Joy In Embroidery Floss

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I have been in a fallow season of late – a resting season. My novel is done (for now – honestly is it ever done?), and I am resisting the mighty temptation to begin work on a sequel. It’s too early for a sequel; the novel itself needs some time to cool down before edits and more revisions. Things could change, even slightly, and shake the ground on which a sequel is built, so… there are plenty of reasons for resisting. Once in a while, I do give in because I need to be with my characters again, and I need to explore ideas about where they’re headed. There are worse sins, I suppose. In the end, if I’m writing, that is progress enough. A summer of intensive writing and rewriting has left my creative well unusually dry; sometimes I need to test the levels, give the water a taste and leave it alone.

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On the days where the nascent sequel doesn’t call me I struggle. For years, I’ve told myself, “Now is the perfect time to write a short story.” It might be, but while I have ideas aplenty, I generally run away from them. I resolve to change that this season week by week y 1.) actually reading more short fiction, and 2.) allowing myself to write some really awful, unreadable stuff. This is not going to be easy. Yet, I want to do it. I know I can. I have to constantly remind myself that I have a short story published. One little story, but it’s mine.

In the midst of indecision and little nagging fears, I took myself on an artist date. I walked around Michael’s for quite sometime, pondering the birthday money in my pocket like a little girl in a toy shop. I looked at the cardstock and the craft paper. I stared at calligraphy inks and imagined myself creating beautiful word art with the proper materials – new nibs and dip pens and a bottle of ink. Pricey, but worth it, right? In the end, however, I was drawn, perhaps inevitably, to the embroidery floss.

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Nothing brings me joy like embroidery floss, although it has been years since I stitched on cloth or followed a pattern. When I was a girl, I was turned onto cross-stitch embroidery by an American Girl craft kit (Felicity) which featured a sampler. From there, I tried other patterns and then started making my own, growing tired of the near-sighted way cross-stitch presents a picture. Recently, I’ve taken to using embroidery floss for handmade cards, learning which stitches work on cardstock and which leave big, gaping holes.

But there’s embroidery floss itself. I am drawn in by color – light and dark across the spectrum. The day in Michael’s, I knew that it was the floss I wanted, not the calligraphy supplies. I took up handfuls of blue and terra cotta and coral and deep goldenrod. I had no idea what I’d do with them, but had to have them and imagining the possibilities lifted me out of a creative rut that night. These little twists of thread hold the same potential for me as ink and paper and words.

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The plain truth is that I am not writing as I’m used to, as I want to. There is a void that morning pages can’t fill right now, and until I get my head around this short-story thing there are other ways to channel my energy. There are ways to be restfully creative while the levels in the well continue to normalize. This just happens to be my tendency. Words are so natural to me, but I’m also drawn to pictures and scapes, photographs and colors. Lost in these things, I somehow inexplicably find my way back to words again.

Words are beautiful. I love them. I collect them. I savor them like fine, rare wine. But they’re also challenging, and scare me a little. Sometimes they do not behave as I’d like them to. Sometimes there is no translation between what I feel or see in my mind and what ultimately gets written down. I want to write carefully. I want everything I write on this blog, in my novels, in my stories to have meaning, to be thoughtful. It takes me a little longer than other writers, but no one is keeping score.

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Except the words, perhaps. Not the quantity, of course, but the quality. Do they have color? Do they have texture? Which stitch forms their structure? I am queen of mixing metaphors, but sometimes… you can’t create something new without breaking a few rules and seeing what comes out of strange and light-hearted ideas.

I am going to stitch something new on cardstock now, my awl and needle and floss at the ready. The words will come later.

Publication News: The Lantern Hanger’s Wife

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Last year, I wrote a story for my mother for Christmas. “The Lantern Hanger’s Wife” is about our patriot ancestors, John and Sarah Pulling, who participated in the Boston tea party and hung the lanterns for Paul Revere in Boston’s old North Church. It is a story celebrating the tangled stories of genealogy, a family’s sacrifice for their beliefs, and tough old lady who lived through a hundred years of hardship, adventure and change.

I am pleased to announce that the story has been published in the Autumn 2016 edition of the literary magazine Fine Lines. Please follow the link for more information on the magazine. Thanks!

 

A Change of Season

So, we’ve made it full circle again to October: this season of jay conversing tree to tree and turning leaves, and pumpkin-spice everything-under-the-sun. Just check out Trader Joe’s, if you have yet to be persuaded. I have added Pumpkin Spice Rooibus tea and pumpkin ice cream to my personal supply. Could not resist.

Also a feature of full-on Autumn is butternut squash soup. This particular recipe involves the crockpot and extra ingredients such as a carrot and an apple. It’s sweet and full of flavor, but the next time I make it, I’ll forgo the apple, as it tends to overpower the essence of the squash. So this was lunch today:

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Editing Season

This is a strange fall for me in that it is editing season. I finished the draft last week. Finished in itself is kind of a loaded term. I use it to mean that the novel is complete so far as the story is concerned, but still in bad need of editing… and some parts are turbid enough to warrant rewrites. So it is a murky time. So, “Yes and no.”

