I do have some good links that I’ve been collecting for you all week. But my heart is so, so heavy today and I am distracted as I read the news about my beloved city, Paris. It is so hard to know how to react or what to say in the face of such a horrible monstrosity. About the best I can do is mimic what a woman from my church said: we must acknowledge what happened, and pray for the victims, their families, and to bring light to the minds that breed such hatred. Arrggh. Everything sounds so lame in reaction.
Okay. Deep breath. First, here are a couple of Paris-related posts:
Took awhile for it to register that it is actually Friday the 13th. I always choose to think of it as lucky day, but today has been anything but. The attacks in Paris destroy me and now there’s been an earthquake off the coast of Japan. But I guess the rest of us have to carry on. And send prayers to those who are suffering. So, here goes with our usual Friday fare:
Who I’m crushing on: Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. I heard her speak on Wednesday night here in town and she was awesome. I’m now reading her book and loving it. Plus, she wrote my name in Arabic in my book and drew doodles in it, too.
What I’m plugging away on: My next novel. I was on a pace of 2,000 words a day, but then my 2.5 year-old granddaughter came to stay and I lost my momentum. Its damn hard to get up in the morning and write when you also have to get a child organized for school. I now understand my clients who complain about this a lot better. But I have managed to get 1K a day done.
What I’m loving: The autumn storms and leaves everywhere on the sidewalks and streets. This has been one of the most beautiful falls I can remember. And what is better than sitting by a fire, as I am right now, on a rainy day?
What I’m Stressing About: Thanksgiving. Love the holiday, but I cook for 14 people every year and it never gets easier. Though I do love making pies.
What I’m Looking Forward To: Christmas. I love it. Love, love it. We’ll go to a tree farm the Saturday after Thanksgiving to cut down a tree. And hopefully it will not take me two weeks to get all the decorations in, as it did last year.
And yeah, there is and will be writing throughout all of this. Because that’s what we writers do, carry on and keep writing. What’s up with you?
And so we come to the beginning of a new blog feature called Otherwhere. (It's a word, for real, I found it on Thesaurus.com.) In my travels around the internet, I find lots of interesting things that I post on Twitter, or once in a blue moon, on Facebook. But I've realized that you and I might not connect on those sites. (Though we should.) So I decided to save up the links during the week and share them here. Sound good? Okay, let's get started:
Puzzled as to how to write a compelling beginning? Janice Hardy of Fiction University has you covered.
And here's another Janice Hardy post. Do you have a book of your heart? I do. It's my MFA book, the novel I wrote while studying fiction for two years, Language of Trees and I still love it so much. But nobody else did. Well, that's not true. Readers did, but the publishing world gave it a collective, "meh." Anyway, this blog post discusses why you should love the book of your heart–and move on.
I'm a Barbara O'Neal groupie. I love her writing and I read her monthly blog posts on Writer Unboxed avidly. Since I'm always trying to find time to get creating art of some kind into my life, the title of this post about Barbara's art days caught my eye.
I'm just back from three weeks in Europe, one week for leading a writing workshop, and the other two for fun.
However, I am a firm believer that even the two "fun" weeks contributed greatly to my writing career. Yeah, it might have looked like I was lolling about in the south of France, eating tapas in Barcelona, or wandering the back streets of Montparnasse, but it was all in service to my writing. Riigght, you are saying, very slowly. So let me count the ways, and convince you.
1. Travel inspires me. Duh. This is the obvious reason most people travel. Immersing oneself in different locales and cultures shows us new things, fires new neurons, inspires new ideas. And, of course, ideas are good. They are our life blood. Awriter can never have too many ideas. Ever.
2. I'm different when I travel. I don't know anyone, other than the people I'm traveling with, so all bets are off. I can drink all night, swing from the rafters act anyway I want–talk to people I meet on the street, stop and stretch in the middle of the sidewalk, gaze with obvious rapture at a medieval cathedral. Nobody knows me so I'm free. And isn't this what we long to be on the page? Once I regularly experience the feeling of freedom in my regular life, it is much easier to translate it to the page.
3. Travel sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Okay, let's face it. Most of our lives are not hard. Well, my life, anyway, is not hard. Mostly I sit at the computer all day long and convince myself, hand on forehead that I'm suffering. But travel is a different thing. There are times when I don't know what's happening, or what stop the train just pulled into, or what the person in front of me is trying to say to me. There are times I've probably embarrassed myself. But you know what? This is good, excellent, even. It is good to feel discomfort once in awhile. Because, after all, isn't that what we put our characters through? Don't we always say, the more conflict the better? Yes, yes, we do.
