As you can probably tell from my last Wordless Wednesday post, caterpillars appear to have invaded my neck of Brooklyn. Earlier this week, this little guy (above) was found lazing on the fennel plant in my garden. She remained there for several days—long enough for us to nickname her Psyche—nibbling her way from branch to branch.
A quick internet search revealed that Psyche was in her last stage of development before she’d retreat to become a Black Swallowtail butterfly. Though we knew it was unlikely, Thea and I hoped she’d build her cocoon where we could see it. Alas, this was not to be: when we returned home after running errands yesterday, Psyche had departed for a presumably more private locale to complete her transformation. Hopefully we’ll see her in a few weeks dressed in her beautiful new finery.
All this is preamble to my topic du jour: As writers and artists, we also need to cocoon to create—to allow ourselves the space to turn our caterpillars into butterflies. In an ideal world, we’d live at writers’ retreats and possess perfect rooms-of-our-own to give birth to our books and paintings. But life simply isn’t like that.
With so many demands and distractions tearing at our attention, how can we build a “creative cocoon” to encourage inspiration to visit? Without further ado, here are some tools and techniques that work for me:
1. Get offline. I’m a big fan of Freedom, a $10 app that limits time online. I set it for two hours to start, which is usually enough time for me to get into the “zone.” If you need to go online for research, try AntiSocial. It’s similar to Mac Freedom except that it blocks Twitter and Facebook while allowing you the rest of the internet. You can customize the app to block email and other sites-of-temptation. (Tom & Lorenzo anyone?)
2. Use your senses. When used in a ritualized manner, tastes, smells, and sounds tell us it’s time to shift gears from everyday life into creative work. You can do something as mundane as setting yourself up with a espresso, or as esoteric as ringing a singing bowl. Don’t underestimate the power of scent: a fragrant candle or aromatherapy spray can send a subliminal message that it’s time to get creative. Whatever you decide to do, be consistent: it’s the repetition of the cue that ties it to your subconscious, thus powering it.
3. Music. This is definitely related to #2. Set up a customized playlist for a project—a fairly easy task on iTunes. Whenever you hear the music, it will shift you into the world of your novel or painting. For myself, in the Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID, I used a Schubert quintet mentioned in a pivotal scene; in the Next Novel, it’s a Beethoven piano sonata a character plays. But your playlist doesn’t have to include classical music, or even what we traditionally consider music-to-listen-to. For example, one author friend loves to write to film scores; another, ambient sounds.
4. Finally, BICHOK. Or, Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard, if you’re a writer. (Or, if you’re an artist, Butt in Chair, Hands on Paper?) When it comes down to encouraging creativity, there’s no substitute for the act of showing up. Close the door. Set a timer. Choose the same time every day to write, no excuses. (When I can, I’m a big fan of putting in two hours first thing in the morning, akin to Julia Cameron’s famed morning pages.) Write one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time. And don’t look back.
ETA: This is one of many that we found this morning on the fennel after Psyche’s departure. Butterfly eggs!
Above: water lily buds in my garden yesterday.
With the summer at hand, it seems as though my work in the studio has slowed to … well, while not exactly a crawl, more like a leisurely saunter. Though I’ve managed to move forward with drafting the Next Novel, my Poets & Writers reading, and other projects, my mind is decidedly thinking, “Everything starts anew in September. Time to take it easy. Unless you’re a water lily, that is.”
(See above photo! And below! And here, where it all began! Yes, the lilies are blooming at last!)
Therefore, I was especially delighted to learn yesterday I’ve been awarded a two week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for January 2015. I applied for the fellowship earlier this year; like my water lilies, it took several months to blossom into form.
About the VCCA from their website:
VCCA is a working retreat for exceptional national and international artists, writers, and composers.
For anywhere from two weeks to two months, they come here for intense periods of work free from the distractions of day-to-day life. Sequestered in the rolling foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, they are furnished with private studios, private bedrooms and three prepared meals a day. They can work in concentrated solitude, then re-energize in the company of two dozen other artists, writers and composers at dinner.
The results of this crucible of creativity can be seen in the numerous awards our Fellows receive—from the Pulitzer Prize to the MacArthur “Genius Grant”.
