Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion

Are you a writer? Where the money comes from?

Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from?

Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee.

By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday.

His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.

Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from

The truth is, my husband’s hefty salary makes my life as a writer easy. Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone

All that disclosure is crass because in this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why?

I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt.

Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.

There’s a special version of this masquerade that we writers put on. Two examples:

I attended a packed reading (I’m talking 300+ people) about a year and a half ago. The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards.

He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.

None of this takes away from his brilliance.

Yet, when an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask him how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by.

I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.

Example two.

A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer.

The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist.

If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded.

I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.

I can’t claim the wealth of the first author (not even close); nor do I have the connections of the second. I don’t have their fame either. But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.

How can I be so sure? Because I used to be poor, overworked and overwhelmed.

And I produced zero books during that time.

Throughout my 20s, I was married to an addict who tried valiantly (but failed, over and over) to stay straight. We had three children, one with autism, and lived in poverty for a long, wretched time.

In my 30s I divorced the man because it was the only way out of constant crisis. For the next 10 years, I worked two jobs and raised my three kids alone, without child support or the involvement of their dad.

I published my first novel at 39, but only after a teaching stint where I met some influential writers and three months living with my parents while I completed the first draft.

After turning in that manuscript, I landed a pretty cushy magazine editor’s job. A year later, I met my second husband. For the first time I had a true partner, someone I could rely on who was there in every way for me and our kids.

Life got easier. I produced a nonfiction book, a second novel and about 30 essays within a relatively short time.

Today, I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.

I completed my third novel in eight months flat. I started the book while on a lovely vacation. Then I wrote happily and relatively quickly because I had the time and the funding, as well as help from my husband, my agent and a very talented editor friend.

Without all those advantages, I might be on page 52. OK, there’s mine. Now show me yours.

Ann Bauer is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of a new novel, “Forgiveness 4 You.”

The Art of Choosing?

Sheena Iyengar studies how we make choices — and how we feel about the choices we make.

Spot the difference? Pressure of ever-increasing choice.

Americans themselves are discovering that unlimited choice seems more attractive in theory than in practice

Sheena Iyengar. Psycho-economist? And she is blind. Full bio

Filmed July 2010

Today, I’m going to take you around the world in 18 minutes. My base of operations is in the U.S., but let’s start at the other end of the map, in Kyoto, Japan, where I was living with a Japanese family while I was doing part of my dissertational research 15 years ago.

I knew even then that I would encounter cultural differences and misunderstandings, but they popped up when I least expected it.

0:44 On my first day, I went to a restaurant, and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar. After a pause, the waiter said, “One does not put sugar in green tea.” “I know,” I said. “I’m aware of this custom. But I really like my tea sweet.”

In response, he gave me an even more courteous version of the same explanation. “One does not put sugar in green tea.” “I understand,” I said, “that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, but I’d like to put some sugar in my green tea.”

Surprised by my insistence, the waiter took up the issue with the manager. Pretty soon, a lengthy discussion ensued, and finally the manager came over to me and said, “I am very sorry. We do not have sugar.” (Laughter)

Well, since I couldn’t have my tea the way I wanted it, I ordered a cup of coffee, which the waiter brought over promptly. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.

1:49 My failure to procure myself a cup of sweet, green tea was not due to a simple misunderstanding. This was due to a fundamental difference in our ideas about choice.

From my American perspective, when a paying customer makes a reasonable request based on her preferences, she has every right to have that request met. The American way, to quote Burger King, is to “have it your way,” because, as Starbucks says, “happiness is in your choices.” (Laughter)

But from the Japanese perspective, it’s their duty to protect those who don’t know any better —  in this case, the ignorant gaijin from making the wrong choice. Let’s face it: the way I wanted my tea was inappropriate according to cultural standards, and they were doing their best to help me save face.

Americans tend to believe that they’ve reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice, as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans.

these beliefs are based on assumptions that don’t always hold true in many countries, in many cultures. At times they don’t even hold true at America’s own borders.

I’d like to discuss some of these assumptions and the problems associated with them. As I do so, I hope you’ll start thinking about some of your own assumptions and how they were shaped by your backgrounds.

First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it.

This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It’s called “being true to yourself.”

But do all individuals benefit from taking such an approach to choice? Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies in which we sought the answer to this very question. In one study, which we ran in Japantown, San Francisco, we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children into the laboratory, and we divided them up into three groups.

The first group came in, and they were greeted by Miss Smith, who showed them six big piles of anagram puzzles. The kids got to choose which pile of anagrams they would like to do, and they even got to choose which marker they would write their answers with.

The second group of children came in, they were brought to the same room, shown the same anagrams, but this time Miss Smith told them which anagrams to do and which markers to write their answers with.

 the third group came in, they were told that their anagrams and their markers had been chosen by their mothers. (Laughter)

In reality, the kids who were told what to do, whether by Miss Smith or their mothers, were actually given the very same activity, which their counterparts in the first group had freely chosen.

With this procedure, we were able to ensure that the kids across the three groups all did the same activity, making it easier for us to compare performance. Such small differences in the way we administered the activity yielded striking differences in how well they performed.

Anglo-Americans, they did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them, as compared to when it was chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers.

