~ My Creative Life: Maria Vettese ~


It gives me a lot of pleasure to share this next interview in my Creative Life series today. You may know Maria Alexandra Vettese, aka MAV, from 3191, her photographic collaboration with Stephanie Congdon Barnes, or maybe her elegant letterpress-printed cards, or perhaps from Lines & Shapes, the must-have journal she curates with Lena Corwin.

I first discovered Maria through Flickr in 2006; never one to stalk my favourites, I admired her work from afar, loving how everything that passed through her hands was infused with a love of simplicity and an appreciation of good design, two things that inform everything she does. I knew Maria would have some gems to share with us, so make yourself a mint tea (with fresh mint – my new obsession) and dive into MAV's world…

SC:  Your business appears to have grown really organically, and it all seemed to start with a letterpress and a blog – what drew you to that medium of expression in the first place? Could you share a little bit about your path with us…

MAV: It's very true, Susannah, it all did start with a letterpress and a blog. I did a bit of letterpress printing in college and I really loved it. I didn't get into painting or drawing so studying graphic design I had no medium to get my hands dirty until I started working on the letterpress. I was not a master, and still am not, but I enjoyed using it as I would any other tool. The desire to print stuck with me through my twenties and then in 2005 I got my own press. As for my path … I started out after college in graphic design specifically working for a small university press art directing book covers and typesetting interiors. After that I pretty much worked for various clients/organizations doing design work as well as art direction and styling. port2port press started very organically in late 2005 when I printed one card and put it online. At that time I had a blog called port2port, with a far-away friend in another port-town, so the name port2port press came naturally. Since then I have collaborated with some incredible artists and enjoyed more and more photographic-based projects. I am now moving back into the realm of working for clients after a few years of concentrating mostly on my own personal projects. I am feeling very excited and will have a website of my personal concept and art direction work up very soon. Where my work is heading now feels like the culmination of years of working in the arts (pulling from this project or that project) and I am very much looking forward to seeing what is next. I feel very lucky.

How do you split your time between the Card Society, Lines & Shapes, 3191 and other work?

I love this question. Just the idea of the words "splitting my time" is sort of how I would have to answer it. I like to be very deliberate with my time. If I am going to work on Lines & Shapes I do it from 9-noon or at least I do the best I can to just stay in that realm. I tend to be a list-maker so I usually look at my week and my deadlines and such and make certain plans from there. Right now I am trying to give myself "summer hours" which means that I try to work from 7am-3pm. How that time is spent jumps around from project to project but somehow I usually find my flow. If I find that things are not flowing I take a walk or just step away from it all. Even five minutes can sometimes be a perfect re-set for me.


When starting a new project, how do you begin to gather your ideas/inspirations? And how do you record them – journal, online clippings, mood board?

Lately I have two methods and both start with writing things down. I have to see words before I can see images. So once I know what the words are I can search out the images both in the actual sense, by looking through tearsheets, and virtually as well, by making a folder of imagery that I have found online. This Spring I put together a cut-n-paste journal that I am really enjoying. Like lots of artists I tend to find inspiration in all sorts of mediums so I tear or note anything I see that might be the slightest bit inspiring and put it in folders for later.

3191 has grown into such a treasured project for you and Stephanie but also for your fans and supporters – what does 3191 mean to you personally? (and was it fun meeting Martha?)

Oh 3191 means so much to me. First off it is an amazing record of my life for the past few years. When I look at the A Year of Mornings book and the Evenings images (as we prepare to send that book to the printer) I see the many stories of 2007 and 2008; it's amazing! And then of course there is the fact that I have forged an incredible friendship with Stephanie. We truly did not know each other well when we started the project and I would even say now we have much to learn about each other still but it has been a very important journey for both of us. Meeting Martha Stewart was certainly an interesting part of the story. What I remember most was how incredible it was that I had not seen Stephanie in 3 years and here we were meeting in NYC not only to do a television show but to be together face to face. It was surreal. I, of course, only had to fly 45 minutes but Stephanie had to come across the country. Her dedication to the A Year of Mornings was so inspiring to me and still is! It's not easy to believe in your own work on a daily basis let alone believe enough to fly from Portland, Oregon to NYC in one day and back the next and Stephanie really brought such a calm and brave energy. I learn so much from her and I am so grateful for our collaborative projects.


