Thoughts for the Day

I’m protecting my productivity this week (see last week’s blog if you missed the reason why) and that means keeping this blog short.  

As I mulled over what to write, I googled ‘this day in history’ for ideas. Though I think of spring as a time for new beginnings, a few new beginnings or creative undertakings were launched on this date over the years.

German engineer Gottlieb Daimler unveiled the world’s first motorcycle, the Daimler, on this date in 1885. Sesame Street was launched on November 10th, 1969. And author Neil Gaiman was born on November 10th 1960. Gaiman, who has written Neverwhere, Coraline, and Stardust among others, is a dedicated user of fountain pens and writes the first draft of all his books with one.

That takes commitment. And time. And since my time is committed this month, I’ll leave you with two Neil Gaiman quotes to inspire you.

“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So, write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”


My Summer Reads

Life has thrown a few too many curve balls these last few months, so I’m taking most of the summer to be still. To listen, to think, and to enjoy simple pleasures like picking dew-touched blueberries, or the intoxicating smell of lilies on a warm night, or losing myself in a good story. You’ll find me back here on a regular basis come fall. But for now, I’m filling the well with silence and some great books. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Atlas of Happiness by Helen Russell

The View From Here by Hannah McKinnon

Books read to date in 2021: 55

Embracing the Stillness

Last week, after nine months of working at home, Mr. Petrol Head went back to the office. There, the door is locked; everyone is physically distanced and separated by plexiglass; there are masks, sanitizer, and he must fill out a daily form stating that he’s well and without Covid symptoms.

Other than Team Sheltie who like to herd me on the treadmill desk when I start writing, or bark at the courier when the bell rings, the house is quiet and still. It is empty. Or at least it’s emptier than it was a few weeks ago. And I think my muse has noticed.

Mr. Petrol Head isn’t especially loud. When he was home during the week, he would be at his desk and I would be at mine. We’d always connect at lunch, but the rest of the time we were both silently engrossed in our respective jobs. Yet I always knew he was there. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s a different quality to the air when you know someone is close by. Or maybe the nurturer in me is automatically attuned to another body in the house.  

After a few days of him being back at the office, my productivity seemed to increase. I also seemed to be thinking more deeply and in new ways about my work in progress. I thought perhaps I was imagining things. I also felt vaguely guilty. It’s not like I want him out of the house. I like his company.

Around the same time, I received my latest hold from the library, a book I’d requested many months ago. Simple Living:100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy by Shunmyo Masuno. It’s a short volume of single page entries designed to make you think. And think I did when I opened it to the first entry.

Make time for emptiness.

The words struck a chord because I’d been thinking about how empty the house is without Mr. Petrol Head in it.

Masuno goes on to ask if we have time to think about nothing in our everyday lives. It’s important, he believes, to make time for emptiness, even ten minutes of emptiness, every day. He writes: “when you are not distracted by other things, your pure and honest self can be revealed. And that’s the first step towards creating a simple life.”

I know he’s speaking about meditation, or something close to it. But the same concept applies to the creative life. In the same way that we need to empty a vase before we can fill it with water and add flowers, we sometimes need to empty ourselves before we can fill back up with our muse. We sometimes need stillness, complete stillness and an empty house, to create.

The house isn’t completely empty – I do have my ever-present canine pals – but there is a stillness in the air these days. And that makes it easier to hear my muse.

The Gift of Sight

In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

                                    High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver

I was reminded last week about the gift of sight, a gift we sometimes take for granted. Unless or until your sight is diminished, it’s relatively rare to be conscious of how much joy sight brings to our lives. I certainly don’t get up every morning and celebrate the sight I see in the bathroom mirror, though I always smile at my first glimpse of Team Sheltie.    

Last Saturday night, Mr. Petrol Head asked me to examine his left eye. “Does anything look different from the right?” he asked. Turns out, the left eye was so blurry he could hardly see out of it. It was, he said, like having “a thick film of Saran wrap covering his eyeball.” More than half his vision was gone, and it had happened just in the last hour or so. If that wasn’t alarming enough, he told me it wasn’t the first time he’d had the problem, though it had never been this bad. But the blurriness had been coming and going for three weeks at least.