But it is perfect timing – this season change – as I have a few writer friends who will step in as my beta readers. Having readers and getting some of their material in return makes it official: no more drafting. It’s over. I have a sense of finality, of wanting to skip onto writing sequels, even though it is way too soon. There is still work to be done, just a different kind of work.

Editing can be eye-opening. I read aloud a chapter last night, and it is down right amazing how many little things I missed or how many words I tend to repeat within one paragraph. You never really get the nuance of what you’re writing unless you read it aloud to yourself. The only downside to this is that it wears out one’s voice.

Everyone has a process for editing, and I’m still trying to figure mine out. Reading through and getting restless doesn’t seem to be working very well. I long to create, which means it is easy for me to just start tinkering and perfecting… and we all know what happens when we allow perfectionism free reign: things unravel and are never truly done. And if I don’t make myself turn away from the novel for a while, I will get sick of it. We don’t want that.

Still. This season is hard for me. I miss working on the novel, the actual process of creating it anew. In theory, I tell myself, now is a great time to throw myself into something new and completely different from the novel while it rests. But… short stories are hard, and I struggle to write them. I delve into sequel experiments out of love for the novel I’ve created, but there is an unshakable sense that anything I write to that end is on shifting ground and out of context.

I suppose the only conclusion that can be garnered here is that seasons of writing change like summer into fall. We are never in the same place. We’re always in a cycle. We always come out different on the other side. We change as much as the seasons do.

Goals for this season:

  • Let this version of the Novel rest, send it out for feedback. Only with feedback can we move on to another round of edits and tweaks and rewrites.
  • Write new things. Experiment.
  • Tinker. Play. Color with pencils. Return to calligraphy and card-making.
  • Blog more.
  • Read more.

***

Other Fall moments:

In the later days of September, I spotted a hummingbird hawk-moth sharing territory with the Monarch and Red Admiral butterflies. As this is the season for migrating and wandering creatures, I’ve also seen a Canada warbler (unfortunately deceased and now buried behind a juniper) and a pair of ravens making loud unka-unka-unka noises.

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One plant that doesn’t know it’s October is my trusty oxalis shamrock. It’s bloomed several times since I brought it home in March. I can’t wait to watch the flowers open on a snowy day, this winter.

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My apartment experienced some repairs this September, which meant that I had to rearrange the furniture. Beatrix heartily approves the new view from the bookcase.

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A Souvenir from England

A disclaimer about the photos in this post: I took them in 2006 and had to size down the files. This messes with the watermarks a bit, but they are nonetheless intact and witness to my adventures in England. Enjoy.

Ten years ago, I boarded a plane to leave for England for the first time. I was in Oxford for an intense semester, studying at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. It was life-changing.

I was twenty-one, perpetually anxious but eager to see a different part of the world. Not everybody gets that chance. So my time in Oxford was remarkably special: a testament to the generosity of my late grandmother and my parents. I made life-long friends with my fellow American students, learned the city streets by heart, and visited castles, cathedrals and ruins, walked around Stonehenge, hiked a moor, and felt alive.

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Life-long friends: Michelle, Susie, Jillian. That t-shirt I’m wearing – all but a rag now. Winchester, the Great Hall, in “Queen Eleanor’s Garden”, Sept. 2006.

Certainly, when one takes her first solo journey into a different part of the world, she’s bound to change a little; the world doesn’t seem so small anymore. And things that once seemed to be daunting and scary were now distinctly possible.

My most precious souvenir wasn’t trinkets or books (although I had many of those). It wasn’t even the thousands of photographs taken by a fish-out-of-water student drinking up every bit of scenery. My greatest souvenir was a novel – a novel I began writing in 2007, after I’d come home. I never finished it; I had not yet grasped the concept of finishing a draft and going back to edit – I simply kept writing and imagining and twisting it into new shapes. Nevertheless, it remains with me as a sort of memorialization of my experiences, a time capsule of a writer in her early moments.

It was called Adrian Saint, set in the Fall of 2006 partly in Oxford and partly in North Yorkshire. The characters were historians. One was Robin Reed an awkward American, who’d fallen in love with Oxford and history. Another was Mary Piper Cressy who was exceedingly anxious, obsessive-compulsive and almost continually in the throes of self-doubt. I felt that my characters were there to live history, would be skin-to-skin with the visceral mystery of the human experience. That was something I’d tasted walking the cobblestones at night, coming home from writing essays in the Radcliffe Camera or taking a long walk through Christ Church Meadow.

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The Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera – the best place to read history. Dec. 2006

Adrian Saint promised to be a deliciously bizarre tale. The historians were there to research a scary legend about a fifteenth-century monk (Adrian) and dark happenings in Yorkshire. Robin Reed had bizarre dreams and a tendency to walk through time while sleep-walking. Mary Piper was intrigued by the strange writings from a medieval noblewoman. Mary Piper and Robin’s boss, Roger Barrow, kept a sharp watch out for demons and ghosts on the moor and was particularly haunted by the death of his wife. There were séances, hauntings and demon possession.  There were hints of Richard III and the War of the Roses. It was a rich amalgam of everything I was pondering and curious about as a student and a young writer.

