Top 5 shy women artists

It’s hard sometimes, being a woman artist. We don’t get called “poetesses” any more or have to write under male pseudonyms like the Brontes, but if you read the comments on any interview with a woman writer most of them will probably be about her looks rather than her books.
Women artists get judged a lot on their personas, too. If you’re confident and egotistical you’re criticised for being “too much”, but the quiet and reserved JK Rowling has been attacked for being “cold”. So as an antidote to this weirdness, here’s my celebration of shy, quiet, introverted, reserved women artists.
I’ve missed out Emily Dickinson (who probably had social anxiety, and rarely left her room) only because she’s probably the poster woman for shy female artists. Here’s my top five:

1. JK Rowling

JK Rowling doesn’t need an introduction: the author of Harry Potter is one of the richest and most famous women in the world, adored by millions of people. But she has a surprisingly low public profile, and the first time I heard a radio interview with her it struck me how soft-spoken she is. This wonderful article explores how Ms Rowling has been criticised for her quietness and reserve (Gawker’s Caity Weaver wrote that it made you “not want to hang out” with JK Rowling). JK Rowling is an affirmation to shy, introverted women writers everywhere.

2. Dora Carrington
StracheyCarrington.jpg
Known as Carrington, she was a painter and decorative artist who was friends with the Bloomsbury Group after World War One, and had a long and probably platonic relationship with the gay writer Lytton Strachey. Although she is often seen as a hanger-on around more famous people, Carrington was a distinguished artist in her own right, and her paintings hang in the Tate to this day.
Carrington was a tomboyish, bisexual woman who was painfully shy. The artist was self-conscious and often found it easier to communicate with animals than people; she “suffered from physical awkwardness, turning her feet in and hanging her head”.*

3. Alice Walker

Alice Walker is an American author and activist, known for her novel The Color Purple and other works dealing with themes like racism, equal rights, abuse and redemption. On being asked if she “screams the truth”, she replied “I never scream and I think that silence is the best way to get real attention.”
As a child, Walker was shot in the eye with a BB gun fired by her brother. When a layer of scar tissue formed over the wounded eye, she became painfully shy and self-conscious. The scar tissue was removed when she was 14 and she later became valedictorian and was voted queen of her senior class. She says that she drew value from her injury when she realised it had allowed her to begin “really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out”.

4. Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor is a Russian Jewish American composer, pianist and songwriter. She is probably best known for her radio hits like ‘Fidelity’ and ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, but has composed thousands of songs. A CNN profile said that “in person, the classically trained pianist is shy and soft spoken”. Spektor tours a lot, but keeps a low public profile and rarely shares much about her personal life; she sometimes releases interviews, but seems to prefer staying in the background and out of the public eye.

5. Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a Scottish writer and the author of short stories and novels, such as Hotel World, The Accidental, and How to Be Both (which recently won the Baileys Prize). She creates beautiful, playful, inventive fiction which explores themes like love, loss, and justice.
Ali Smith has described herself as “quite shy” and prefers to talk about her work in interviews, rather than herself. A Guardian profile said: “Smith has always believed that an author must remain as anonymous as possible or risk impeding the fiction for her readers. Too much biographical information “diminishes the thing that you do” she says. “You have to remain invisible.””

*Virginia Woolf’s Women, Vanessa Curtis, 2014

Can you learn to love reading?

I have a young cousin who doesn’t like reading. She’ll open a book and read it to you, but after a minute you realise she’s making the story up or telling it from memory. Drag her through a text, word after word, and she quickly gets frustrated.
I’ve tutored other kids who felt similarly. They know how to read, but it’s such hard work – whether that’s because of learning disability, bad teaching, or any other reason. They have been taught to read; technically they know how to do it. But ask them questions about what they’ve read, and they go blank and shrug. To them, the page is full of traps. Reading is a horrible, grinding, plodding chore.
You can teach someone to read. But can you teach them to love reading? To read a book and understand and enjoy it? Plenty of people leave school knowing how to read, without learning to love reading. I’ve met educated adults who have never read a book for fun.
The latter always surprises me, but then I can’t remember when I didn’t read for pleasure. I thought reading was for pleasure, even though at school they said it was work.
Once I’d learned to read, I was unstoppable. When I was six my teacher phoned my parents and said wearily “We’ve run out of books for your daughter.” Dad asked if the school had a library. “She’s read the Junior Library,” the teacher replied.
Being a bookworm as a child is probably more fun than being one as an adult, because most adults aren’t really expected to read. No one will give you a gold star if you’ve read twenty books in a month. You don’t have to read for pleasure.
Why should you read for pleasure, anyway?
One could argue that reading is a necessary skill, and it doesn’t matter if you love reading so long as you can do it. You don’t have to love driving to drive a car. You don’t have to love maths to pay a bill. Reading for pleasure is just an extra.
To which my response is: what a drab, dry view of the world, where enjoying art is an extra! Where everyone reads the bare minimum only because they have to!
I think reading for pleasure is one of the best things anyone can do. Reading fiction helps you become more empathetic. Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, it develops the mind, the imagination, and the heart.
And in daily life, we are now more than ever surrounded by words. On sites like tumblr and AO3, everyone is writing. Everyone is reading. Almost no one earns money from it. Why are we all doing this, if we’re not getting something out of it?
A love for reading is an advantage – albeit to the soul and not the wallet, although books in any format are less expensive than most hobbies. Capitalism doesn’t reward a love for reading, but then capitalism will only reward what is beneficial to itself, not what is beneficial to you.
Returning to my point: you can be taught how to read, but you can’t be taught how to love reading.
Not directly.
Good teachers can infect you with their enthusiasm for books. You can be put in the vicinity of a lot of books, which always helps.
But you’ve still got to sit down with the book and fight it out. You and the page. You and the author’s voice. You have to go forth and conquer.
To me, it seems people usually learn to love books by being… interested. There is no way to understate the amazing things humans can do if they are very interested in something. Take 
the author Sally Gardner:

