10 Takeaways from France

CobblestonesI flew home from Paris last Sunday, and as I write this, I'm still a bit jet lagged.  One of these days I'm sure I'll get back to a normal sleep schedule.  I now seem to rise at 4:30 every morning–at least it gives me time to write.

But I'm not complaining.  Because travel–any kind of travel, but especially international travel–is good for the writer's soul.  Really good.  So herewith is a round-up of some of my impressions of France, and how I see they relate to writing.  (Because, you know, everything relates to writing.)

1. Potato chips.  You gotta love a country that is as obsessed with potato chips as France.  Nearly every bar or cafe brings you a little cup of them with your wine or Orangina (my new obsession).   It's offering a little something extra–a habit we writers would be wise to emulate, don't you think?  Take the time to go deeper, to go back and rewrite that scene you've never quite been able to get right.  Take the time to give a little extra in your writing and your life.

2. Fantastic wines from the Languedoc Roussillon region.   Oh man, we loved the wines from the area we stayed in.  (It was the south of France, but very close to Spain.  Big Catalan influence with many signs in both languages.)  What can I say?  Setting is important. Bring yours to life with details from the location you're setting your story in.

3.  Water follows a natural course.  In Ceret, the sides of the narrow, cobblestones streets have gulleys in which water flows all day and night.  (See photo above.) The sound of running water and church bells chiming the hour (starting at 7 AM–no sleeping late there) are a constant backdrop.  Hopefully, your writing flows, too.  It does when you just let it, go I've learned.  And it doesn't when you force it.

4.  You will get jet lag.  And that's a fact.  The best way I found to cope  was to go with it.   The first few nights in France, I awoke every night and stayed awake
for a few hours, but I was so excited to be in Paris (and have a 360
degree view of the city, including the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur)
that I just got up and admired the vista.  You will get writer's block at some point, too.  My advice?  Quit resisting and go with it.  Take a break.  Refresh yourself.  You'll get back to the work, trust me.

5.  French women do have more style.  They just do.  And I think its because they make an effort to put their best selves forward in every situation.  Even if they are running to the corner boulangerie, they pay attention to what they're wearing.  Do me a favor, would you?  Check over your manuscript one more time before you send it out to anyone.  Make sure its formatted correctly (double spaced, please) and that there are no typos. I've seen a lot of manuscripts lately wherein the writer seems to have forgotten this crucial step.  Put your best self forward.

6.  If you don't speak the language, try anyway.  My high school French is rusty, very, very rusty.  But a smile and a sincere effort to communicate always did wonders.  Funny, because this was one of the things I worried about most but I always muddled through.  So maybe its time for you to try writing that personal essay you've been mulling?  Perhaps you really do have a novel in you? (And by the way, if you decide you want to learn a language, there's a fabulous free website called Duolingo that can help you.)

7.  In Ceret, there's a boulangerie on every block.  (Kinda like there's a coffeeshop on every corner here in Portland.)  Every morning, I'd take a walk and swear I would not return home with chocolate croissants.  I'll leave it to your imagination to decide how successful I was.  But this baked goods abundance made me think about ideas, and how we live in a rich stew of them.  An idea on every corner!  And many more in between.  We just have to become aware.

8.  Tourist areas are fun–but many other areas offer delights as well.  I traveled through Paris on my way to and from Ceret.  My first couple of nights in the city, I stayed in the home of a wonderful woman named Diane (this was where I had the amazing view of Paris).  I rented this place through AirBandB.com.  On my way back, I stayed in a fancy hotel on the Champs Elysses (thanks, Marlene).  Two very different experiences.  Is there a different area of your creativity you'd like to explore?  Painting?  Line dancing?  Fiber arts?  Head off the beaten path and see what you create.

9.  A community of writers is crucial in so many ways.  Our hardy band of retreaters read and commented on each other's work every morning as part of our workshops.   Not only did they enjoy the support and trust that sprang up, but they spurred each other on to new heights in their writing.  No kidding.  You wouldn't believe some of the amazing work that got put on the page! Find your community, whether it's a physical or in cyberspace.  (And I have one word for anyone interested in going on retreat with us next year: Italy.)

