Lost and Found
You're absolute right. Guilty as charged.
I apologize. Blogging is a habit, like exercising, and writing, and oh, most other things that we engage with regularly. Over the last few years, I have slowly but surely fallen out of it. Sometimes, I'm busy writing books, sometimes I'm off living life. Sometimes I feel like I haven't anything to say that can't be contained in a 140 character tweet, and the last thing I want to do is bore you. Sometimes, I think I should delete this blog from my website entirely.
But, in the off chance that I'll come up with something brilliant to share, or will have some spectacularly wonderful news to announce, I hang on to it. I'm sure to get back to it. In fact, I'll probably be using it regularly again soon, like you know, those weights hiding in the garage, or the multivitamins languishing in the cabinet. Or my journal, which sits on my desk gathering dust, because I write in it about as often as a blog.
Truth is? Life is too short not to be out enjoying it, and these days, my word-fu is spent on writing actual books. But I do take great cat pictures, so how about a few of those?
Here's Zan, pretending he's a fierce jungle beast.
And Jayna, in her official role as supervisor. (She's a tough one, too. Can't you tell?)
And Oberon, getting ready to do what he does best. (i.e., nap)
Thanks for your patience. I'll be back soon. Right after I take my multivitamin.
Peeking in to say hello…
In fact, it can get downright chaotic.
As someone who thrives on quiet and routine with plenty of time spent alone at my desk, this chaos (even if mostly it's the good and happy sort) can get a bit tricky for me. But life is short, and my frequent pleas for it to slow down and allow me to savor it continue to go unanswered. So I've learned to treasure the stolen moments that tend to pop up when I least expect them, to take that unexpected gift of time or quiet and make the most of it. Sometimes I spend it writing or journaling (or composing badly overdue website updates, ahem), sometimes I sneak an hour with a good book (because summer reads really are one of those simple pleasures we all deserve to enjoy), and sometimes I take the kittens outside to play in the dirt with me. Sometimes I sit on the shady patio with a glass of iced tea, daydreaming about characters and stories that have yet to be written, scribbling ideas and thoughts and sketches into one of the notebooks that are accumulating on my desk, anxiously waiting for me to return to my regular workaday routine.
Until that happens, you may not see much of me here. I'm still popping in on Twitter almost every day (You're following me , right??) sharing thoughts and comments and plenty of cat pictures. Otherwise, you can mostly likely find me in the garden, at the theater helping with my son's summer musical, at a museum or my painting class, or off picnicking at Shakespeare in the Park.
Happy summer! Wishing you simple pleasures aplenty, and many sweet, stolen moments in between.
It's May (whoa!) and we haven't heard from Master Shakespeare - who happened to be quite a fan of the month and its flirtatious high jinx - in a while, so I hereby grant him the stage.
Love, whose month is ever May
Spied a blossom passing fair
Playing in the wanton air:
Through the velvet leaves the wind,
All unseen, can passage find;
That the lover, sick to death,
Wish himself the heaven's breath.
Air, quoth he, thy cheeks may blow;
Air, would I might triumph so!
But, alack, my hand is sworn
Ne'er to pluck thee from thy thorn;
Vow, alack, for youth unmeet,
Youth so apt to pluck a sweet!
A Drop in the Well
Fair warning: I'm going to talk about something I don't often mention here. Writing. (Ironic, no?) But all of what I'm going to say applies to creativity in general and making art of all sorts in specific, and really, it's what has been on my mind lately. So here we go.
Where do you get your ideas?
According to Gilbert, all these ideas are floating around, trying to get our attention, but most of the time? We don't notice. We're too busy and distracted to even pay attention. This reminded me of a lovely list for writers by the poet Jane Kenyon. I first read it in Dani Shapiro's wonderful book, Still Writing, and you'll find it quoted here at the bottom of one of her blog posts.
Go have a look. I'll be here waiting. (While you're at it, you might want to bookmark Dani's blog if you're looking for inspiring, insightful thoughts from the writing trenches. And if you haven't read her book, I highly recommend it.)