It didn’t matter who did the choosing, if the task was dictated by another, their performance suffered. In fact, some of the kids were visibly embarrassed when they were told that their mothers had been consulted. (Laughter) One girl named Mary said, You asked my mother?”

 In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice, second best when they chose for themselves, and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith.

A girl named Natsumi even approached Miss Smith as she was leaving the room and tugged on her skirt and asked, “Could you please tell my mommy I did it just like she said?”

The first-generation children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents’ approach to choice. For them, choice was not just a way of defining and asserting their individuality, but a way to create community and harmony by deferring to the choices of people whom they trusted and respected.

If they had a concept of being true to one’s self, then that self, most likely, [was] composed, not of an individual, but of a collective. Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one’s own preferences. Or, you could say that the individual’s preferences were shaped by the preferences of specific others.

The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others.

in contrast, two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.

To insist that they choose independently might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships.

Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act.

People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.

The second assumption which informs the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice.

So bring it on, Walmart, with 100,000 different products, and Amazon, with 27 million books and Match.com with — what is it? — 15 million date possibilities now. You will surely find the perfect match.

Let’s test this assumption by heading over to Eastern Europe.

Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly communist countries, who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society. One of the most interesting revelations came not from an answer to a question, but from a simple gesture of hospitality. When the participants arrived for their interview, I offered them a set of drinks: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite — seven, to be exact.

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard. “Oh, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda. That’s just one choice.” (Murmuring)

I was so struck by this comment that from then on, I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas, and I asked them, “How many choices are these?” Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda.

When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices — juice, water and soda. Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand.

You know, research shows repeatedly that we can’t actually tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Of course, you and I know that Coke is the better choice.

10:06 (Laughter)

For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is.

Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better, and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters and so every choice matters.

But for Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice before they could protest that they didn’t know how to swim. When asked, “What words and images do you associate with choice?” Grzegorz from Warsaw said, “Ah, for me it is fear. There are some dilemmas you see. I am used to no choice.”

Bohdan from Kiev said, in response to how he felt about the new consumer marketplace, “It is too much. We do not need everything that is there.”

A sociologist from the Warsaw Survey Agency explained, “The older generation jumped from nothing to choice all around them. They were never given a chance to learn how to react.”

And Tomasz, a young Polish man said, “I don’t need twenty kinds of chewing gum. I don’t mean to say that I want no choice, but many of these choices are quite artificial.”

 In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different.

The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. Americans train their whole lives to play “spot the difference.” They practice this from such an early age that they’ve come to believe that everyone must be born with this ability.

In fact, though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don’t all see choice in the same places or to the same extent. When someone can’t see how one choice is unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating.

Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints.

It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae. In other words, choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents in America when it is thrust upon those who are insufficiently prepared for it.

But it is not only other people in other places that are feeling the pressure of ever-increasing choice. Americans themselves are discovering that unlimited choice seems more attractive in theory than in practice.

We all have physical, mental and emotional limitations that make it impossible for us to process every single choice we encounter, even in the grocery store, let alone over the course of our entire lives.

A number of my studies have shown that when you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, other critical areas. Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them.

(The key is that our mind cannot perceive more than 8 interactions among the choices (ingredients, safety, health, usability…) With 3 choices, we can find the best option)

Third assumption:

This brings me to the third, and perhaps most problematic, assumption: You must never say no to choice.”

To examine this, let’s go back to the U.S. and then hop across the pond to France. Right outside Chicago, a young couple, Susan and Daniel Mitchell, were about to have their first baby. They’d already picked out a name for her, Barbara, after her grandmother.

One night, when Susan was seven months pregnant, she started to experience contractions and was rushed to the emergency room. The baby was delivered through a C-section, but Barbara suffered cerebral anoxia, a loss of oxygen to the brain. Unable to breathe on her own, she was put on a ventilator.

Two days later, the doctors gave the Mitchells a choice: They could either remove Barbara off the life support, in which case she would die within a matter of hours, or they could keep her on life support, in which case she might still die within a matter of days.

If she survived, she would remain in a permanent vegetative state, never able to walk, talk or interact with others. What do they do? What do any parent do?

In a study I conducted with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali, American and French parents were interviewed. They had all suffered the same tragedy. In all cases, the life support was removed, and the infants had died. But there was a big difference.

In France, the doctors decided whether and when the life support would be removed, while in the United States, the final decision rested with the parents.

(Better decision that removes much of the blame since taken by experienced professionals. Yet, parents should agree first before the doctors decide of when to remove the life support?)

We wondered: does this have an effect on how the parents cope with the loss of their loved one? We found that it did.

Even up to a year later, American parents were more likely to express negative emotions, as compared to their French counterparts. French parents were more likely to say things like, “Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much. He gave us a new perspective on life.”

American parents were more likely to say things like, “What if? What if?” Another parent complained, I feel as if they purposefully tortured me. How did they get me to do that?”

And another parent said, “I feel as if I’ve played a role in an execution.”

But when the American parents were asked if they would rather have had the doctors make the decision, they all said, “No.” They could not imagine turning that choice over to another, even though having made that choice made them feel trapped, guilty, angry. In a number of cases they were even clinically depressed.

These parents could not contemplate giving up the choice, because to do so would have gone contrary to everything they had been taught and everything they had come to believe about the power and purpose of choice.

 In her essay, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the idea with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.”

The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much: freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says, “You can have anything, everything.”

