Maker’s Day 4

Each Wednesday on the blog, I’ll share a small prompt as food for reflection. Maybe you’ll also find it inspires you to make some art.

This week’s prompt is a musical one: Frederic Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude, performed by Lithuanian pianist Lukas Geniusas. What does it conjure up for you?

Musical Motivation

If you’re a writer, do you like to listen to music while you work? For me, that used to be a hard no. I love music, but I used to need all the quiet I could get when I was writing, to get myself into the right head space.

Things have changed a little over the last couple of years. When I started working on my big rewrite of Fourteen Stones, in the spring of 2020 right as Covid was turning things upside down, I needed some help to “stop thinking so hard” and get past some creative blocks. Last week I posted about how writing in general was pretty hard for me then. I wanted to do it, but my mental health was a big challenge. It didn’t work too well to sit in silence at my computer and try to will myself into the world of the story; that was overwhelming and scary, and I would give up pretty fast. Instead, I tried something new: making a playlist of songs I thought would help me get out of my head.

I’m a classical musician. Listening to and playing classical music has been a huge help to my mental health, especially when I’m having high anxiety. To help me get back into Fourteen Stones, though, I found myself thinking about other kinds of music, mostly favorite pop tunes going back to when I was in junior high. The playlist I eventually came up with was pretty eclectic, with everything from the Temptations and Genesis to Vance Joy and Maroon 5. (You can definitely laugh at some of my song choices; so do I. 😉 ) Since Fourteen Stones is set in a fictional world, in a time period that doesn’t parallel our 20th or 21st century, my playlist wasn’t meant as a real soundtrack for the story. (My husband, who’s a composer, has been working on a real soundtrack for it, which I hope to share as we get closer to launch!) Instead, the songs I picked each had some kind of emotional resonance or energy that got me headed in the right direction.

Today I thought I’d share three of the ones I listened to when I was working through that rewrite. They helped cut through my anxiety and resistance, and made it much easier to dive back into my created world and get to know my characters again.

Oldest first: “Follow You, Follow Me,” by Genesis. This was maybe my first-ever favorite song; I fell in love with it when I was in sixth grade. Revisiting it was a kind of personal anchor. Fourteen Stones also has a love-story angle that this song fit with well (at least in my head).

Another favorite was “Exes and Ohs,” by Elle King. Very different energy. 😉 This was on the radio a lot a few years ago, when I was writing the very first drafts of what would become Fourteen Stones. I usually listen to the radio when I drive, and when this song came on, I’d turn it up for an energy boost.

And finally for this sampler, “Sorrow and Joy,” by Indigo Girls. This was a tougher one. In the summer of 2019, a friend of mine passed away very suddenly. I first heard this song a few months later, and found it hard to listen to, but at the same time, it had a lot of resonance.

The revision-playlist trick was so helpful that, when I started writing a new book this past fall, I made up another playlist to help push me through the first draft. That book, Nicky True, is set in 1945, but my playlist mostly taps music from the ’60s and ’70s. I found that, again, it was less about the time period or making a “soundtrack” for the story than about finding songs that had the right kind of energy for me. I’m using the same playlist again as I dig into revisions of that draft.

If you’re a writer or another kind of creative artist, what supports your process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

As always, thanks for visiting the blog. If you could use a little creative inspiration, please stop back tomorrow for our weekly Maker’s Day prompt!

Maker’s Day 3

Each Wednesday on the blog, I’ll share a small prompt as food for reflection. Maybe you’ll also find it inspires you to make some art.

This week’s prompt comes from my writing student Sandra Perez, who also takes beautiful photos. She shares these two images as our creative inspiration this week:

Balloon flower blossom
Statuary

What might one of these images, or both together, inspire for you? If you’d like, please feel free to share thoughts and responses in the comments. On Facebook, I’ve also started a “Maker’s Day Sharing Group” where we can talk about the prompts and support each other’s creativity. New members are always welcome!

You can find all the Maker’s Day prompts together here. If you’d like to receive the prompts weekly, please consider subscribing to the blog. Thanks for visiting!