The upshot of all this is that writers not only need to fill the well (meaning feed your head with adventures, experiences, and great art of all sorts), but also still the water. Otherwise, how will you hear that one little drop, that tiny plink of inspiration landing on the surface of your consciousness? We need time to check out in order to check in. Time to daydream and daze off (which is different than dozing off), doodle and dabble. Sometimes, we need more of that time than we're used to, or more than we want - or can afford - to take. Sometimes, it feels like we're desperately recycling all of our old ideas trying to find one we can make work because nothing new is coming, and maybe nothing new ever will. Then, one day, when you least expect it, you hear something, see something, feel something, and suddenly, the drop falls, splashing. It sends ripples outwards, little shockwaves of excitement through your body. You've allowed yourself to get full, to rest in that fullness, to come to stillness, and there it is - the idea you've been waiting for, the one that's been waiting for you. It's amazing, exhilarating, enthralling.
It's also terrifying, if you allow it to be. If you let yourself go to the doubt-spaces - Can I write this? Will anyone want to read it? Will it sell? - you can drive yourself into inertia and scare the idea away.
I'm speaking from recent experience, though I did manage to pull myself back from the claws of doubt before the idea got crushed. It's drifting around me like a butterfly now, moving in and out of sight, but never straying too far. It's not ready to land yet, and I'm not forcing it. I'm keeping it close to the chest, not talking about it much (or at all, really), in part because I don't know what to say. I certainly can't explain it; we've only just met. I don't even know its name. But I am trusting it to reveal itself, and it's trusting me to listen.
They can't be forced.
The Gift of Time
I love January. It's one of my favorite months of the year. I love the rainy days, the silver light, the sharp edge of the sunlight streaming through the windows, the roses popping like fireworks in the otherwise sleeping garden. Most of all, I love the quiet, the deep, restful stillness that rides in on the wake of the happy holiday chaos. The deep, productive stillness that overtakes my house - and my head - when my guys go back to work and school, and my days are once again filled with words and tea and the company of dreaming cats.
December is filled with gifts, with presents and treats and time spent with those we love. But January has its gifts, too; gifts like long dark nights, deep sleep, and the patter of raindrops against the windows, good books, steaming bowls of soup, excellent movies coming out just in time for the awards season, and clearance sales on sweaters. But January's best gift for me - and what I wish most for you - is the gift of time. May you find many moments of beauty and stillness, comfort, pleasure and rest, and may you spend many hours doing the things you love most.
If you struggle with the darkness and quiet of winter, please take excellent care of yourself and seek help if you need it. And, because we all need a reminder that the colder days will pass, here's a picture of the winter iris currently blooming in my garden.
Introducing The Wonder Twins!
Our family expanded in September, when we adopted two lynx-point Siamese kittens through a local rescue agency. The brother and sister pair had been dumped in an abandoned house. They were skinny and skittish, but six weeks of quality foster care fixed them right up. Now they're in their forever home, living the pampered, luxurious life they so clearly deserve.
They came to us with generic names that we promptly ditched. After a day in their company, our son dubbed them Zan and Jayna, after this super-powered sibling duo: Zan & Jayna
He's the goofy, rambunctious one. He loves playing with toys and wrestling with his sister and thinks it's great fun jumping over the bigger, older kitties as if they were Olympic hurdles. (Gypsy and Oberon are not impressed with this, in case you were wondering.)
He has the loudest purr in the world and functions in two modes: play and sleep.
She's the inquisitive one. If there's something new or interesting (or just something in general) to explore, she dives right in.
She occasionally validates that Disney tropes about naughty Siamese cats:
(Note the toppled pots and the plant about to be upended. Perhaps I should have grabbed the kitten instead of the camera?)
They've only been with us for two months, but they've already brought so much joy, lightness and laughter into the house, proving once again that all you need is love… and kittens.*
*Getting them through a rescue agency, your local SPCA or shelter only sweetens the deal. If you're looking for a pet, please consider adopting one in need.
It's been a while since we heard from the Bard; I think it's high time! Shakespeare offers up lots of spooky quotes for this, the culturally-avowed spookiest month of the year, but I find autumn (in general) and October (in particular) to be more restful than creepy. The whistle of the wind, the rustle of falling leaves, the cawing of crows and the midnight hooting of the owl in my oak tree, the crunch of a perfectly crispy apple. It all feels quite musical to me, if a little melancholy, and it brings to mind this quote:
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
~ The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1
The Shape of Things to Come
We're barreling headfirst into a week of triple digit temperatures, so it seems a bit silly to be writing about autumn. Since we often get blasts of heat in September (and sometimes even October), I'm taking my cues elsewhere - like the shortening days, cooler nights, and slowly but surely turning leaves. My sons are back at school, I'm back at my desk, and the farmers' market is winding down. Our tomato plants were done so we pulled them this morning; we'll let the garden rest until the end of September, when the fall planting begins.