Many first novels are semi-biographical, and that is true reading through the hundreds of pages I churned out in my post-Oxford years. Writing Adrian Saint was a way retain that experience and apply that knew knowledge in writing.

I conceived of the idea on a field trip to Glastonbury Abbey, standing amidst the ruins. It began as a sort of angry rant against Henry VIII for destroying this beautiful place. I wanted to hear from the monks. And Brother Adrian was born.

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Glastonbury Abbey, a gorgeous ruin. Sept. 2006.

The Significance of Place: Oxford

Oxford itself was a character to me. You have to understand that I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. Although I’d visited bigger and older cities in the U.S., I’d never lived anywhere older than 150 years. Oxford and London are both pre-Christian old. And Oxford is filled to the brim with medieval architecture. Like the Nokia-turned-Pret coffee shop. Throughout Adrian my characters might take a route from a certain flat at Osney Lane (near the site of the old abbey) and walk all the way to the Bodleian, passed Oxford Castle, up High Street or Cornmarket. It was my route. I was spellbound by Oxford, and every little detail was significant to me; therefore, it would significant to my characters.

It was the first time I’d gotten to know a place so well that I’d know it by heart. This is one reason why walking a city is better than driving. And with Oxford, you had a mythical component. Just by walking through Christ Church Meadow, following the River Cherwell, I was reminded of the Anglo-Saxon abbess Saint Friðeswiðe who travelled up the Cherwell to escape a suitor – a thousand years before.

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The Cherwell in Christ Church Meadow. Sept. 2006.

Then there are the everyday details, I was fascinated with:

I learned about Britain by listening to one of our CMRS tutors wax poetic about the art form of drinking local beer. He told our class en route to Warwick Castle that we were not tourists – we were students, therefore we should pronounce Warwick properly, as War-ick. There were similar lessons about Worchester (Wuh-ster) and Magdalen (Maud-lin).

Warwick Castle, one of many shots of many towers. Sept. 2006.

Warwick Castle, one of many shots of many towers. Sept. 2006.

I learned about Britain through the handling of their coinage and marveling at the idea of a £2 coin, and how pretty it all was. England began to make more sense to me than America.

There was food, of course. I started drinking tea during my time in Oxford, letting it steep for a proper amount of time, and using cubes of turbinado sugar in my coffee. I learned that an after-church meal for a large group is far more likely to feature curry or chicken korma than a taco bar. More than once, we’d come back to our flat to enjoy a steak and kidney pie we’d picked up at the Covered Market or stop for a pasty from a vendor. For my twenty-first birthday, roommates Michelle, Susie and Megan treated me to an exquisite cake made of fondant and jam and topped with a marzipan witch (it being October). We puzzled over the gritty consistency of Sainsbury’s peanut butter and how the diet Coke cans read “sugar free” and nonetheless tasted slightly different than American diet coke.

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Blowing out the candles on the best birthday cake ever. Also, peppermint schnapps in cocoa, and my signed copy of Peter Pan in Scarlet. Oct. 2006.

These were but little things that didn’t make it into any novel, but that enriched my experience.

The Significance of Place, Part 2: Making up stuff.

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Jillian on a moor. Nov. 11th, 2006.

Castles are great. But I longed to see a moor. I loved Brontean depictions of moors and grew up with images from The Secret Garden, The Hound of the Baskervilles and other tales. It seemed a very British thing, a far, mysterious cry from the drier, flatter prairies of Nebraska. So roommate Susie and I took a train to Skipton, north of Leeds.

Why Skipton? Well, it had a castle, a gorgeous one at that with roots in the 1688 revolution, a moor, and a nice bed and breakfast, surrounded on all sides by sheep. A moor is basically wet hills, wetlands, etc. No trees. We visited Skipton Castle and walked the moor on November 11th, 2006, a rainy, misty day which meant that our hike was atmospheric, wet and bone-cold. The thing about a moor is that it is a relatively empty landscape, waiting to be filled with ideas – a veritable tabula rasa upon which one can write about peace or legend, discover barrow mounds or watch out for devil-dogs. It was only natural that by the time I came to write Adrian, the moor shined out as brightly in my memory as Oxford did, and became the backdrop of mysterious happenings.

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Skipton Castle – Skipton, North Yorkshire Nov. 11th, 2006.

I thought, what if time is like the weather, moving in storm-clouds across those moorlands? What if the divide between 2006 and 1483 was so thin, you’d not notice if you crossed to the other side? What if you could hear church bells ringing from distant era?

Story-teller Versus Historian: Robin and Mary Piper

Adrian was telling me something less obvious in the months and years following my journey to England: I was a story-teller, and that was okay. When I graduated in 2008, it was with a degree in English and History. I always put it that way, with English first, because the History part makes me uncomfortable. As early as high school, being told that I had to write according the MLA or the Chicago style and by a set of strict rules felt like imprisonment. But I ploughed through school, anyway, writing those papers even if the mode of that writing was a downright struggle.

At Oxford, we wrote an essay a week for each tutorial and seminar, which meant I was writing three essays a week, sometimes staying up all night to get them done. It was hard work, indeed, but worth it. I was at Oxford, after all, and it was not supposed to be easy.