Writing and Mental Health

Today I’m thinking about writing (when not?), and more particularly, the connection it has for me with mental health. Here on the blog, I’ve posted about my own mental health challenges, especially with anxiety and depression. I know many of us deal with similar challenges, and I like to be open about mine, because (a) they’re the truth and (b) I figure it never hurts if we can talk about these kinds of things.

Writing is often a great healer for me. I feel most grounded when I’m working. When my brain is busy with some project, hanging out with my characters and working through the puzzle pieces of story, anxiety and depression have a harder time getting their hooks in. I like how my brain is willing and able to latch onto the “good stuff”; I have a side helping of OCD, which, sadly, doesn’t translate to keeping my house even remotely neat, but does help keep me laser-focused on my writing-in-progress. Obsession can be a terrific superpower for an artist. It does tend to drag perfectionism along with it, but if you can separate the two for a little while, you can harness all that energy to help get a project done.

The flip side of the writing-and-mental-health mix is the fragility of sharing work, especially work that has meant a lot, and dealing with rejection. This has been much on my mind lately as the launch of Fourteen Stones gets closer. I’ve found myself thinking about some particularly tough times three years ago, when getting this book into the world seemed extremely far away and probably impossible, and between that and other factors, my mental health hit an all-time low.

My therapy cat, Fergus, who knows when his assistance is needed.

For the first time ever, I found that I couldn’t write: my brain simply refused to go into the world of story. A solid wall stood between me and the one thing that had always helped me. Even reading was no fun anymore; I couldn’t concentrate on books, couldn’t surrender and take a ride with another writer’s imagination.

If you’ve ever been there, you know how disorienting and difficult that is. When your creativity is such a big piece of who you are, and you can’t tap into it because your own mind won’t let you, you start to feel pretty detached from yourself and unsure about everything. I’ve never had the same level of anxiety, before or since, that I did during those months. If you have mental health challenges, you know it’s the worst when your mind is your enemy. You can’t escape from yourself, as much as you want to.

I spent a while (way longer than I’d have liked) in that limbo. Finally, in late fall of 2019, I found myself starting to edge back towards creativity. One day I found I could sit down with a novel and actually get into it. Then, a while later, my favorite characters from Fourteen Stones started to nudge at me. I found myself sketching scenes with them, not to use in any real writing but just for fun, just because hanging out with them felt right. That was when I knew I was getting better. My beloved characters were a solid, strong lifeline. I could hang onto them and they would help me heal.

Map of my fictional country, Namora, which I taped up over my desk when I started writing again.

The good thing, as I found when I finally started to come out the other side of that time, is that once you’ve gone through that kind of fire and know you can survive, it’ll never be so scary again. You might not feel like you’re quite the same person you were before – I don’t, and I’m still learning about what’s changed – but you can feel grounded in yourself and know you’re doing okay, even when you run into bumps in the road.

In the spring of 2020, when Covid hit and everything turned upside down, Fourteen Stones helped me again when I launched into an overhaul of it. It felt so good to dive into the world of story, especially in lockdown, when real-world escapes had mostly disappeared. Since then, writing has stayed around as a touchstone, motivation, and release that I’m very grateful for. Sometimes it feels bizarre to make art, and worry about story and characters, with everything going on in the world. But I do think that it matters to put ourselves, our hopes and pain and wish for beauty, into what we create, and that by doing it, we can make a difference.

I hope you can spend some time today with whatever grounds you and lights you up. As always, thanks for visiting the blog.

On Hummingbirds

Sometimes I get pretty philosophical here…hoping you’ll bear with me today!

Making art is a challenging business. I know my fellow “makers” relate to this: we spend a lot of time, usually solitary time, piecing together the ideas in our heads, separating tangled threads and weaving them into something we hope will connect with someone else. We often have a picture of the ideal creation, the dream. As we’re putting the words on the page, or the notes on the staff, or the paint on the canvas, we know we can’t shape that perfect piece of art, because we’re not perfect ourselves. Still, we’re going to do the best we can. And maybe, when we’re finished, we’ll look at what we’ve made and feel proud.

