My Creative Life: Christina Sbarro

I can’t remember when I first came across Christina Sbarro’s blog, My Topography, but I do remember being in awe of her writing style and the way she appeared to be living her life. Christina’s was the first woman-with-kids blog I had read and connected with, even though I have no children of my own. A published writer and artist, I often found her poignant observations of everyday living incredibly moving; she has one of those blogs you want to visit in the real world.

Now she’s working on a project that will bring her words and art together in a book I can hold in my hands, stitched together by her own creativity and the backing of a tribe of supporters (just like a community raising a barn – i love it!)

Ladies & gentlemen, please welcome the very lovely Ms Christina Sbarro…

SC: Did you always know you were a writer? Tell us about your path into this career…

CS: I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer… although I’ve always been a sucker for stories. I’ve always kept a notebook; eavesdropped; watched.

When I was small I was perpetually the one straggling behind my family whenever we went any place because I’d be staring at people, devouring the details of their clothes, gestures, expressions, posture. I was always looking for the moment when something happened—like the moment in the mechanic shop when I was ten, and I looked up to see the entire room of men in cowboy hats, many of them from the nearby Navajo reservation, staring at us, rapt, listening to my brave mother read The Jungle Book aloud while we waited, stranded, a family of five, while our carburetor was being fixed in the middle of the California desert.

Before I learned to write, I colored pictures and would tell myself stories as I drew. This was the beginning of the lifelong ménage a trois I’ve had with words and images.

Still, I didn’t pursue writing or art outright as a career until quite recently. I became a teacher first—because that was sort of the expectation my family had for me; and I taught for several years, until writing became the most urgent thing in my life. Then, finally, I took a writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown with Pam Houston and realized that there was nothing else that I could do except write.

I’ve continued working with Pam – her critical eye, humor, and ability to identify the revisions that need to be made is nothing short of brilliant, truly – and now, finally, after the birth of my second son, I am at the place where in spite of the odds and precariousness of taking such a leap, I have; I am doing this thing called writing, with my whole heart, because it is the only thing I can do and still feel true to myself. (Although yes, for the time being, I still have a part time job.)

How does motherhood influence your creative life?

Motherhood has forced me to encounter the transient, temporal, messiness of the present in a bittersweet, astounding, full-velocity way. It has had the effect of distilling everything in my life, so that only the most essential things are the ones that persist. Both of my sons have had a profound affect on my creative life, in that with each of their births I was compelled to make huge changes in my life around work and creativity, and perhaps most significantly a mother has made me realize just how fiercely I love this life. I have always felt this to some degree, but seeing my children grow up makes the passing of time a tangible thing embodied in their ever-lengthening limbs and silly grins.

Please describe a typical day.

6:30 – shower, while my husband takes the boys downstairs and starts coffee and breakfast.
7:30 – out the door with my eldest son for school. It’s a 45-minute drive, but I work in the same town, so it’s an efficient commute. We tell stories and count things that we pass. (Last October we counted 79 scarecrows.)
8:30 – Noon – work (communications + outreach.)
Noon – pick up my little guy and head home.
2:00-4pm – boys underfoot, usually the hardest part of the day. Sometimes art happens. Also email checking; leftover tasks from work; taking walks with the boys; baking bread.
4:00 – Usually some kind of exercise. Most often running with my husband. We take turns pushing the boys in a double running stroller (about 95lbs!). I’ve discovered running is key to my sanity and creativity. Nothing rounds me or refreshes me more than this experience of being wholly in my body, breathing, moving.
5:00 – Dinner prep + dinner. We do this part of the day together—both dinner making, and eating. It’s one of the simplest, most intimate parts of the day as a family.
6:30 – Bedtime routine for both boys
7:30 – MY time begins in earnest: this is time for writing, creating, painting. It makes me sad when I’m too exhausted and end up curled up on the couch reading a book or watching a show.
10:30 – Bedtime. Often I lie awake for a while processing the images and ideas from the day.

When you are starting a new series of paintings, how do you begin to gather your ideas?

Often I clip images to an ever-changing inspiration wall above my studio worktable. I also keep a notebook. And often I wake up with an image in my head that sticks around until I finally sit down to paint (sometimes days later.)

When I actually do sit down at my work table though, what I paint is often a complete surprise. I never know at the outset what a piece will look like when it’s done. It’s this wild, open-ended process, and every time it’s a leap. I have the same experience with writing, although there is an element of precision with writing that isn’t the same with art. With images, things can be blurry and indistinct and inexact. With writing, it sometimes takes longer to find the phrase, the metaphor or dialogue to convey the essence of the piece.

Tell us more about A Field Guide to Now, and why you went the Kickstarter route…

A Field Guide To Now is a wild adventure of a book in that when I launched it at Kickstarter it was more of a prototype than a final product. I’m getting closer to what it will look like when it’s done, but it’s still in smack-dab in the middle of the creative processes right now. It’s a collection of ideas. It’s a bunch of inherited postcards waiting for illustrations. It’s possibility and this idea that I have of capturing the ordinary remarkable moments of the present in a way that celebrates them, and makes them bearable both—because this is how we experience the present: this moment is both a glorious opportunity, and an instance of the repetitive, habitual actions that constitute our daily lives.

