What’s Ashley Reading?: The King’s Painter

The King’s Painter by Franny Moyle

First line: When Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, more than two hundred years after Holbein’s death, he understood a biographer to be ‘A writer of lives; a relator not of the history of nations, but of the actions of particular persons.’

Summary: Hans Holbein was the court painter to Henry VIII of England.  But even though he achieved stardom at the English court he started as the son of painter in Augsburg, Germany.  He learned his trade from his father and worked his way up the social ladder with introductions for well-known clients until he reached the height of his career.  Using his talent, he brought the world the best known portraits of the Tudor court including the king himself, his courtiers and several of his wives. 

My Thoughts: I have loved Holbein’s work ever since I became interested in the Tudor period.  His art is beyond his time.  He brings life to his subjects making them almost appear in 3D.  Many of his works survive and there are probably some still to be discovered.  The few that I have seen are outstanding in their detail.

I really enjoyed this look into Holbein’s life.  Before reading this I basically knew his name and his works.  I learned a lot about the time period in which he lived, his rise through friendships with Erasmus and Thomas More, and the lives of painters in the sixteenth century.  I always assumed that someone who worked for the court was well off but many painters struggled to make enough for their families.  There are many rules surrounding the painters’ world including inclusions in guilds and requirements of marriage.  I found this to be a great insight into another world inside the one I already knew from my years of reading Tudor history.

Moyle’s biography can be fairly dense with information but I found it easy to read.  She follows a linear storytelling while she explains the culture and religious tensions of the time and how they affected the young painter. 

The book includes color prints of some of his father’s works (Hans Holbein the Elder), early religious works (Hans Holbein the younger), and his portraits from the royal courts. 

FYI: For fans of art history or the Tudor period.

Terese’s Thoughts: Second Place

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

First Line: I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of my life.

Summary: The events of the book are narrated by M, a middle-aged writer, as she retells them to her friend Jeffers as if in a long letter. We never meet Jeffers; he is beside the point. M lives in a marshy, wooded area near the sea with her second husband Tony. They have also built a cabin on the property which they use to host various artist-types for a week or so during the summer. M was largely content with her quiet life until she invites the artist “L” to come stay for a while. L’s work made a lasting impact on M several years prior and she has been mildly obsessed with him ever since. At first L declines her invitation, then suddenly announces he is arriving the following day. M is immediately thrown off-kilter, her domestic peace disrupted by his presence. Not only does he arrive without much warning, he also brings with him a young and beautiful woman who will be staying as well. To add to the chaos, M’s twenty-something daughter Justine is visiting with her German boyfriend. Although it feels like nothing much is happening, we get a first-hand account of M’s ever-intensifying emotions. She is struggling with how to live freely as herself within the confines and compromise of marriage and motherhood:

“I have wanted to be free my whole life but haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe…”

The various relationships change over the course of the stay, affected by the presence of others in such close quarters. M grows increasingly frustrated with L and feels he is deliberately driving her mad. Justine and her boyfriend begin to drift apart as she grows closer to L’s companion. Tony does his best to maintain peace.

My Thoughts: I’d never read any of Cusk’s writing before, and I certainly don’t plan to stop with Second Place. I came across a review of an earlier novel of Cusk’s in the London Review of Books written by the excellent Patricia Lockwood, and if you want to know how reading Cusk makes me feel, it’s summed up by the title of Lockwood’s review: “Why do I have to know what McDonald’s is?”. Why can’t we prioritize good craftsmanship and beauty and creativity and compassion and things made from scratch and diversity, why do I have to know what McDonald’s is? But anyway… Her obsession aside, M is grappling with the same questions we all surely ask ourselves from time to time. I was right there with her, ready for her to chuck life in the bin and start living exactly as herself. And when she realized the loss of comfort, peace, stability, and love throwing it all away would cause, so did I. She felt naïve and foolish, and so did I. It’s a book that makes you think and reflect on life, so if you’re into that kind of thing, I definitely recommend it.

From Reader to Writer: Morning Pages

I’ve never been much of the diary type. I have a crate full of journals and a moderate journal-buying obsession, but if one were to scour the contents of these books, they’d find mostly random thoughts, embarrassing poetry, and doodles of rose vines and cats. While I always have a journal with me to record ideas or to regurgitate intense emotions, I’ve never been good at keeping a daily journal. I always start with good intentions then either forget completely or make excuses for not continuing.

Back in 2016, I discovered The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and it revitalized my creative process. It challenged me to reflect deeply and to make a practice out of writing. One of the vital elements of Julia Cameron’s method is to write morning pages every day. Recently, I’ve decided to go through Cameron’s 12-week process again and have been reminded of the importance of doing the morning pages as often as possible.