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One of many piles of books at CMRS, Sept. 2006.

I was nervous about having the wrong opinions, not being careful enough, not digging deep enough, and burning myself out over things that weren’t terribly special to me. I was told more than once by certain professors that I needed to be less wordy, less personal, less speculative. I found that deeply upsetting.

I had a hunger to create that overpowered my need to know and study. I wanted to paint pictures, as well as draw new conclusions. My mode of making an argument had more to do with my gut and my emotions than the facts; and I could not simply separate them. With Adrian, I was trying to make the best of both worlds – nestling plausible history inside an armor of fiction, to make history touchable, personal and beautiful.

One Adrian Saint character, Mary Piper Cressy, is a historian who writes fiction and is frowned upon by the other scholars because she’s more fanciful than is deemed acceptable. This was me perceiving an opposition to what I knew deep down: “give me stories to tell. That’s what I want. Here’s a legitimate way to do it.” Writers, I’d been told since the six-grade when I started writing like a fiend, don’t earn very much money. “Don’t do it,” I was told. Well, I couldn’t stop what was a part of me. History for me was the starting point, not the end in itself.

Robin, as the American, was clumsy and whimsical by nature (photographer and pianist in his off hours), and straddling both worlds. He wanted out from under the heel of criticism, to forge his own career, to make up his own mind about what being an American means in England. He was named for my Reed ancestors, patriots in the Revolutionary War. In England, as an Oxford scholar, he was forming a new identity for himself and taking in this new back drop with earnest eyes. He was an outsider and that made him more compassionate, and an obvious match, to Mary Piper.

Mary Piper had a desire to understand Lady Amy, a young mad noblewoman integral to the Adrian legend. She poured over strange writings of Lady Amy’s like a kindred spirit. On the other side of that mirror, I was writing Lady Amy’s odd poetry and Mary Piper’s vision of them, feeling a new sort of power. It is not enough to read what was written, to make conjectures about the past, but to interact with it. Mary Piper feels Amy calling her, just as Robin, sleepwalking and having visions, is drawn in by Brother Adrian across the moor.

So the message in Adrian was about letting history speak was my own inward plea, my own way of looking at the world and trying to justify the creative side of my life, to show that it had purpose and legitimacy. I also learned early on that I was not cut out to be a teacher. And I was okay with that.

Details, Details

I photographed many a window, stained-glass, empty-paned and otherwise, on my journey. They are the first features of a place to catch my eye. Are they arched or tear-dropped? Mullioned or balconied? These questions were important questions as I learned to pay attention to detail.

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In this collage are many windows. Left column: St. Peter’s dormitory, on the landing; a small window at Berkeley Castle; a detail of a pane in Winchester’s Great Hall, honoring Hardicanute, or Harthacanute, an early king of England; (bottom) an empty window of the former chapel at Skipton Castle; a mullioned pane at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

Middle column: (top) Winchester Great Hall pane honoring Queen Elizabeth; a full view of a Great Hall window, Hardecanute visible; another balconied window at Berkeley.

Right column: the Altkorn Room window at St. Peter’s, my first room at Oxford; inside Carfax Tower, Cornmarket St, Oxford; an arrow-hole at Skipton Castle; view from the panes at Christ Church Cathedral.

Finish the Novel

Adrian taught me that you have to FINISH THE DANG NOVEL. Finish a draft, even if it stinks, edit, revise, new draft, repeat. Instead of doing this with Adrian, I fell into the vortex of writing and editing and writing and editing and constantly changing it with no end game in sight. So it died a slow and painful death.

I used to think that I had to get a chapter exactly right before I could move on. Doing so meant that I didn’t have to make decisions, get the characters to the next point or worry about story arcs, to the unravelling of the novel itself. But I wasn’t thinking about craft back then. I didn’t realize that it was telling the story of my own fears and perfectionisms. Perhaps there was also, deep inside, the knowledge that if I finished a draft, the story would be over and cease to be ongoing. It would be a sealed capsule.

Periodically, I think about how I might rewrite Adrian Saint and actually finish it. I want to set it in 1936, World War II just on the horizon. I imagine Robin Reed with a bicycle, unwisely pedaling over the moors. I see Mary Piper dealing with sexism in her field and her own unrealized dreams. I see the Adrian legend coming not as a revelation about the past, but a warning about the dark, not-so-distant future.

Someday, I will return to finish what I started, and it will be a new, yet familiar place. It will have grown since 2006. Then again, so have I.

Taking The Week “On”: Summer Writing

by dino reichmuth

by dino reichmuth

When some people go on vacation, they like to say they’re “taking the week off.” I say I’m “taking the week on.”

Next week I will be operating as a full-time writer. This will be my staycation. For there is really no grander place to be than deep in my own writings and at home where there’s a sense of peace… and no interruptions except those of the feline variety.

It is about darned time. I haven’t had a proper, relaxing “vacation” from work for a while. My last out-of-town, out-of-state trip was to Boston in June of last year. And a long fourteen months, it’s been. As much as I’d like an out-of-town adventure, I’ve craved a blank-slate weekend to reset myself, to focus on the grand endeavor of novel writing, to tackle any number of creative and household projects.