10.  All roads lead to Perpignan We took the bullet train (that baby really is fast) from Paris to Perpignan, which is a bit of a hub.  It's where Salvador Dali reputedly had a psychedelic experience that led him to declare that Perpignan was the center of the universe.  This may well be true.  As we were out and about on the countryside, we discovered that no matter which direction we traveled, there would be a sign saying we were on the road to Perpignan.   For me, this is true of writing as well.  All roads lead back to my writing.  All experiences, everything that happens, are reflected in my writing one way or another.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

What about you?  Does travel, foreign or domestic, inspire you?  What exotic locale would you most like to visit?

***The above photo was taken by moi.  I had planned to add a bunch more images to this post, but major wonkiness is going on with Typepad and photos.  I took tons of pictures, some blurry, some crooked, some actually halfway good, and you can see them all on my Instagram stream.


Checking in on the Three Words of the Year

Did you choose three words (or one word) to live by this year?  Have you checked back to see how you're doing with these words?

Last December, in a post titled Three Powerful Words for An Amazing New Year, I announced my words and the thought behind them.  Since we're halfway (gasp) through the year, I thought it would be fun to revisit my words and see how I'm doing.  I'm wondering if you might think it is time to do the same thing with your words.

One reason I'm doing this is because I've written the words on a post-it note that is stuck to a cabinet above my desk, and my gaze falls upon them when I stare off into space.   Most of the time, I barely notice them, but once in awhile the words come into focus and I ponder them.   Yesterday, I pondered them so hard that I finally checked back to the original post to see how I'm doing.

The answer is that I'm doing okay.  Probably not great, but okay.

My three words for the year are creativity, faith, and inquiry. 

I'm going to talk about faith first, because its the word around which I'm doing the best.  In my post I wrote about my faith in God, which is important to me, but also faith in myself, what I'm doing, and that everything was going to be all right.  I wrote about having faith in my ability to go deep within and uncover the riches that are buried there.  And in the six months since I wrote that, I've been learning to do all of this on an ongoing basis–learning being the operative word.  What I'm learning is that faith of this nature responds to effort, maybe even requires effort, and that by making the effort you begin to create the faith.  One of the hallmarks of this year is that I've been consistently making the effort.

I'm doing fairly well with inquiry, too.  In the original post I wrote about not wanting to take things at face value, to dig a bit deeper mentally and form my own opinions.  I still leap to judgment, oh dear lord how I leap to judgment.  I can read a rant on the internet and be totally convinced of its truth, then read oppositional comments and switch to the other point of view immediately.  Such is the curse of the impressionable mind. One way I am using inquiry successfully is to turn off the internal blame machine, and this is a wonderful thing.  If I've eaten a piece of chocolate cake, for instance, or fallen down on my writing goals, I say to myself, "Hmmm, I wonder why that happened."  Or, "Wow, that's interesting.  Wonder what's going on?"  This allows me to observe myself more objectively.  The thought occurs I should turn this style of inquiry to the outside world as well.

And finally we get to creativity.  Falling down a bit here. I'm a lifelong knitter and I love the craft.  It soothes me, satisfies my need for beauty, and allows me to make useful things.    There's nothing I love more than spending an afternoon poking around yarn stores, then coming home with a new project and casting on.  But here's the deal: I don't do it enough.  One of the things I wrote in my year-end post was how I wanted to partake of this kind of creativity more regularly.  I've got opportunity: my pug Buster loves nothing better than for me to sit with him and watch TV in the evenings, and Buster is ancient old and so I figure I better humor him while I can.  This would be a perfect chance to indulge in this creative hobby of mine, but do I?  Sometimes.  And I can't figure out why I don't do it more.  Time to take advantage of that inquiry that is the other hallmark of this year.

Alrighty, then.  That is far more than enough about me.  What about you?  Did you choose three words for the year?  What were they?  How are you keeping up with them?