After a weekend of fretting (and spending a little too much time in the company of Dr. Google), he saw the optometrist today. It turns out he has something called narrow angles which, if not treated, can lead to permanent vision loss. The cure (laser surgery to shoot holes in your eyes) doesn’t sound at all appealing but apparently, it’s effective and carries little risk. He’s scheduled to get it done later this month.

Growing up, I watched as my grandmother slowly went blind. She had diabetes, and while she went through multiple laser surgeries to prolong the inevitable vision loss, eventually she was left with very little sight. She took it in stride, and with amazing grace, though there were times it got her down.  

Memories of my grandmother, and especially what Mr. Petrol Head went through this past week, have made me look more clearly at my life the last few days. I don’t usually think of winter as being visually remarkable, but I am wrong. The holly bush is glossy and covered with brilliant red berries. The daffodils are poking through the soil in our front and back gardens, and the winter heather is in full bloom, covered with tiny purple-pink flowers. The blue jays flit from tree to tree, splashes of color against the cloud-filled sky, and on the trail as we walk Team Sheltie, there is a brilliant wink of yellow as a tiny pine siskin hops through the leaves searching for dinner.

There is beauty all around . . . and I am lucky enough to be able to see it.

And a New Year Begins . . .

I’m a little late to the ‘Happy New Year’ party but I’m here with enthusiasm, does that count?  I hope the opening chapter of your 2020 was happy/peaceful/celebratory (pick one, or pick all three). Mostly I hope it began optimistically.  

January is a time of fresh starts, new beginnings. It’s a time when many of us make resolutions. And some of us resolve to make no resolutions at all. I’m normally in the latter camp. I’m goal focused – I love to set goals and look ahead with optimism – but I’m not so much for resolutions. Only something about this year feels different, and I feel compelled to set some writerly resolutions.

This year I will:

  1. Measure productivity, not results. We’re a results-oriented culture. Most businesses measure success by results and many writers do too. We often count the number of books or articles we publish in a given year, or the amount of money we make from our efforts. But some things are out of our control. This year I will concentrate on my daily productivity and worry less about results.

2. Listen more and talk less. What are your thoughts on that?

3. Set realistic goals. Life has demanded a lot from me over the last few years. I’ve been meat paste in the sandwich generation of life and it has played hell with my output. Unfortunately, I don’t see it changing any time soon. Nevertheless, I will set goals and do my best to reach them.   

4. Practice kindness. It goes without saying, right? But I’m not always kind to myself. Someone told me recently we should treat ourselves as we would treat a best friend. I think that’s important, and it’s especially helpful when life demands much of us. Or when we’re struggling to reach #3 (see above).

5. Treat that 1st draft as a precious baby. Don’t judge or criticize. Hold a protective, tender space; know it will grow and evolve but right now it needs acceptance and nurturing.

6. Find a new-to-me author. Or three. Or six. Read someone new. Read out of my comfort zone. Read and read some more.  

7. And number seven. Ah, 7. Did you know that in numerology number 7 combines the hardworking number 4 with the mystical and creative number 3. Seven is associated with luck, intuition, inner wisdom and magic. It’s prominent in ancient cultures (there were seven wonders of the world) and it has held significance in virtually every major religion. So, it seems fitting to end with a resolution to make personal renewal a priority this year, however that looks like in any given day or week. Hard work is good. Hard work combined with intuition, inner wisdom and personal renewal is better. In fact, I’d call it an unbeatable combination.

Happy New Year and happy reading.

Yes, You Need That Break

For writers who don’t write quickly, it can be hard to justify taking a break. Instead, we often push ourselves to write more, while mentally beating ourselves up for not being as prolific as we’d like. However, the research is clear: taking a break from what we’re working on can actually improve productivity. A new and growing body of research outlined in the New York Times shows that strategic renewal – daytime workouts, coffee breaks, time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations – boosts productivity, job performance and health.

Many writers rely on the routine of a daily walk. Stephen King gets in about four miles a day; Charles Dickens logged about three hours every afternoon.  Walking leads to more creative thinking than sitting does. Researchers from Stanford University found it boosted creative output by 60 percent. That’s significant. We walk Team Sheltie once or twice a day and I look forward to the break. It often sparks story ideas or helps with my work in progress.