I cannot say too many times what a great struggle it is to write a novel while working full time. Being away from the Novel for nine hours means that I only have a small swatch of hours in which to work. Sometimes I am exhausted when I get home. Sometimes I have a meeting or a social gathering. Sometimes my need for groceries outweighs the need to write.

I long for the weekend, but the weekend has its caveats, too: big-time chores (sweeping/cleaning floors and laundry), church and small group meetings, family obligations. Even with only one or two of these things, two days very quickly becomes not enough.

It’s not because I’m a bad writer who cannot prioritize, but because life is messy. It would be messy even if I had a spouse to do them dishes for me. (And, you know what, that is a terrible reason to want a spouse.) It would be messy if I was a full time writer, freelancing or reviewing or whatnot. It’s the grass-is-always-greener state of mind.

The key is thinking, simply, what can I do with what I have? Take a whole week of paid vacation because I’m due for it; that’s what. And it’s summer and slow at the office.

Simple.

Below: simple is beautiful. I cannot agree more!

by Jeffrey wegrzyn

by jeffrey wegrzyn

I have a growing list of objectives, but top of the list is Finish This Novel. Or rather, finish this draft so that my readers (I have two waiting patiently!) can read and give me opinions. I want to have a complete draft – missing no jump-the-shark holes – and have it make a certain amount of sense… and be more or less pretty before I, well, get help. And help comes in the form of readers, who I trust to read, scribble, giggle, and ask a plethora of juicy and challenging questions.

So… goals:

* Write.

* Write. Fill in the lacunae – those jump-the-shark, I-don’t-know-how-they-get-from-A-to-C moments.

* Read through and edit.

* Read aloud and edit and revise.

* Edit. Revise. You get the idea. Pretty simple.

I won’t be in the chair the whole time. That’s impossible for a restless soul like me. On a good long Saturday, I can manage four hours, broken into two pieces. So if I can accomplish that for five days, that’s good. That’s twenty hours, not including whatever shenanigans I get up to on those Sundays and Saturdays.

Honestly, I fantasize about writing five or six, but I don’t know if I have that kind of energy. We’ll see how it goes, one day at a time. I’m always up for a challenge!

Bits and Sundries when I’m not in the chair:

* Sleeping… but not oversleeping. (Hopefully.)

* Going through closets and shelves and kitchen drawers, and making a great Cull of all the old clothes, doodads and what-else that clutters my apartment.

* Rearranging furniture. (Maybe.)

* Buying clothes – I feel like I’ve been wearing rags for the last two years.

* Browse for books at the neighborhood bookshops. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve set foot in a bookshop or petted a bookshop cat? Far too long.

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by syd wachs

* Play with my own cat, who will appreciate it.

* Take walks. Maybe I’ll mix it up and surprise myself. Go somewhere new.

* Read. Don’t know what, but I will. That’s where the bookshop comes in handy.

* Eat food. Something good. It will be good. Pizza may be involved.

So this week is indeed about self-care as much as it is about writing like a fiend. It is the best thing for a writer – in lieu of an intensive writers’ retreat or conference (some day, some day, though). This requires less money for travel expenses, sessions, and hotel rooms. While having a group of other writers around is always nice, being on my own is not a bad way to be; it’s where I am most in control of my craft. The schedule is flexible… so if I sleep in longer than I’d planned, I won’t have missed anything.

And who knows what other creative things might creep in? Card making? Embroidery? Calligraphy? Journal-making? Bird-watching?

by giulia bertelli

by giulia bertelli

Summer is beginning to wane, but there is enough of it left to inspire and explore. More than enough.

 

Making the World Beautiful

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It’s already been an incredibly long summer. Long in the sense that I find it difficult to write posts for this blog without feeling mute and powerless. There isn’t a patch on the Earth that isn’t in some kind of turmoil or political upheaval, except for perhaps the penguin nations of Antarctica. This is one of those seasons where it is best to keep one’s mouth shut unless it is done carefully. I will not pollute my sensitive palate with pundits or campaign plots or the latest attack on humanity. And, frankly, there is so much not worth saying about an ugly world otherwise.

Which is why I retreat into my own worlds, and why the blog hasn’t been my source of therapy. The draft of my Novel is almost complete and being so close, it’s difficult to do much else. I can only handle so much. And that’s okay.

My job is not to be the wisest person in the most frustrating era. My job is to write, because in writing and making art, I can make the world more beautiful… one day at a time. Even if it is just one lonely little patch on a very big world. Even if for all appearances I’m silent. Even if the endeavor is a giant briar patch. Just write. Just live. That is all. I am a ladybug on a spray of flowers. I will just be.

There is plenty to do in those hours when I can’t be writing. This summer I’ve been deep into Bronte, Eliot and Gaskell. Almost done with Wives and Daughters, I am trying to decide if I want to go back and read Middlemarch or change things up and reread The Stand. Television-wise, I’ve also gone back to Doctor Who, starting in Series One, to slowly savor the old stories that first grasped me over ten years ago. My thoughts for August are about getting a draft ready of the Novel so that others can read it and scribble all over it. My thoughts for Fall are not about a tempestuous election but about Poldark returning to television. More stories, more words to savor.

