Creativity Friday: tools for cocooning

Posted on Aug 8, 2014 in creativity, news & muse, the world around me

psyche the caterpillar

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.

Female_Black_Swallowtail_Megan_McCarty08A 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!


Wordless Wednesday: Butterfly-in-Training

Posted on Aug 6, 2014 in news & muse, the world around me, Wordless Wednesday


Photographed recently in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. We found this little guy hanging out on the sidewalk. Thea guided him to greener ground. 

Snippet Sunday: A warning and a story

Posted on Aug 3, 2014 in news & muse, Snippet Sunday, the Next Novel

It’s that time of the month again! Snippet Sunday is a monthly meme organized by Stephanie Dray in which historical authors post six sentence snippets of their novels. For the sake of organization, I’ve decided to post mine on the first Sunday of the month. You can read my previous snippets here.

July’s snippet is from the Next Novel, which is set in 1851 England. (This post offers more details.) For this month, I’ve decided to expand upon the first line I recently shared from it:

“I must warn,” Bertram Fitzgordon began, his breath shallow and fetid, “that you may find this story disturbing given your unfortunate circumstances. If you fear this may take too much of your spirit, I understand. Regardless, I pray you will offer me this last favor. That you’ll stay and listen.”


His throat dry, Robert nodded. In that moment, his concerns for his wife felt far away.

Creativity Friday: Virginia Center for the Creative Arts residency!

Posted on Aug 1, 2014 in creativity, news & muse, the Next Novel, travels


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.

Wordless Wednesday: Arrangement in Orange and Gold

Posted on Jul 30, 2014 in news & muse, the world around me, travels, Wordless Wednesday


Photographed recently at Blue Mountain Lake at sunset.