The Sketchbook Project

Clearing the decks in the first week of January, I found the envelope I’d received from “The Sketchbook Project,” a project encouraging people from around the world – some 22,000 so far – to register, pay a fee, and receive a sketchbook. When filled and returned, the sketchbook will be archived at the Brooklyn Art Library. (They also organize exhibitions to travel across the continent.)

The little brown envelope contained a tan, stiff-covered, five-by-seven-inch, stapled booklet with 32 pages of white paper. It had a January 15 deadline for return.

This blank book in the emptyness of early January presented all the dilemmas of a bigger project – what to do, how to start, media, rules, motivation. It brought to mind a quote from the poet May Sarton about “keeping gear in order for that never-ending journey.” I found the whole quote and it seemed to fit: “If there is motivation here, it is always self-ordering, self-exploratory, a perpetual keeping gear in order for that never-ending journey.”

I think of that journey as work, creative work, and that’s what sketchbooks are good for, like writer’s notebooks – a place to practice, to gather ideas, to keep the hand in. And in this case to think about my own workroom. Because I hope to make a little book with the ideas and encouragements from The Workroom for participants, it’s good to focus.

A set of rules for The Sketchbook Project proclaims: “…dive in – there’s no better feeling than tackling that first blank page.”

Not. In spite of my short timeline, I dithered (doing dance steps of avoidance and distraction), and finally let the little book become my space for working all that out. I allowed just one page at the beginning to fill in later, stamped the cover with The Workroom – and started.

For the next bit I’ll post the pages of “The Workroom: A Sketchbook Project” – though the book itself is gone to Brooklyn – it did its job and got me going, Maybe, if you are not already well-begun, it will help you start your 2013 creative project!

A sketchbook project - cover spread

Creativity in the New Year

A Sunday or so ago, I read an article by Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, lamenting (but not really) his failure to produce the “Masterwork of Spectacular Brilliance.” (

He talks in the piece about the stage when a creative project can sink into the “muck of mediocrity,” as it “takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality” – an always helpful restatement of how hard it is to go from nothing to something.

To my stashed words of wisdom, I recently added ones by John Cleese. He lists familiar factors for making life more creative: space, time, confidence, and humor, and says, “This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”

Over the holiday I read “Creative Thursday: Everyday Inspiration to Grow Your Creative Practice,” by the artist Marisa Anne Cummings. (She has a website by the same name.) The book is full of her charming illustrations, making her words memorable – evidence that she “keeps ‘agoing.” (A good phrase for the back of one’s mind.)

Hugo Lindgreen has another riff, this one on ideas. “Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.”

Designer Dana Tanamachi’s New Year resolution, ”to aid in the flourishing of others,” resonated with me when I read it, because next to Lady Baby and the sweet wedding, the great joy of 2012 was designing The Workroom. I loved watching the participants, each in her own way, engage with chosen tasks and experience the stages of creative work.

It’s helpful to read and to take note of quotes like the ones above, but it really encourages to encounter people practicing creativity. The Workroom offers the support of a group, kindred souls, waiting for and expecting solutions to the “problems and puzzles” of creative work.

It’s exciting to think about another group of participants for a spring session of The Workroom (March 4 to April 12). I hope you will consider it!

new beginnings

A Jane Austen Movie

It’s January, it’s pitch dark at 5 p.m., and we have succumbed (thanks to our gift Roku bringing the wonders of streaming to our house on the bluff) to one enjoyable TV series after an other – those drawn out, beautifully lit cliff hangers, ranging from Texas football to 50s New York ad men – that Charles Dickens would recognize.

But the young writer who edits other people’s words for a living quietly recommended a little movie. She said I’d like “The Jane Austen Book Club,” and she was right. It was fun to settle into a real movie and watch a complexity of Jane Austen permutations and reactions.

It helps to know Austen, makes it even more pleasurable, but you don’t have to – it’s California, there are women and a book club but also men, great clothes, and much, much Austen as the plot mimics, and the book club discusses, her six novels.

“Persuasion” has always been my favorite, but maybe it’s time for a reread of all of them. In the meantime, you can watch the movie and be reminded of the stories, the characters, and the long-lasting pleasures of Jane Austen’s world.

Evening teacup

Discovering Simon Mawer

It seems long ago that I read so much while spending quality cuddling-while-she-slept time with Lady Baby. Now we mostly read “Bear Snores On” or Sandra Boynton books about hippos’ belly buttons. But I get to read when I fly to see her!