But a walk is just a walk. And unless you cycle or drive to a new destination every day, the same old walking routine can become stale fast.

That’s where the artist’s date comes in. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The brainchild of Julia Cameron, the artist’s date is a weekly solo expedition to explore something that interests you. It need not be overly ‘artistic.’ Cameron says it’s more ‘mischief than mastery.’ It’s meant to fire up the imagination and spark whimsy.

To be worthwhile, an artist date must happen every week and it must be taken alone. No friends, spouses, children allowed. It should involve leaving the house. What about being housebound because of bad weather, you ask. Cameron believes that an occasional in-house date if you’re alone and devoting yourself to something that ‘fills the well’ is acceptable but the goal is an excursion out of the house. Essentially, it’s a two-hour play date where you indulge your inner child.

It doesn’t have to cost anything, other than time. Some ideas:

Visit a shop that has nothing to do with what you actually do – an art supply store, a music store, a fabric, bead or (my favorite) a yarn shop.

Visit a U-pick farm.

Go to a graveyard and read the tombstones (it sounds morbid but this is great for writers who want story ideas).

Explore a neighboring town, or a part of your town you aren’t familiar with.

Take a hike.

Walk around town and take pictures of what inspires you.

Watch the birds.

Go to Home Depot with $5 in your pocket. See what cool things you can find to create an art project with five bucks. Go crazy.

Visit a plant nursery and plan your perfect garden.

Go to the library and find a book on a subject you know nothing about. Check it out.

Spend some time at a furniture auction.

Go for a bike ride.

Listen to live music.

Take yourself out for afternoon tea and people watch.

Visit a rock hound shop.

See a movie that appeals to you.

Go to a museum.

Watch a sunset.

Visit a farmer’s market.

And my personal favorite: walk on the beach and watch the waves crashing on shore.

 

                Small – and Not so Small – Signs

Last week, I finished doing a substantive revision on No Right Thing. Revising, as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Polishing and tweaking can take a story from good to great, and I think No Right Thing is one of the best YA novels I’ve written so far. A big shout out to Melanie Jeffs at Crwth Press for comments and suggestions that gave me the springboard I needed to dive in and make some changes.

One thing Melanie wanted me to look at was my story pacing. She felt the speed in which I showed signs of change on the part of my protagonist, Cate, wasn’t working as well as it could.  While Melanie wanted the external story to maintain its brisk, forward motion, she thought a slightly slower unspooling of Cate’s internal growth would serve the story better. So, I went back and started small, slowly stacking up Cate’s discomfort and signs of internal growth until she comes to the inevitable big, black moment when there is no turning back . . . when she is forever changed.

Starting small and not revealing everything at once is the pace you want in a novel because it creates tension. I thought I had that in place, but it sometimes takes a good editor to help an author take it to the next level.

In case I missed the message about the importance of slowly building tension, life reinforced the lesson last week in the form of a bear. Or, more specifically, the sign (this one not so small) of a bear.

Saturday morning, we took Team Sheltie for a walk along the trail behind our house. Within spitting distance of our back gate, we discovered a substantial pyramid of scat. It was bear scat, I told Mr. Petrol Head. No, he said, it was from a large dog. Not possible, I retorted. It was either an elephant or a bear and since there are no wild elephants on the island, I was betting on bear. But even as I spoke the words, I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t want to be sure.

Sunday morning while walking the same trail, a neighbor confirmed the left behinds were the gift of a bear, though he hadn’t seen it. They’re fairly common in this area, he reported.

I became uneasy. When we moved here a few months ago, we loved the close proximity to trails and creeks and ravines. I knew those areas were home to wildlife, but my citified mind conjured squirrels, racoons, birds, maybe a cute deer or two.

Monday morning, a second neighbor told us he’d been followed down the trail by a black bear the previous day. The only reason he knew about it was a couple walking towards him had seen it and pointed it out. He hadn’t glimpsed it himself.

My unease grew. I know the animals were here before us. I realize we share their habitat. I understand the importance of peaceful coexistence. But we live in a town. With paved roads. Streetlights. And houses. Lots and lots of houses.

Tuesday morning, yet another neighbor reported that she’d seen two black bears by the apple tree across the street. Last summer, she added, officers relocated six bears from this neighborhood.

