Just Listen

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend workshop. It had nothing to do with writing; it was about soul growth and reincarnation for those of us ‘woo’ types who believe in that sort of thing. In spite of the focus, writing was never far from my mind. That’s partly because I’m writing a book with a past life theme, but also because of a comment made by the facilitator.

“Imagination is real,” he said. “It’s a form of communication if only we’ll listen.”

We tend to think of imagination as pretend. His point was the opposite: imagination might be intangible and immeasurable, but it is as real as love, which also happens to be intangible and immeasurable. Imagination, he added, is communication from the soul . . . from spirit . . . from God . . . from the Source . . . whatever and however you describe it. I wondered if he was describing the muse?

Not every writer believes in a muse though many do, and Ray Bradbury was one of them. “I’m not in control of my muse,” he once said. “My muse does all the work.”

Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art believes in the muse too. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us,” he wrote. “The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

On the other side of the equation, a number of successful and prolific writers find the notion of a muse or any sort of communication absolutely ridiculous. Jodi Picoult, a favorite writer of mine, is one of them. Picoult believes writing is total grunt work; it’s not about the muse. Nora Roberts says every time she hears writers talk about the muse, she ‘wants to bitch-slap them.’ Stephen King says writing is a job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. “It isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about,” King says.

Maybe not. But there’s no denying that for writers and other creative types our imagination bears a great deal of responsibility for the work we do.

The night before I sat down to write this blog, I saw Paul Simon interviewed on Stephen Colbert. He was talking about the inspiration for his song ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.’ Apparently, he was at Joan Baez’s house doing some collaborative work when Joan had to take a phone call. Restless or bored (or maybe a bit of both), he pulled a book off her shelf and began skimming it. He came across a picture of a man and a woman with a dog. Below the photograph was the caption ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.’

He began to think . . . to daydream . . . to weave a story out of the image. Communication, by definition, is a form of sending or receiving information. In that moment, Paul Simon was receiving something intangible that fed his imagination . . . and he listened.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter whether you think imagination is real or pretend. All that really matters is listening to it. Listening and doing the work.

The Importance of Joy

For those of us who are news junkies, last week was tough (one could argue that news junkies have had it tough for the last two years, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). I spent way too much time focused on the Ford/ Kavanaugh testimony before the U.S. Senate, and listening to the analysis afterwards. It brought up a host of emotions for me, not the least of which was how difficult, painful and costly it can be to speak your truth, even when others attempt to deny it.

After a while I had to switch off, switch gears, and seek out something lighter. It was a good reminder of how valuable joyful fiction can be during difficult times.

That started me thinking about joy as a whole: where we find it, how we nurture it and why it matters. That led me to this Ted Talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee. It’s a fast listen – less than fifteen minutes – and it will make you smile. https://www.ted.com/talks/ingrid_fetell_lee_where_joy_hides_and_how_to_find_it?referrer=playlist-how_to_notice_and_build_joy_into_your_life

 

Hats and Books, Oh My

Writing books and making hats have something in common. Who knew? I certainly didn’t when I commissioned Lynda Marie http://www.lyndamariemillinery.com/to make a fascinator for me to wear to our daughter’s wedding. She knew the color of my dress (royal blue), the basic style (simple) and that I was wearing fun, in-your-face pink shoes. I wanted something elegant, I told her. Wedding guest classy, maybe with a little touch of sass.

I was excited when she showed me some of the elements she planned to incorporate. It was going to be beautiful; I had no doubt about it.

A few weeks later she called to say it was ready. Full of anticipation, I went to her studio. The fascinator was gorgeous, I absolutely loved it, but it wasn’t what I expected. In fact, Lynda Marie ended up using almost none of the original elements she’d planned to use. “I tried,” she told me. “I really did. I kept fiddling and rearranging and trying to incorporate some of the pink polka dots and a little of the other material too, but the result just didn’t feel right.”

I know that feeling. There have been times, particularly in the early stages of a novel, where I’ll fiddle and rearrange and fiddle again. Something just doesn’t feel right. If I can’t stop fiddling, I know I need to take a step back and re-evaluate. Is the premise weak? The character’s motive flawed? Is the tone off? Am I worrying too much about whether the story will sell rather than the story I have to tell? If my gut tells me something is off, then something usually is off. Gut feelings rarely steer you wrong.