©Jar O' Marbles, Inc.
But one of the best parts of fall - at least for me - is the return of routine after the happy chaos of summertime. My mother was a firm believer in routines; she always said children thrive on them. Having raised a couple kids of my own, I can definitely see the merits, though I'm a bit more flexible than she was, especially when it comes to extending bedtime by just one more chapter, please.
I can't say whether it's nature or nurture, or maybe a bit of both, but I'm happier, more balanced and far more productive when I have some sort of order to my day. Fall seems to accommodate structure so much more gracefully than summer.
I'm moving into this season with a rewrite, a return to a story I love. It's as perfectly comfy as my writing sweater and my fuzzy slippers, which I'll be digging out soon enough, as welcoming as a spiced apple candle and a pot full of steaming tea. Once that's done, I think I'll tackle a book I left hanging mid-write, to see if I can figure out what makes it tick. Fall, with its harvest-y vibe, feels like a good time to decide whether to compost it entirely or give it another go. There's also a brand new project in my sights, one I'm very excited about but not yet ready to begin - it's the seed I'm setting aside for springtime, when brand new beginnings feel just right.
When I'm not busy writing, there will be yoga classes, gardening, and long walks with friends, visits to apple orchards and pumpkin patches, piles of crunchy leaves, costumes and candy, and pots of soup simmering on the stove. So many good things and good times to come, but for now? I'm happy to feel the soft, subtle pull of the season, and to let myself rest in the simple comfort of my routines.
Around here, summertime also means heirloom tomatoes from the garden, a bounty of locally grown fruits and veggies, and pizzas (and pretty much everything else) cooked on the grill. It means quiet evenings on the hammock watching the stars and listening to crickets, and cool, crisp mornings in the garden with only my thoughts, a hot cup of coffee and the hummingbirds for company.
For the last several years running, I've been editing a manuscript during the summer, but this year, I'm in the pre-writing stage on a new project, so I can justify hours spent daydreaming and watching butterflies as the story begins to take shape, transforming as slowly and surely as a chrysalis in a cocoon from a vague idea into a full-blown story world populated by living (at least in my imagination), chattering characters. It's a nice place to be this time of year, and I can tell that by August, when my sons go back to school, I'll be dying to sit down and dive in.
But, like that chrysalis, the story isn't yet ready for the bright light of day. So for now, I'll kick back, let my mind wander and enjoy all the fruits and pleasures that summertime brings.
The Heart Path
This is a poem I wrote several years ago and shared on a group writing blog in which I was participating at the time. It feels like a good time to revisit it - and share it - again.
Follow your bliss.
It sounds so easy
you try it and you realize
the path is dark
littered with doubts and discouragement
so you pick your way carefully
ignoring the choir of crickets
chanting you cannot
or you should not
calling you a fool
for taking the risk
for throwing yourself into the river
and daring not to sink.
It isn't easy
to take this road;
you know, the one less travelled.
the farther you go
the smoother the path becomes
the surer your footing
and soon you're running, sprinting
through patches of sunlight
shouting yes to the sky.
I want to tell you it stays like this
but all roads have potholes,
moments of uncertainty.
There will still be shadows.
You will stumble, trip, fall
skin knees, bruise ego
…and find them again.
Because although it isn't easy
this chasing of bliss,
once you have captured it, tasted it
once you have danced
the path of the heart,
once you have soared,
there is no turning back.
©Lisa DiDio, do not reprint
Spring is always such a hopeful time, don't you think? Blossoms and new growth and all that green, as far as the eye can see. I'm feeling hopeful, too, about a lot of things in my life. Things I want to see blossom and grow as the year progresses - and, hey, if it means green as far as the eye can see, I won't complain.
My love for spring is second only for my adoration of fall. Where I live, winter is gray and dreary and summer is brown and hot, so the seasons in between feel like a beautiful blessing.
I wish you many beautiful blessings of your own, with blossoms and new growth galore!