I am so honored and grateful for this opportunity. I plan to use my residency at VCCA to work on the second draft of the Next Novel; by then, I intend to have the first draft finished. As you might imagine, I am feeling very encouraged.
The water lilies this morning. Within twenty-four hours, they went from being tight buds into beautiful flowers.
Ever since Thea started elementary school, summer has become delineated in our house between the last day of school and the first. By this standard, we’re nearly halfway through the season.
Thus far, my summer has included the following activities:
~ Travel to beautiful lakes in faraway places.
~ Take Thea to camp in various parts of Brooklyn.
~ Pick up Thea from camp in various parts of Brooklyn.
~ Gardening. (This includes sub-activities involving wildlife, such as obsessing over raccoons attacking the water lilies I’m raising in a tub outside*, and squeeing over the sparrows at the bird feeder.)
~ Eating herbs and vegetables from our garden. (Can’t get more locavore than this.)
~ Design schtuff.
~ Writing the Next Novel.** (I am deep into my first draft, which I’m hoping to finish up by the end of the year. Now with added intensity and gothic romanticism!)
It’s this final activity which brings me to writing prompts, the subject of this post. ”What’s a writing prompt?” you might be asking. I think of writing prompts as a way to subvert your inner critic, like playing the party game of Charades on a blank page. They’re also useful for dealing with writer’s block because it takes the pressure of deciding What To Write About out of your hot little hands. It’s a very simple two step process:
Step one: Someone besides yourself suggests a subject to write about.
Step two: You write for a specified amount of time. No excuses.
Now that we’re deep into summer, my intensely creative writer friend Anca Szilagyi, a fellow at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, has thoughtfully posted a list of summer-inspired writing prompts over at Ploughshares. They range from five minutes prompts such as “describe the physical sensation of sunburn” to more involved twenty minute ones.
So, what are you waiting for? Go forth and write!
*Water lilies budding in my garden. I’ve saved them several times from curious raccoons. The tiny circles in the center will grow to become blossoms. Amazing, no?
Notes for my “novel bible” for the Next Novel. More below about this.
True confession time: besides being an occasional blogger, I’m also a procrastinator when it comes to fulfilling blog tour requests. So, way back in April, when my lovely critique partner Teralyn Pilgrim tagged me in a writing process blog tour, I intended to partipate promptly. Truly. Really.
*Hangs head in shame.*
In retrospect, I had several reasons for not doing so. First off, I was in the throes of finishing up several work deadlines and was plain overwhelmed and overscheduled. In other words, business as usual. Secondly, I simply wasn’t ready to share much about the Next Novel. Though I’d been incubating the manuscript for nearly a year in starts and spurts, it still felt too fresh, too precious. I didn’t want to jinx my creative process.
Without further ado, here the questions and my answers.
1. What am I currently working on?
The Next Novel. (Yes, I’m being coy about the title.) Here’s my log line: In 1851 England, a widowed photographer is thwarted in fulfilling his dying father’s last request by a mysterious woman whose tragic past curiously mirrors his own. Other elements in the mix: post-mortem photography, a missing poet, and a forbidden love affair. In other words, the fun stuff. Because the structure of the Next Novel involves a nested story— a story within a story—I’ve been comparing it in some ways to THE THIRTEEN TALE. Though, of course, my book is completely different.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The main difference between the historical novels I write and those of my colleagues is that all of my characters are fictional. I’m not writing about Catherine de Medici, Josephine Bonaparte, or world-changing events that occurred in history. I’m drawn to using historical settings for color, rather than narrative structure. (Does this make sense?)
3. Why do I write what I write?
I know it’s a cliché, but I do believe the subject chooses you. Every book I’ve created, from my picture books to DOOMED QUEENS to THE LILY MAID, arrived in a flash of inspiration that only made sense at a later date. For example, THE LILY MAID was written during the aftermath of my mother-in-law’s unexpected death; a major plot thread explored my protagonist’s mourning her recently deceased father.
That written, I’ve noticed some commonalities with my books: they usually explore feminine archetypes, and they often reference fairy tales, history, or mythology.