Did you enjoy the publishing journey of A Year of Mornings? Have many people reached out to you and Stephanie after discovering your book?

What I enjoyed the most about publishing A Year of Mornings with Princeton Architectural Press was working with Deb Wood, the design director. Her creative energy and artistic force was so palpable and she truly believed in the project from day one. She's so talented and I felt so lucky to have her hands and eyes on the book. And I'll tell you a little secret — she is designing 3191: Evenings for us as well! We're thrilled. It's going to be a really special book beca
use Deb is on our team.

As for people reaching out, you know, I don't think we get any more queries or emails than other people do. What people seem to want to know the most is what camera we use (we both use a Nikon d50, by the way). It's always nice to hear from people who enjoy the projects. What I struggle with the most is finding time to get back to everyone!

Lines & Shapes looks like such an exciting project to be working on – how did this collaboration with Lena Corwin come about?

Lena and I met through the online community. I really respected her work and her sophisticated and simple vibe and I wanted to get to know her better. We started emailing about some sort of collaboration, we just didn't know what it would be. At first we were going to have a website where a group of artists could house their non-work work. So basically a place where artists could put projects and concepts that were not for clients or not for sale but rather just bits that they loved and felt that they wanted to share in some way. From there we thought, well why not take those ideas from artists and put them into book form? We are both very inspired by the many arts and crafts books coming out of Japan. We could never read them, of course, but the way the books felt more accessible and available for everyday inspiration really was exciting to us. So our emails continued until we nailed down Lines & Shapes and it has been changing and growing (little by little) ever since. I think one of our favorite parts of working together is traveling to each others cities for the 3-4 day work-sessions. Not only do we get to work with amazing artwork for a few days but we also get to eat together! It's truly a joy.

Could you share your choice of two letterpress designs you are especially pleased with?

This is tough. I think my favorite projects, besides The Card Society cards, are perhaps the collaborations. The seasonal print sets with Camilla Engman and Lena Corwin were just so much fun. And way back in the day (2006) I did a project for the design*sponge shop called Regal Nº1-5. These prints stay in the forefront of my mind and I really can't get number "3" out of my head.

What books/music/artists etc do you love?

For music lately I am enjoying Sigur Ros, Grizzly Bear, Camera Obscura, Phoenix and sometimes I just listen to old reggae or salsa music on Pandora. As for books, in the summer I like to read vintage authors such as Virginia Woolf or Jane Austin. And artists, currently I'm enjoying just looking at my Flickr friends everyday snapshots and taking in the ins and outs of how people live their lives, the food they eat and the things they create. A few sets of photographs you should check out are:
Le Train Fantôme
Molly | Orangette
Fine Little Day


Being self-employed can often mean you’re working 24/7 – how do you maintain a good work/life balance?

Last year was the last of my 24/7 work-life. I just got burnt out and it really took a toll on me. I would much rather do less and be a tiny bit more broke, and perhaps even less "known" or out there (such as I am), than give up my personal-life for my work-life. This year my goal was not a work one but a personal one: give more love. To reach that goal I wanted to be more available to those who are in my life every day. If I look at my week and find I don't have time to see my nephew I know I need to clear things up a bit so I may drop a project or change a timeframe so that I can make more time. It's wonderful that much of my work is flexible and I'd rather take longer on a project or change a launch date if it means I can have more time for my loved ones.

What are your professional aspirations for the next five years?