Tokens, Totems & Talismans
Writers tend to be a superstitious lot and we're prone to sentimentality, too, so most of the wordsmiths I know have a collection of keepsakes, tchotchkes or even the occasional tattoo related to some story we've put on the page. I have friends with collections of dragons, fairies and cats, others with medieval weaponry and martial arts gear. Beyond the possibility that there's some kind of manifestation magic in connecting the dots between this world and the world of your story, it's inspiring and just plain fun to surround yourself with physical things that represent your imaginary world. It's a concrete way of making it feel a little more real. (But just a little, because let's face it. For most writers, their imaginary realms are as vibrant and real - sometimes more so - than the mundane world. Readers benefit from our emotional (over)investment. Without it, our words are dust.)
So who is hanging out in my office? You've already met Wee Willie, the host Will's Words here at the blog. I also have a copy of the Chandos portrait believed to be of Shakespeare (there's no record of him sitting for a portrait and, therefore, lively debate about which, if any, of the portraits of the Bard are the real deal) and prints of John Waterhouse's paintings "Juliet" and "Miranda". I have prints of Van Gogh's "Blue Bedroom" and Rousseau's "The Snake Charmer", which feature in the novel that led to me signing with my agent, and I even have a novel-related tattoo, which I might share with you one of these days.
Most of my paraphernalia is of the wall-hanging variety because my office is small and I'm not big on clutter. But when I spotted this pair at a festival last weekend, I simply couldn't resist. They're hand carved obsidian, so they're each unique, but when I saw them I knew they belonged together - with me!
I have a thing for ravens in reality and myth, and a particularly soft spot for Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who make an appearance (or two or, okay, maybe a dozen) in my YA urban fantasy. Can you guess what I named these guys?
Will's words... On Wintertime
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.
~ King Henry VI, Part II; Act 2, Scene 4
Read enough Shakespeare and it becomes abundantly clear that the Bard was not a fan of wintertime. He attached it to adjectives like barren, rough, limping, hideous and wrathful, and tapped it often for metaphors about despair, aging and depression, lavishing all sorts of sunny simile love on springtime and summer. It's understandable, really, as England in the dead of winter before electricity, insulation and paved roads could not have been pleasant.
My ancestry may be Norwegian, but I'm a fifth generation California and, when it comes to winter, I'm a wimp. Rain, the occasional thunderstorm, fog and wind and a few deep frosts; that's about the worst we get and I'm good with that. Snow is pretty on TV or maybe viewed through the cabin window during a mountain weekend getaway with a fire roaring and a cup of hot cocoa in hand, but living with snow, cold and darkness for weeks or months on end? No thanks. I'll leave that adventure to my East Coast pals, several of whom are still digging out from the latest blizzard. Stay warm, guys! I'll be thinking of you while I'm out in the garden.
And keep eternal spring-time on thy face.
~Titus Andronicus; Act 3, Scene 1
The Path Ahead
I hope you're feeling inspired, too, with plans to create and engage and enjoy the many adventures along your path. Happy New Year!!
Be A Light Unto Yourself
A Spectacularly Theatrical Year
I've always loved theater. It was my safe place in high school and college (though I did more writing for the stage than performing on it once I hit the university) and it remains one of my great lifelong loves despite me having settled in comfortably on the auditorium side of the pit. (At least for now…)
2014 - or the year of theater, as it's been designated in my personal history book, aka my journal - was an absolute joy for me. Thanks to my ever so talented friends, my Bard-loving boys and my son's continued involvement in a local children's theater troop, I saw a bunch of plays, did some family Shakespeare readings and even - gasp - stepped on stage myself, playing Titania in a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream in front of an actual audience. (Okay, they were mostly my peers and fellow participants in a Shakespeare workshop, but there were also actors and scholars from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the American Shakespeare Association and The Globe in attendance so, you know. ACK.)
Also, I wrote a book about theater. So there's that.