Often we do. When I finish a draft of a writing project, I usually go through a phase of “oh yuck, what is that??“, but after a little time, I can see the beauty in it. Sure, it’ll never be “perfect.” When I wrote Fourteen Stones, I could imagine a story that was breathtakingly lovely, so powerful it would make a reader laugh and cry and fall in love with the world and the characters the same way I had, and when they read the last page and put the story down, they would never be quite the same again. I could imagine all that, but I knew chances were, it would never be as perfect and beautiful on the page as it was in my head. Still, I gave it my best, and when it did get done, I was pretty proud.

One of the real-world places that inspired the world of Fourteen Stones.

We all know how tough it can be to take our art out into the world and share it. We open ourselves up in a way that, since we’re often such solitary people, can be terribly uncomfortable. Of course we’re scared of failure – nobody likes it! – and I think sometimes we’re also a little scared of success. What if everybody sees it? What if they’re all staring at it? At me??

That’s one hazard of making art. Another, which I’ve been running into a lot lately, is that “so what?” thing.

If you’re a “maker” too, I suspect you know about that. So what if I write this story? Who needs it? So what if I bust my brains making this piece of art as good as I can? It might go out into the world, sure, and people might even like it, but really, is it doing any good?

For me, it can be overwhelming to look at all the dark and terrible stuff in the world, and then look at myself as a maker of things. I’m not out there doing much of anything to solve the world’s problems. I get involved when I can, as much as I can, but there’s always that sense of being one tiny person, and a pretty impractical and super-introverted person at that. I desperately want to wave a wand and fix things, but what I have to offer feels so very small.

A favorite meme – not mine – that sums up how I feel during the writing process.

In those times, I try to remember that when we make something of beauty – even if it’s small – and when we share something of ourselves in the world, we do make a change in it. Maybe a very small one, just in our individual corner. But nobody else could make that piece of art we made, and we never know how it might touch someone else.

Someone might smile today because of your piece of art: and maybe they needed that smile, maybe they couldn’t find a whole lot to feel glad about, but you showed them a reason. Or someone might stop a minute in the middle of a stressful time, when the dark feels heavy and thick around them, and take a breath of fresh air because of that work you created out of your mind and heart. It might only last a moment, but in that moment, you’ve made a difference. You’ve done something no one else could have.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with hummingbirds, here’s the connection. Recently, I was introduced to the video below. The message in it resonated with me: that even if what we have to offer feels small, we can always choose to do what we can. For me, that’s telling stories, sharing stories, helping other people tell and share theirs. What is it for you?

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. If you’d like to receive my weekly posts, and/or stay tuned with Fourteen Stones launch info and “Maker’s Day” Wednesdays, please consider subscribing. See you next time!

Midweek break: Maker’s Day

I thought I’d try something new on the blog on Wednesdays. In the spirit of creating mental space and maybe also extra beauty, each week I’ll share a small prompt: a picture, some music, a quote, etc. If you feel like it, I invite you to take a little time and see what the prompt inspires for you. It might simply be contemplative time, or, if you’re feeling creative, it might inspire you to make some art.

This is always and only for you: never any pressure to complete or share anything.

Today’s prompt is a picture of the new red irises I planted last year in the backyard. They’re bloomed out now, but they were lovely. Irises are my favorite flowers.

If you would like to receive more weekly prompts, please consider subscribing to the blog. Thank you for visiting!

Tuesday Purr Therapy

(aka Feline Writing Motivation)

This past weekend, I listened to a thought-provoking speaker talk about the importance of finding and holding onto beauty in difficult times, and how beauty motivates us not just to admiration, but action. I’m mulling a blogpost that connects making art – which can sometimes feel like a tiny thing to do – with that idea. Meanwhile, though, I’d like to post about something that always makes me smile.

I used to think I was a dogs-only person, until back in 2002 when I met my husband and his then-cat Jackson. I’d had no idea how sweet, goofy, and fun cats could be. Cue transformation to cat mom.

Over the years, my husband and I have been “parents” to several wonderful cats. Our Max, whom we adopted a few months after we got married and who was with us for almost a decade, was the gentlest and most loyal friend imaginable. He loved it when I decided I was a writer and started spending lots of time on the couch, with my laptop. As my first feline editing buddy, he took his job quite seriously.