The Art of Seeing

Everystockphoto_193921_mA writer is nothing without ideas.

Ideas are so important to our craft that I do a whole class on them.

Where do ideas come from?

One place they come from is observation.  Which means the ability to see is vital to the writer.

Here's the deal: we get wrapped up in our stuff really easily.  I do it, you do it, we all do it.  And when we're wrapped up in our own stuff, that means we're not observing the world.  We're not seeing.  And thus we're not allowing new ideas to filter in.

So if the art of seeing becomes an important creative act, how do we encourage ourselves to do so?  I have some guidelines:

1.  Be present. Yeah, yeah, a no-brainer.  But how present are you as you move through your daily activities? Are you awake and aware or going through the motions?  Being present to your life can make the difference between sleep-walking through it or gathering all kinds of ideas for writing.

2.  Change things up. Do you drive to work the exact same way every day and see the same things? Visit the same cafe for lunch all the time?  Try something new!  Maybe you can't take a vacation at this exact moment but you can take mini-vacations by changing up your daily routine.

3.  Observe in categories.  Writers need to know things–like what noses look like and how hairdos work.  We need to understand details so that we can write details.  So assign yourself categories to observe–shoes, cars, dialogue–and write down what you find.

4. Listen.  Too often we get so wound up in what we're saying we're not listening.  Or, while another person is talking, we're planning what we're going to say.  That's not listening and it's not being present.  Try relaxing and really listening and see what happens.

5.  Get over yourself.  You're great.  I know you are.  But when it comes to the art of seeing, check your ego at the door, as the saying goes.  You can remind yourself later, when you're back at home with a pocketful of ideas, how great you are.  (Or, the flip side of this coin–how nervous you were being out in the world observing.)

6.  Write down what you see.  Obvious.  But maybe not.  Don't depend on your faulty memory to remind yourself of that great observation about what taxicabs look like.  Because you brain won't remember.  Trust me.  Write stuff down.

7.  Practice remembering.  This is for the times when  you can't write stuff down.  Years ago, I remember hearing about a famous journalist–Tom Wolfe? Joan Didion? I can't recall–who, when on a story, took no notes.  He or she had appointments, did interviews, went through her day and when she returned to her hotel room at night sat at the typewriter (it was a long time ago) and wrote down everything she saw and heard.  Now that's practicing memory skills.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Take yourself out on an observation date right now (or as soon as possible).  Grab your journal, hit the nearest coffee shop, and see.

Please comment!  What are your favorite tricks for seeing and remembering details?

Writing Inspiration: Sometimes You Just Have to Wait

Hourglass_hour_glass_263769_lYou've all heard the party line about getting ideas for writing (and I say it myself, often): you can't sit around and wait for inspiration to strike you, you've got to make it happen by sitting down and writing.

It's good advice because it's true advice.

Except for when it's not.

Last week when I was sick I spent a lot of time prone on the couch.  The first couple of days I lay there in what I'm certain was an unattractive manner, considering I hadn't had a shower in a couple of days and…. never mind, I'll spare you the details.  The second couple of days I read (by then I was clean of body, too).   Voraciously.  And somewhere along the line I suddenly started getting ideas for my novel.  The very same novel that had been stalled at the start of chapter three, because I couldn't decide: funeral scene or scene in high-rise office?

I knew I was feeling better when I leapt from the couch, searching for paper and pen.  And thus I have notes for chapter three scrawled on a pad of paper decorated with holly berries, a bonus item the boys of the St. Joseph Lakota school sent me in hopes I'd donate to their cause (along with a dream catcher and a thick stack of address labels).

Had I not gotten sick, I would have diligently forced the issue of chapter three.  I would have thought.  And thought some more.  And walked.  And done free writing assignments.  And taken notes. I would have goosed the muse until the poor muse was so overwhelmed and exhausted he would have yelled, "Stop! Here's an idea already!"