4. Travel is fun. And I don't care if you're trying to write or become an insurance agent, fun is important. We get veeeery serious about our lives most of the time.
5. Travel makes me adventurous. I've gotten obsessed with reading the blog of Eugene Kaspersky. He runs some crazy big cyber-security site and spends tons of time traveling, some of it adventuring. He climbs volcanoes in Kamchatka, treks across snow fields in Iceland, circumnavigates the planet, and so on. I'm just going to say right now I will do none of these things, ever. But I love reading about him doing them. And when I travel in my own tame way, I step out of my comfort zone into my own adventures. And there are always adventures when you travel.
6. Travel makes me try new things. Like the unknown shellfish we tried at a seafood dinner in Port-Vendres, or climbing the side of a mountain (I exaggerate a tiny bit here) to reach the ruin of a castle when my hips were screaming in pain (again, a tad bit of poetic license, but still). It can be as simple as turning now a new street, or trying a different café–things I don't do often enough here because I so easily get stuck in a rut. Things that may somehow work their way into your writing.
7. Travel lets me meet different kinds of people. There aren't a whole lot of French men or British women carousing down my street, for instance. And it is relatively rare to even hear someone speak in a different tongue in my day to day life. If there's one thing I love, its meeting people (I confess to a terrible extrovert streak–I'll talk to anybody, anywhere). And one of the best things about travel is the different people you meet–the couple from Australia in Paris, or the nice lady from London who was toiling up the hill beside me. Again, who knows what person might spark an idea for a character?
Okay, so I hear you. You've got a newborn baby, you're in school, you have a demanding career. And travel to Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, is just not on the horizon. But, honestly, you can "travel" in your hometown. Change up your routine, do something different, drive a new way to work. Do something, anything to shake things up.
Last week, the morning after I got off the plane, my brain as foggy as a morning in November, and inspired by my visit to the Inter-marche Hyper (read=big, very big) supermarket in France, I went to the American version here that I usually avoid. My shopping took me twice as long as I stumbled through the aisles trying to figure out where things were, but I discovered new products and chatted with an adorable, funny cashier. One never knows when someone just like him shall appear in a book.
So, how about it? How about we all spend the last three months of this year devoted to living with a spirit of adventure? I'm in, are you?
Do you like to travel or hate it? Please leave a comment.
Ceiling of the amazing Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Sideways (no matter what I do, Typepad won't let me edit) image of a stone face at the cloister in Elne
(Tons more images of my trip on my Instagram feed.)
Why I'm Frazzled: BECAUSE I'M LEAVING FOR EUROPE ON TUESDAY. That's why.
What I'm Reading: Same thing I was reading last week, The Surrender Experiment, by Michael Singer. I'm about 10 pages from the end, and was going to finish it at lunchtime but then the phone rang and I got distracted. But, for your curiousity pleasure, here is a list of books I've downloaded to take with me:
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (love me a good science fiction read every so often and this one is loooong–great to take on a long flight)
There's no way I'll get all of those read, especially because last year on the way home from Paris I discovered that watching movies back to back makes the time pass really quickly, and when I'm traveling I don't read as much. But I like to be prepared. Because, what if the Iceland volcano blows and we're stuck in Europe? (We should be so lucky.) I will need books to read.
What I Have Left to Do Before I Leave: Host one family dinner, engage in a board of directors bonding outing, attend one birthday party, finish reading one manuscript, exchange one cardigan, write two newsletters, get my hair cut, and pack. That's not so bad, is it? Is it?
What I Love This Week: My new phone. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Note. It has a stylus! A freaking stylus! I went to the AT&T store on Saturday and ordered it. (Wasn't in stock, small store.) Had great service there. Went to a different AT&T store on Wednesday where they could do a data transfer and had, um, shall we way, interesting service. As in, all the worker people telling me, "You're switching from an Iphone to a Galaxy? Girl! You're going to be back in here telling us you want your Iphone back." Also telling me I have way too many contacts (Is 323 really that many? I didn't think so, either.) And so on. Hear me now: I WILL NOT BE IN THERE TO SWITCH BACK. Because I'm stubborn that way. And because I love my new phone.
