on, for a year or so, and now I was finally going out with him. To be honest, he was a lot less interesting in real life than I had built him up to be in my mind. Isn’t that often the case? And he never appreciated how stunningly my mother dressed me; including the night he took me to the party where we heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time. If I was a disappointment to him as well, well, he can write that in his blog. I will say this in his defense: he was very beautiful to look at, and he could play practically any piece of music on the piano that he heard for the first time, even though (if I recall rightly, though I may be wrong in this) he couldn’t read sheet music.

On a side note, my mother had made me a cream-coloured outfit of silk sari fabric embroidered with real gold. It was a two-piece outfit consisting of a pair of “bloomers,” very short, with a pleated frill at their hem, and a sleeveless empire waist top that touched the frill so that it appeared to be part of the top, until you looked closely and saw the bloomers peeking out from beneath. The whole outfit was exquisite, and, these days, looking back at photographs of me around that age I wasn’t far off from exquisite, either–though this was largely because of how my mother dressed me.

Now I’ll be sixty-four in a few months. Lennon and McCartney were in their twenties when they wrote their song. I expect they couldn’t imagine any more than I could back then, turning sixty-four.

I remember at my twenty-first birthday party talking with a client of my mother’s, the travel writer and journalist Barbara Wace, who was sixty-four at the time. Her mother had died recently, she told me, adding, she felt too young to have lost her mother. (I was too young to understand.)

Miss Wace lived at the top of a building on Fleet Street that took many, many steps to reach it. I climbed those many steps at different times, when she invited me for lunch. I didn’t know then how valuable those meetings were. I was still in my lost and confused years (which stretched into my life until only a few years ago). If I had known then that what I really wanted to be was a writer, rather than simply knowing as I had from childhood that I could write, I would have been very attentive to everything Miss Wace told me about life, her writing, and the world at large. And I would have sought her advice. But I didn’t. And, now, here I am, about to turn sixty-four myself in a few months, without it. And without the advice of so many great and legendary people I met, through my parents, through my education, and long after. All I can think of is this:

I will be sixty-four this year, but I stand on stars billions of years old that still illuminate the earth at night. I am, in their eyes, a very young, young ‘un; I am a new arrival in their Nursery.

On the title of this post: the year we stand on stars. It’s adapted from a line of Carly Simon’s Let the River Run. When I was contemplating inspiration for this coming year, I thought of how much I love this song, the hope of possibility in it, and of Emily Dickinson’s poem I Dwell in Possibility. I read the lyrics of the song for the first time today, and knew what this year for me will be:

We the great and small
stand on a star
and blaze a trail of desire
through the dark’ning dawn.

2015: The Year We Stand on Stars

A tribute to my parents



Christie’s invited me to write an introduction to the sale catalogue of my father’s art from my collection, which goes on the block next Tuesday, 18th March; coincidentally, my mother’s centenary birthday.

It was surprisingly easy to write. Although after I had sent in the final draft that would go to the printers I felt highly emotional, and continue to feel as if everything that was kept hidden is finally rising to the surface. For so long, my mother was the invisible person in my father’s history. To know that at last she is visible to the world at large has also made me visible in some strange way, which could not have been predicted beforehand.

The essay, together with a second, poignant essay by biographer and essayist Maria Aurora Couto, who knew my mother, can be found by clicking this link. tribute





Self-doubt Is a Passing Cloud

The first time I confronted the nature of self-doubt to “rid” myself of it, once and for all, was on my first meditation retreat with my teacher in the winter of 1995, in the godforsaken town of Bodhgaya, in the poorest state in India, where the Buddha is said to have awakened under the Bodhi tree. I wanted to understand, in spite of mind blowing experiences of mystical revelation some months earlier, which had convinced me of the nature of Reality, why I continued to suffer the pain of self-doubt. Instead of giving me a solution I could carry around like a comfort blanket, my teacher said, What if you feel doubt the rest of your life?

Although I nodded my head, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. So, instead of letting in what my teacher had said, I continued to put all my energy into overcoming existential and self-doubt, by using my mind to talk myself out of it. It never worked. Except very occasionally as a temporary denial of doubt’s quite real existence.

One day, in 2011, when I was quite ill and couldn’t think clearly enough to read or write, I watched old clips of J.K. Rowling interviews. In her interview with Oprah, she spoke briefly but clearly about believing in her ability to tell a story. And that got me thinking in a completely different direction from the one in which I’d been travelling.

What my teacher had said 16 years earlier came back to me and slowly I began to understand. There would always be a part of me that would doubt. That part of me would never change because that is its nature. Just as it is the nature of a cloud to carry precipitation. At the same time, there would always be a part of me that remains constant and never doubts, because that is its nature. The worst, unimaginable storm clouds will never alter the nature of the sky.

I saw in a fundamental way I could never be the nature of cloud (or self-doubt). For a cloud eventually passes. But Sky, having gone nowhere, remains.

Wide Open Sky

Write the story you really believe in. I really mean really believe in. Not the one you think you should write, or the one you think you would like to write, or the one someone told you would be good to write, or the one that’s currently trending the market. Or any other variable of the above.

Write the story you really, truly, cross your heart and hope to die, believe in. The one you’ve been waiting to read your whole life. The one you would have loved to read at the reader age for which it’s written, and that you’d love to read now.

It may take a bit of searching; don’t despair. If you start with something and then discover down the road it’s not the story you really believe in, don’t despair. If you find your heart breaking, don’t despair. If you feel blocked, don’t despair. Finding the story you are meant to write can take awhile. It can feel like trying to chisel through rock solid ice. Don’t despair. We’ve convinced ourselves it’s not right to trust in what we truly believe. But if you can find a way to do just that–listen only to that small still voice inside that whispers nothing but inspiration from your imagination and let go of the rest–you will find, in quite a miraculous way, you are no longer a prisoner of perfection syndrome; and self-doubt is nothing more than a cloud passing over the face of a wide open sky.