It’s a great story, and it’s understandable why they would be reluctant to revise it. But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes, and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways.

Americans have so often tried to disseminate their ideas of choice, believing that they will be, or ought to be, welcomed with open hearts and minds. But the history books and the daily news tell us it doesn’t always work out that way.

The phantasmagoria, the actual experience that we try to understand and organize through narrative, varies from place to place. No single narrative serves the needs of everyone everywhere. Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.

Robert Frost once said that, “It is poetry that is lost in translation.” (literal translation separates the language of the body from the language of the soul?)

This suggests that whatever is beautiful and moving, whatever gives us a new way to see, cannot be communicated to those who speak a different language.

But Joseph Brodsky said that, “It is poetry that is gained in translation,” suggesting that translation can be a creative, transformative act.

When it comes to choice, we have far more to gain than to lose by engaging in the many translations of the narratives. Instead of replacing one story with another, we can learn from and revel in the many versions that exist and the many that have yet to be written.

No matter where we’re from and what your narrative is, we all have a responsibility to open ourselves up to a wider array of what choice can do, and what it can represent. And this does not lead to a paralyzing moral relativism.

Rather, it teaches us when and how to act. It brings us that much closer to realizing the full potential of choice, to inspiring the hope and achieving the freedom that choice promises but doesn’t always deliver. If we learn to speak to one another, albeit through translation, then we can begin to see choice in all its strangeness, complexity and compelling beauty.

Bruno Giussani: Sheena, there is a detail about your biography that we have not written in the program book. But by now it’s evident to everyone in this room. You’re blind. And I guess one of the questions on everybody’s mind is: How does that influence your study of choosing because that’s an activity that for most people is associated with visual inputs like aesthetics and color and so on?

Sheena Iyengar: Well, it’s funny that you should ask that because one of the things that’s interesting about being blind is you actually get a different vantage point when you observe the way sighted people make choices. And as you just mentioned, there’s lots of choices out there that are very visual these days.

Yeah, I  get pretty frustrated by choices like what nail polish to put on because I have to rely on what other people suggest. And I can’t decide.

And so one time I was in a beauty salon, and I was trying to decide between two very light shades of pink. And one was called “Ballet Slippers.” And the other one was called “Adorable.” (Laughter)

And so I asked these two ladies, and the one lady told me, “Well, you should definitely wear ‘Ballet Slippers.'” “Well, what does it look like?” “Well, it’s a very elegant shade of pink.” “Okay, great.” The other lady tells me to wear “Adorable.” “What does it look like?” “It’s a glamorous shade of pink.” And so I asked them, “Well, how do I tell them apart? What’s different about them?” And they said, “Well, one is elegant, the other one’s glamorous.” Okay, we got that. And the only thing they had consensus on: well, if I could see them, I would clearly be able to tell them apart.

22:51 (Laughter)

And what I wondered was whether they were being affected by the name or the content of the color, so I decided to do a little experiment. So I brought these two bottles of nail polish into the laboratory, and I stripped the labels off. And I brought women into the laboratory, and I asked them, “Which one would you pick?” 50 percent of the women accused me of playing a trick, of putting the same color nail polish in both those bottles. (Laughter)

At which point you start to wonder who the trick’s really played on. Now, of the women that could tell them apart, when the labels were off, they picked “Adorable,” and when the labels were on, they picked “Ballet Slippers.” So as far as I can tell, a rose by any other name probably does look different and maybe even smells different.

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book:

Anatomy of Loss, Illustrated by Quentin Blake

“Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why.

It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote after losing the love of her life. “The people we most love do become a physical part of us,” Meghan O’Rourke observed in her magnificent memoir of loss, “ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”

Those wildly unexpected dimensions of grief and the synaptic traces of love are what celebrated British children’s book writer and poet Michael Rosen confronted when his 18-year-old son Eddie died suddenly of meningitis.

Never-ending though the process of mourning may be, Rosen set out to exorcise its hardest edges and subtlest shapes five years later in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (public library) — an immensely moving addition to the finest children’s books about loss, illustrated by none other than the great Quentin Blake.

With extraordinary emotional elegance, Rosen welcomes the layers of grief, each unmasking a different shade of sadness — sadness that sneaks up on you mid-stride in the street; sadness that lurks as a backdrop to the happiest of moments; sadness that wraps around you like a shawl you don’t take off even in the shower.

What emerges is a breathtaking bow before the central paradox of the human experience — the awareness that the heart’s enormous capacity for love is matched with an equal capacity for pain, and yet we love anyway and somehow find fragments of that love even amid the ruins of loss.

This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I’m happy in this picture.
Really I’m sad but pretending I’m happy.
I’m doing this because I think people won’t like me if I look sad

Sometimes sad is very big.
It’s everywhere. All over me.

Then I look like this.
And there’s nothing I can do about it.

What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. I loved him very much but he died anyway.

With exquisite nuance, Rosen captures the contradictory feelings undergirding mourning — affection and anger, self-conscious introspection and longing for communion — and the way loss lodges itself in the psyche so that the vestiges of a particular loss always awaken the sadness of the all loss, that perennial heartbreak of beholding the absurdity of our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change.

Sometimes this makes me really angry.
I say to myself, “How dare he go and die like that?
How dare he make me sad?”

