Archive | March, 2013

On Good Art, Bad Art and Creativity

24 Mar


                                                                                 By Rhea H. Boyden
There are two things I have learned in my mid-thirties that I really, really wish I had been told by a wise professor on the first day of my four year career at a liberal arts university that would have made my life a lot easier. Firstly: when you study liberal arts you have no idea where it will lead and what career path you will end up in, so don’t stress about it now. And secondly: when you are writing a term paper, relax; procrastination and messing around with your notes and ideas are part of the process, so learn to love it. I was a good enough student at university, but I lacked confidence in my own academic ability and I was always really stressed when writing any term paper.
Last year when I really started to get more into writing, a good friend of mine gave me a fabulous book by a woman by the name of Natalie Goldberg entitled ‘Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within’. I learned more from this one book about writing than everything I was ever taught at university. Goldberg uses perfect metaphors to describe different processes in writing. In her two-page essay entitled ‘Composting’ she talks of how all our notes and research need time to decompose through our subconscious mind before they jump out onto our blank page as beautiful poems and stories- as Goldberg says- like a bright red rose shoots out of the compost.
This essay resonated with me entirely and I have never stressed about writing an essay since. I have come to view collecting my notes and doing my research and reading as ‘composting’ and have come to enjoy it immensely as a part of the whole creative process from first idea to final draft.
The successful writer Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech to graduating college seniors at a prestigious arts college and he gave them some good tips as they set out on their careers. He told them, that no matter what, and how hard life got, they should simply ‘make good art’. ‘People who set out on a career in the arts have no idea what they are doing’, Gaiman told the students. ‘And’ he elaborated, ‘This is great’.
I remember very well worrying a lot about my future in my last year of university. I did not know then, that within a year, I would end up teaching English at one of Berlin’s better language schools, a job I still hold 13 years later. It was a job I loved, and I learned so much from it in the first few years. Like most jobs, however it gets a bit repetitive. I still love it, and there are days of novelty and wonder, but it involves a lot of commuting, which is one of the most soul-destroying activities of modern life, so I have recently turned to writing as something that really and truly fulfills me and also gives me new energy for teaching and has made my teaching job better too as I am more happy and fulfilled. The combination of teaching and writing is a good one.  I get to be with my students during the day and then I get to be alone and get lost in reading and writing at night and on weekends. Each job feeds the other, and I feel, they would be
incomplete without each other. I had to ‘compost’ my experiences in Berlin teaching and partying for 12 years before I could even begin to write about them.
‘You never know where it leads and this is a good thing’. Neil Gaiman’s words make even more sense to me now than ever before. Writing for me is a magical adventure and I never know where it leads. I never could have imagined two years ago when I sat down to write my first short story as a mature adult that I would be enjoying so much success with it within two years. It has filled my heart with joy, gotten me published in three countries, helped me stay sober after hitting the bottle too hard because I was bored and frustrated, and has opened my life to a whole range of ideas and possibilities that I explore every day.
My magazine assignments have been varied and wonderful and I explore Berlin art, architecture, theatre and opera and write about it all either as previews, reviews, or guidebook assignments. When I see wonderful art I am alive, empowered and inspired.  Everything is great and I am on a roll. In the past few weeks, however, I have had the misfortune of experiencing bad art and disappointing performances which has left me feeling somewhat unhappy and lonely and with a feeling that I have wasted my precious free time doing these things when there is so much good culture in Berlin to experience.
Last week I went to the cinema to see a film, in German and set in Berlin called ‘Shark Alarm on Mueggelsee’. I had presumed that the shark bit was a metaphor for something else, but unfortunately it was not. There really was a shark in the Berlin lake. The characters were bad and clichéd, the acting mediocre and the attempt at humour mostly cringeworthy. I went home feeling disappointed and lonely.
Last Sunday was Saint Patrick’s Day, so I dressed up in green and went to the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on an internet date. It was freezing, the parade consisted of a few Scottish bagpipes, which for me, are not a symbol of the Irish national holiday, and a boombox blaring cheesy Irish country songs. To make matters worse the date was also a disappointment. Again, I went home feeling disappointed.
But the worst experience in recent weeks was going to see a play at the English Theatre Berlin a few weeks ago and the whole performance was dismal. I am not accustomed to writing scathing reviews of events and I like to keep my writing light-hearted and humourous. I had made a lot of notes to write a bad review but I was not quick enough. Another Berlin magazine got there before me. The woman who wrote the review slammed the performance and apologized in a public letter for having supported the project at all. I simply abandoned my notes, she had said it all already.
So after an exhilarating ride writing about wonderful cultural things I feel a little bored, lonely and uninspired by my recent experiences and I realize even more how important good art is for my emotional well being. If you work a full time job that is a bit repetitive then you hope for good culture and art to get lost in and inspired by in your free time.