Unease settled into my bones. Having a bear (or three) within spitting distance of my back door would take some (translation: a lot of) getting used to.

Just as I was mulling over the escalating tension and pacing of my own personal week, there was a new wrinkle in what we refer to around here as the weekly wildlife count. In fiction, we’d call it a twist in the action.

A cougar was spotted on the trail. Not out in the open because cougars, unlike bears, are stealthy creatures. A woman walking her dog in the moonlight caught sight of gleaming eyes staring at her out of the bushes. She beamed her flashlight in that general direction and, sure enough, it was a cougar. Crouched at the base of a tree. Waiting.

A cougar waiting in the bushes while she walked the trail. In. The. Moonlight. That woman, in a fictional world, would be the fearless heroine. She would not be me.

I have enough on my plate dealing with the pacing of my manuscripts. And the escalating bear sightings outside my back door.  

Filling the Well, Mosaic Style

I’m not great at finding time to play, and that’s been especially true lately with so many demands on my time. But as Julia Cameron talks about in “The Artist’s Way” it’s critical to take breaks, interact with the world and fill the inner well that fuels our creativity.

I thought about that last week when I took a class from Debra Hagen, a Nanoose Bay artist who specializes in mosaic art. I knew almost nothing about mosaics until I visited Debra at her house (okay, technically Team Sheltie went on a play date to visit Debra’s two shelties, Seamas and Merlin, and the humans accompanied them). Her home is vibrant, welcoming and filled with samples of her gorgeous mosaic art. 

Every piece drew me in. Some were bold, others were more subtle, but they were all beautiful. When Debra said she gave classes in her studio downstairs, I was tempted, though I’m not at all artistic. I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt I told her. I’m lousy with textiles. I’d probably mess up papier-mache.

Debra assured me it didn’t matter, so I decided to make a trivet. Something bright for my new kitchen.

 

 

Debra’s studio overlooks the garden and it has the kind of happy vibe found in any creative space: a feeling of expectancy and a sense of promise. Plus, it’s filled with more of Debra’s stunning art.

I enjoyed a cup of tea while Debra gave me a very brief introduction to mosaics. She pointed out her many containers of tesserae, the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other materials used to make mosaics . . . and the pottery and china that can be broken up and also used in a mosaic. It’s referred to as pique assiette.

She talked about the substrate or rigid surface that you need to form the base, the adhesive or glue that’s used to attach the tesserae, and the basic tools like the wheeled nippers I’d need to do the job.

Like writing, the first step was settling on an idea and getting started. I quickly realized saying I was going to make a trivet was like saying I was going to write a novel. The statement was too broad. In the same way that a novel needs a plot or a character or a problem from which to build, my trivet needed something from which to build too: a central focus or a color or a piece of tile. Something. I decided on a heart for the center which Debra helped me outline on my plywood substrate.

 

We looked at the various bits of red tesserae that might work, but I wasn’t hooked. My eye kept going back to the china and pottery.

I found a plate with colors and a pattern I quite liked. Though it wasn’t at all red or heart-themed, something told me to go with it. I began breaking it up.

I hadn’t consciously noticed the couple on the plate when I chose it, but as I began to play with my layout, I decided they would form the center of the heart. How could they not?

Because I wanted to be sure I was happy with my layout, I placed many of the pieces on my substrate before I began gluing. That made for a longer process but I felt more confident doing it that way. At the end of the day, I wasn’t finished, but my heart had taken shape and I was thinking about background colors which I’ll tackle next time. 

Once the background tesserae is glued down, those small pieces will need 48 hours to dry before it’s time for the final step: grouting.

I left Debra’s studio feeling refreshed and energized . . . and thinking about my next mosaic project!

Debra is a great teacher. She’s instructive and helpful, and at the same time she’s wise enough to step back and let the artistic process unfold. For more information on her classes or to buy one of her mosaics, she can be reached at goldbugmosaics@gmail.com

 

An Attitude of Gratitude to Kick Off 2018

Last January I started a gratitude jar. Whenever I thought of it – sometimes every day or maybe a few times a week – I’d jot down something I was grateful for and slip the colorful Post-It note into a jar. This practise has been around for a while; I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

I sat down and read through my 2017gratitudes last week. A clear pattern emerged. The largest number of gratitude notes focused on the support of friends: the walks and talks, watching movies together, sharing meals, laughing and commiserating. Gratitude for the books I read and the movies I watched came next, closely followed by gratitude for the beauty of nature; for the food I managed to grow in the garden; and for enjoying the best margarita of my life, thanks in part to the company (waving at you Keith and Carol-Anne).