But that didn't happen this time.  Instead, I lolled about and the ideas came.  So I'm thinking my new modus operandi is to just lie on the couch all the time.  Kidding!  Sort of.  Because I believe what happened last week was that my brain finally got quiet enough for me to listen.  The week previous had been full of holiday stuff, and there was much important business and scurrying around and not a lot of quiet.  So I'm putting quiet, just plain quiet, at the top of my list for idea gathering and getting unstuck.

For the record, here are my other top ways to get unstuck:

  • Walk
  • Repetitive motion activity (knitting, weeding, sewing, lawn mowing)
  • Free writing
  • Reading (especially a book on writing craft)
  • Creative projects (doodling, painting, collage, etc.)

The great thing about writing is that things always change.  What worked once may not work again.  What's never worked before suddenly works like a charm.  The way you wrote your first novel, in a white heat with words flowing so fast you can barely keep up, seems like a distant memory as you plod through your second novel, word by painful word.

And this, my friends, is what makes writing the most fascinating profession in the world.

How do you get unstuck?

*Don't forget to sign up for my free bi-weekly newsletter, The Abundant Writer.  The form is to the right.  You'll also receive a free copy of my Ebook, Jumpstart Your Book with a Vision Board.

**Photo by paav-o.

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Remember that old saying from the sixties, its the first day of the rest of your life? Numbers_text_texture_225115_l

Oh, right, I forgot, you're not old enough.  Trust me on this, it was a popular saying.  And its been ringing in my head ever since I read a blog post (and I'm sorry, I can't even identify where) about how the past is, well, past.  It's over, finito, done. 

Except in our heads, where it is still alive and well and torturing us. 

With thoughts like:

  • What makes you think you'll get your novel published now, when you haven't managed to yet?
  • Why on earth would  you think you will make more money this year than last?
  • You've never been successful before, why do you think you can be now?

And so on.  Our devious little minds egos bedevil us with these thoughts based on important prior history.  Or, more to the point, what our egos think is important prior history.  And we believe them.  When really what they are reacting to is the time Kenny Wayne Chowder hit us in kindergarten.  Or Delia Dalton told us we were dumb when we were playing together when we were three.  

C'mon, is that really what you want to have driving you?  Are those incidents really indicators of your potential?  Stop for a minute and ponder.  What would you be like if today were the first day of the rest of your life? What if the past truly were past and no longer affected you?

Its a pretty big concept to wrap the brain around.  But here are a few things that leap to my mind:

  • I wouldn't be afraid of failure
  • I wouldn't be afraid of success
  • I wouldn't ever say "I can't"
  • I'd treasure every moment
  • I'd take total and complete responsibility
  • I'd expect miracles
  • I'd attack my writing like a hungry bear

There's more.  Oh, there's so much more on this topic, I'm certain, but I've got to let it simmer for a bit.  So you tell me–how would thinking this way affect you?

Speaking of firsts, here's an awesome one.  My friend Lora Cain is going to be a guest announcer on Wheel of Fortune next week.  She'll be the first ever female game show announcer.  Hard to believe, huh?  Listen in and support her.  Then write in and tell them how great she is (details on her site).

Photo by mai05, from Everystockphoto.

Inspiration Friday: The Idea of Frenchglen

Next week I'm going to a place in southeastern Oregon called Frenchglen.  It is little more than a wide spot in the road, with a hotel, general store, school, and a few houses, as I understand it.  I wouldn't know for sure, because I've never been there.

But I'm greatly enamored of the idea of the place, and I've been thinking of it with anticipation all week.  Which is why Frenchglen is my Friday inspiration, because the idea of this series of posts is to write about what has most been on my mind during the week.


And yet, since I've never actually been there, I can't be sure that my idea of the place will jibe with reality.  But here's why the idea of the place inspires me:

–Because it is remote.  Sometimes I think about just chucking it all and going to live someplace in the middle of nowhere.  As long as I have my writing and my books I'd be happy, right?  In truth, I'm way too much of a city girl for this to ever happen, but I love that the idea exists in the world.

–Because it is near the mountains.  I love, love, love being in the mountains.