What Will Happen to This Blog While I'm Gone: Read my post Monday to find out.
Happy weekend! What are you doing this weekend? Something fun?
Many, many, many, many, many, many (okay, I'll stop now), years ago in college, my favorite perfume was Je Reviens. This was a perfume that stopped men in their tracks, causing them to ask me why I smelled so good. I clearly recall one instance of this when I sat studying in the EMU Fishbowl.* A frat boy sitting two booths away yelled over to ask the name of the perfume that was distracting him. There was just something about this scent–and maybe the way it reacted to my skin–that enticed people, including me.
Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure my sister Alice, who was an airline stewardess for TWA back in the days when they were still called stewardesses and TWA still existed, must have brought me bottles of Je Reviens from Paris. I quit wearing perfume for a long time and forgot about Je Reviens. But flash forward a gazillion years, to last summer, when the hub and I were in Paris on our way home from Pezenas. I decided to try to find a bottle of Je Reviens to take home. The glitzy–and intimidating–perfume store on the Champs Elysees, which sells every perfume known to man, didn't have it. And the bored ladies who worked there hadn't heard of it. I asked everywhere I found a place they sold perfume–at a cute little store at the base of the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral in Montmarte, at a shop in Montparnasse, where we stayed. But nobody seemed to have heard of it. (I'm certain my terrible French pronunciation had nothing to do with it.)
Upon my return home, it finally occurred to me to ask my friend Angela about the perfume. She is a perfume writer, you see (as well as being a wonderful mystery writer). She immediately told me she had some vintage Je Reviens she'd found in an antique shop and she would decant some for me. (See photo.) She also explained that the perfume had gone through several incarnations recently and was still available, albeit in a watered-down, drugstore version. I carried my sample home with reverence and stuck it in my bathroom cabinet to use for special occasions.
I am wearing it today. I'm not going anywhere special–I'm not going anywhere at all. I sprayed it on to cheer myself up after the WORST allergy attack that anybody has endured, ever, happened to me yesterday. And it has done the job. It brought back all kinds of pleasant memories, as noted above, and it has also made me ponder the power of scent in writing.
Firstly, smells transport us to other times and places. A whiff of a hawthorne bush, and I'm a little kid again, at my Aunt Betty's house in Hillsborough, California. The smell of corndogs and I'm at the Rose Festival Fun Center carnival that assembles itself every year along the waterfront here in town. (They call it CityFair now to try to jazz it up.) The aroma of sage transports me to New Mexico. Inhaling Je Reviens brought back all the memories I wrote about above. And these are rich veins, people, rich veins. You could do worse than to line up some smells to use as prompts. Take a whiff and start writing.
And second, smells can be just as evocative in our writing. Adding aroma to your descriptions helps to bring it alive–and yet it is probably the least taken-advantage-of sense. In my just-submitted novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery, my agent challenged me to do a better job of evoking the smell of the protagonist's macaron shop. Erp. Here's what I came up with:
And there was no other word for the smell of it but heavenly—that faint whiff of sugar, like cotton candy at the fair, or an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, the aroma that called to mind the best day of your childhood, or maybe your whole life.
Not holding myself up as the paragon of descriptive writing here, but rather illustrating how I equated smell with emotion rather than try to evoke it exactly. Because, how do you describe smells, other than to use the noun of what they come from–rose, for instance, or grass? I think that's why writers shy away from using smell in their descriptions. But I urge you to try.
So, yeah, 700-some words later and I've written a blog post, all inspired by my perfume. The power of scent, indeed.
*The EMU at the University of Oregon was the scene of the famous food fight in the movie Animal House, and also one of my favorite scenes of all time, when John Belushi says, "I'm a zit." Just to balance the sweetness of this post, here's the clip:
As you may have noticed, things have been a bit quiet around here. I've been in France, as some readers know. France, people! Two weeks in the south and several days in Paris.
And I have been soaking it all in.
So much so that my brain feels ready to explode and I can't wait to get on the plane and have time to write. (But given a choice, I'd stay here longer in a hot second.)
To back up a bit:
The first couple of weeks in September, I wrote a lot. I took a class about fast drafting, and managed to write 80 pages on a brand-new project before I got on the plane for Europe.