There was gratitude for Mr. Petrol Head’s successful surgery; gratitude for letters and emails I received thanking me for my work; and no small amount of gratitude to my family, including Team Sheltie who share my days.

It occurred to me as I read through the notes that virtually every gratitude depended on the energy of someone or something to make it happen. The energy of a reader writing a thank you note . . . the energy of a friend making time to visit . . . the energy of nature providing such spectacular sunsets.

I’m doing the gratitude jar again this year. As I slip in the first few notes, I can’t help but see the same trend emerging. So this time, along with being thankful for the thing I write about, I’m also sending up a whisper of thanks for the energy behind the action. Happy 2018! 

 

A Lesson in Patience, Persistence and Timing

The garden is one of my best teachers and I was reminded of that last week when we picked kiwifruit from our vines. Seventy-five of the fuzzy, egg-shaped fruits if you want an exact number. I planted the vines myself over a decade ago and this is the first year we’ve had any kind of harvest.

Kiwifruit typically take 3 – 5 years to mature and produce fruit, so we didn’t expect fast results. Being reasonably patient I was good with that; some things are worth waiting for. After the first five or six years with no sign of fruit we began to wonder. But we didn’t wonder too much because life was busy and we had a crisis-filled stretch there for a while. By about the seven year mark, however, when we had flowers but no fruit set, I began to fret.

Maybe I needed to augment the soil with more organics. Prune differently. Maybe I wasn’t watering properly. One cool spring I was convinced we had a shortage of bees at pollination time. Maybe I needed to throw a party for the bees and make sure they hung around for a while. In short, I was convinced the lack of fruit set was the result of an operational error on my part. I had to be doing something wrong. So I began to adjust and tweak and adjust some more.

Around the barren eight or nine year mark, Mr. Petrol Head noticed that the flowers on both sets of vines appeared to be identical. This was significant because kiwifruit need a male and female vine to produce. We hadn’t given it much thought up until then because we knew we’d purchased a male and female vine; they’d been labelled as such at the garden centre.

By now the stocky vines were half way to heaven and we needed a very long ladder to reach them. We plucked a couple of blooms, googled, scratched our heads, googled some more. Finally we took the delicate flowers out the peninsula to a famed tropical fruit grower who told us within seconds that we had unfortunately been sold two male vines. Mislabelling tended to be a fairly common risk with kiwifruit vines, he said, adding that he’d lost track of the number of customers who’d come to him with the same problem. And so what to do?

We considered digging up one of the two vines but I was reluctant. For one thing, the trunks were the size of a small child. For another, they were like my children. Barren or not, I was attached to the damned things and I couldn’t bear the thought of adopting one out or tossing it onto the compost heap. The grower suggested we opt for a graft. For a small fee, he’d be happy to make a house call and do the deed. Yes, we gave our kiwifruit vine a sex change operation, turning one of the males into a female. Twenty months later we were harvesting fruit.

Coincidentally (or maybe not because I don’t really believe in coincidence) while this was going on, I was circulating a YA novel that has yet to find a home. It’s a story I love, solid and well told. After yet another ‘no thanks’ I began to fret.

Maybe I needed to boost the story somehow. Or cut it down. Maybe the main character wasn’t likeable. Maybe there was a shortage of descriptive passages. Or one too many. Maybe the party scene out at the lake needed more bees! In short, I was convinced my inability to sell the novel was the result of an operational error on my part. There had to be something wrong with it.

Or not.

Maybe the novel is a little like the kiwi. Maybe it needs a period of dormancy before it’s ready to shine. It’s doubtful the story needs a graft or any kind of sex change operation but for whatever reason, it’s not bearing fruit quite yet. Selling a novel, like growing kiwifruit, requires patience, persistence, and timing.

In my enthusiasm to place the novel, I’d conveniently forgotten that. It took my first ever kiwifruit harvest to deliver yet another lesson – a repeat lesson – from my garden.