The same can be said for bespoke hats. “I was trying so hard to make it work but that first creation didn’t feel elegant,” Lynda Marie says. “I was fighting with the pink polka dots and trying to force it because we’d talked about using them, but the result was nothing remotely close to what we’d envisioned.” She pauses. “Some hats come together easily and others don’t, but as my boyfriend reminded me, if I didn’t like the result then chances are you wouldn’t either.” As soon as Lynda Marie let go of what she thought she needed to do and went with what the fascinator was trying to tell her, the piece came together quickly and easily.

Sometimes we have to get out of our own way, leave our expectations at the door, and let the hat or the book or the painting or the quilt (or whatever else we’re trying to create) tell us what it wants to be. Sometimes we have to let the muse have her way.

The results, inevitably, will always be far more beautiful than we could have imagined.

Hat (soon to be) In Hand

In six short weeks, Ms. Uptown Girl will be married. She’ll need a name change for my blog at that point since she’ll no longer be a Ms. or living uptown, but I digress.

In order for the wedding to proceed with any kind of class, I need a fascinator. Ms. Uptown is marrying into a British family (not that British family obviously) and the wearing of hats and fascinators for weddings, even a relatively simple 70 guest affair taking place outside beside the ocean, is something one does. The groom’s mother is wearing one, a number of her friends are wearing them too, and while I haven’t been told I must, it does seem a little, well, lacking in enthusiasm (if not taste) for the bride’s mother to turn up hatless.

And so I began to shop. Selection was thin to non-existent; I even struck out in the big city across the pond. There was nothing remotely suitable. I was either looking at hats big enough to power a small helicopter or pieces of lacy frippery designed more for a baby’s head than mine. Ordering on line was out of the question. I wanted to try it on for size and comfort, and it needed to work with whatever I ended up wearing. I was about to be hatless in Victoria.

Enter Lynda Marie: http://www.lyndamariemillinery.com/

The idea of having a fascinator made hadn’t occurred to me until I ordered my dress. When I mentioned then that I was looking for a fascinator and having some trouble finding one I liked, they pointed me in Lynda Marie’s direction.

She works out of her studio in Victoria where many of her creations are on display.

 

I quickly fell in love . . . with her style and with her enthusiasm. Shopping had never been so much fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She told me about her training in England where she studied under a milliner to the Queen Mother . . . and then how she’d trained in New York where she honed an edgier, more contemporary style. I learned that hats are made from hat block forms or moulds . . . that fascinators are light, decorative headpieces usually made with feathers or flowers or beads  . . . and that those larger fascinators we saw on display at Harry and Meghan’s wedding are referred to in the trade as hatinators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I learned that the sky is the proverbial limit in terms of color and style and all the fun, frippery bits that go along with it. As I write this, Lynda Marie is working her magic and creating something just for me. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

Check back because when she’s done and after the wedding, I’ll post a picture. I’m sure whatever she creates will be gorgeous! 

Overheard This Week

You’ve lost weight.

Thank you.

Word for word and overheard last weekend. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who was speaking and in what context. I was in a dressing room desperately shopping for The Dress That Will Live Forever when a couple of women crowded into the changing cubicle next to me. Within seconds they were discussing their respective appearances; in particular, their weight.

If you think about it, you’ve lost weight is a statement, not a compliment. Yet if you’re like many women living on this blue planet, you’d probably take it as a compliment. A compliment, however, is an act of praise or admiration. In that context, the unsaid part of that exchange is that the woman being spoken to, the one who has apparently lost some weight, is being complimented because she’s more attractive now that she’s thinner (there’s a wealth of politics in that assumption but that’s another blog so I won’t go there).

Given the volume at which the two women were speaking, I can guarantee I wasn’t the only one who heard their exchange. And I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one relieved to have her naked jiggling flesh firmly behind closed cubicle doors where no well-intentioned friend might feel the need to comment on it.

You can never be too rich or too thin. It was the Duchess of Windsor who coined that famous phrase, and it’s an attitude that’s been, for many of us, absorbed into our psyches. Certainly if I wrote a scene with two women in a dressing room and I used those same words, even without context, most readers would jump to the same conclusion and take them as a compliment. They wouldn’t think anything of it.