I didn't set out with the goal of seeing a play every month so we missed out in January and February, but we made up for it the rest of the year. We saw musicals: Guys and Dolls, Seussical (featuring our youngest as Horton the Elephant), Peter Pan, Shrek and A Christmas Carol. We saw a fabulous high school production of Radium Girls, a powerful historical piece, and caught a community college performance of Honky Tonk Parade, an experimental "review" of Tennessee Williams' one acts, poems and essays. There was a bawdy, swashbuckling outdoor performance of The Three Musketeers, and of course there was Shakespeare in the Park. We saw Much Ado About Nothing at our usual venue then travelled a bit further afar to a quaint little town with the cutest little amphitheater ever to see All's Well That Ends Well, complete with pre-show and intermission narration/explication of the action that was about to unfold and very ardent reassurances that even though things might seem dire, Shakespeare would eventually deliver on the promise made in his title. (Whew. I was worried there for a minute. )
Seriously, though. Just look at this place:
My little family of four will be celebrating the holiday with the traditional feast this year, followed by our traditional pre-pie walk on the beach and a read-aloud of Much Ado About Nothing. (Yes, we're a band of Bard geeks. What can I say?)
Master Shakespeare had plenty to say about dining and drinking and merriment of all sorts, so choosing a quote for this week's edition of Will's Words wasn't a problem. In the end, though, I picked one that speaks to my deep and abiding sense of appreciation for all the wonderful people, adventures and experiences that fill my life with laughter and joy! I'm truly lucky and truly grateful, so…
I can no other answer make but thanks
And thanks, and ever thanks
In Between Things
I'm between a number of things right now: Halloween and Thanksgiving; late autumn and early winter; regular life and the holiday season; the completion and submission of one book and the beginning of an entirely new one.
In between places are tricky. Like the crevice between the wall and the refrigerator, where all sorts of strange, icky things like to gather, or that problem spot between your molars that binds dental floss and the consumption of popcorn in unholy matrimony. Or the place midway to your destination when the chorus of "Are we there yet?" and "How much longer?" begins in the back seat. Thank goodness for vacuums, dental floss and boxes of Everlasting Gobstoppers. Otherwise, a girl could go mad.
It's easy enough to slide into a panic. The slope is steep, littered with what ifs, what nows, and - the worst of the bunch - what next? But getting that loop stuck in your head is a one-way ticket on the crazy train, and I'm not buying. Not yet, anyway…
So what's a writer to do? Here are a few of my favorite strategies:
- Breathe. (It beats the alternative.)
- Be here now. (Because yesterday is gone and tomorrow is just a memory.)
- Engage life. I spend a lot of time at my desk, alone in my office. During these lulls, I make a point of getting out, seeing people, spending time with friends and doing things that stir the creative pot, helping rekindle the fires of inspiration. For me, that means seeing a couple of plays, catching an art exhibit or two, and reading piles of books. I'll also be busy rehearsing for the Chamber Singers' holiday concert at the beginning of December.
- Get messy and have fun. It's good - even important, I think - for writers to have a stress-free hobby or creative outlet, something other than wordsmithy. So I'll be planting bulbs in the garden and splattering paint on canvases and practicing for that concert with some of my friends from the chorus. I'll also be playing with this:
- Daydream and story scheme. I'm fairly settled on what comes next for me, writing wise, and it has a much different tone than my last book. I'll be doing some reading, some movie watching and music hunting to help me nudge open the door and get the characters talking.
- Let it be. Sure, you can worry yourself sick about things you can't control, but what's the point? I'd rather be out jumping in leaf piles and enjoying my rare and precious free time!
The Halloween Edition
When you think of spooky stories apropos to the holiday, you probably don't think of Shakespeare, but you should! The Bard was a big fan of the supernatural; if you're looking for ghosts and witches and pesky, sometimes spiteful spites and spirits, he's got you covered. Hamlet's murdered father wanders the castle crying for vengeance, Banquo's spirit haunts Macbeth (who totally deserves it), Ceasar's ghost drives the treacherous Brutus to suicide, and a passel of unhappy wraiths dog dear old Richard III (who also totally deserves it). A Midsummer Night's Dream gives us a host of fairies and sprites who seem more mischievous than scary, but they certainly manage to stir up plenty of trouble for the poor foolish mortals out wandering the woods on Midsummer's Eve. And in The Tempest, we have the Algerian witch Sycorax. Her death precedes the story but the consequences of her actions inform several of the major plot threads, including the tense bond between Prospero, the mage who inherits the island, and Ariel, a powerful spirit the witch managed to trap inside a tree.