Eddie doesn’t say anything,
because he’s not here anymore.

Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone.
Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either. So I can’t.
I find someone else. And I tell them all about it.

Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it.
Not to anyone. No one at all.
I just want to think about it on my own.
Because it’s mine. And no one else’s.

But what makes the story most singular and rewarding is that it refuses to indulge the cultural cliché of cushioning tragedy with the promise of a silver lining.

It is redemptive not in manufacturing redemption but in being true to the human experience — intensely, beautifully, tragically true.

Sometimes because I’m sad I do crazy things — like shouting in the shower…

Where is sad?
Sad is everywhere.
It comes along and finds you.

When is sad?
Sad is anytime.
It comes along and finds you.

Who is sad?
Sad is anyone.
It comes along and finds you.

Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why.
It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.
It’s not because Eddie’s gone.
It’s not because my mum’s gone. It’s just because.

Blake, who has previously illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and many of Roald Dahl’s stories, brings his unmistakably expressive sensibility to the book, here and there concretizing Rosen’s abstract words into visual vignettes that make you wonder what losses of his own he is holding in the mind’s eye as he draws.

Complement the absolutely breath-stopping Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle and the Japanese masterpiece Little Tree, then revisit Joan Didion on grief.

Pedro Almodóvar: ‘Nobody sings. There’s no humour. I just wanted restraint’

  7 August 2016

The director has limited himself to ‘pure drama’ for his 20th movie. Here he talks about Brexit, the vanished freedom of the 1980s, and his need for solitude

Is Pedro Almodóvar getting more respectable? You might say so.

When the international film scene first caught up with the Spanish writer-director in the late 80s, he had already been notorious in Spain for nearly a decade with his films inspired by low life and high melodrama – lurid, cheerfully scandalous, irrepressibly polysexual stories of porn stars, punk rockers, serial killers and rebel nuns.

Now, 20 features into his career, Almodóvar has long been recognised as a European classic, with his films since the mid-90s, including All About My Mother and Volver, largely turning away from outrage and perversity.

Instead, Almodóvar has come to specialise in emotional complexity, stylistic elegance and a distinctly high-art sobriety, never more so than in his latest film, Julieta, based on three short stories by the Nobel-winning Canadian author Alice Munro.

It’s little surprise to see Almodóvar receiving one of the ultimate accolades for professional seriousness – an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, which he was awarded in June alongside composer Arvo Pärt, Apple designer Jonathan Ive and other international notables from science, law and theology.

There’s a certain piquant irony to the director of church-baiting comedy Dark Habits being honoured alongside a Czech monsignor. Typically, however, the film-maker saw the camp side of things: filmed after the ceremony examining his scarlet doctoral robes, he commented: “I thought it was a Sister Act parody.” 

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“I’m afraid of turning into a misanthrope. I want to see what other people’s problems are and to empathise with them. I have to be careful not to isolate myself too much.”

The same week, I meet Almodóvar, 66, in a London hotel.

He enthuses about the honour and about the laudatio, the official address in Latin, a language he learned as a boy at a religious boarding school in Extremadura.

“The ceremony was gorgeous,” he says, leaning across a table in a bright tangerine polo shirt, his shock of silver hair making him look oddly like a chunkier cousin of David Byrne.

“I was very good at Latin. I was so pleased to listen to the laudatio because I knew what the guy was saying. There was something very old about it, but also a very modern point of view, very alive. I loved it. It was on the level of the Nobel prizes,” he beams.

Almodóvar’s last two films marked a return to his earlier, outré mode. The Skin I Live In, which reunited him with one of his most famous discoveries, Antonio Banderas, was a gothic surgical drama with a transgender twist.

Less successfully, I’m So Excited!, a hyper-camp farce set on an airliner, was loved by Spanish audiences but nose-dived elsewhere (somewhat lost in translation was the film’s intended dimension of political allegory, depicting a Spain without a credible pilot at the controls).

But Almodóvar finds himself back on terra firma with his most severe film to date, Julieta.

Based on stories from Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway, it charts the biography of one woman played by two newcomers to Almodóvar’s cinema – Emma Suárez, as Julieta in middle age, and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self.

Structured as a flashback, the complex narrative takes in a dreamlike night of passion, a love triangle, subsequent tragedy and Julieta’s retreat into depressive isolation. Rather than melodrama, Almodóvar has said he was after something more austere this time – “pure drama”.

“Not that my other films are impure,” Almodóvar explains in Spanish (he skips in this interview between his native language and slightly rusty English, sometimes turning the standby interpreter beside him). “‘Impurity’ has a moral meaning in Spanish, which I don’t like. I just wanted much more restraint.”

His intention was to strip out the familiar traces of his style: “Nobody sings, no one talks about cinema and there’s no humour. I had to force myself there; sometimes during rehearsals the odd comic line would come up, which was a relief for the actors. But after the rehearsals, I decided, no humour. I thought it was the best way to tell such a painful story. And also, you know, it’s fantastic that in my 20th film I could make a change. I mean, this is very welcome.”

Almodóvar had hoped to adapt Munro’s stories for some time and even tipped his viewers a wink by sneaking a copy of Runaway into a scene in The Skin I Live In.