–Because it is someplace new.  Nothing better than visiting new places to get inspired.

–Because I get to write while I'm there.  Nuff said.

–Because there is no internet access.  Awk!  After I get over the panic, I'm sure this will be very inspiring.  Well, I'm sort of sure.

–Because the scenery is supposedly beautiful.

So, there you have it, my Friday inspiration.  What inspired you this week?  A person, place or thing?  A news event?  Something related to writing?  A book? 


*Photo by Cacophony.  I found it on Wikipedia.

Seeing Through New Eyes

I've had a friend from Nashville visiting since last Wednesday.

She's never been to Oregon before, so I've been showing her around.  We drove to the beach for the day, wandered around the Alphabet and the Pearl districts, drove up the Gorge, and visited a variety of my favorite places to eat.  She met my family and endured a faintly riotous dinner on our new deck with all of them last night.

And because I've been showing her around, I feel like I've been seeing my hometown and environs with new eyes.

It is the same kind of freshness of outlook that comes from traveling, I think.  When you approach a place either for the first time or with someone else for whom it is the first time you just see things differently.

800px-OregonCoastEcola_Edit 800px-Columbia_river_gorge_from_crown_point That photo to the left is the Oregon coast. Pretty inspiring, huh?  It is a short drive of about one and a half hours from Portland.




The photo to the right is the Columbia River Gorge, taken from Crown Point, looking east.  It gets even more beautiful as you go.

I'm appreciating anew how I live admit the most gorgeous and scenic country in the world.  Plus, we have had a spectacularly perfect summer, temperature-wise, with highs in the 80s most days and low humidity.  I am sorry to tell those of you sweltering through 100+ heat that.

Anyway, my task now is to translate this fresh new outlook to my writing.

How about you?  What is your favorite way to get yourself a new viewpoint on life?

What Would You Write About?

Yesterday, while procrastinating before getting to work making sure I stay informed on what's going on in
Note-80032-m the world, I ran across the story of a woman who recently died.  Earlier this spring, she started getting odd pains in her legs, and on April 15th of this year she was diagnosed with cancer and told she had but a few months to live.  Tragically, she died on July 6th, leaving six kids and a husband behind.

What made this story really different was how Amy reacted to her death sentence.  She got busy doing things for others and making sure that her family was set.  You can read about it on the blog her husband writes.  As I read the blog, I asked myself, what would I do if I were diagnosed with terminal cancer at this very moment?

The answer came swiftly: I'd start writing.

What would I write?  Well, for starters I'd write:

  • My life story, such as it is
  • Letters to everyone I loved
  • All the stories I haven't yet gotten out on paper

But, what, specifically, would I write about?  If I had only a couple months to live, what would my legacy be?  What would I most want to write?

I would want to write about the sound of birds outside my office window at this very moment, and the lush green swath of kiwi plant that I see when I glance outside.  I'd write about how perfect my daughter looked the day she was born and how scrunched up and alien-like my son looked.  And I'd write about winter days of rain in Oregon, and how much I love the sky in New Mexico.

But that would be just for starters.  Because then I'd want to write about the people I've loved in great detail, how one of my friends has the Parkinson's shuffle and stare, even though she's not yet 55, and despite it all she drags me to Zumba with her.  I'd write about each family member and friend, trying to find the key that made them sho they are to me.  I'd write about pets.  I'd write about places I lived and traveled and people I met along the way.  I'd write about objects and furniture and the things I've loved most, like paintings and sculpture and outsider art.  I'd write about orchids and knitting and how I used to love to sew, and how I adore candles and perfume and old-fashioned sachets.  How I can spend hours at the office supply store or the bookstore, but would just as soon skip grocery shopping.

I'd write about everything I could think of and then I would start to draw conclusions.  Lessons for living.  Examples of what I've figured out along the way.  Brilliant bits of advice for those who remain.

And, of course, this begs the question, why not now?  Why not just start writing all this now?  Why not wake each day and write like you don't have much time left?  Put every single damn thing you've got on the page and then write even more.  What better legacy could there be?