Evil as she was, Sycorax can't hold a candle to the holy trinity of witches: Shakespeare's very own "weird sisters", the puppet masters behind all the murder and mayhem in Macbeth. If the very word witches conjures up images of black cauldrons, barren heaths and hags dancing circles around their bubbling brew chanting "double, double toil and trouble" (not bubble, bubble…that's a common misquote!) you can thank Shakespeare.
Here, as a Halloween treat to you from him (via me), is the perfect recipe for a hell-broth. Concoct at your own risk and good luck with the shopping. The list is a doozy.
(Oh, and fair warning. Ancient Scottish witches are not remotely politically correct!)
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
He's cute, isn't he? Cute enough to deserve his own space here at the blog, I think, and he certainly has plenty to say. With all of the romantic blather, great pick-up lines, astute advice and soulful ponderings, the hardest part of curating this new feature will be picking a single quote from the many I've cherished over the years.
So, without further ado (or Much Ado, for that matter), may I present the inaugural edition of Will's Words.
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt
Measure For Measure, Act 1, Scene 4
A Turkey's Tale
*Or Frederica. We're really not sure.
Fred showed up on my front lawn three weeks ago and was mistaken for a chicken, perchance escaped from the neighbor's backyard coop. When I reported his appearance, the neighbor said their hens were all full grown and accounted for, but he came over to make a rescue of the poor little lost fowl. He managed to capture Fred and was promptly and painfully pecked, which made the neighbor reconsider adopting him and raised questions about Fred's chickenhood, since even roosters aren't quite that aggressive or sharply beaked. The neighbor washed his (pecked and bleeding) hands of the matter and returned home, leaving me to get my research on.
I agreed that Fred might not be a chicken, but was certain he wasn't a fledgling raptor as my neighbor suggested. (The beak, tail and feet were all wrong and while Fred flew somewhat better than a chicken, he clearly wasn't built to soar.) A quick review of Google® images confirmed Fred's status as a juvenile wild turkey, but his early behavior suggested that he wasn't born in the wild at all. As soon as twilight threatened, he wanted back in the coop.
"Hey! It's getting dark out here! Let me in!"
I felt bad for Fred, who spent a good ten minutes squawking outside my window. But I have three cats, all of whom were staring rather hungrily at him, and even my hospitality has limits. I'd done some reading on wild turkey eating/roosting habits, and I knew that Fred's only hope of survival lay in helping him hone his instincts. (Though letting him roost on the back of my office chair seemed like a kinder option when the cries got particularly pitiful.) As darkness began to fall, he gave up on getting in and made his bumbling way into a low hanging branch of the neighbor's sycamore tree, where he roosted nightly for the next few days. He's since moved into the big bush outside my bedroom window where he can keep an eye on me, and he's doubled in size, dining on a diet of birdseed, grains and blueberries (recommended by the internet and provided by me) and grass, worms and bugs (provided by Mother Nature). I'm happy he's survived this long and hoping he makes it to adolescence, when the call of the wild will lure him to the outer edges of towns where flocks of his kind wander the vineyards and orchards.
In the meantime, I'm enjoying his company, and he's enjoying the grub.
Out The Window
So far this year, I've written and edited a YA contemporary which involves one or two (or maybe even three) of my favorite things in the universe. It's off with my agent now, collecting fabulous insights and notes, and will be waiting for me when I return from the beach. I saw the Georgia O'Keeffe show at the deYoung twice, and got a Shiny New Idea as an unexpected perk. (Hello, fall project!) I also caught the Intimate Impressionists show at the Legion of Honor, a director friend's high school production of Guys and Dolls, a series of Shakespeare films/lectures and - of course - Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. I've spent a couple of long, lovely days at the California Academy of Sciences and the better part of a week hanging out in Santa Cruz. I've read a pile of books, watched some great TV, scored some new music, and replanted several areas of my garden. I saw my eldest son get accepted into his college of choice, collect several scholarships and awards and, come this weekend, I'll be watching him graduate. I had front row seats at all three of my youngest son's jujitsu competitions and just watched him land the role of Horton in his theater company's summer production of Seussical, The Musical.
None of this excuses my absence here, but perhaps it explains it. And regular blogging - like yoga class and painting - is part of the plan for the rest of the year. Stay tuned!
A Tiger's Heart Wrapped in a Player's Hide
Once upon a time, a young, impressionable girl met a man -- a much, much older man - who rocked her world, blew her mind and touched her heart. It was love at first meeting but it wasn't too flattering sweet to be substantial, it was a love that would last a lifetime, growing and deepening with each passing season.
