Photographed recently in Paris. What’s around the bend?
Ever since my return from Europe in early September, I feel like I’ve shifted into a new phase of my life. I suspect this is the aftermath of the main reason for my travels: to inter my mother’s ashes. Those of you who follow this blog and my social media feeds are probably aware my mother died early this year. However, it took my sister and I some months to organize the interment, which allowed us to defer the process of mourning in some ways.
And plan we did: my sister Jennifer and I chose to bring my mother’s ashes home to England, where she was born seventy years ago during the London Blitz. We also chose to inter her ashes in the same church where she had been baptized, and in the same rose garden where I brought my grandmother’s ashes in 2011. We decided to bring my daughter Thea with us, as a representative of the next generation of our family. We were very fortunate to be joined by members of our family who still reside in England, all of whom knew and loved my mother well. The service was as beautiful as can be.
While there were tears, Jennifer and I were also certain to make the trip a joyful experience. After all, it was Thea’s first trip to London, land of Harry Potter, Cadbury chocolate, and all things historic and literary. We followed our time in London with several days in Paris, where we ate pain au chocolate and walked along the Seine under perfect blue skies. I also spent many hours researching the Next Novel, which is set in both London and Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. The trip was exactly as we hoped.
Burying a parent is a definite reminder of the cycle of life: Those who grant life to us will die, just as we will die one day. The finiteness of physical life grants a preciousness to everything we experience. Even so, I’m sensing there’s more at play for me beyond this most primal of leavetakings.
For example, ever since I finished the art for DOOMED QUEENS and began writing THE LILY MAID (which now bears the new-and-improved title of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS on the advice of a renowned editor at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat), I’ve grappled with guilt over no longer yearning to illustrate books as I once did. The truth terrified me: these days, I’m far more creatively engaged as a novelist and writer. Another reason for my disinterest in illustration is that I’ve fulfilled the goals I’ve set*; I don’t possess the same urgent drive to spend countless hours curled over a drawing board painting the thousands of tiny details and decorative flourishes that go into one of my book. Yet it’s hard to leave the past behind, especially when you’ve spent years mastering a set of skills. Hence, the guilt.
And then I had a sudden insight that made it easier to let go: whether I’m writing, illustrating, or designing, my vocation is as a storyteller. It’s all interconnected.
And so this post is a post of goodbyes. Goodbye to my mother, Irene Patricia Prince Cowin, laid to rest in her native soil. May you be at peace. Goodbye to my years as a book illustrator**. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, and the beauty I was able to create. Goodbye even to my studio betta, Clarimonde, who passed away this week after a happy, coddled life. Goodbye to remorse over my past, and trepidation over what my creative future may hold.
But this post is also a hello to the Next Phase of my artistic life as a storyteller: to finishing up and publishing A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. To immersing myself in the Next Novel. To moving onto new horizons and creative challenges.
I’m so ready for them.
*And how fortunate is that? I’m especially proud of THE BOOK OF GODDESSES and THE LOVER’S PATH.
**Not to say that I won’t illustrate books again one day. Just not right now.
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!