The third week in September, I was in Pezenas, co-leading a writing workshop. And, since all the participants were writing every day, I wrote, too.
Then my husband arrived in Pezenas. And a group of us stayed on a second week.
There was no writing. Instead, there were adventures. Like a trip to Sete, where we rode a boat in the canals and harbor and got drenched in a rainstorm. (None of us even had coats on.) A visit to St. Guilhem-de-desert to see the old houses built up a ravine and the Cloisters. A journey to the beautiful and lively city of Montpelier. And lots of time spent wandering the town of Pezenas, which has an historic core that is fun to get lost in (and get lost you will, the streets are very curvy and narrow). And now, of course, Paris. Just, Paris.
About mid-way through the first week I bought a journal. (Buying paper goods is one of my favorite things to do here.) And I wrote in it a few times in the morning. I thought for sure I would write delicate, important words about Paris in it once we got here. But I haven't.
And for once, I'm not worried about it.
Because I am filled up with the sights and sounds of my time here. And the flavors, let us not forget the flavors: macarons from Laduree, foie gras with fig jam in a small cafe in Pezenas, leg of lamb at a cafe on Boulevard Montparnasse after walking all day. And the wine! Vin rouge, from theLanquedoc, the best wine in the world.
It really doesn't get any better than this. Even if you're not writing.
So here are my recommendations for going with it and just letting it soak in:
1. Take insect repellent. Les moustiques Francaise love me. I was covered with bites the first two weeks, and they would suddenly activate in the middle of the night and start itching. Once I bought insect repellent, my sleep improved dramatically. The moral of the story? Be prepared. I think being prepared in writing is related to soaking it in. Being a sponge for every sensual experience is preparing yourself to disgorge words on the page.
2. Try. I speak French haltingly. But I find if I at least attempt a few words in French, people laugh and talk to me in English. It is nice to try, though. Same thing with writing. Try putting some words down on paper. When you're blocked, just try it and see what happens.
3. Be willing to be uncomfortable. I've written about this before, but on my table it is way too complicated to find the link. Part of the experience of travel is a willingness to be embarrassed because you did something wrong in a different culture. To get lost. To have to walk 2 miles because you missed the bus. To be uncomfortable. And is this not also the essence of writing?
4. Have fun. Every time something goes a different way than we anticipated, my husband and I look at each other and say, "Who cares? We are in Paris!" And then we soak in some more of wherever we find ourselves. If you're not having fun with your writing, you might want to consider another career.
5. Use the toilet wherever you find one. This is excellent travel advice. Alas, I find I cannot relate it back to writing. Maybe you can.
As is so often the case with writing, I find that now I am to the end of this post I finally get what the true theme is. And that is what I said in #4. One should always live life, and approach writing, with the idea that wherever you find yourself is the most wonderful place on the planet to be.
Bon jour. I promise that next week I'll be back to normal on my blogging. In the meantime, what's up with you? How's the writing going? Please report in the comments.
(Alas, posting photos is too complex at the moment and I only have one day left in Paris so I am off to explore. If you want to see some images from my trip, follow me on Instagram.
I 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.
France was wonderful. Paris has only gotten better in the years since I've been there, and Ceret, the small town in the south of France where I spent a week leading a writing retreat, charming. I had full intentions to blog regularly during my trip. Obviously, that didn't happen. To my credit, I did try, but discovered that with an Ipad, one can only use Typepad, my blog host, on an app. Which I did download. But then it seemed easier to walk to town and enjoy an afternoon glass of vin rouge than figure out how to use it. So I didn't. (But, between teaching and drinking, I did manage to write quite a bit on my own projects, so that, at least, is something.)
In the meantime, after the 12-hour flight (10 from Paris to Salt Lake City, and 2 from SLC to Portland) home on Sunday, I've been a bit wigged out, trying to straighten out a weird sleeping pattern, and catch up with a million things that happened while I was gone. So my grand plans for blogging have gone astray.
However, I am working on a round-up post (that will also go out with my newsletter) for Thursday, and I'll have a book review posting on that date as well. So please stay tuned, and know that I missed you. By the way, the writing retreat/workshop was fantastic! All of our participants turned out a high level of writing and seemed well satisfied with the week's work. Next September we're going to Italy–so start making plans to join us now!
Until then, you can view my photo stream, with tons of pictures of Paris and Ceret, on Instagram.