The girl was me, the perky, hopeful fifteen-year-old version of me, the man was William Shakespeare and the play that introduced us was - you guessed it - Romeo and Juliet. I went on to read the bulk of his works in high school and college and revisit my favorites regularly, I see film interpretations both faithful and modern, and I catch every live performance I can. I can't begin to count the hours I've spent in the fair, witty company of the Upstart Crow, but they have been amongst my happiest.
So Happy Birthday, Master Shakespeare! 450 and still going strong! Huzzah!
Guest Post: LJ Cohen & Chris Howard
Authors & Artists, or The Cover Conundrum
I'm thrilled to have this amazingly talented and supercool duo joining me today, talking about the process of collaboration involved in creating the perfect cover art. In traditional publishing scenarios, authors have much less input when it comes to their covers, but they are often asked to provide the same sorts of information to their marketing team that Chris requires from his clients. Fascinating stuff to consider, so without further ado, here's LJ!
[L.J.Cohen:] How does a complete non-artist figure out what she wants in a book cover? Or How a Control Freak Learned to Make Peace With Other People's Talent.
It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have (to put it kindly) limited artistic talent. I remember the day I lost any love for visual art as a child. It was the fourth grade and our elementary school art teacher had no patience for the kids who couldn't create what she saw as a faithful representation of an object. The (mostly) girls who could draw whatever thing she presented in art class that week were celebrated, their work held up to the class as an example to follow, then posted in the school's display case.
Those of us who had loved messing about with color and shape in earlier grades were just never going to be good or good enough. My response was to not do anything. I hated art class. I hated all the (mostly) girls with perfect penmanship and drawings that looked like they were supposed to.
I didn't even like coloring books after that.
The next time I did any kind of drawing, was decades later in my physical therapy practice when I needed to illustrate exercises for my patients. We would all laugh together at my lame stick figures, but at least they served their purpose as reminders.
Pencils, paints, crayons: they were not my friends, but words were. When I began to devote my life to writing novels, I knew I would need to work with a skilled artist who could create the book covers I could barely even visualize.
I knew very little about how artists conceptualized something as large and as wide ranging as a novel. I knew that you didn't just illustrate a scene from the story. That you needed to find something that identified the genre, pulled in a potential reader, and represented the soul of the story.
And as a non-artist, I was worried that I wouldn't know if a potential cover was right or wrong when I saw it. I am, primarily, a kinesthetic processor. That is, I mediate my world through physical touch and movement. Don't describe landmarks to a place - let me drive there and I'll know how to get there again. Don't tell me how to access something on the computer. I need to have my hands on the keyboard to do it. I've never met a manual I haven't loathed; rather I learn software by starting to use it for a real project.
It was clear my skill set wasn't going to get me cover art.
But luckily, I knew someone who had the talent I lacked. And that someone is Chris Howard.
If I had to describe Chris in one word, it would be 'polymath.' (Isn't that a great word?) He's talented across many, many domains, including software development, novel writing, and visual art. Because he was also a writer, I knew he would understand the need to tell a story and capture emotion in my cover art. Because I had seen his work, I knew he would be able to create something beautiful. I just didn't know how or if I should direct him.
(That's the control freak part of my nature coming through.)
But I trusted him. So what I provided Chris was a brief synopsis of the story (he had read an earlier version in a critique group) and my very basic visual descriptions of the characters from how I had described them in the story.
What he did next feels to me like magic. From my perspective, I sent a jumbled email full of random information. After a fairly short amount of time, I got back a piece of art that even as a concept sketch, took my breath away. Because I have absolutely no idea how Chris achieves his wizardry, I'll hand this post over to him to talk about what he did and why.
[C.Howard:] Thanks, Lisa. You're right. It's magic. I was secretly inducted into the visual artist's guild in the fourth grade. I lost my membership ring at that neo-impressionist's cage match in San Fran, still have trouble with the handshake and the secret walk, but...
Not really. That's what's disheartening about Lisa's experience. It's pretty common to hear "what a gift you have" when you draw a face with eyes, nose, and mouth in the right place, and just as common to see the dismissal of anyone who apparently doesn't have "the gift". Growing up I was lucky enough to have a lot of encouragement, a mother who was a journalist, painter, fiction writer. I also had a series of amazingly talented friends who drew comics--some of them way more talented than I will ever be. And that drove me forward. I can look back now and know it's all learned. All it takes is time, motivation, encouragement--like anything else. But time, mostly. And raftloads of it.
