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

The Joy Factor

Last month I was lucky enough to take an all-day online workshop from Laurie Schnebly Campbell. Campbell, an Arizona writer and workshop facilitator, spent a few hours talking about how to put the joy back in writing. Her take is that writers sometimes lose that joy in the pursuit of publication. Being creative for the sake of creating is fun, but being tied to results can undermine joy.

It’s hard not to be tied to results. When I go into the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread, I expect I’ll end up with something close to edible. After I finish writing today, I’m going out to the garden to plant garlic. Come next summer I expect to be harvesting. I know intellectually that something might go sideways. There could be a power outage just when I get the bread into the oven or weather (or wildlife!) that negatively impacts my garlic harvest, but for the most part I anticipate positive results.

For a writer, positive results equate getting published. But they don’t have to.

A few days after the Campbell workshop, I had a phone catch up with a good friend, a fellow writer who recently lost her mother. Very soon after her mother passed away, a story idea took hold and she began to write. The idea excited her, the distraction from ‘real life’ was a bonus and she found herself being carried away by the story itself, and nothing more. The joy in the writing was propelling her forward in a way it hadn’t for a very long time. She wasn’t giving any thought to outcomes. In her words, she had no idea if the story would ever see publication and that didn’t matter. For her, the joy was in the doing. In the same way a violinist or any kind of musician takes joy in creating lovely music.

That was precisely Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s point. So, how do we get to the place where we aren’t caught up in the results, where joy is our fuel?

Here are some take away suggestions from the workshop.

Write something new. Write poetry instead of prose or a mystery instead of mainstream fiction.

Fill the well away from the keyboard/take some time away from writing.

Write to music that moves you.

Keep a selection of starter phrases on hand to kickstart your writing (examples: I wish I knew at the time . . . or If I’d left an hour earlier)

Go and sit somewhere with great sensory input.

Write about something you love that has nothing to do with writing.

Keep a journal.

And my personal favorite from a fellow workshop participant: “I go to the keyboard and say to myself ‘let’s just sit down and see what happens.’” In other words, she gives herself permission to play.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely give up my expectations around results. I still like knowing flowers will bloom when I plant seeds, cookies will be ready after I bake them, and books will be read after I write them. But I’ve decided to focus more on playing than striving, and to hold onto hope rather than expectations. Hope is a good thing to have these days. And for more on that, you might like to check out this blog by another writer friend of mine, Alice Valdal. https://www.alicevaldal.com/thanksgiving-2020/

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.

 

My June Reads

It’s peony season. Stunning pink flowers are in full bloom outside our cottage by the sea, and red peonies grace the back yard of the house we’ve just bought. In the language of flowers, peonies represent love, romance and good fortune. In Greek mythology, the peony is linked to the moon. It was said that the moon goddess, Selene, created peonies to reflect the moon’s bright beams during the night. That’s especially true of very pale or white peonies. And interestingly enough, I divided some ethereal white peonies before we sold our old house so I could bring a few peony tubers with us. Those potted plants are now unfurling frilly white flowers. Soon it will be time to transplant them into the garden at our new place. For now, though, gardening is on hold while we renovate. At the end of the day, after showering off concrete dust, I relax with a book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

 

At the gym: Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

Before bed: Lasting Impressions by Geoffrey Jowett

On the weekend: The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’Neal

Books read to date in 2019:  24

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

 

My April Reads

There’s a lot happening here this spring. A possible house purchase (fingers crossed because this one has a gorgeous garden), another trip out east to help my father, slow and steady progress on my current YA novel and plans in the works for another Laura Tobias title.

My head is so full with ‘to do’ lists and changing circumstances that I’ve found myself yearning for consistency: writers who deliver with good writing, excellent stories and a happy ending. The books I’m reading this month have given me all three:

At the gym: By Invitation Only by Dorothea Benton Frank

Beside the pond (and by pond I currently mean ocean): Cottage by the Sea by Debbie Macomber

Before bed: Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins

Books read to date in 2019: 17

Summer Time . . . Book Time . . .

It’s that time of year when friends are packing up and heading out on holiday. Books inevitably find their way into carry-ons and suitcases, and I’m sometimes asked to recommend titles. It’s easy if I know their taste (and especially if I share it) but that’s not always the case. When I’m at a loss I always recommend they talk to their favorite book seller or check out some of the lists that pop up at this time of year.

Time Magazine has compiled a list of 22 new books to read this summer:  http://time.com/5285980/best-books-summer-2018/

Since Canada Day is less than a week away, my attention was drawn to the CBC’s 100 Novels That Make You Proud to be Canadian list. Check out their recommendations here:  http://www.cbc.ca/books/100-novels-that-make-you-proud-to-be-canadian-1.4194710

If you’re buying for children and teens, Scripps National Spelling Bee has released its 2018-2019 Great Works (and Great Words) book list. I especially like that they break their recommendations into very specific age ranges (they use grades but you can easily extrapolate to determine suitability for the children in your life). I also like the fact that they mix classics with contemporary reads. http://spellingbee.com/book-list

Finally, if you’re looking for an easy summer beach read you can’t go wrong with one of these romances: https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2018/05/22/summer-romance-books-preview-2018

Happy reading and happy travels!

The Importance of Fallow Ground

Gardeners and farmers know the importance of fallow ground. Allowing a field or a garden bed to rest for a bit – to go fallow – gives the soil’s nutrient balance a chance to naturally restore itself. As the ground rests, fertility can be restored. Letting ground go fallow was a common practice centuries ago, but it’s not as common anymore. As commercial fertilizers became more readily available and the agricultural industry became ever more competitive, it became less and less popular to leave land fallow. Constant production was the goal.

Constant agricultural production, however, is rarely sustainable, at least not in any kind of healthy way. And it’s the same for people. Though we can, and often do, push ourselves to constantly produce, we function best when we have time to rest, time to naturally restore ourselves, to go fallow.

With the ground frozen and the garden resting for the winter, and with the holidays nearly here, it seems only natural that we pause not just to celebrate the season but to renew ourselves. To fill the well, however you define that personally.

So along with wishing you a Happy Solstice and a Merry Christmas, I wish you time for peaceful reflection. And time for peaceful reading too.

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?

 

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.