I eventually ended up in a school for maladjusted children because there was no other school that would take me… I had been classified as “unteachable” but at the age of fourteen, when everyone had given up hope, I learned to read. The first book I read was “Wuthering Heights” and after that no one could stop me.

Then there’s the author Sue Townsend:

I was afraid of my primary-school teacher because, when we had to read out loud, she’d slap our legs if we got a word wrong. As a result I didn’t learn to read until I was eight, when I stayed at home ill… My mum brought a pile of Just William books home from a rummage sale and I taught myself to read with William—The Outlaw… Once I started to read, I never looked back.

I am not saying that being interested in something can always make you able to do it. What I am saying is that a love for reading cannot be taught, it is something you must discover for yourself. There are no short cuts, but plenty of rewards.
Virginia Woolf wrote:

“However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle awaits us at the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible.”*


*The Common Reader, Robinson Crusoe

Becoming a better reader

For someone who likes reading, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I read too fast – gobbling up reams of words, sometimes without even understanding them. I can only read for about an hour before getting distracted. I sometimes lose track of the story because I’m too busy analysing it in my head as I read it. I talk out loud to the author (“Come on, Hilary, that’s a bit sexist”) and I have been known to throw books across the room or scribble in the margins when they disappoint me.
More frustratingly, I often can’t visualise a story while I’m reading it. I understand most people can do this, but I can’t.
To me, it’s all about the music the words make.
I recently read Lucky Jim and cackled throughout, because God, even the way that book’s written is funny. It’s like a brilliantly told joke: you don’t just laugh at the content, but you laugh because the phrasing, the word choice, even the parentheses, are damn hilarious. It works as a piece of music as much as a piece of comedy. I don’t really visualise the book, I just… hear it.
Sometimes I read a story where I can tell the writer has carefully transcribed a scene which they can see very clearly: but I can only imagine a small bit of the scene at a time (rain on the window, wet fields, the branches of a tree). I can’t hold the whole scene in my head. At this point I feel like apologising to the author: “Sorry! The problem is not with your vision! I just can’t SEE things!”
So, I am trying to attune my senses. Trying to become a better reader.
That doesn’t mean teaching myself to visualise, but it does mean becoming more sensitive to the music of the words: knowing when a phrase is perfect, when a sentence’s cadence is satisfying. Asking myself, why is this sentence funny? What is it about this phrasing that makes this sentence work, while that sentence falls flat on its face? How can you tell one writer’s tone apart from another’s?
It’s difficult, learning to listen. But I know it’s possible, because at the age of eleven I taught myself to play piano.
Before then, music was a language I didn’t understand. I knew sometimes it made me shiver with joy, but didn’t know any more than that. I could hear music without really listening to it – like an English person who goes abroad and doesn’t speak the language.
Once I became more sensitive to music, it began to sound different. Colours and textures emerged from familiar songs: flights of silvery top notes, the bird-like call of a flute. Now I could tell apart the layers of harmony in a piece; I could appreciate the detailed work in a performance, its energy, its power.
But really I am still learning how to listen to music, just as I am learning to become a better reader. Everything is a learning process.
I’ve been reading both series of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, a book which always makes me want to read more deeply and widely. Woolf wrote that it is hard to be a good reader, that “reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”
To Woolf, the ‘common reader’ was someone who is “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”. The common reader is not a scholar nor a critic, but someone who reads for pleasure. This “hasty, inaccurate and superficial” reader is a kind of magpie, snatching up odds and ends for their own purpose.
I really don’t know if Woolf thought of herself as a common reader, but she certainly was not one. I think there have been few more imaginative, visionary, informed and responsive readers in the history of the world than Virginia Woolf. Take this, from her essay On Not Knowing Greek:

“Pick up any play by Sophocles… and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England… [but] If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the wet thick mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth…”

I could write for pages about Woolf and her clarity of vision in response to books. I am forever envious of such imaginative visual power. But I will close with the thought that there are all kinds of readers; we can never know exactly what happens in someone else’s head when they read. Maybe there is no ideal reader. Maybe reading is as personal as thinking.
How do you read?
How do you think?