But if I used the words you’ve lost weight in a scene set in a doctor’s office, or during a visit from a hospice nurse, and if I made my characters come alive in a way that demonstrated they weren’t obsessing about their appearance, hopefully the reader would draw a far different conclusion. A twenty pound weight loss to someone with a heart condition or diabetes could mean health instead of illness. A ten pound weight loss to a pregnant woman could portend trouble ahead. A mere five or even a three pound weight loss to someone who is terminal could mean their life is winding down. The response in a scene like that would probably go from a shallow thank you to a deeper what does that mean? Or even what do we do now?

My mother-in-law died in late March. Having been there while she slowly faded over a period of months, steadily losing weight and unable to swallow at the very end, the words you’ve lost weight came to have a significance beyond appearance to me. Bones need flesh to cover them; without it, we suffer tremendously. Trust me on that. Of course I’m still happier keeping my naked jiggling flesh behind closed cubicle doors. Except now when I catch sight of those jiggling bits in the mirror I’m not so quick to judge. I look at all that padding . . . padding that protects my bones and makes my life comfortable . . . padding that’s a testament to the fact that I carried two brilliant children for nine months (and enjoyed a few too many pieces of carrot cake in the process) and I say a silent thank you. You’ve lost weight means something quite different to me now . . . and that’s not such a bad thing.

What If?

Many years ago, when I was feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities and uncertain about what writing project to tackle next, a good friend asked me a very simple question.

What if you didn’t have to worry about (insert concern of the day here)? Back then I’m guessing I was concerned about family responsibilities and/or generating income. She repeated her question. What if you didn’t have that on your plate? What if you had unlimited options? What would you choose to do next?

What if is a particularly potent phrase, especially when it’s combined with the kingdom of possibility. What if you weren’t afraid? What if you could write whatever you wanted and know it would sell? What if you had the money/had the support/weren’t concerned about potential humiliation/had a sitter/lost that last ten pounds/looked into that trip?

What if can lead us out of our heads and take us to our hearts. It’s a good phrase to ponder, especially at the start of a new year. Choice, as Carolyn Myss says, is the most powerful thing we have going for us. If you’re interested and can spare 25 minutes, she has a terrific YouTube video on this very thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KysuBl2m_w    It’s worth watching.

And the Final Question

What are the three things that trigger your creativity? That was the final question posed by Susan Wiggs at her writing workshop a few weeks ago.

Of all the questions she asked, that one was by far the easiest for me to answer. In fact, so many things trigger my creativity I found it hard to keep it to only three. But when I really stopped to think about it, a number of my creative triggers fall into the same category.

Nature.

I didn’t see the connection initially. Only later when I read my list did I realize how much inspiration I get from being outside. These were the creative triggers I noted down that fell into the same category: walking on the beach; hiking through the park; cycling into the country; planting, digging and playing in my garden. All of those things give my thinking brain a rest and let my creative side come alive.

Travel feeds my creativity too. Circumstances have been such over the last few years that most of my travel has been the armchair variety, but you’d be surprised by how much inspiration you can get from watching a great travel documentary, visiting an ethnic restaurant or reading travel literature.

That brings me to my final creative trigger: books. In my world, reading is not only a source of information but it’s also something I do for pleasure, for escape, for relaxation and for the sheer joy of it. A good book (and, yes, even a bad book) fires my imagination and fuels my creativity long after I’ve read the last page.

What fuels your creativity?

 

The Essentials

Last week’s blog about writing gurus was sparked by a Susan Wiggs talk I attended a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in that post, Wiggs had some questions for the audience. Question one revolved around our writing gurus. Her second question was this: What are your three essential writing tools?

I don’t need much. In fact, it would be pretty accurate to say all I need is either a notebook and a pen or some kind of word processor. That’s it. I’m a minimalist at heart. Less is more in my world.

Given the choice, however, I do like a nice pen. Black ink over blue, a rollerball over a ball point and it needs to feel good in my hand. I can’t quantify that; it either fits well or it doesn’t. It’s like pants. Some look great on the rack but you never really know whether they’ll work until you try them on.

I also like a notebook with pockets. Once I get rolling on a book I tend to make notes or collect pictures, bits of trivia, anything that might contribute something, however small, to the work in progress. Having a single place to keep everything saves me searching through piles of stuff later on.