My day job is at least full of the variety of companies, diversity of students and multitude of topics that keep me from getting too bored, but what if you really work a soul-murdering job that allows no room for maneuver at all? In his novel ‘The Pale King’, David Foster Wallace describes the daily life of an income tax rote examiner, who has to sit and process tax returns all day. When the examiner, whose skin is described as being the colour of wet lead, looks at the clock he is painfully aware each time of how slowly time is passing. Foster Wallace sums  up the examiners thoughts like this: ‘He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his
throat and he looked around quickly to see if any of the other examiners had seen him or were looking at him’.
Who doesn’t know the awful tedious feeling of being bored and waiting and watching a clock? Clocks run our lives and either we are running late, running out of time or we are waiting impatiently for someone or something to happen or appear.
Last summer I went to the Documenta international contemporary art show in Kassel in the centre of Germany. One of the most impressive exhibits at the show was a spectacular multimedia installation entitled ‘The Refusal of Time’ by the South African artist William Kentridge.  The exhibit portrayed society’s attempts at control over time and the mesmerizing ticking of clocks and music left me so enthralled and inspired that I went home and wrote an article about it which was then published in a New York online magazine. It was the first piece I had ever had published so I was naturally ecstatic. Kentridge’s clocks were not boring or excruciating, but inspiring and empowering. That was definitely a ‘good art’ experience that left me feeling whole and connected to the world.
So if ‘bad art’ leaves me feeling lonely and despondent, ‘good art’ has the exact opposite effect and shows me even more how vital it is to support and create good art. Good art inspires people to make more good art and then everyone benefits. And when you are feeling lonely you can strive to make good art to help you reconnect to the world ending your loneliness. Another of Natalie Goldberg’s essays provided me with this insight. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit but Goldberg says the following: ‘Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression- to speak, to say who you are and how you care about light and rooms and lullabyes.’


Link to ‘Festival Days’ Classical music fest listing in Slow Travel Berlin

23 Mar

Link to ‘Festival Days’ Classical music fest listing in Slow Travel Berlin

And on and on with Online Dating

17 Mar

   Rhea H. Boyden
‘It  sounds like you are scared of commitment and are afraid of opening up and letting yourself be loved’ a couple female students of mine said to me last week when I told them I had said to a guy  I had met online that I did not have any time to meet him this week for a third date. ‘Well, it really is the truth that I have very little time at the moment’ I told them. ‘But you should give him a chance, they said, ‘why not go for it?’
They may be right that I am a bit afraid and I may be a bit of a commitment phobe even though I moan a lot about being single, but here is one thing I have learned: Never go on a date with someone because someone else thinks it is a good idea. This is the same with matchmaking. If someone else thinks you are a good match with someone it could be true, but it could be grossly inaccurate too. I have also made this mistake in the past- gone out with someone on a few dates because someone else thought it was a good idea and not me. Oh dear….
But the whole thing is confusing anyway and there is a paradox at the heart of dating in your mid to (yikes) late thirties. On the one hand, you don’t want to blow someone off right after the first date,  because  it is a good idea to take things a little slower as you get older and see where it leads which is what I am trying to do. This is the second guy I have gone on a third date with within a few months even though I had convinced myself after date two that it was not really what I wanted. On the other hand, however, they say you know after 2 minutes of being with someone if you are attracted to them and want to invest more time in getting to know them better. So, I will admit that I am confused by this paradox. Grappling with this leaves me feeling more than a little baffled.
Certain other girlfriends of mine who are in their late thirties talk of the same confusion. ‘The guy I am seeing has a lot imperfections but I am just dealing with it’ a friend told me recently, ‘because I like him and I want to give it a chance.’ To be honest, this terrifies me though. I have gotten too deeply involved in the wrong relationship in the past and then regretted it and ended up breaking up with the guy, so I really don’t want to make that mistake again. I really do want to feel some serious chemistry or mental connection on the first date otherwise it is a waste of my time going on a second or a third date. Or am I wrong? The worst part is that you then get accused of leading someone on if you take it to date three if you think you are not really interested. My intention is to be honest and not hurt myself or others, but date three with the guy today was a waste of my time. It only confirmed what I felt after date two- that I
don’t feel any chemistry. I can only hope that he doesn’t care about me much either and we can just let it go.