4. How does my individual writing process work?
When it comes to writing fiction, I’ve reluctantly accepted that I am an intuitive, non-linear thinker. Ie, a pantser of a sort. I don’t sit down and decide, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book where my protagonist does x, y, and z? And it works out this way at the end?” Instead, my novels start with a scene that comes in a flash. For THE LILY MAID, it was a dream in which a young woman was escaping on a river barge, like the Lady of Shalott; the Next Novel, a young woman arguing with a man in a small room lit only by a fireplace. From there, the deluge begins: over days, weeks, and months, I’ll see snippets of scenes, hear exchanges of dialogue, and imagine characters, all of which I immediately write down before I forget. It’s like a flood from the subconscious. Or, as I prefer to think of them, visits from the muses.
(In my family, my daughter has another term for these sudden inspirations that must be recorded before they flit away: art attacks. She’ll say, “Oh, I’m having an art attack. Where’s my notebook?” whenever she has an inspiration for a story or a song. That’s my cue to stop whatever we’re doing until she writes it all down.)
Finally, once these brainstormed snippets reach critical mass, I print them out (see above) and try to arrange the notes into some semblance of a story. These are cut and pasted and placed into a giant novel bible. And then the fun begins in earnest. It can take a while before my notes make sense, and the narrative takes form. For the Next Novel, I had over 25,000 words of accumulated notes and 35,000 words of manuscript drafted before I figured how it was all going to come together. It was like a giant puzzle.
Oh, and I do a lot of research: books, art, music, poetry, history. I especially love traveling for research purposes. For example, for THE LILY MAID, I visited a former Victorian asylum. For the Next Novel, I’m planning to travel to the George Eastman House to take a workshop in nineteenth century photography techniques.
Lisa Hunt, author and illustrator extraordinaire, is tagged in turn. Also, if you’d like to share your creative process, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to post in the comments below!
As I mentioned Wednesday, my guest today is the author and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Kirsty Stonell Walker. Kirsty has loved and researched Pre-Raphaelite art for almost 20 years, and is the author of STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. Her new novel, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, is based on the life of another Rossetti model, Alexa Wilding. It follows Alexa she experiences the madness, glory and beauty of Rossetti’s circle. A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL presents a bygone world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture. I was fortunate to have beta read her novel, and found it a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive experience. Short version: if you’re as obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites as I am, you’ll love A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL.
I first discovered Kirsty’s writing via her wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth. (The title of this blog refers to Bocca Baciata, an oil painting by Rossetti.) Frequently hilarious but always thought-provoking, The Kissed Mouth casts an incisive and often political eye upon the PRB and their circle. Walker’s post on how fat is a PreRaphaelite issue is worthy of a standing ovation.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Kirsty Stonell Walker. I hope you enjoy it!
Kris Waldherr: Your first book STUNNER: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth was a biography about one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most important muses. However, your second book, A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL is a novel about Alexa Wilding, another of Rossetti’s models. What inspired you to turn to fiction after writing a biography? Was there an “aha” moment that led you to decide to write a novel about Wilding?
Kirsty Stonell Walker: Simply put, I wrote the biography of Fanny because nobody else had and it seemed unfair. Before it, during it and after it I always wrote fiction but never got very farin terms of publishing, with endless, endless rejections from publishers and agents. I don’t know why I never gave up, I suspect I am extremely bloody-minded and delusional. That usually helps.
I was going to write a straight biography of Alexa, but her life as so much shadow, so much unknown and seemingly unknowable. This fed into a thought I had about writing a novel about Fanny, but Alexa seemed a perfect person to experience the world through because no-one knew her, no-one had any preconceptions. I could become Alexa and slip into the world unnoticed.
KW: So much has been written about Rossetti’s relationships with Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal: his affair at Kelmscott with Morris, his exhumation of Siddal’s coffin to retrieve his poems, and so on. These stories have become staples of Victorian folklore, so to speak. Yet many of Rossetti’s most famous paintings were modeled for by Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding. Did you find yourself wanting to write about Cornforth and Wilding to redress the imbalance of coverage, so to speak? Or was there something else that drew you in?