What Are Morning Pages

Morning Pages are three, long-hand, stream of consciousness pages of writing done every day, preferably in the morning right when you wake up. They can literally be about anything. They should never be shared and really, you shouldn’t read them for at least eight weeks. Most people destroy them after writing them.

Why Would You Do This?

I see it as a clearing. It sweeps away all of the things that clutter your head. From anxieties that you need to let go of or ideas that you don’t want to forget, the morning pages give you a space to exist in written form. Writing long-hand instead of typing on your phone or computer is a way to ground and re-center you without technology. There is something comforting about putting pen to paper and just letting the words flow in any way.

This is excellent training for writing a first draft. First drafts are tough. It’s important when starting out that you just get the ideas on paper. Revision and critiquing comes after the words get down, but it’s hard to turn that filter off even when writing the first time around. Morning Pages trains your brain to turn off that internal critique and let the words flow.

I’m not going to lie. I only get my morning pages done about half the time, but when I do get to them, my brain feels so much clearer. As I keep going through The Artist’s Way program in hopes of re-invigorating my creativity, I definitely am working to make morning pages a habit for both my mental and creative health.

Would you ever consider writing morning pages? Perhaps maybe give The Artist’s Way a try? Let me know what you think, and I’ll keep you posted as my writer’s journey continues.

From Reader to Writer: Finding Courage to Work

Do you remember what you were like when you were a child? You were fearless, unbridled, and free of the smudges left by other people’s opinions and motivations. If you said you were an astronaut, you were an astronaut despite the technicalities of school and space travel. But somewhere along the way, you grew and fear within you grew as well. The fear of expectation, failure, and entitlement took over and before you knew it, you couldn’t bear to call yourself an astronaut, let alone become one.

This is what happened to me. My oldest memory is that of calling myself a writer. From age three on, the answer I always gave to every adult who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. “Writer” became my identity. It didn’t matter if the writing was bad or if I never finished a project. I knew that somehow it would all work out, and I would find my name on a glossy, well-bound book on the shelf.

I can’t tell you when it started, but something snapped along the way. I found it uncomfortable to call myself a writer. Then I found it uncomfortable to write at all. Even after years of school, years of practice, and years of reading books, I still couldn’t seem to feel confident in the work I was doing. What was the right story, the right character, the right word? Soon, the fear became a dull excuse that manifested into too exhausted or too busy or too uninspired. Now it’s been months since I’ve touched my work, and that dream I was so sure of as a child is drifting further and further out to sea.

Unused creativity is not benign. If you find that you are called to create something and you resist that call, it will slowly eat away at you.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

I believe this to be true. I find myself resenting authors for their successes. I resent myself for my lack of discipline and confidence. And I miss my work. This must mean that the ideas and stories and characters that keep boggling my brain want to be heard. They don’t want me to leave them behind. Perhaps there is art that you have left behind too whether writing, drawing, dancing, film making, or singing.

Here are three resources that might help you find the courage to work:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

This is more of a class or workshop than a self-help book. Cameron provides concrete exercises and techniques to move you past your block or fear and into a space of making things that feels genuine and authentic.

Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book validates what you might be feeling. Gilbert uses her own experiences, and her perspective on creating something from nothing to challenge you out of your comfort zone.

Magic Lessons Podcast

Bringing Big Magic to life, this podcast features people who are struggling with creating and ask Elizabeth Gilbert for advice. Besides giving her own information and encouragement, Gilbert brings in professionals like Cheryl Strayed, Neil Gaiman, and Brene Brown to share their stories of how they conquer their fear and come to a place of fulfillment in their work.

I hope these resources might kick start your creativity. Let me know if you have ever felt fearful of making things or sharing your art, and I’ll be back with another post about my journey from reader to writer.

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

First line: It was a large canvas, big enough that it had taken two men to carry it into Il Magnifico’s chambers.

Summary: Simonetta, a new bride to Marco Vespucci, is considered the most beautiful woman in Florence. When she meets the rising star, Sandro Botticelli at the home of Lorenzo de Medici, she becomes the muse for the artist. He uses her as the model for one of his most famous works, The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta in The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Highlights: I really enjoyed the story. I love the time and the history of the Medici family. They were leaders of the Republic of Florence as well as supporters of the Renaissance in Italy. I had never heard of Simonetta Vespucci before reading this but since I have Googled her to see the paintings done by Botticelli. The writing was well done and flowed nicely. This is a good example of historical fiction. It has just enough history to learn from but is not filled with facts. I plan to read the author’s debut novel soon.

Lowlights: I got tired of the repetition of her being the most beautiful woman and being used to having people stare at her. It is the title of the book. It was too much. I did not need to be reminded.

FYI: Check out the artwork of Botticelli. It is amazing!