And the cooler weather, obviously. Hot and humid, I am coming up with more reasons to hate summer than I ever gathered for winter: heat, noisy AC, shedding cat, high electric bill, sweat, insects outside and inside (fruit flies!), frigid AC at work, easy dehydration, sleepless nights, sweat, noisy people, sweat and heat and sweat. I live in a part of the country that sees dramatic season changes so that we’re invariably crabbing about winter and longing for summer or crabbing about summer and longing for winter. But Winter, despite its cold and the lack of sunlight, has a peaceful way about it. It’s easier to escape from cold than from heat. It’s easier to curl up with a cup of tea and a blanket than to camp out in front of the AC. I’d take messy half-melted dirty snow any of these stale, sweating, breezeless days.

Of course, in the Winter, the song will be in reverse, won’t it? I’ll miss the growing things and the garden vegetables and the occasional perfect days. Alas.

In little moments when I need a distraction from the weather (literal and political), I go to Pinterest and look up décor ideas for small apartments and scheme about rearranging the furniture and ponder if an oak dresser will fit in my walk-in closet. I realize that my 465 sq-ft apartment is actually not as small as some of those tiny spaces people inhabit in the bigger cities – and for one person, I have it made – even if I would like a slightly bigger kitchen. I have daydreams about spice racks and nesting tables, strategically-placed mirrors and hanging plants, a simple day bed, filling the trunk with things I don’t need, hiding the television even deeper in the closet, wondering if I could indeed use the built-in bookcase as a desk. This is exercise for an otherwise overtaxed brain, the joy of living well.

And there’s the joy of watching Beatrix-cat perched in the window, taking in the sights and smells of the neighborhood or chasing a hair-tie that I’ve launched passed her. As much as her habit of sinking her little claws into the furniture irritates me, I am blessed to have a healthy cat.

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At the end of the day, elections don’t matter. What matters is how I used my gifts, if I stretched my mind into new possibilities, if I made the world just a tiny bit better by being grateful to God for all these things, and by using all that I’ve been given. Sure, the Novel is still a mess – sometimes a never-ending mess. But it is a good mess to have here, inside where it counts.

Self-care: Permission To Be A Human

Several years ago, a dear friend introduced me to The Artist’s Way, Julia’s Cameron’s book on writing, art and “unblocking” one’s creative sensibilities. Its fundamentals – morning pages and self-care – were immensely helpful in my journey to becoming comfortable with my artist-self.

But this self-care thing? At first it seemed me like a “well, duh” sort of suggestion. Eat right, get plenty of sleep, don’t get over stressed, do fun things, blah blah. It took me a while to realize this isn’t just a matter of “treating yo’ self” à la Tom and Donna on Parks and Recreation. It consists of pampering, yes, but it goes deeper than that. It’s self-awareness – physically, spiritually and mentally – and the ability to give yourself limits. Or to give yourself a break.

I tend to be hard on myself – just ask my closest friends. The fact is, I’m a human being, not a machine. And I also struggle with anxiety, which tends to attack when I’m – you guessed it – tired and already overwhelmed by life. Anxiety is something I try to ignore (emphasis on try) and pretend is under control. “Under control” is a deception because that implies it’s chained up and locked in a closet, when it is actually part of my brain chemistry and follows me around like a looming shadow. Medication has helped tremendously. So has counselling and the mere fact of growing up. But it is still there, ready to pounce when I’m at my weakest.

So what do I need to do? Self-care.

Self-care is…

… Refraining from calling myself a lazy dummy for whatever reason. I am no lazy dummy.

… Knowing my triggers. Anxiety creeps in when I’m dehydrated, over-caffeinated and hungry. Solutions to this are water, water, wholesome snacks (like almonds), and eating protein. One more thing to add: avoiding sugar. (Grumble.)

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by Casey Lee

… Splurging on a choice cut of salmon because it is healthy, delicious and will make me happy.

… Taking time to make myself a nice batch of pancakes or an equally satisfying breakfast. OR… another of my favorites: make something pretty and then eat it. Eat. It. All.

…Taking a day or two (or, dang it, a week) off from the novel-grind when I’m feeling overwhelmed, panicky and stuck. After wards, the novel starts coming back to me refreshed and ready to go. This is especially important to prevent burnout. This does not mean I get to stop writing – instead, it is an opportunity to journal freely or write something completely different.

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by Carli Jeen

… Letting life happen when it happens. For example, much of June has involved visits with my family. I usually never get good writing in when I’m there – simply because I’m distracted and I don’t get the level of privacy I crave for deep creative work. If I go to be with family, I’m going to be with family, not sequestered in the back bedroom with my world-building. I did that when I was a teenager for teenage reasons. At thirty, there is no excuse.

… Sleeping in of a Saturday even if the experts say I shouldn’t. It’s hotter than blazes in Nebraska right now, which means I will usually wake up groggy and gross. So sleeping in? A long midday nap? It’s a logical solution to a problem that will be lurking till the autumnal equinox. No guilt required.