Our other cats have also helped me out. On days when I don’t feel like sitting and staring at a blank page, having a lap occupant – who will protest if disturbed – is a great motivator to stay at my desk. A noisy purr helps too. Plus, of course, the encouragement of companionship, given what a solo endeavor writing tends to be.

Today I thought I would share a few pictures of my co-editor Fergus. Fergus is the youngest of our feline trio, a rescue kitty my husband and I adopted in June 2018. He was a year and a half old at the time, but he’d already had a pretty eventful life: he’d had at least one previous owner and had spent some time in a feral colony (you’ll see his clipped ear in the photos). At the time, we’d been a two-cat family for several years, but my husband thought that our then-duo of Alafair and Templeton could use a younger friend to keep them on their toes. This was not a tough sell for me, although Alafair needed some persuasion.

Fergus likes to help out when I’m working:

This chapter’s a little slow, Mom.

Sometimes, though, he can be a bit distracting.

Somebody’s gotta hold up the wall, you know.
What else would this rug be for?

He is a cat of unique tastes…

Those are mini-cucumbers. Maybe he wants a salad?

…and multiple interests.

How do I turn this thing on?

He loves boxes of any shape or size:

A box is a box…
…but maybe get a bigger one next time, eh?

And he also loves hugs.

So much for my tough, streetwise image. But I love you too, Mom.

Fergus and I both thank you for stopping by the blog today. If you’d like to see more of him and his siblings Alafair and Templeton, plus posts about writing and art, and updates about my forthcoming book Fourteen Stones, please consider subscribing!

The Book Engine

Last week, I finished the first draft of the new novel I’ve been working on since November. Writing a book tends to be an obsessive process for me. Once the story begins to drive itself, at that wonderful locking-into-gear point somewhere in the first thirty pages or so, I don’t want to do much of anything but stay at my computer every day for as long as the words will flow.

With my earlier books, I’ve finished a first draft in three months, give or take. This time, Nicky True (working title) took over half a year. I’m relieved to reach “The End”…but…

When I’m not working, I tend to get mean (as I call it). On an earlier incarnation of this blog, I talked about challenges I’ve had with anxiety and depression; I might revisit those topics over the next few months, as I know many of us have similar challenges. I’m at my best when I’m writing, because the characters and stories fill my head and help muffle the constant doubts. Between projects, it gets a little too quiet, and the internal critic comes through loud and clear.

This is Alafair. She lets me share “her” chair when I’m writing.

Today I got up thinking about Fourteen Stones and all the wonderful joys and stressors of an upcoming book launch. As I think many many writers do, I started to feel scared. The “what ifs” line up in a parade: What if no one likes it? What if it’s too long? What if it’s not long enough? What if nobody gets it? What if, what if… All those things that we as writers have no control over, as we take this product of our imaginations, which by now is also woven tightly into our hearts, and put it in a canoe and send it out on the river to ride the current.

I think it’s especially tricky for introverts – which again, is a lot of writers, or we wouldn’t be so comfortable hanging out for hours at a time with no company but our characters – and for those of us who never were “cool kids.” As a young teenager, I was the uncool poster child. Thirty years later, I still struggle with the idea that the things that fascinate me might interest anyone else.

For me, writing a book is always about love. I have to love the characters, able to see them as whole humans with strengths and flaws and delights and secrets, and I have to want to spend countless hours in their company, letting them tell me their stories. When I’m working, I feel a surge of excitement in the morning, knowing I’m going to sit at my desk that day and see where the ribbons of story will lead. Sometimes I feel a joy so bright it can, at least for a while, shrink all the ordinary obstacles and annoyances of life down to dust-mote-size. Of course, there’s also plenty of frustration, discouragement, writer’s block, and confusion. But at its core, for me, writing a book is about the love of the process.

My books themselves also tend to be about love, one way or another. Not necessarily “love stories,” but stories in which characters have deep loves of their own, for the work they do, for the place they call home, and yes, for one another. At the end of the day, my stories tend to be about how those loves shape people and their actions. To Love A Stranger was like that; Fourteen Stones is too, though in a different way. As I think about it, love seems like a pretty solid basis for a story.