Last but not least (and the hardest to come by) is quiet. I love quiet for first drafts especially. I’m not one of those writers who produces well in a coffee shop. I don’t want people peering over my shoulder, talking to friends, playing music. I like to create in isolation. Unfortunately, Team Sheltie doesn’t do quiet all that often. Neither does the band that moved in next door. They practise a lot. A LOT. During the day. When I like to write. If they don’t stop soon, I may be adding another essential to this list: a pair of headphones.

What essential tools do you need for your creative work, writing or otherwise?

Impromptu Date

After dinner last week, we had an errand to run in a town 30 minutes away. As we drove in, Mr. Petrol Head was forced to detour because the weekly summer market had taken over the main street. Once our business was done, we headed back that way and spent about 90 minutes wandering the stalls, sampling fresh strawberries, tasting black bean hummus on crackers, and enjoying a few tiny shots of cider. The ocean was at our back and the scent of the sea mingled with the smell of grilled meat and those deadly but delicious market temptations: deep-fried donuts. We chatted to people, patted sweet dogs and listened to a short, impromptu concert.

We had such a good time.

Driving home, I was struck by how infrequently I wander. I’m a planner by nature, generally more disciplined than spontaneous. Even at play I tend to go out with a purpose: I head to a concert or a movie or a lecture; I go out for dinner with Mr. Petrol Head or meet up with friends for drinks. My walking buddies and I text and plan before we link up too: what day, what route, how long. Sometimes we’ll even text in advance about what we want to talk about.

Yeah. Not quite an agenda but not a lot of spontaneity in that. Not a lot of room for wandering, either literally or figuratively.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, is a big believer in artist dates. That’s an hour or longer block of time every week spent with yourself by yourself. Doing something fun to fill the well. She recommends everything from going to a flea market or seeing a vintage movie to lying on the grass and staring up at a tree or possibly even visiting a cathedral. Or maybe the tree is your kind of cathedral. It is mine.

Because I had such a great time at the market last week, I’m taking myself on some artist dates over the coming weeks. Maybe not every week but at least a couple of times a month through the summer. And while Cameron recommends setting these dates up ahead of time, I’m going to block off the time but not set the destination. I’m going to wing it, depending on what’s happening that day and how I’m feeling. I’m going to lean into spontaneity.

I’m going to wander.

Wish me luck.

 

Writers and Walking

Today is National Walking Day which makes it a perfect time to talk about writing and walking. I’m not talking about the benefits of walking and writing at a treadmill desk, though I love mine and recommend you try one if you get the chance. Instead I’m talking about writers who walk as part of their writing life.

First, a quick reminder of body chemistry. Walking, like many other forms of exercise, improves blood flow. It makes the heart pump faster and that sends more blood and oxygen circulating throughout our body and brains. Scientists also believe that regular walking promotes new connections between brain cells and helps prevent brain tissue from withering with age. In short, walking is good for us. And long before scientists were espousing its benefits, writers seem to know it.

William Wordsworth, for instance, was a celebrated walker; his poetry is filled with walks through forests and up mountains. His friend and essayist Thomas De Quincy estimated that the poet walked nearly 180,000 miles during his lifetime, an average of six and a half miles a day starting from about age five.

Virginia Woolf depended on walks through England’s South Downs to “have space to spread my mind out in.” Henry David Thoreau walked three or four hours a day sauntering through woods and fields to collect his thoughts and help inform his prose. When Charles Dickens couldn’t sleep at night, he’d walk London’s streets until dawn. Even when insomnia wasn’t a problem, he was a walker, declaring “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

Danish writer Soren Kierkgaard wrote in the morning and walked the streets of Copenhagen in the afternoon, mentally composing paragraphs and working through new ideas. After the walk, he’d head back to the desk to get his thoughts down on paper.

Ernest Hemmingway also walked as a way to work out issues in his writing. “I would walk when I’d finished work or when I was trying to think something out,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast. “It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something.”

Henry Miller believed most writing is “done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever.”

One of my favorite passages on walking is found in If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland (the book is highly recommended, by the way). She writes: “I will tell you what I have learned myself. For me, a long five-or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day. I have done this for many years. It is at these times I seem to get re-charged.”

More recently, Orson Scott Card was quoted as saying that it’s “worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better.”

And if that’s not enough incentive, how about this last quote from the prolific and successful J.K. Rowling who says, “There’s nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.”

Night or day, walking isn’t only good for you it’s also good for your writing. And that’s something to celebrate on this, National Walking Day.