… Saying no to certain activities. Especially if it means preserving energy or sanity.

… Getting up and going to that yoga class even if I don’t feel like it. My body will thank me one day. I hope.

… Walking as a constant, brain-healthy mode of exercise. Without music, without a phone – just me, my brain, and maybe some deep thinking (optional). Going outside and connecting daily to nature is also essential.

by Amy Treasure

by Amy Treasure

… Playing with the cat. Play is fundamental to a young cat’s well-being, not to mention her owner’s. Since I lost Ninja so early and unexpectedly I’ve been conscious of Beatrix’s needs and don’t want to miss out on moments in her little life. She needs the stimulation and the exercise, and she will remind me of this fact by plunging her claws into my furniture. At the end of the day, I don’t want a grumpy and disgruntled pet. I want to give her the best life a cat can have, no matter how long or short it is. And who doesn’t love watching a cat pounce on toy mice or chase hair ties across the room?

We could all take a few lessons from the carefree but intensely-lived life of a cat.

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… Watching television. Yup. For me, it clears the brain-palate and helps me stop thinking obsessively about some new problem with my work-in-progress… especially if it is a good story.

… Reminding myself that I am not a machine, that physically I can only take so much sitting down and pounding the keyboard. It is okay to be tired! Say it “I’m a human! I get tired!”

… Treating myself to a coffee once in a while just because.

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by Jeremy Ricketts

So, you see some of these things are about managing my anxiety, and some of it is simply giving myself permission to be a human. It’s strange how hard that can be sometimes, being nice to oneself, especially in a culture that values maximum productivity. Rest is not a sign of weakness but a tool for recharging the brain, refilling the creative well, and tending to our vital needs. Only then can we expect to create well and live well.

It Takes Work

Today, NPR featured this article on a book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericcson, exploring the connection between talent and hard work. I’ve been drawn to this question of late, as I work on my Great Endeavor and ponder my talents. I am vulnerable to self-doubt, like anyone, but it is a comfort to hear time and time again that hard work most often is the key to success, whatever that “success” might look like. It’s a matter of developing skills over time, not springing out of the womb a ready-made genius.

It begs the question: if it doesn’t take a great effort to create and perfect your art, is it worth doing?

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In April, my Forgotten English calendar (below) also reminded me of the value of hard work. This is nothing new – a concept as old as the Odyssey. I’d never heard of George Henry Lewes (which is the point of Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English) but I’ll remember him for the idea below: perspiration over inspiration.”

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So, practice does make perfect, whatever perfect means. If you spend too much time lamenting over the absent “genius” nothing gets done. Art isn’t always pretty. It’s gritty and messy and sweaty and sometimes we want to throw it out the window, but staying the course is the best plan. Always. “Keep on keeping on.”

Allergies & Astericks

It’s mid-afternoon, and work is at a lull. I don’t typically write at work for obvious reasons. On occasion I’ll dabble with a scene, but a receptionist’s job is to be interrupted at irregular intervals by various things, so this is a rare occurrence. Besides, I’ve been working on the Novel in other hours and am enjoying just sitting here for a change.

Oh, the work’s not over. Far from over. But without moments of quiet (or near as I can get) I will go insane. I could take out a book, but I’m too restless. Part of that is due to a sense of not wanting to do anything and another is the seasonal allergies which make it difficult to breathe without concentration. That is the irony of the season: the weather is absolutely perfect, no rain forecasted for today, warm but not too warm, but my nose is stuffed up like it’s the dead of winter.*

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*Yes, it is definitely spring.

Anyway.

The Novel is still going, that’s the main thing. I did not exactly meet my self-imposed deadline (get draft done by May 31st), but I’ve come pretty darned close. And it is still a glorious mess which will be tackled in various washes and edits. No worries.

By the far the best accomplishment of this long season is learning how to write and not look back at the mess I’ve made. To know it’s  bad but to put the badness aside in favor of getting the thing done. It’s a hard, hard lesson for a chronic perfectionist to learn, especially one who can’t make up her mind about major aspects of the plot. (Wait, who’s dead? Whose baby is that? And what metaphorical state are we in now? Why am I using “we”?)

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My finch neighbor telling me to get back to work.

So I sit here, sipping green tea (they say it’s good for allergies and I can breathe a little better) and letting my mind to wander. Of course, the risk is that it will wander right back to the Novel and start a’messing and second-guessing (rhyme unintended).

Other activities:

1.) Visiting Twitter to peruse daily witticisms, and articles and blogs about novel writing and editing. I’ve especially found Rachel Aaron/Bach’s blog to be friendly help in times of stress.

2.) Trying to figure out what I’ll have for dinner, and a scheme to make another batch of pancakes for this week’s breakfasts.

3.) Eating the last of my raisins, and wishing I had popcorn. 🙁

4.) Avoiding news.*

5.) Daydreaming.

6.) Playing with the features of Scrivener.

*I have an allergy to politics as well as pollen.