This is Fergus. He signs off on edits.

When my critic starts filling my head with chaos, it can help me to remember why I got into a project in the first place: where that driving love came from. Even if I’m not sure about the words themselves, or if I’m nervous about how they might strike anyone else, the engine behind the work has a song of its own that can quiet the other noise.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. If you’d like to stay updated with book news, writerly thoughts, and other meditations, please consider subscribing. See you next time!

Welcome to Namora

Where’s Namora?

Right now, mostly inside my head. But when my book Fourteen Stones comes out this fall, I hope you’ll pay my favorite little country a visit. It’s a beautiful place.

San Andres de Teixido, Galicia, Spain: part of the real-world setting that inspired Namora.

Fourteen Stones got its start in the summer of 2015, when my husband and I visited the northwestern corner of Spain, traveling in the regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria. It was my first time on the other side of the Atlantic. Our adventures there, the beautiful places we explored, and above all the incredible sense of history we encountered, inspired me to try writing fantasy. A very rough draft of a novel (then called From the Circle House) came out of that summer. Over the next few years, that project gradually evolved into Fourteen Stones.

While writing, I spent many, many hours in Namora, which I created using the memories of what we’d seen in Spain.

My rough map of Namora: it’s lived on my desk for a few years now.

Fourteen Stones mainly stays in Namora’s eastern region, starting at about the midway point of the mountain range that separates it from its huge neighbor Lassar, and moving north to its coast. For all the time I’ve spent there, getting acquainted with that corner of it, there’s still a lot of the country that I haven’t explored. It’s fun to know it has much more territory to discover.

I’d like to tell you a little about my fictional country, starting with the capital city Sostavi, on the northern coast. Sostavi is an ancient place. Some Namorans believe that their goddess, Kenavi, lived there when she was a mortal woman. In those times, it would have been nothing more than a village, a huddle of small stone houses behind a guarding wall.

The Castros da Barogna, an Iron Age village north of Noia, in Galicia, Spain. This area inspired “ancient Sostavi.”

Modern-day Sostavi, which you can visit in Fourteen Stones, has changed a lot from its origins:

In Namora’s capital city, Sostavi, the Great Circle House rose above the clusters of white-walled buildings that clung like crystals to the high hills. Down below, the deep turquoise of the Vandeni Ocean met the shallower, silver-blue water of the harbor. The summer would see fleets of fishing boats leaving the harbor before dawn to come back in the evening riding low in the water, weighed down with their rich burdens.” – excerpt from Fourteen Stones

In future posts, I’ll share more about Sostavi, its “origin story,” and the real-life city that helped me sketch it. (That city is Cudillero, on Spain’s northern coast, in the Asturias region.) For now, to close today’s post, I’ll tell you a bit about my favorite place in Namora: Lida village, in Kalnu region, right up against the Senai Mountains that form the Namora-Lassar border.

A view of the terrain near Covadonga Lakes, Asturias, Spain. This area helped me picture the foothills of the Senai Mountains.

Lida is a farming village, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. The calendar year centers on two things: the major observances in honor of the goddess Kenavi, and the planting and harvesting months at the crux of the farming life. Here’s a snapshot of Lida in Derla, the harvest month:

“Lida’s craftspeople and tavern-keepers had their businesses clustered around the village square. Five roads, lined with wooden houses roofed with tiles of gray-blue Namoran clay, came out from the square like the spokes of a wheel. Banks of mint took over the sides of the road beyond the village, and the gravel gave way to dirt track through open fields. […]

The scent of the late-growing mint blended with the dry earthiness of fallen leaves and the cool clear taste you only found in the mountains. Past the outskirts of the village, birds sang and rustled in the tall grass, late insects chattered, and to the east, the gray peaks of the Senai reached up toward the cloudless sky. – excerpt from Fourteen Stones

Lida is also the hometown of my favorite character, a priest named Ribas Silvaikas. I’ll introduce him in a future post.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with a picture of the kind of view you might see from the little farming village:

The River Deva, near Sotres village in Asturias, Spain. The mountains here, the Picos de Europa, are the real-world version of the Senai.