Continue to slow down and patiently enjoy seeing my work grow and change. I am not good at making long-term goals. In fact, if I have them I tend to get nervous and antsy … perhaps it's a fear of not meeting them? Not sure. So basically my goal for the next five years would be like a goal for this week! I want to eat well, give love and try to see what is around me. It's the best thing I can do for myself, my work and for those in my life.


What’s your motto?

Two have been on my mind of late —
Keep it simple.
Accept it as if you have chosen it.

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

To be honest, I would much rather have a group of people I know who are now, sadly, a part of my past such as my Grandparents, my Uncle and a dear old friend from England. But here's a list of famous people (only three are now, sadly, past) just for fun. As for why, I love a good story-teller and feel this would be a night of good food, drink and stories!

Julia Child
Fred Astaire
Madeline Albright
Katharine Hepburn
Molly Wizenberg
Wes Anderson

* * * * *

Thank you so much for letting us peek into your world, Maria! I don't know about the rest of you, but her mottos are singing to my heart right now. Just beautiful.


[All photgraphs by Maria Vettese]

~ Blogging her way ~


You probably already know this amazing woman from her fabulous design blog, decor8,
but for those of you who don’t I’d like to introduce you to Holly
Becker, interior design consultant, uber blogger and now teacher too.
As if daily blogging on all things style-related for her 25,000+
readers wasn’t enough, Holly is now sharing her (quite formidable)
knowledge of blogging in her online class, Blogging Your Way.
I was lucky enough to get a place in the first class and not only were
Holly’s tips and advice invaluable to novice and seasoned bloggers
alike but the warm and supportive atmosphere of her classroom made for
a truly enjoyable four weeks. You also want to hear this lady on a
podcast – such a velvety voice!

Okay, enough with the gushing – let’s meet her!

* * * * *

SC: As well as being an interior design consultant you are the editor of a hugely successful blog – how did decor8 come about?

HB: I attended a writing workshop in Boston in January 2006 called The Perfect Pitch
because I was representing a friend who sold handmade goods and I was
trying to learn how to write a good press release for her sake. The
instructor said, ‘If you don't have a website in this day and age, you
don't exist’ and instead of applying this advice to my friend I applied
it to myself immediately because I thought, ‘Hey, here I am a new
design consultant and I have zero online presence!’ My clients always
wanted access to my brain as they said and so, feeling like I
needed to be more accessible to them, wanting to demystify the world of
interior design (back then it felt very closed and pretentious), and
with a desire to showcase the unknowns out there like my friend
along with other indie artists I had met at the time (these were the
days before the big craft fair and Etsy
boom), I went home after the workshop and took a blog I had registered
eight months prior in May 2005; I wrote my first post and called the
blog decor8, a play on the word decorate because I love names
with letters and numbers combined for reasons I'm not so sure of
really. :) So that's how it all happened. Plus, at that time there was
little inspiration to be found online from blogs anyway as few existed
that spoke to me and my personal style.

Did you have a dollhouse as a child? In other words, was this path an inevitable one for you?

I had a dollhouse – I constructed rooms out of shoe boxes left over
from my mother and her thing for pretty high heels, and my aunt
handmade a wooden dolls house for me as well, complete with lighting,
wallpaper and handmade dolls. My mother and aunt spoiled me with lovely
handmade things and both of them gave me a real appreciation early on
for the handmade arts and crafts. My aunt (who sadly passed away) was
an art teacher and a fine-art painter who lived in several countries
and spoke four languages, and my mother – who was trained as a floral
designer and who also painted – was constantly decorating and crafting
and helped me to become the Holly that I am today; I am forever
grateful to these two ladies for all these did for me growing up. So
yes, I had several dollhouses, dolls, toys; I was either playing
teacher, writing and illustrating my own books, playing with my dolls,
rearranging the furniture in our home or pretending to be a realtor or
shop owner at a very early age. One thing I was always obsessed about:
decorating my bedroom and arranging the top of my dresser perfectly. I
had to have things neat and pretty, always.