Planning ahead and being fearless: what I learned from The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wanted to tell the story of how, and why, I learned that planning is a Good Thing.
I should say, to begin with, that I’m a work in progress. I’m still quite scared of planning, which is because I’ve never really… done it very much. I live mostly in the present. If asked to plan something out in detail I would do so, but it takes a lot of work to make the plan correspond with reality. Aged 10, playing Carmageddon on the computer with my brother, I usually ignored the map and drove around the desert till I reached the fuzzy edge of the world. This is what I’m working with.
So, anyway: last summer, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I downloaded the soundtrack, thought about it often, recommended it to other people frequently, all that jazz. It was odd. Grand Budapest isn’t the most substantial movie in terms of storytelling, emotional message or morals. It has problems of race representation that I won’t go into here.
Really, it was the craft that hooked me in: the gorgeous set design, the camera work, the music. The film is a series of little artificial worlds where everything is detailed, sharp, clean, and done right first time. One reviewer wrote: “The jeopardy Gustave and Zero escape from over and over again is presented like a Tintin comic strip.”
I was watching a lot of films at the time. Partly, it was because I was actively figuring out how I processed the world.
I’d realised I wasn’t interested in films for dialogue, because often I couldn’t process all the dialogue in a film on first viewing. I hear it, but films provide so much sensory stimulus that the dialogue becomes another soundtrack, which blurs together into a sound akin to the trombone noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.
I found out I liked watching foreign language films, because with knowledge of the storyline, you were free to concentrate on the visual and aural world unfolding in front of you. Whilst watching, small details jump out at you: the wings of a butterfly, the icing on top of a cake, the colour coding, a man in the background carrying a statue. (This beautiful essay on the visual language of Pacific Rim explains more about alternative ways to process films.)
Because of my lack of attention, I frequently lose track of what’s going on; my family still teases me for getting out my phone in the cinema while we were watching Inception, which I found completely incomprehensible. But there were some films I’ve seen, like Annie Hall, which are dialogue-heavy but completely understandable. Somehow, they bypass the part of my brain that doesn’t process dialogue.
Then there’s the 1960s film Daisies – a surreal movie where two witchy beauties gasp out non sequitur lines of dialogue like spells. (“Die! Die! Die!”) Again, somehow, on first viewing Daisies went straight to a part of my brain that wordlessly… got things.
I have never had the instinct to find a logical explanation for things unfolding around me, which was maybe why I connected with Daisies so well. The film was just a series of moments blossoming outwards.
I connected with the visual storytelling of Grand Budapest. But 
I was also watching films for their craft – absorbing how they told stories and built up worlds.
In a world where many mainstream films are made quickly and look generic, it struck me as brave to spend so much time on constructing Grand Budapest. To make something so fiendishly, gloriously elaborate.
Artists like Anderson, who have the ability to plan ahead in detail and envision a completely articulated world, are astonishing to me.
In a previous post, I wrote about how growing up with ADD has affected my perceptions, how I didn’t feel left behind in class, but like I was “speeding ahead, flying from A to Z” while my classmates plodded from A to B. “Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.”
This, of course, affects how I make things, too: stories, essays, poems, cartoons. I often think in broad brush strokes and big pictures, not in terms of small details.
The problem I was fighting whilst watching Grand Budapest was, I realise now, that I felt (and feel) scared a lot of planning ahead – of thinking in extensive detail when sketching out new work. Of taking the time to create something that elaborate.
It was a two-pronged problem.
One: I was worried that if I planned too much, something bad would happen and I’d never get time to do the thing I was planning.
Two: I know how distractable I am. I figured that if I planned too much instead of doing, nothing would get done.
Living with ADD is like living with a very excitable, impulsive friend. “Oh, you’re working on that thing? Awesome. Anyway, I got tickets for Disneyland, let’s go! Now!! RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!!” And off we go.
In December I spoke to a counsellor at uni about this. She asked me, “Why don’t you prioritise your tasks?”
I replied: “Because I have a terrible fear of something bad happening, so I do as many things as I can in case I get hit by a car tomorrow.”
Long story short: on January 9th, on my first day back after Christmas, I walked into New Cross and got hit by a car.
It’s a lot less dramatic than it sounds; I fell over, got straight back up again, and got a lift home from the driver.
Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt at all. Nor did I straight away decide to change my whole life.
Instead, after the accident, I found myself making small incremental changes.
An important change happened when I realised my fear of the Bad Thing was actively stopping me from doing anything.
I then had to sit the excitable friend down, as it were, and tell them: “Wes Anderson would never have made that movie if he was jumping from A to Z all the time and worrying about the Bad Thing. Artists have to love the letters in between. Please, just assume that you have today to figure things out.”
Like I said before, ADD makes you live in the present a lot of the time. But most artists need space and time to make art. Clearing this time and space, in a world that is always demanding our time and attention, is revolutionary. Focusing on detail and craft is revolutionary.
Which is my small realisation.
Thanks, Wes Anderson.

Why I love sad stories

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket

The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.

There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:

“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”

hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
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