Intended to be his first English-language film, his adaptation, originally titled Silence, was to star Meryl Streep. In the end, however, he balked at working in English, and at the Canadian cultural specificity of Munro’s world, and set the story closer to home – Madrid, Galicia, the Pyrenees. “It’s not a faithful adaptation, but once I moved it to Spain, I had to make it really mine.”

He loves Munro’s stories, he says, because “there’s so much about her that I identify with – she’s a housewife who writes” (in recent interviews, he often refers to himself today as “a housewife”).

The essence of Munro’s writing, he says, is “a great strangeness. What I like best about her is something that’s impossible to translate to cinema, her commentaries around the main incidents – minor comments – but they become the most important thing in the story. At the end, I feel I know less about the character than at the beginning. For me, that’s a very positive thing.”

In the end, Almodóvar decided to have his protagonist played by two very different performers, a choice that yields a moving reveal when a towel is removed from Julieta’s head after a bath to reveal that Ugarte has been replaced by Suárez, visibly 20 years older.

I don’t trust ageing makeup,” says Almodóvar. “It pulls me out of a film. When you use an actor who has aged, there’s something that you can’t imitate – the eyes, the way she looks at things, the rhythm of walking, the body language.”

This coup de cinéma is all the more poignant for viewers who may remember Emma Suárez from the 90s as the angelic-looking lead of Julio Medem’s surreal existential dramas The Red Squirrel and Earth. Two decades on, her looks and acting style have acquired a stately severity that is absolutely compelling and all the more moving for being so contained.

As for the younger Julieta, she’s played with hyper-alert energy by Adriana Ugarte, the star of a hugely popular couture-themed TV series, El tiempo entre costuras (literally, The Time Between Stitches). The director cast her purely because she was superb in her audition, he says; he has no interest in Spanish TV. “For me, it isn’t a reference. I can’t judge the actors in Spanish TV fiction. I mean, they are… brrr! Poor things!” he laughs. “They don’t have time to do a good job.”

Almodóvar has always said that he works with different actors in different ways.

On Julieta, he enforced a rule of strict reserve – no comic lines, but also no tears, no overt emoting. He gave Suárez a reading list of books on pain and loss, including Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, while directing Ugarte seems to have involved teaching both deportment and social history.

“The way I directed Adriana was much more physical. It was more to explain how in the 80s a young lady behaved. Twenty-something girls now are so different from the girls of that age. I had to explain that a girl in the 80s would have felt free to fuck a man on a train if she felt like it. There was a feeling of extreme liberty and equality among the people that I knew, men and women. The modern women of that time behaved like men – in their sexuality, in the decisions they made. The bad education I gave Adriana was to make her a woman of the 80s.”

Whether or not Almodóvar can claim authoritative knowledge of how young women behave today, he certainly knows what he’s talking about with regard to Iberian subcultural history – for cinemagoers around the world, his name is synonymous with 80s Spain and its mores.

Born in a village in the La Mancha region, Almodóvar moved to Madrid in 1968, got involved in underground theatre and started making Super-8 films variously inspired by Andy Warhol, John Waters and the Hollywood melodrama tradition (he was already also an art cinema devotee, passionate about Bergman and Antonioni).

He eventually emerged as a mainstay in the Movida Madrileña (the “Madrid Scene”), an explosion of art, music, design, nightlife and general cultural liberation that lasted into the mid-80s and was a celebratory, wildly eclectic response to the end of the Franco dictatorship.

Almodóvar’s early work was overtly provocative, intensely sexual and marked by comic-strip flippancy. His barely seen first feature in 1978 was entitled Folla… folla… fólleme Tim (Fuck… Fuck… Fuck Me Tim) and, two years later, his canonic debut proper Pepi, Luci, Bom featured the director himself presiding over an erections contest.

His 80s films are among the classics of queer cinema, although Almodóvar has always refused to be categorised specifically as a gay film-maker. A friend of mine recalls him fulminating when she asked him whether he made gay films: “Did people ask Hitchcock if he made fat films?”

Almodóvar is known for his reluctance to discuss his private life, which is, in any case, very rarely touched on in the Spanish media, although some papers have identified photographer Fernando Iglesias, who sometimes plays cameo roles in his films, as being his partner for over a decade

I ask Almodóvar whether he is nostalgic for the energies of the movida years, of a different, more optimistic Spain. “I don’t like nostalgia as a feeling but it’s true that tolerance, beauty, freedom are what defined the 80s and it’s not what defines this decade in Spain. The films I made at that time, I had no trouble making, nobody got offended, yet they’re quite provocative.”

He is convinced that his 1983 anti-clerical comedy Dark Habits could not have been made today – “It would have had a very radical and violent response from the religious establishment.”

There’s a new phenomenon on the rise in Spain, he says – “the offence to Catholic sensibilities”. He mentions a recent Gay Pride poster, which showed two Virgins, associated with Barcelona and Valencia, kissing. “The archbishops held masses to condemn it. That would have been unthinkable in the 80s.”

We talk about the current state of politics, Spanish in particular and European in general, since our interview happens to fall in the few days between the outcome of the Brexit vote and the general election in Spain.

Almodóvar commiserates with me on the turn of affairs in Britain. “In Spain, we are all in shock. For my generation and the generation that came after, London represented freedom. I first came here in 1971 during the Franco dictatorship, so you can’t imagine what that meant for a young Spanish man.”