Describe your perfect room – what does it look like, what’s in it, where is it?

ceilings, large windows, a transom window over the doorway, ceiling
medallion with a large modern light, wide pine floors with
imperfections, fireplace with an ornate marble mantel (or a Swedish
corner ceramic stove), crown moldings, and tons of sunlight. I'd have
to be in a city, but not a huge city — around 500,000 occupants suits
me fine. I need to be within at least an hour or two from the sea as
the idea of being landlocked disturbs me. I also need to be very close
to a forest for daily exercise. My room would be a creative studio
where I could listen to music, write, paint, take photos, do some
freelance styling work, etc. I also need to see trees from my window
and sky. :)


You must be bombarded by so many new ideas every day – how do you organise your inspirations?

Most of my ideas are in my head but the ones that come out to play end up on my blog, decor8, where I organize my inspirations as I feel them on a daily basis. I also use a site called StumbleUpon to organize random bits that I collect online. Haus Maus,
my other blog, is another spot where I organize things but mostly
random feelings or things relating to German life and culture in
Germany/Europe as I see it since I live in both New Hampshire, USA and
Hannover, Germany part-time.

I love the concept of Kindred and it truly looks like a labour of love for both you and Ez (from design blog Creature Comforts)– where did the idea grow from and where do you see it going?

day I was thinking of how much I enjoyed Ez and her pretty blog and so
over a year ago now I emailed her and asked if she wanted to work on a
project together and that I had some ideas. We had several phone calls
and Kindred was born and now it's in full swing and we both love it and
contribute equally to everything about it from the artists we select to
how the site looks and feels and the themes we select for the quarter.
We want Kindred to be a true reflection of us both, combined vs.
looking more like Ez or too much like Holly. It's all about being
equals and partners and friends and not so much about who does what –
that’s not important to me at all. The focus is on the work of the
artists we showcase, not on our individual talents, which as it should

What constitutes great style to you?

Art is subjective so great style to one may be boring to another. But you don't
want that answer, now do you? Ok, so I think to define something as
great I'd say it's classic or timeless, like denim jeans or a button
down pullover – these are examples of design that may be a bit mundane
in themselves but that are great in the sense that they are functional,
timeless, and, if modernized by individual designers, can be lovely to
wear and own if kept current  – for instance, in the States we have mom jeans
which are not really great style as the waistband is almost directly
above the natural waistline of a woman but some still wear them, so
again, it's about keeping things fresh and current. I think another
example of great style is being true to yourself and showing that in
what you do and who you are – not just buying something off the rack
and thinking that if you wear it you'll immediately be transformed into
this cool, hip fashionista. You should wear the clothes, the clothes
should not wear you. Same goes with the home, a truly stylish home is
one that looks and feels like the occupants and not the pages of a
catalog or home they've copied from a magazine.

Do you have any collections?

magazines, decorating and craft books, art prints, stationery and
paper! I also have a collection of vintage hats from the 20s-40s passed
on to me from my mother. I once worked in a millinery shop in Boston
where I made headpieces for brides, hair pins, hats and clips for
bridal party members, and lots of fun hats for older ladies who
frequently held events where hats seemed to be the theme of the night.
Too cute, right? I met some great customers! As a result, I started to
love hats (I was only 18 at that time) and enjoyed designing them, even
designing for Boston area bridal shows for models who wore them in
runway shows. I learned all about working with wire, horsehair, forms
and fabrics and when I got married, I made my own headpiece and veil
for my wedding. I no longer collect hats but I love the collection that
I do have. I tend to collect 'things' in general, which means that I
have a tag sale in my yard once a year in the summer when I sell lots
of what I've collected or inherited from others over the year. I have a
special room for my collection of things and when it starts to get
crowded, I throw a big tag sale. I guess it's the shop owner in me
coming out to play.


You recently taught your first e-course, Blogging Your Way – did you enjoy the experience of teaching and do you plan to run the course again?