Link to Impro Festival 2013 Listing in Slow Travel Berlin

15 Mar

Link to Impro Festival 2013 Listing in Slow Travel Berlin

‘What’s the Alternative?’ Gloss Magazine, The Irish Times

13 Mar


How do you build a life when you’ve rejected the married-with-kids model? Rhea H Boyden, an Irish woman living in Berlin, chose passion and fulfilling sex over marriage. Now, aged 37, she weighs up the pros (freedom, fun) and the cons (an uncertain future) of the modern single experience

Read more…

On Writing Autobiography

10 Mar


By Rhea H. Boyden

 How much should one reveal of oneself in one’s writing? This is a good question to pose. Those of you who have been following my writing, will no doubt have noticed that I enjoy revealing who I am, and what I have experienced in life. I love to write about my love life, my drinking and partying years, and I enjoy putting on paper the many ideas that race through my skull, some of which can be contentious at times. I enjoy teasing myself and exposing my weaknesses in the hopes that people can relate in some measure to it all. This is all fine and grand when I am writing about myself, but what about writing about my family? How do I write about them safely without hurting them or provoking family arguments? Obviously, more caution must be exercised here if I want to keep my family relationships intact. I have a large and wonderful family spread across the world and there are so many stories to tell about our adventures, good and bad personality traits, our individual tastes, and views of the world. Thus far, in writing my autobiographical cookbook, I have kept it very safe and have mainly touched on funny and silly family anecdotes, and I suppose I need to keep it like that in order to maintain a happy emotional life.

There is, of course, the temptation to delve deeper into darker family anecdotes as many other memoirists have done regarding their own families. In the past months, I have read several memoirs by renowned authors about their own family lives and have been paying special attention to how they treat this subject.

In his internationally bestselling memoir ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ David Sedaris does an excellent job of teasing himself and his family in laugh-out-loud anecdotes. He clearly has a great relationship with his sister Amy Sedaris, who has also made a name for herself in show business and entertainment, and I suppose his family have just learned to laugh at his great sense of humour and are proud that he and his sister are both earning a living from it. On the other hand, however, I find it quite intriguing when I see what some other memoirists are willing to reveal and how they possibly get away with it. In her memoir ‘The Liar’s Club’ that was published in 1995 and stayed at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for a year, Mary Karr writes some quite revealing things about her family. She talks in detail, especially, about her mother and her grandmother. I have an eccentric mother and two eccentric grandmothers of my own about whom I have a whole trove of stories I could share. Mary Karr makes no secret of the fact that she hated it when her grandmother came home to live with them when she was dying of cancer.  She writes of how she just could not understand how some Christian kids in her neighbourhood could sit all saintly reading the Bible to their rotting grandparents. She says quite simply that ‘grandma lived way too long and made mother cry too much’.  Of course, Mary Karr’s book is hilarious too and very well written and it is meant in jest, but if I had talked about my own grandma as ‘rotting’ in the last few months of her life, I would have likely insulted some older relatives of mine for being so callous and uncaring. Could I get away with saying ‘oh, but it was meant as a joke.’

 Mary Karr also makes no secret of her various family members copious drinking. On a road trip with her sister and her parents she talks of both her parents as being ‘plagued with the Smirnoff flu’. Or that her father, as far as she could recall, drank every day and he also kept a fifth of whiskey ‘ratholed’ in his truck in the garage and he consistently said he had to go out and ‘check on the truck’ which was his euphemism for needing a good swig of whiskey to help him deal with his family. My own grandma (who was an incredible woman and highly educated) also liked her martinis and her wine and when sitting at the family dinner table at my grandparents’ house in North Carolina, she would insist -whilst tapping on the brim of her glass- that we fill it right to the top. ‘But grandma’, we would say, ‘the glass will overflow and it is not meant to be filled to the brim, you can have a second glass.’ She did not like being told how to act in her own house by her younger relatives, so as a matter of principal she would pick up the large bottle of white wine, would fill her glass to the top and occasionally the wine would slosh over the top causing some eye rolling. To me, this is comedy, and I still see her struggling with the weight of the bottle and not giving a damn what anybody else thought of her. She was a tough nut.

When I graduated from university we had a party at my grandparents’ and were up late drinking beer on the porch, when suddenly my grandma appeared in her nightie at the screen door insisting that we save her a beer. We promised we would save her one. When she went back into the kitchen, however, we saw her struggle to open the heavy fridge door that had a tendency to stick. She took a beer from the fridge, wrapped it in her white nightie, and went back to bed. Clearly, she wasn’t going to take any risks. Who, in their right mind, would trust drunk college graduates to save them a beer?

 Mary Karr talks all about how her mother used to go ‘Away’ to drink, and she eventually went so crazy that she was taken ‘Away’ to a mental asylum for being ‘Nervous’. Karr goes into great detail about how her mother goes insane and burns all her and her sister’s clothes before appearing at their bedroom door with a knife with the intention of murdering them both before she finally gets distracted and then calls her doctor for help.