Regarding the bad morale arising from Brexit, he adds: “If it extends to Spain, it will favour this feeling of fear and uncertainty and the more conservative side of Spanish politics, the Partido Popular (People’s party).”

He was right, of course: the following Sunday’s results saw the rightwing PP maintaining its position in power.

Almodóvar had already voted in advance for the leftwing Podemos; he has been a prominent critic of the PP and is among many who regard the recent massive hike on VAT for cinema tickets as the government’s punitive revenge on the film community’s opposition to Spain’s involvement in the Iraq war.

There’s no doubt that the downbeat mood of austerity-era Spain has played its part in determining the tenor of Julieta.

Reality always filters through into my films, even when I try to reject it. It finds a crack to seep in through. The climate of the last four years in Spain has been of enormous unhappiness and even though I haven’t personally suffered from the harshness of the economic situation, I’m surrounded by people who have. I don’t think Julieta is a metaphor for Spain today but it’s no accident that my 80s films were much happier.”

Julieta also reflects his personal mood. “In the last three years, I’ve suffered physical pain and great solitude.”

If he had written the script in a different decade, he says, he could imagine Julieta going out, meeting people in the streets of Madrid. “She would be involved in others’ problems. Now it was very easy for me just to talk about her kind of solitude. I know a lot about solitude.”

I ask what he means and why especially now, since he has often talked about solitude in the past; in one book of interviews, he recalls feeling isolated as a 10-year-old because other kids weren’t interested in discussing Ingmar Bergman. “In this case,” he says, “solitude is something I choose. Anyway, you have to experience loneliness for this sort of work.”

How so – because he needs to be alone to write?

“It’s a mixture of everything,” he shrugs. “It’s a mixture of time passing, of getting older, the fact that going out is much less exciting. I’m at an age when everything is less exciting and I have to look for inspiration much more inside myself and my home than outside.”

There is a downside, he admits. “I’m afraid of turning into a misanthrope. I want to see what other people’s problems are and to empathise with them. I have to be careful not to isolate myself too much.”

This is something, indeed, that hostile Spanish critics have accused him of as his international profile has risen.

He shrugs again. “Anyway, I don’t want to complain… but [he’s speaking English now and emphasises the but] I have a lot of migraines, I don’t hear with one ear and I’m photophobic. I don’t go to award ceremonies because TV lights mean having a migraine the whole evening. So the press in Spain think I feel scorn for the ceremony.

“Sometimes solitude comes from something specific, like the fact that I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I don’t hear well. I don’t want to be a drag for other people, so I stay at home. It’s as simple as that.”

Because of his hearing problem, he had to warn the people sitting beside him at lunch in Oxford that his conversation might accidentally sound “silly or surrealistic. And they were very charming about it”.

Whatever his longer-term woes, 2016 has not been an easy year for Almodóvar.

In April, his long-standing repertory player Chus Lampreave, a much-loved specialist in grandmother and eccentric doyenne roles, died.

A few days later, shortly before the Spanish release of Julieta, it emerged in the Panama Papers, the leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, that El Deseo, the production company founded by the director and his brother, Agustín, had set up an offshore company in the early 90s. Given the director’s prominence as a leftwinger, this was a major embarrassment, to say the least.

Agustín issued a statement to explain that the short-lived company had been set up to facilitate co-productions but was never used; Pedro commented that he accepted his responsibility but later added that he and his brother were some of the least important names implicated: “If it was a film, we wouldn’t even be extras.”

It was a very bad moment, Almodóvar says. “I was on the front of every single newspaper and TV programme. The press was using me, in the most sensationalist way possible. It was awful, because it’s very hard to be part of a list of people that you hate. But I felt used by the media. I’m absolutely against tax havens but I’m also against the commercialisation of news.”

This unwanted exposure, he says, partly accounts for the fact that his usually faithful and very diverse Spanish public – “adolescents, many, many gay people, lots of old ladies, housewives, every category and every profession” – seemed to reject Julieta. The film scored his worst Spanish box-office in 20 years, although it went on to triumph in France and Italy

One reason for Julieta’s disappointing domestic showing, surely, is that it is such a dark film, hardly calculated to please a nation facing tough times.

The director also points out that Spanish audience figures have diminished anyway, partly because of that VAT hike. It must be galling for him, though, that Julieta was significantly trumped at the box-office by a sex comedy called Kiki, Love to Love (not to be confused with the director’s own 1993 Kika), which, by all accounts, is in the spirit of Almodóvar’s 80s work.

The director’s spirits visibly rise when I ask him about the retrospective of his films that has just begun at London’s BFI Southbank, for which he has also made a personal selection of must-sees from the history of Spanish cinema.

Which title would he most urge British audiences to see? Without hesitation, he chooses 1964 drama Aunt Tula, while among his own films he recommends Law of Desire and Talk to Her.

He clearly takes his curatorial role seriously because a few days later I get an email from his publicist to say that Almodóvar has had a rethink – scratch Aunt Tula, he’ll go for another early 60s title, the black comedy El verdugo (The Executioner).

On the sources of his own inspiration, Almodóvar claims the choice sometimes just imposes itself, as presumably it did when Alice Munro’s stories came to fascinate him. “The truth is, I’m not very conscious when I write, when I decide to do one story and not another. I’m very permeable – I don’t exactly decide the story myself. It sounds paranormal.”