I loved the experience of teaching, it was a lot of fun and the energy
was great — my students really put themselves into it from actively
participating in the forums to making a genuine effort to get to know
and offer advice to fellow students. The homework assignments were
especially fun, I loved seeing what each student had to report on each
week. My next class will be longer, six weeks, and will kick off in
September. I had planned to do another in June but realized that
perhaps some would like to take some time with their family this summer
(me included) so I thought that September would be a better timeframe
for all. I will announce more, including a link to register, on decor8
August 10th.

In your opinion, what three things can a blogger do to improve their blog?

1) Write from your heart and don't water things down by over-editing and worrying about what people will think.
2) Treat your blog like a magazine in which you are the Editor-in-Chief. Take your work seriously and so will others.
Think of what is missing out in the blog world and fill that void —
don't seek to copy what is already out there but instead, be yourself,
develop your voice and aesthetic, and show the world your unique self.

What books, music, art etc is inspiring you right now? Do you have any hot recommendations for us?

in particular with books, music and art – it's more 'themes' I guess
you could say. A lot of the things I was into in my 20s are resurfacing
again. For instance, I'm crazy into floral design (again), all things
French (I had an eBay shop for 4 years that I ran on the weekends
called Paris Mornings selling French linen, ribbons, trims and books),
Australia and Japan (dying to travel to both destinations), decorating
(as usual), mixed media art, gosh I could go on forever as I have a
running list of interests a mile long at all times.

I love these books:

Bazaar Style by Selina Lake
any of the jeu de paume books
Domino: The Book of Decorating by Jennifer Needleman
Flea Market Style by Emily Chalmers
Midwest Modern by Amy Butler
At Home With White by Atlanta Bartlett
Indulgence Cookies and Indulgence Cupcakes (Murdoch Books)
IKEA has this great book that my friend Vanessa sent to me called Beloved Homes that is simply awesome.

Working from home can often mean you’re working 24/7 – how do you maintain a good work/life balance?

was working 6-7 days per week but April 1st I decided to change my
entire life/schedule and I've been so much happier because of it.
Monday-Friday I work normal business hours but I always break 30
minutes for lunch and 3 hours for dinner and time with my husband, then
I jump online again before bed to check email and then give myself
about an hour before bed to read a book, stretch, listen to music and
have a cup of tea so that my body and brain can start to power down so
as to have a proper rest. I notice that when I go from the computer to
the bed without this important hour of me time in between I am restless
and sleep so badly. As for the weekends, I always have a ton of plans
starting on Friday night until Sunday evening whether it's mundane
tasks like errands or cleaning my house/laundry to going out with my
friends or husband so I don't have much time for work then.  I check
email early Saturday morning but then I log off until late Sunday night
when I check email again to get a slight jump start on Monday. However,
on Saturday I allow myself ONE hour online and on Sunday ONE hour and
that is it — I'm very strict with myself!

What’s your motto?

with no regrets. Say yes more than you say no. Show love when someone
else's action would merit anger. Be the change you wish to see. Cherish
your family and friends and don't be so quick to replace them when
times are tough. Be loyal. Be honest. Be creative. Be yourself.

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

skipping this one because I quite honestly don't think I'd be
interested in meeting anyone famous, dead or alive, at a dinner party.
I almost don't want to ruin the mystery, people can be so boring during
dinner parties anyway. I guess if you change the setting, I'd love to
do jell-o shots with Martha Stewart, have Tony Bourdain make the
appetizers, Morrissey to just sit there and complain, and see if Oprah
is up for some karaoke. I imagine famous people would be much more fun
and willing to share when intoxicated.

* * * * *

Thank you so much for joining us today, Holly! I'd write more but i have a sudden urge to go to Amazon and buy some books….