In September I read a review in The New Yorker about Simon Mawer’s new book, “Trapeze.” The review got my attention by calling the book “enthralling,” and Mawer (brand new to me) made flying hours, well, fly.

I began with “Trapeze” – a story set during WWII of a young Englishwoman with a French past. Recruited, rigorously trained, then parachuted into occupied France, the heroine is tested and challenged by her work with the French Underground. I was anxious for her safety and completely engaged.

In New York I climbed up a ladder in the Strand Bookstore and bought used copies of two more Mawer novels. “The Glass Room,” his longest and most encompassing novel, is an utterly satisfying story of a house – and its inhabitants. Perhaps my favorite, “The Fall,” combines mountain climbing with a tale of complicated relationships – love, betrayal, many surprises.

Mawer’s language seems perfect to me, both careful and exhilarating. Descriptions of mountain ascents in Wales and Europe, hospital life during the Blitz, and codes and secret signals of spies transported me in geography and time with just enough history, technical knowledge, and knotty romance. All the books have good women characters.

Every time I glance at Mawer’s author photo on the books and read that he’s a Brit but has lived in Italy for 30 years, I think what a smart guy! I picture a writing table under a grape arbor. Not sure about that, but I did enjoy reading this Guardian article about him:

I’ve tucked away two books for upcoming plane journeys – Mawer’s “Mendel’s Dwarf” – and a book I’ve heard much about (technically a Young Adult book), “Code Name Verity.”

It’s a new year – and full of new books!

Travel teacup

Carrots, Chocolate, and Red Pepper Flakes

Just before New Year’s Eve, I made a huge pot of white bean and rosemary soup, and wish I’d thrown in a handful of black-eyed peas for New Year luck. Along with the lucky number 13, I’m hoping that putting them in the header will suffice!

Cooking cooking – lots of cooking over the holidays – and new cookbooks! Our younger son and his sweet bride were here over Christmas, and cooking seemed simple because I had her wonderful, companionable help. More to come about the cookbooks, but for now I wanted to pass along two recipes we made with much pleasure – both from the same blog:

The site is full of interesting recipes and photos by a young man who writes about “making good food on a relatively small budget.” He writes from the UK with a lively good humor. Sometimes ingredient conversions are necessary – Google does for you quickly.

For a Christmas Eve gathering, we made his “Carrot and Coriander Hummus”: Roast 300 grams of chopped carrots (that’s about 10 ounces) with three unpeeled cloves of garlic in olive oil, salt, and pepper, until tender, just turning brown. Toast coriander seeds (I did this in the toaster oven). You need two teaspoons after “bashing” the seeds up a bit.

Put the carrots, the garlic squeezed out of its skin, two teaspoons of peanut butter (the mystery ingredient, nobody guessed peanut butter), a small handful of fresh coriander (didn’t have this), one teaspoon of chilli flakes (that’s a British-ism, I used red pepper flakes, pretty hot ones), and the juice of one lemon into a food processor. Then add one tablespoon of olive oil at a time (recipe says four) until the consistency is right for dip or spread.

FrugalFeeder says to serve with pita bread, but we substituted crackers. And, because we doubled the recipe, we were able to spread this on bread for several days after the party – really tasty.

Those same red pepper flakes (a sweet bride favorite) appear in another FrugalFeeding recipe “Chilli and Nutmeg Dark Chocolate Bark,” which is easy and looks festive. Start with good chocolate for this – we used 80% – three bars come close to the 300 grams called for.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. (I don’t have one, so we used a bowl inside a steamer basket.) Begin by breaking the chocolate and melting three-quarters of it. Remove the bowl from heat and add the rest of the chocolate and let it soften. Then put the chocolate back over the water until it reaches pouring consistency.

The sweet bride carefully poured the melted mixture onto a piece of parchment paper atop a baking tray – making a thin chocolate puddle. She’d earlier grated a nutmeg with a microplane grater (a new activity to us but perfect for a Christmas task, and I put the leftovers in Christmas pudding the next day), added a quarter teaspoon of the grated nutmeg to one teaspoon of pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt (coarse sea salt if you have it). She sprinkled this mixture over the still soft chocolate.

We went on to make red beans and rice and ginger cookies while the chocolate set up – then packed the broken bark into little bags – a quick, easy present! A recipient called the chocolate “not sweet and bitey hot!”

Carrots, chocolate, nutmeg, coriander, pepper flakes, family and friends – was a great holiday!

Paper palette carrot