All of these things and more are occurring continuously and internally. So if you happen to walk off the elevator and see me staring into space, that’s why. My brain is trying to conserve energy by thinking low-power thoughts. In a minute, armed with coffee (for my soul more than any real need), I’ll probably return to a slow indulgence in Jane Eyre. This nothing-ness is rest. And it is good.

Forgive the rambling nothing-ness of this post. I’m scatter-brained, nearing the end of this phase. I am anxious to start on the Big Edit and revisions that will transform the Mess into Art. Close but not yet.* The end of the beginning, remember. I’ve passed a milestone but there are a hundred ahead of me, each containing those quivering doubts that plagued me all the way through the first round.

Bring. It. On.

*Stats: 181,000 out of 200,000 “written.” (Margin of error) I’m technically on the climax, rewriting it completely from scratch but… I still like the old one better… hm, kinks in the machine. Tinker, tinker.

A Novel Progressing

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If you ask how my novel is going, I might reply “Oh, it’s going.” I’m afraid the vagueness of the statement is a way of avoiding the complicated truth of my work-in-progress. It’s, well, complicated: intricate, constantly evolving, and epic. This means it can be overwhelming and life-consuming, but nonetheless compelling.

Since January I’ve begun thinking of new titles. It’s been Waterwill since its birth… but, as mysterious as it is, it doesn’t quite reflect the spirit of the novel as it once did. For lack of anything better, I’ve decided – for now – to call it Sive Kear, after the narrative character, á la Jane Eyre.

The story itself is, at its heart, the same. But I’d like to think it’s growing up. Sive is growing up, coming into her own. That is the benefit of enduring such a long process of teasing a novel out bit by bit: it evolves and turns corners and never stays the same from draft to draft, version to version. A novel is, in this sense, a living thing. It keeps surprising me, and drawing me back in.

What is Sive’s story? Brace yourself. When I queried agents a few years ago, I called it a marriage of Star Wars and Sherlock Holmes. To some degree it is still true. I’ll give you a teaser:

Five hundred years in the future, Sive Kear is a nurse/nun-in-training on an abbey orbiting a distant planet. She is swept up on a journey with a mercurial man from her past (with the tell-tale name of Dorian) to protect a pregnant runaway from shadowy beings known as ciphers.

I usually keep it pretty close to my chest because it’s so personal and so important to me. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to know; I don’t want someone to take it from me.

A few little curiosities:

1.) Her name is pronounced with a long i, not a long e. “Seeve” is technically correct, as “Sive” is the Anglicized version of the Gaelic “Siabh.” But for my character and this novel, her name rhymes with chive, alive & thrive. Consider it a futuristic deviation. “Kear” rhymes with cheer.

2.) I wanted to write a science-fiction novel that was not heavily dependent on plausible science or explaining everything. While I crave plausibility, I’m more interested in the story and the characters. So… it makes sense to write this from the point of view of a character who is not an engineer, astronaut or scientist. Instead, she’s quite ordinary and a little baffled about the technology that enables people to travel in space. If Sive lived in our century, she’d share my daily stupidity about cars. (“I need the what-belt replaced?”)

3.) My playlist for Sive Kear includes J.S. Bach, Yo-Ya Ma, Florence + the Machine, and selections from Two Steps from Hell (Archangel). Plus other whimsies.

The word count has me right on track. Technically. 155,000 out of 200,000 words. Cool, right? Well, sure, but I have a long way to go. I’m in Phase One: not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning, to channel Churchill. Phase One is getting the thing down, no matter how messy. Phase Two will be cleaning up the mess. And believe me, it is one hot, hot mess.

Why 200,000? That’s a lot of words. And, yes, epic.(To compare it to other long, long works, check out this infographic. Jane Eyre is about 184,000 words.)  I know that by Phase Two 25% to 50% of that total will be excised… or exorcised, depending on my mood.  So 200,000 is really a wide margin for error, rather than a set-in-stone target. I tend to over-write, but that could also be due to the nature of this particular beast: a novel in its 10th (I think) rewrite since 2011.

I’ve learned a lot about my process in this journey. I’m learning that I overwrite – not because I lack discipline – because it takes me a very long time to find my footing and gather my bearings. With this re-rewrite it was doubly torturous, because I was wading through the vestiges of the previous draft, trying to figure out what was still the story and what wasn’t. Now, more than halfway through, I have a much better sense of what is “right” and what isn’t.

I tend to cling to the previous draft like a security blanket… keeping said darlings when they all should be abandoned. I’ve had to remind myself they are not darlings. They’re previous incarnations of characters and story elements that are for the most part redundant. When I go back to revisit those old scenes, more and more I’m finding that they just don’t work for a variety of reasons. Let it go, I say. Not darlings, Jillian, weeds – as high as stalks of corn and as tangled as a briar patch. Only now, I see a way through.

A novel will die a thousand deaths before it truly lives, I think.

I am surprised. When I started this, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wasn’t sure there was enough living tissue in the story to grow again. Like Mary and Dickon in The Secret Garden, I’ve been flying to every naked branch to see if it’s “wick” or alive.

It has never been more alive. Sive has never been more alive.

gaellemarcel brussels