KSW: The topic of stunners is dominated by Jane and Lizzie, there is no getting away from it. Both women had fascinating lives and are definitely worth attention, but I felt sorry for Fanny because she always ended up being the jolly tart with a heart, the cockney prossie who is a comedy diversion. As for Alexa, well she never got a look in at all. Something about the ignored status of the women made me want to find out more, to give them voice.
I was asked once whether I over-identified with Fanny, being a plump, jolly woman often not taken seriously, and I have to admit there is a bit of that. I do have to control how defensive I get about Fanny because I need to remember it’s not about me but then people do say the most curious things that ends up making it seem personal. I got a comment recently on the blog from someone saying that they found Fanny the least attractive of any of the Pre-Raphaelite women, that was purely their point. I felt like saying ‘I’m not sure she’d give you the time of day either!’
KW: While reading A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL, I was especially struck by the depth of your research. I really felt like I was with Alexa at Tudor House and Kelmscott amid the Pre-Raphaelite milieu—a very immersive experience! What were you most surprised to learn about Alexa while writing your novel? Were there any preconceptions you held about her and Rossetti that were proven false?
KSW: I was surprised that she had gone to so many places and met so many people. I was surprised she went to Kelmscott, but then I was flabbergasted that Rossetti took her off to Bognor when he and Jane were ending their relationship. There are two ways of reading that situation – he either cared about Alexa and couldn’t be parted from her, or else he viewed her as a prop for his painting and her being present at the emotional crisis of his life was incidental, just as the presence of a vase would be.
Alexa’s love life was a revelation. I remember the first time I found the birth certificate for Maria, who was born in the late 1860s. There is no explanation, no father listed, just Alexa. Rossetti’s complaint shortly beforehand to Boyce that ‘Miss W-’ had vanished out of town and how inconvenient it was suddenly made sense. She had gone to give birth and no-one knew. What on earth was going on in her life?! When we visited her house in London, the affluence of the street was just puzzling. Fanny lived in some nice places but they were modest in comparison. Alexa had a man paying for her, had children, had a life that was beyond that of a butcher’s lass. That is interesting.
I’m not sure if I believed she was as stupid as she is said to be, thanks to Rossetti’s comment about her being ‘dull’ (which I quote in the book because it is one of the few things he said about her personality). I always assumed it was said in jest or spite, but I was intrigued to find that she did not leave any of her own voice behind in the form of letters. Well, not that have been discovered so far….
KW: When I first discovered the work of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1980s, they were decidedly out of fashion, judged as too sentimental, too concerned with beauty for the sake of beauty. Today, the Pre-Raphaelites seem more popular than ever. Why do you think their art and stories speak to us now? What initially attracted you to them and led to you writing your wonderful blog, The Kissed Mouth?
KSW: I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites in the first year of my degree. I took a course on Victorian culture and there they were in all their glory. I immediately took a shine to Fanny because everyone was praising Elizabeth and Jane to the rooftops but not much was said about this glorious, blush-cheeked woman with a saucy look on her face. I read Jan Marsh’s works on the women in a mad rush to know more and took it upon myself to be Fanny’s champion because a woman that smart, resourceful and beautiful should have someone on her side. I began the work that led to Stunner when I was 20 and it was finally published over a decade later. Fanny has been a big part of my life for longer than I have known my husband, it’s impossible to just walk away from someone once you have dedicated that amount of time to them.
I published Stunner in 2006 and then did not know what to do with the knowledge I had gathered. It was only with the popularity of blogs, which over here in England didn’t seem to blossom until much later than in the States that I thought I could find an outlet for just chatting about pictures, people, themes and the suchlike. I didn’t think anyone would read it!
I think there are a number of reasons why the Pre-Raphaelite community online is so popular and vocal. Obviously, the works are beautiful and at a slight tilt from what we see as the norm for Victorian art. Their love of romance, morbidity, lust, beauty resonates with us as clearly as it did for them, maybe for different reasons. I also think there is an element of rebellion in our love of these beautiful, figurative works of art when ‘good taste’ dictates we should like modern art, abstract art, the stuff that is approved of. I remember being told over and over again on art courses that the Pre-Raphaelites were a dead end, a cul-de-sac of art. I have been told by friends that what they did was inferior to the strides Impressionists were making, but when something grabs you heart and mind and refuses to let go, you cannot dismiss it.