I’m curious to know what the maestro is reading now and his assistant goes into the next room to fetch a paperback – a Spanish translation of Nothing Grows By Moonlight, a novel by Norwegian writer Torborg Nedreaas.

“It’s fantastic, it’s incredible,” Almodóvar enthuses. I Google it later; it’s about a miner’s daughter who forms a masochistic obsession with her teacher. It seems just the sort of thing that Almodóvar might feel like adapting if he remains in his current downbeat mood, but you wonder if he’ll allow himself some jokes in it.

Julieta is released on 26 August. The Almodóvar season is at BFI Southbank throughout August and September

Highly Creative People? What they do differently?

Creative thinking is a stable, defining characteristic in some personalities. It may also change based on situation and context.
 
Inspiration and ideas often arise seemingly out of nowhere and then fail to show up when we most need them, and creative thinking requires complex cognition, and may be distinct from the thinking process.
 
I lately watched a documentary on the “plasticity” or malleability of the brain, on how people born with half a brain acquire the capabilities of the missing brain. 
 
Carolyn Gregoire@huffingtonpost.com posted this March 4, 2014                                  

18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently   

(A list of too many things that are not necessarily related to creativity?)                                                                         

Creativity works in mysterious and often paradoxical ways. 

Neuroscience paints a complicated picture of creativity. As scientists now understand it, creativity is far more complex than the right-left brain distinction would have us think (the theory being that left brain = rational and analytical, and the right brain = creative and emotional).

In fact, creativity is thought to involve a number of cognitive processes, neural pathways and emotions, and we still don’t have the full picture of how the imaginative mind works.

And psychologically speaking, creative personality types are difficult to pin down, largely because they’re complex, paradoxical and tend to avoid habit or routine. (I’m doubtful)

And it’s not just a stereotype of the “tortured artist” — artists really may be more complicated people.

Research has suggested that creativity involves the coming together of a multitude of traits, behaviors and social influences in a single person.

“It’s actually hard for creative people to know themselves because the creative self is more complex than the non-creative self,” Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at New York University who has spent years researching creativity, told The Huffington Post. “The things that stand out the most are the paradoxes of the creative self … Imaginative people have messier minds.”

While there’s no “typical” creative type, there are some tell-tale characteristics and behaviors of highly creative people. Here are 18 things they do differently.

They daydream.

daydreaming child

Creative types know, despite what their third-grade teachers may have said, that daydreaming is anything but a waste of time. (I’m glad I have a specific category called Daydreaming projects, and wish I could get feedback)

According to Kaufman and psychologist Rebecca L. McMillan, who co-authored a paper titled “Ode To Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” mind-wandering can aid in the process of “creative incubation.” And of course, many of us know from experience that our best ideas come seemingly out of the blue when our minds are elsewhere.

Although daydreaming may seem mindless, a 2012 study suggested it could actually involve a highly engaged brain state — daydreaming can lead to sudden connections and insights because it’s related to our ability to recall information in the face of distractions. Neuroscientists have also found that daydreaming involves the same brain processes associated with imagination and creativity.

(Daydreaming projects are necessarily very detailed and produce the objections to moral and safety issues that the project may be lacking…)

They observe everything.

The world is a creative person’s oyster — they see possibilities everywhere and are constantly taking in information that becomes fodder for creative expression. As Henry James is widely quoted, a writer is someone on whom “nothing is lost.”

The writer Joan Didion kept a notebook with her at all times, and said that she wrote down observations about people and events as, ultimately, a way to better understand the complexities and contradictions of her own mind:

“However dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I,'” Didion wrote in her essay On Keeping A Notebook. “We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its marker.”

They work the hours that work for them.

Many great artists have said that they do their best work either very early in the morning or late at night.

Vladimir Nabokov started writing immediately after he woke up at 6 or 7 a.m., and Frank Lloyd Wright made a practice of waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. and working for several hours before heading back to bed.

No matter when it is, individuals with high creative output will often figure out what time it is that their minds start firing up, and structure their days accordingly.

They take time for solitude.

solitude

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone,” wrote the American existential psychologist Rollo May.

Artists and creatives are often stereotyped as being loners, and while this may not actually be the case, solitude can be the key to producing their best work. For Kaufman, this links back to daydreaming — we need to give ourselves the time alone to simply allow our minds to wander.

“You need to get in touch with that inner monologue to be able to express it,” he says. “It’s hard to find that inner creative voice if you’re … not getting in touch with yourself and reflecting on yourself.”

They turn life’s obstacles around.

Many of the most iconic stories and songs of all time have been inspired by gut-wrenching pain and heartbreak — and the silver lining of these challenges is that they may have been the catalyst to create great art.

An emerging field of psychology called post-traumatic growth is suggesting that many people are able to use their hardships and early-life trauma for substantial creative growth. Specifically, researchers have found that trauma can help people to grow in the areas of interpersonal relationships, spirituality, appreciation of life, personal strength, and — most importantly for creativity — seeing new possibilities in life.

“A lot of people are able to use that as the fuel they need to come up with a different perspective on reality,” says Kaufman. “What’s happened is that their view of the world as a safe place, or as a certain type of place, has been shattered at some point in their life, causing them to go on the periphery and see things in a new, fresh light, and that’s very conducive to creativity.”