If you’d like to see more posts about my fictional world, its people, and its real-world inspirations, please consider subscribing to the blog. Thanks for visiting!

Piano Thoughts

I’m no expert at blogging (as folks who’ve been following this blog know!). Getting back into the swing of it, I’m following random thoughts that might turn into a post…

Tomorrow I have a performance with the piano trio I joined right before Covid started. In the winter of 2019 (feels like a very long time ago, doesn’t it?), I was dealing with some personal challenges and had decided the best way to keep moving forward was to stay busy. Two friends of mine, a violinist and a cellist, wanted to form a group and perform together. In “saying yes to all the things” mode, I jumped in.

Balancing writing and music can be tricky. When I’m working on a big writing project, like a novel, I often don’t want to do anything but stay at my computer for as long as the words keep coming. Then, when the project ends, I can go for stretches without writing anything. Music needs a much more consistent approach. If I don’t play for a while, my fingers don’t cooperate and I have to build up strength and precision all over again. (Middle age is also a factor there…)

Our trio was ready to start performing in the spring of 2020. We had concerts lined up, and then Covid hit, and it all went away. Suddenly there was no music anywhere.

Like so many of us, I did some professional pivoting. The piano lessons I’d taught pre-Covid had stopped too, but I started teaching writing online, and found out that as much as I love my classroom, Zoom was kind of cool. In the spring of 2020, I gave Fourteen Stones a big overhaul, a joyful process that helped me stay sane. Through the next two years, I swung pretty much 100% over to my writer side.

When things started to open up again last summer, and the trio wanted to get back together, I hesitated a LOT. I didn’t feel “like a pianist” anymore, and I wasn’t sure I could give enough, mentally or physically, to make the music what it deserved to be. But we started playing again, and pretty soon we’d booked a few concerts. Our first one was at the end of March. The concert tomorrow will be our third.

It’s been a challenge. Going into the first concert, I didn’t remember how to get my brain into “performance mode.” For me, a good performance has always involved getting into a specific zone, mentally and physically, where I can get past chronic anxiety and focus on what the music needs and how to bring it to life. That first performance, I fell way short. From the first note to the last, it was a fight just to keep going. I came out of it feeling like I wasn’t a pianist anymore and shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

The second concert was a week later (good thing – if it hadn’t been so soon afterward, I might have faked a sprained wrist to get out of it). Luckily, it went a little more smoothly. I started to think maybe, possibly, the old skills were still there, pretty dusty but waiting to swing into action with the right push.

Yesterday the trio met to rehearse, and a cool thing happened: playing was actually fun. The pieces we’re doing, Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio (Op. 70) and Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor (Op. 49), are tough. The Mendelssohn, especially, has far too many notes, in this struggling musician’s opinion. Yesterday, though, I remembered why it can be fun to have a big, juicy, demanding piano part you can sink into, where you make the instrument sing and roar, and you share the ride and energy with your musical partners. I don’t know if it’ll feel the same tomorrow, but as I told my husband this morning, it would be so great if one performance could also be really, really fun. It can happen. Fingers crossed.

After the past two years, I think we’re all still figuring out how to deal with everything we went through. It doesn’t help that Covid is still such a presence, and we get a taste of normalcy and then take a step or two backwards again. I’m not sure what my new professional balance looks like, how much of a focus music will be now, whether I’m “still a pianist” just for these concerts or for some kind of longer run. For right now, the music is pretty amazing, and I’d like to enjoy the ride of playing it.

To give you a taste of Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor, which my friends and I will be playing tomorrow, here’s a video of the brilliant Zukerman Trio performing the first movement of it. This pianist gets far more of the notes than I do, but sometime I might post a video of our trio playing it too, just because. It’s an amazing piece.

Hope you enjoyed the listen! If you can spare some good energy for me and my friends tomorrow, it would be much appreciated. 🙂 Thanks for visiting the blog!

The Templeton Trio: me on the left, with violinist Robert Sorel and cellist Terry Shirley-Quirk.

The Templeton Trio’s namesake. He’s a softie.