KW: Can you tell me about your writing process? How long did it take you to write A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL? Did you outline before you began to write? Or did you dive right in?
KSW: I suppose it took about three years from idea to publishing. After I relaunched the second edition of Stunner in 2011, I wanted to be brave enough to publish some fiction. I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember, poems too. I have a Winnie-the-Pooh note book at home from when I was about 6 filled with stories. Some of my poems were published in a literary magazines when I was a teenager. Having taken control of Stunner and made it into the book I wanted to be known for, I thought I ought to do the same for my fiction.
Curl came fully formed in a way – I had the story of the people around her, I just needed to weave Alexa into their lives whilst giving her a place of her own. I wrote a few scenes before really having the story settled as it helped me get hold of the characters. The two scenes that really haven’t changed since I first wrote them are the scene where Alexa firsts meets Fanny in Rossetti’s studio and the scene when she comes back from Kelmscott and sits with Fanny while she is cutting up plums. These two scenes helped me see Alexa and Fanny very clearly indeed and fed into how I progressed into the rest of the story.
KW: What advice would you give to beginning fiction writers? What do you know now that you wish you’d known before writing A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL?
KSW: Be brave. Writing is an act of courage because you are putting the contents of your head out there for everyone to see. In some ways I cannot see how anyone can write a book unless they have to because it is such an all consuming emotional experience for me. But then I write to entertain myself and so I love to create my own cure for my ills. When I am stressed, when I am sad, I reach for one of my own stories, my own characters to hep me through.
A vital thing is to finds friends who are like you. I could not do what I do without my network of writers who are there to help, advise, encourage and generally not let me get away with giving up. I think of them as my writing family and all but two of them were met on line through Stunner or the blog. My ‘alpha reader’, the person who gets first crack at anything I write, is my inestimable friend, Miss Holman, and I value her brutal honesty. We often have to combine her response to a first draft with a trip to our local cake shop to soften the blow, but every writer should have a Miss Holman to tell them when something doesn’t work, is self-indulgent or just boring. Again, it’s an act of bravery to let people read something then tell you what they think but if you intend to be a writer then people will do that anyway once it’s published. Trust me, it’s better to have someone tell you a home truth over a slice of lemon drizzle cake and you go away and fix it then it be shown to the world in an Amazon review.
The thing I wish I’d known is that it ends! In the publishing process I got to the point of just hating myself, the book, everything, because it wasn’t finished, wasn’t over and therefore might not be the best it could possibly be. I also was so desperate for people to like it that I was crippled by fear. A rational part of me merrily trundled on, getting my preview copies out, getting author postcards printed, writing blog posts, while the other part of me sat whimpering in the corner braced for impact. Then it was published and life went on and you move on to the next thing.
KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next book? Will you return to writing nonfiction? Or do you have another novel in the works? Will it be Pre-Raphaelite inspired? Or another era?
KSW: It was a tricky decision to know where to go next. I want to write more fiction because my non-fiction needs are met through my blog. I had four different ideas and so I picked the one I couldn’t let go of. I am returning to the Victorians but not the Pre-Raphaelites. My story concerns a poet and his best friend, a photographer. I have two time threads, one in the 1860s when they are young and one in the 1890s after a terrible event has taken place. The poet has a muse who he keeps at a distance and she in turn likes to imagine the poet is the man of her dreams without having to know him better. The reappearance of the photographer into the poet’s life brings with it the repercussions of their earlier friendship and threatens the very careful reputation the poet has built up over the years of their separation. It’s written in the third person, from the view point of the poet, Max Wainwright and his muse, Maud Blake. Maud is mainly in charge of the 1890 thread and Max is our eyes in the 1860s. I want the reader to see the difference between the Max we get to known in the 1860s and what Maud sees in the 1890s, but as the threads run side by side then we don’t find out why Max is the way he is until later in the book by which time the echoes of that event are being felt in his present. I hope to have it finished for somewhen later in 2015, as long as all my characters behave themselves! With Victorians, you can never tell.
Thank you, Kirsty, for a wonderful interview! You can learn more or purchase A CURL OF COPPER AND PEARL here.