[Photo credits: Holly Becker]

~ Something beginning with S ~


I'm thrilled to be sharing interview no. 3 in my Creative Life series today ~ author, poet and journalist Sarah Salway has always been on my word-radar ever since I discovered she read my blog, way back in the early days. To me this was a great honour  – a published author and poet reading my words? Not only that but she teaches creative writing too, so i figured i must've been doing something right (something a writer needs to know once in a while) – her students are very lucky to have such a gifted teacher. Alongside writing stories filled with wit, warmth and acute observations on life, Sarah has an inspiring blog where she shares writing prompts; lately she's been posting 50-word photo-stories and readers have been sharing their own in the comments (such a great idea!).

So without further ado, grab a coffee and sink into the words of the lovely Sarah Salway…

SC: Did you always know you'd write? How did this path begin for you?

SS: My parents were both writers so I grew up in a house where it was quite normal. Before she had us four kids, my mother used to work for the women’s editor of Farmers Weekly. Then when I was growing up, she researched and wrote books about monastery gardens and herbs. I’m very sad that I never told her how proud I am of her for that, but she died before my first book (Something Beginning With, also called The ABCs of Love in the USA) came out and it was only then I realised how lightly we’d always treated her achievements. Being kids, we were more interested in what she was cooking us for tea than her writing and research, but I guess that’s a healthy sign for a child! My dad was a journalist too. He is still writing and publishing at the grand age of 80, so both parents were, and continue to be, an inspiration.

When I was about eight, I started writing a whole library of novels with my friend, Heidi. I used to write these very dramatic stories about orphans who had lots and lots of horses, I remember, but somewhere along the way I stopped thinking creatively. I studied journalism at the London College of Fashion after school, and then worked in PR and journalism for several years, both in London and Edinburgh.

But then one day, I found a two-hour weekly women’s creative writing course run through Edinburgh University. I was so nervous the first time I went, but it quickly became the most important part of my week. I loved it so much and thought the teacher so amazing that I drove past her house one day, just to see where someone who could write stories and poems would live. It’s funny to think I’m that person now, and I’m really happy that I’m inspiring people as much as she did me. (I did tell her about the stalking btw much later when we became friends, but I think even then she was a little bit worried!)

I still feel lucky that I could get back in touch with my creative side through that class. Although at the time I was a successful journalist, I always thought that writing fiction and poetry was something that other, not necessarily better but certainly different, people did, and that I would make a fool of myself if I tried to join that secret club. Now I’m totally convinced that everybody can be creative. Actually more than can, we NEED to be creative! And we need to make fools of ourselves more often too. I wish I hadn’t been so scared about it all for so long.

How did the publication of your first book come about? and how long did it take to write?

It was a fairy story, and I still can’t really believe it. A short story of mine went up on an internet site (east of the web) and I got several emails about it straight away. One was from a publisher, and two were from agents, all asking if I was writing a novel. I signed up with one of the agents and six months later, I had a two book deal. It’s been a bit harder since, but it did prove to me that agents and publishers are actually searching for new authors. It’s not the closed shop that we can sometimes imagine and that’s very encouraging.

Something Beginning With came out of that short story, which was originally called ‘A Girl’s Alphabet’. It was supposed to be one story in a themed collection about a love triangle, and the only one narrated by my main character, Verity. However, her voice kept on nagging away at me, so I expanded the story even after it had been accepted for publication. When I got those emails, I had written nearly the whole novel, and that’s why it felt so special to have someone ask if I’d thought about turning it into something longer. I think they were surprised when I handed them a nearly finished manuscript straight away! It does make me think that getting the voice of your character right is really important, perhaps more even than plot. As a reader, I lose interest straight away if a character starts to behave in what I consider an unnatural way just to keep the plot going. I feel manipulated. I want real characters! As writers, we need to listen to our characters. I will even sometimes write letters to mine, and write letters back from them. It’s amazing what comes out from that. (I don’t post them though, or not yet!)

The wannabe author dreams of publication so i have to ask: how does it really feel being a published author? Did you linger in bookshops looking at the spines on the shelf?