I think maybe its time to get started.  (And, no, I have no terminal illness.  Except tomorrow is my birthday, so perhaps it is natural to think about one's legacy on such a day.)

What about you?  What would you write about?

Losing My Mojo, or, A Ray of Light

There was an article in the Sunday Oregonian yesterday about all the crises we face in the world–the oil spill, war, the economy–and how they are getting people down.

No, duh.

Usually I am immune to the tyranny of news stories.  Aware, but immune.

Lately, though, I've let it all get me down.  Yesterday, as I tried to work on a piece of writing, I got totally distracted by coverage of a local story, a missing seven-year-old boy, who one minute was happily running down the hall of his school and the next was gone. I was feeling down and discouraged.  Sad about the boy and worried about his mother.  Frustrated by the lack of progress in finding an agent for my novel. (Which absolutely, utterly pales in comparison to the plight of the missing boy.)

And the thought came to me, unbidden:

What if you could be the ray of light in all of this?

I know, it sounds ridiculously new age and schmaltzy.  But my brain works that way sometimes.  Yours probably does too, you just won't admit it publicly.

So, what if I could be a ray of light?  What if you could?  What would we do?

I dunno, I really don't.  But here's a few ideas:

1.  Quit watching the news.  Okay, I don't watch it.  But I read the newspaper.  And I read internet sites avidly.  And even if I could lessen my exposure just a little bit, I would make a better light.

2.  Meditate.  I have an off and on relationship with the practice.  But every time I get into an on period I feel much better.  Clearer.  Dare I say it? Lighter.  More in touch with myself, connected with the universe. 

3.  Write more.  It's the cure for anything that ails you.

4.  Find other creative outlets.  I like to mess around with painting, for instance.  Or needlework.  Or gardening.  Creativity, like writing, is the best revenge.

5.  Read more books.  Good books, classics or great examples of contemporary work.  And read fewer things on the internet.  Except for this blog, of course.

That's five.  Not bad for a discouraged person.  Actually, pondering ways to not be discouraged is quite helpful.  I feel better now.  Think I'll go have a glass of wine.  And maybe that deserves a number, too!

6.  Drink red wine.  And that makes me think of another one…

7.  Hang out with people you love.  Because that is what it is all about, isn't it?

Join me as I grope through the dark.  What are your ideas for shining light in these perilous times?  Or just for getting us all through Monday?

Lessons From a Rock Concert, Part One

Saturday night I went to see the Eagles.  Until then, I had forgotten how much rock concerts inspire me.  

Experiencing a concert is such an all-encompassing event for me, I end up feeling determined to go forth and do my creative work with renewed vigor.

I mean, musicians have to be creative on so many levels.  Not only do they have to worry about writing the music, but then there are lyrics to think about.  And after that they have to strap on the guitar or pick up the drumsticks and stand in front of thousands of people and play their hearts out.

All I have to do is write.  And lord knows, often enough I complain about that.

Two things kept going through my head as I was at the concert:

1.  Oh my God, we're so lucky.  All of us who are creative in any way, shape, or form are just damn lucky. Because we have a hunger to share, and we share it–we shape the world through our creativity.  And there's no better fate than that.

2. Once you have found it, never let it go.  (This is a line from a song in a musical–The King and I?) I've been through periods where I've lost it for awhile.  To be honest, I'm coming out of one now.  Oh, I never lose it completely any more.  I can't, because I earn my living writing so I have to keep at it.  But sometimes I lose it where my personal writing is concerned.

What, you may ask, is it?

The spark.

The germ.

The seed.

The life.

The energy.

The inspiration that grows into a project that keeps you up late or gets you up early in the morning.

The connection you feel when you're working on it, how you transcend who you are and become part of something bigger–the way you do when you're at a concert, or watching a sunset, or gazing into the eyes of someone you love, or writing.

It is all connected.  All we have to do is take it and put it on the page.

I have more thoughts on this, to be posted tomorrow in the form of actual, real live, useful takeaways.  In the meantime, feel free to share what inspires you.