 I thankfully never experienced such a degree of domestic violence and madness in my own childhood, but I have many a story of my mother’s own eccentricities and neglect at times. She loved us in her own way, but as a teenager I resented her for many things in my grumpy teenage manner. In my late twenties, I remember my mother coming to visit me in Berlin and there was the moment where I was suddenly the adult and she was having more problems than me. It was at this moment that I managed to let a lot of my resentments go and just attempt to treat her as a friend and not my mother. I naturally still have resentments against my mother, but now that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I have realized even more that I have to be mature in dealing with her and her disease. Just as a ‘rotting’ grandparent is no joke, neither is a mother with a neuro degenerative disease, but even here I see comedy and a tree ripe for picking to fill my storybasket with anecdotes about her. I can’t help myself.  

I was recently on skype to my mother and my sister who are in California and the three of us were having a pleasant chat when my mother then announced how awful it was how all those poor school children were murdered by their classmate in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. ‘Yes, it is awful’ my sister and I concurred. ‘I was there and I saw it happen’ our mother elaborated. ‘You weren’t there, you saw it on the news.’ My sister said. ‘I was there, what do you know?!’ our mother responded in an irritated manner. My sister then quickly typed into the skype chat and wrote: ‘She’s confabulating’. ‘She’s what?’ I wrote back. I have yet to open my book on Alzheimer’s in preparation for my trip to California to see my mother. I guess I will read the whole book on the plane. In psychiatry confabulation is defined as: ‘the replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true.’ Ahh, yes, good to be aware of this, especially as in a subsequent skype call my mother then told me that ‘People keep coming into the house and stealing things, they stole all my mother’s jewelry and lots of clothes too’ she informed me. ‘No, mom, in fact it was my flat that was burgled, not your house’ I told her. Again her response was: ‘What do you know? You weren’t even here.’ Fair enough. I am not going to argue with it. But, I will keep on writing about it, as it helps me process it.

In his memoir about his mother ‘Everywhere’ Richard Russo also talks in detail about his crazy mother and her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. He goes into detail about what a complicated woman she was. The title ‘Everywhere’ implies all the places he moved with her throughout his childhood and then even as an adult how he had to continue looking after her and how incredibly high-maintenance she was and how always having her there put a strain on his career, his marriage and his sanity. He even talks about how the Christmas after she died, he, his wife, his daughters and his two sons-in-law were able to really enjoy Christmas with late nights of board games and red wine and decadent snacks, none of them mentioning the whole time that the obvious reason it was so enjoyable is that his mother was no longer there to interfere. Now, I ask myself, would my family ever forgive me, if I wrote a whole book about my mother and my relationship with her? I would at least attempt to make it lighthearted comedy, if I were ever to write such a book. There is not much light-hearted about Russo’s book.

Another area of autobiography that I find intriguing is when authors start to talk about illegal or illicit activities that they have engaged in. It is one thing to talk about drinking stories, as drinking, as bad as it is for your health, is legal. I have written in detail about my own struggles with beating the drink and how I am now a year sober and I have managed to stay dry. I find it fascinating to read and write about alcoholism and it is such a broad topic and discussing alcohol abuse is very important in our society. Drinking stories are entertaining, and beating the drink is a struggle, and both of these topics are definitely of interest to the reader. I am not a drug addict and neither would I talk about drug addiction all over Facebook if I were. I wouldn’t dare go there, but many writers do broach the topic of illicit drug use in a public forum and in their autobiographies. In his memoir ‘On Writing’ Stephen King says the following: ‘In the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote ‘The Tommyknockers’ often working until midnight with my heart running at one hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.’ Mary Karr also talks of tripping on acid with her high school friends and David Sedaris speaks of his time on speed when he fancied himself a wonderful artist. Do these writers not worry about getting in trouble with the law admitting this? It is no secret that many writers and artists have drink and drug problems. Before I completely quit drinking I had a real penchant for vodka cocktails and I wrote some pretty crazy stories under the influence of these delicious cocktails. I have discovered, however that it really is a myth that you have to be drunk to tap into your creative juices. I can write just as well or better after a nice run in the park and a cup of coffee. Continuing to write sober is not my biggest issue at the moment, but rather how far I can push the boundaries in autobiography without harming myself or others. So far, I seem to be striking a good balance and I certainly don’t want to fall on my nose by making some grave mistake with it. I love autobiography and memoir writing and I have an awful lot more I want to share with the world, but not at the risk of causing too much scandal or hurting anybody. It’s a fine balance I continue to explore on a daily basis.  


Link to English Theatre Berlin Listing in Slow Travel Berlin

8 Mar

Link to English Theatre Berlin Listing in Slow Travel Berlin