It takes a long long time for a book to actually be published once it’s been accepted, so I did go into bookshops to see exactly where my book would be. Once I even made a little gap for it! Getting published was very special, and I still hug it to myself as it’s something that can never get taken away from me. That there are people out there who enjoyed my story so much that they invested in me like that is amazing. And the launch party for my book was very special. I invited as many of my friends as I could and we drank the bar dry. My best friend tells me I smiled all night long! But there’s so much pressure about being published, and I wanted it so badly that I got worried too much might change and that was hugely frightening. But hey, I woke up the next morning and the kids still wanted their breakfast, and where were their socks for school? That’s when I thought of Mum. I would have loved to have shared the joke with her.

But when someone I don’t know – or indeed someone I know – tells me they’ve read my work, I feel really lucky. I have learnt not to frighten them with a barrage of questions about what they thought about it, did they like it etc etc, not least because publication made me realise that as wonderful as it is to have a book out there, it’s the writing of it that I really love. You always have to be more passionate about the process more than the product. It’s the doing that matters.

What comes first – the character or the story idea?

It depends. I write across the genres – poetry, short stories, novels and non-fiction, and I think the only common ground is that there will be an image I can’t let go of. It may just be a fragment, or a whole picture, bu
t I start to build stories around that image. And then, as I said above, I start to listen for the voice of the character. And structure is important for me too. I will spend a lot of time searching for the form that feels the most authentic for what I want to write. I really believe that imposing some kind of constraint on my writing makes me freer. It’s as if the censor part of my brain is happy puzzling out the rules, and the rest of me can get on with writing what I want!

Where do you write? Do you need a special room or pen…. a certain of time of day? A quiet corner of Cafe Rouge? Kids in bed?

Well, my kids are big now so I normally go to bed before them! I write morning pages every day before I even get out of bed. It sets me up, even if I have to put on the alarm clock. Who knows what I write, I rarely read back! My writing room is a little room at the top of the house – it has everything I need: fairy lights, a disco ball, books and a sofa to curl up on. My desk is second-hand. When I first sat at it, I wrote a poem to the woman who had owned it before me. I have no idea who she was, but I had fun building up a picture of her and what she had kept in the drawers. I don’t have a particular routine, although I am finding that I need to switch off the internet now in order to concentrate. It’s too tempting just to see what is happening on Twitter or Facebook, and I need to be able to sink into my work. I always start writing with a pen and notebook, but then when the story starts moving faster, I switch to computer. I can type faster than I write.

What book do you wish you had written?

I think for any writer, there’s always the hope that it’s going to be the next one. That’s what keeps us going! But a book I really admire is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen. The structure was simple based around four meals, and yet it was so well researched, passionately written and made me think about how I lived. I would love to write something that had so much impact and was needed so badly. I am sure that journalists are respected more in America. It made me proud to be one, and I’m not always so!

Poems… short stories… novels… teaching… you do it all, but which makes your heart race the most?

Impossible to answer, because they all do in different ways. Writing poetry is such an intense experience that it often feels like the only way I can express some things. Short stories allow me to try on many different masks and have fun. My novels let me enter different worlds and are totally absorbing. And I have learnt so much from my teaching. Seeing a student shrug off a whole lot of bad teaching and engrained criticism so they really take risks on the page is just the best thing ever.

What 3 pieces of advice would you give an aspiring writer?

There are a number of questions that get asked in class, normally ‘are we really allowed to break rules like this?’ when I tell them to write without worrying about grammar or nice handwriting, but I would say these are my three key pieces of advice:

1) Practice making stories all the time in your notebook. Jot down three different scenarios for what a lamppost might be thinking; where that man is going on the train; what would happen if the sun didn’t stop shining? Be as mad as you like. Just keep asking ‘what if?’ Stories create stories – and students who do this regularly never have to worry they don’t have enough to write about!

2) Read. And read, and read. And if you can do so, support independent and small publishers by buying their books and magazines. These are the people who publish most aspiring writers so not only will you be financing them, you may also discover some unexpected new talents. It’s fun to take risks in reading.