Launching it on Kickstarter was a dare to myself to do something with the creative possibility of my life right now; when I first visited the homepage, I was astounded by this innovative way of funding projects that are right in the midst of becoming, which fit the nature of A Field Guide To Now so beautifully.  I also really love the idea of being able to give something back to the backers. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted the rewards to be… and I am proud to offer these creative, beautiful bits of the project. I am so deeply, enormously grateful and honored by the people who become backers. If the funding is successful it will mean taking another huge leap into the unknown of making this book into an actual thing that you can hold in your hands. I get shivers of excitement just thinking about this possibility!

What (or who) inspires you the most?

City streets; people watching; eavesdropping in cafes; live jazz; paper mail; drinking my morning cappuccino while writing in my notebook; literary magazines; walking through local galleries; farm to table food; films with subtitles; the Pacific; a particular field below my house; listening to talks on TED; ultramarine blue; running; sitting still.

What books/blogs/artists etc do you love? Could you share some recommendations?

I am currently loving Grass Doe photography. Jon Levitt is a stunning, emotional photographer and the images fill a place in my soul… I also am really inspired by Brian Ferry’s recent collection of photographs and pretty much his entire aesthetic, and also really love the recipes he shares. I also adore Joy + Ride because of the little glimpses it shares into other writers + artist’s lives!

The quiet exactitude of Andrew Wyeth’s work and the messy chaos of Sabrina Ward Harrison’s True Living Project both speak to me right now as well.

The books that I return to are:
Evidence by Mary Oliver
The Way It Is by William Stafford
Eating The Honey Of Words by Robert Bly
Paula by Isabelle Illende
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Turning by Tim Winton
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

How do you maintain a good work/life balance?

I don’t think I always do. If I didn’t have children I would be prone to long bouts of working without doing anything else, but I do have children and so my life is a perpetual balancing act that often feels precarious. There are many days when I am more exhausted and less productive than I would like to be. But then there are days where I manage to grab several back-to-back hours (essential for being deeply creatively productive) and I get back on track…and feel successful and fulfilled and happy. A big factor for me in maintaining any kind of balance at all is that my husband is really, really supportive and hands-on with our boys and whenever he can, he’s on board: making good food, taking them out on adventures, and generally keeping them out of my hair. I wrote a piece about Balance for the Wishmama’s series at the Wishstudio last fall.

Tell us a secret.

I’ve always wanted to be interviewed by Terri Gross. If this happens someday in my life, it will mean I’ve reached the definition of success I’m aiming for.

You’re having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?

Elizabeth Strout
Joan Diddion
Annie Dillard
Mary Oliver
Flannery O’Conner
Barbara Kingsolver

These women astound and inspire me. Can you imagine the conversation? BRILLIANT. Terri Gross might have to be there too, to facilitate with her poignant, insightful, incisive questions.

* * * * *

Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring words with us today, Christina! If you’d like to contribute to her Kickstarter project, go check out the project’s page here (love the video!)

12 responses
  1. DawnS

    Susannah & Christina…how can I say no to a cool project like this! Heading over now to lend a hand in raising the barn :)

  2. mindy

    i think that christina is a inspiring person. i found her project a couple of weeks ago and when i could, i finally contributed. really a wonderful thing that she is doing. i can’t wait for the book to come out! it will be a real work of art.

  3. lizardek

    Lovely interview! 79 scarecrows! :) and now a new blog to check out. Thanks, Susannah!

  4. Elizabeth

    Honestly I’d never heard about Christina but I loved to read the interview and was totally blown away by the painting with the whale. So now I am gonna visit her place but not before I say: Thank you Susannah.

    Have a lovely day.


  5. Samantha

    Thank you Susannah for a wonderful interview and introducing me to an amazing artist. I have just taken a sneaky peek at her work and am astounded. What a great start to my day!

  6. Gitte

    Come to see my blog, you’ll find some similarities :-)

  7. julie

    I love Christina’s blog, it’s one of my must reads, and I was so pleased to be able to help back the Fieldguide project, and even more thrilled that it’s going to be able to go ahead. I can’t wait to get my hands on a paper and ink version of Christina’s work and have it decorated our home, hopefully to inspire some other people too. Great interview

  8. Liz

    I envy any mom of young children who has time to be creative. I haven’t painted in years!

  9. maggie may

    Wonderful interviewer and interviewee! I loved this.

  10. scamp

    I am constantly in awe of how the Universe works–I’ve just finished Unravelling with Susannah, and just at the end of April backed Christine on Kickstarter, and now the two of you appearing together, two women I admire and enjoy. Amazing!

  11. susannah


  12. Nicole | Blue Bicicletta

    Woah! I had never heard of Christina! It’s wonderful to hear about her work and especially to hear that it’s possible to have kids and continue creatively! Also, I had never heard of kickstarter—how awesome is that! Thanks for the info!

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