They seek out new experiences.

solo traveler

Creative people love to expose themselves to new experiences, sensations and states of mind — and this openness is a significant predictor of creative output.

Openness to experience is consistently the strongest predictor of creative achievement,” says Kaufman. “This consists of lots of different facets, but they’re all related to each other: Intellectual curiosity, thrill seeking, openness to your emotions, openness to fantasy. The thing that brings them all together is a drive for cognitive and behavioral exploration of the world, your inner world and your outer world.”

They “fail up.”

resilience

Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says Kaufman. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that sticks, and creatives — at least the successful ones — learn not to take failure so personally.

“Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often,” Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece on Einstein’s creative genius.

They ask the big questions.

Creative people are insatiably curious — they generally opt to live the examined life, and even as they get older, maintain a sense of curiosity about life. Whether through intense conversation or solitary mind-wandering, creatives look at the world around them and want to know why, and how, it is the way it is.

They people-watch.

people watching

Observant by nature and curious about the lives of others, creative types often love to people-watch — and they may generate some of their best ideas from it.

“[Marcel] Proust spent almost his whole life people-watching, and he wrote down his observations, and it eventually came out in his books,” says Kaufman. “For a lot of writers, people-watching is very important … They’re keen observers of human nature.”

They take risks. 

Part of doing creative work is taking risks, and many creative types thrive off of taking risks in various aspects of their lives.

“There is a deep and meaningful connection between risk taking and creativity and it’s one that’s often overlooked,” contributor Steven Kotler wrote in Forbes. “Creativity is the act of making something from nothing. It requires making public those bets first placed by imagination. This is not a job for the timid. Time wasted, reputation tarnished, money not well spent — these are all by-products of creativity gone awry.

They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression.

self expression

Nietzsche believed that one’s life and the world should be viewed as a work of art. Creative types may be more likely to see the world this way, and to constantly seek opportunities for self-expression in everyday life.

“Creative expression is self-expression,” says Kaufman. “Creativity is nothing more than an individual expression of your needs, desires and uniqueness.”

They follow their true passions.

Creative people tend to be intrinsically motivated — meaning that they’re motivated to act from some internal desire, rather than a desire for external reward or recognition.

Psychologists have shown that creative people are energized by challenging activities, a sign of intrinsic motivation, and the research suggests that simply thinking of intrinsic reasons to perform an activity may be enough to boost creativity.

“Eminent creators choose and become passionately involved in challenging, risky problems that provide a powerful sense of power from the ability to use their talents,” write M.A. Collins and T.M. Amabile in The Handbook of Creativity.

They get out of their own heads.

creative writing

Kaufman argues that another purpose of daydreaming is to help us to get out of our own limited perspective and explore other ways of thinking, which can be an important asset to creative work.

“Daydreaming has evolved to allow us to let go of the present,” says Kaufman. “The same brain network associated with daydreaming is the brain network associated with theory of mind — I like calling it the ‘imagination brain network’ — it allows you to imagine your future self, but it also allows you to imagine what someone else is thinking.”

Research has also suggested that inducing “psychological distance” — that is, taking another person’s perspective or thinking about a question as if it was unreal or unfamiliar — can boost creative thinking.

They lose track of the time.

Creative types may find that when they’re writing, dancing, painting or expressing themselves in another way, they get “in the zone,” or what’s known as a flow state, which can help them to create at their highest level.

Flow is a mental state when an individual transcends conscious thought to reach a heightened state of effortless concentration and calmness. When someone is in this state, they’re practically immune to any internal or external pressures and distractions that could hinder their performance.

You get into the flow state when you’re performing an activity you enjoy that you’re good at, but that also challenges you — as any good creative project does.

“[Creative people] have found the thing they love, but they’ve also built up the skill in it to be able to get into the flow state,” says Kaufman. “The flow state requires a match between your skill set and the task or activity you’re engaging in.”

They surround themselves with beauty.

Creatives tend to have excellent taste, and as a result, they enjoy being surrounded by beauty.

A study recently published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts showed that musicians — including orchestra musicians, music teachers, and soloists — exhibit a high sensitivity and responsiveness to artistic beauty.

They connect the dots.

doodle

If there’s one thing that distinguishes highly creative people from others, it’s the ability to see possibilities where other don’t — or, in other words, vision. Many great artists and writers have said that creativity is simply the ability to connect the dots that others might never think to connect.

In the words of Steve Jobs:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

They constantly shake things up.

Diversity of experience, more than anything else, is critical to creativity, says Kaufman. Creatives like to shake things up, experience new things, and avoid anything that makes life more monotonous or mundane.

“Creative people have more diversity of experiences, and habit is the killer of diversity of experience,” says Kaufman.

They make time for mindfulness.

Creative types understand the value of a clear and focused mind — because their work depends on it. Many artists, entrepreneurs, writers and other creative workers, such as David Lynch, have turned to meditation as a tool for tapping into their most creative state of mind.

And science backs up the idea that mindfulness really can boost your brain power in a number of ways.

A 2012 Dutch study suggested that certain meditation techniques can promote creative thinking. And mindfulness practices have been linked with improved memory and focus, better emotional well-being, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved mental clarity — all of which can lead to better creative thought.

Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski are taking The Third Metric on a 3-city tour: NY, DC & LA.  Tickets are on sale now at thirdmetric.com.


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