3) Write what you would like to read, not what you think you should write, or what everybody else is telling you to write, or what you think will get published. You have to be authentic to yourself otherwise you’re just not going to enjoy it. And that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. How amazingly lucky we are to be doing what we love.

What and who inspires you?

Oh music definitely. I love watching musicians live because for the moment they are performing they give everything they have of themselves. Nothing else matters, because they are feeling the music with their whole body. It takes great discipline and courage to do that, I think, and if I could write like that regularly, I’d be very happy.

Music that I love to write to:

Ben's Brother, TV On the Radio,
Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Joan as Policewoman, Blitzen Trapper, Nick
Drake, Saint Etienne, Nina Simone, Ellis Paul, Amos Lee, Laura Marling.
There's a mixed CD I've just bought and haven't stopped playing since – Dark Was the Night – it's BRILLIANT. Thoroughly recommend it. I get the NPR song of the day too.

I remember when I was starting I was hungry for people's 'how to' lists so here's mine, the books I keep keep turning back to:

Kim Addonizio: Ordinary Genius – one of my writing role models; she's a great poet too
Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit – probably one of the best for me; got me thinking about the body and writing
Julia Cameron: The Vein of Gold and The Artist's Way – half way through TAW – again – at the moment with an internet group I set up
Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and maybe even better, Wild Mind – she's my best friend!
Carol Bly, The Passionate Accurate Story – like a very welcome wake-up call about conscience etc.
Tristine Rainer: The New Diary  – a classic, but really good for journal writing. Lots of revelations with this one!
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand – really good for sparking poetry ideas
Judy Reeves: A Writer's Book of Days – very useful daily prompts and lots of trivia about writers that is somehow inspiring! Did you know, for instance, that Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, and Amy Lowell smoked cigars when she wrote; Dame Edith Sitwell, however, wrote after she'd been lying down in an open coffin!

Do you have a motto?

I am slightly obsessed with a dead American poet called Alice Duer Miller, but no one else has heard of her. Anyway, she said, 'If it's very painful for you to criticize your friends, you're safe in doing it. But if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that's the time to hold your tongue.' I always try to remember this, because it feels like wise advice. I also use this line from Colette for my writing classes: ‘We will do foolish things, but we will do them with enthusiasm.’ I love the joy and confidence implicit in that!

You're having a dinner party and can choose 6 famous people from the past or present – who would you invite?

Brilliant question. Okay, I’m going to take it as a given that the dead people will be at their most sparkling not smelly. I only want people at my table who are passionate about things I care about, who will not be cynical, who will listen to others without talking about themselves the whole time, and who will definitely not be boring. So I would invite:

1. Alice Duer Miller (as above) not least because she likes practical jokes and would make me laugh.
2. Marco Pierre White – because I was addicted to Hell’s Kitchen recently and I feel he would be prepared to talk quite deeply about lots of subjects. Also he’s gorgeous, but he will have to take the tablecloth off his head.
3. Lynne Franks – I worked for her after college and she was just inspirational. I want to find out about all the work she’s doing for women in third-world countries.
4. John Peel – I miss his voice and his humour and his kindness. He can bring the music.
5. Roger Deakin, who wrote Waterlog and Wildwood. He had such an adventurous spirit and this huge love of nature. I’d love to hear his stories.
6. You! I have been enjoying your blog for so long that I feel I know you already but we’ve never met. Yet…

What are you working on next?

I have just had some very exciting news which is that I will be the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences from this September. It’s a great opportunity, and will fit very well with my current work-in-progress which is a non-fiction look at role models for women. I want to find out who inspires women, and why, and how important role models can be. I’m in the planning stages at the moment, but I’m already thinking about who has had an impact on me over the years – my big sister, Jo in Little Women, Kathryn Hepburn, Coco Chanel,  my mum, Chrissie Hynde… the list goes on and on.  And all so different too!

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Thank you so much for sharing your words with us, Sarah! Isn't she fabulous?

(photo credit: Ellen Montellius)