First, a bit about why covers are difficult to create--for anyone, and then let's walk through the process and the criteria I use to design any book cover.
So what makes a cover difficult to create? In so many words: visual art is something you can just take in and feel without a lot of processing. That doesn't mean you will like what you see--doesn't mean you will even notice the cover art. Some things stand in a bad way, some don't stand out at all. Even so, readers usually see the cover of a book first, and for good or bad, it commands an inordinate amount of influence over a reader's decision to select a book and read the story. Keep in mind this is a perceived quality of the art and overall cover design. It doesn't matter how wonderful or creative the cover actually is.
My approach to cover design has two parts, the on-going accumulation of ideas, work from artists I admire (of all kinds, not just cover art), photos I take myself, and photos I see on the Web--from all over the place, Tumblr®, Google® images, stockphoto services. I'm in the habit of saving anything that grabs my attention. I have folders with thousands of images. Think of this part as keeping a journal (a rather sloppy journal) of visual ideas that express the kinds of things I like to see in cover art--mostly composition, facial expressions, a photo that strikes a certain mood.
The second part is a list of criteria that I believe guide the art direction for a book's cover: genre expectations on style, author input, book summary, character descriptions, theme, and market. All of these, and in varying amounts depending on the book and the author. In my case, with cover commissions, you should also expect to have some artist-and-author back and forth, from concept sketch, to a rough composition, to details that don't appear until finishing up the work.
I'm not going to say much about market or territory because this typically doesn't come up with my commissions. Genre is the stronger influence on what goes on the book cover, but it is pretty common in the wider trade publishing world to have different covers for different markets, e.g., two UK editions, one geared for adults without characters or painted scenes, and one geared toward the YA market, which may have a more colorful or "lighter" feel to the art. Or a print edition with similar cover art, but bolder and bigger type for the titles when it goes into ebook.
Genre in many ways defines what is expected by readers in cover art. For example, high fantasy is probably going to have a completely painted cover, a scene from the action in the book. Urban fantasy will probably have the main character or characters in some kind of bold pose, a grunge overlay, and in many cases the art will be photorealistic, based around an actual model being photographed. Many thrillers have abstract covers, cityscapes, characters in blurred motion. Of course, these don't always apply, and we're always in the middle of some new cover art trend with any genre, but for the most part you run the danger of discouraging readers who expect a certain kind of cover for their favorite genre. If your story involves a necromancer in Los Angeles who sells electric cars by day and sends zombies beyond the Ninth Gate by night, you probably can't go wrong with a cover that's stylistically similar to many contemporary urban fantasy covers, including the Dresden books--grungy, a dark street scene, main character about to swing into action against the undead.
To me, author input on subject, composition, and artistic style is important, but not always necessary. Keep in mind that outside some of the indie pubs, the author--and sometimes the editor!--has little or no influence over the cover art. I think the level of input is up to the author. Some will just send an email without much more than "it's urban fantasy with shape-shifters set in 1960's Seattle, and here's what the main character looks like". Others have provided detailed descriptions of each character in the cover scene, with who is sitting where and looking at whom, down to the time of day and the colors of buttons on a character's topcoat. I work with either, and I can't say if one is more challenging than the other. This hits Lisa's point directly--how much control the author has or wants to have over the cover design. First, there has to be some back and forth, refining the art from sketch to completion. Beyond that it's really about the purposes of the author. For example, tighter control usually means the author is going for thematic consistency across books in a series, and requires a certain "look" that groups the books together.
The story summary, character descriptions, and theme go hand in hand. I don't always get all three, but I pretty much require the first two--and at the very least what the main character sort of looks like.
Based on all of this, I will either go with a mood piece (e.g., Future Tense, LJ Cohen), which shows the struggle of a character as the important component of the scene. Or one where a character in motion--running, fighting, doing something physical--dominates the scene (e.g., Storm Without End, RJ Blain, or Hope and the Clever Man, Mike Reeves-McMillan). And not that it's really one or the other--mood or action, it's just the characters are clearly doing something--on a horse galloping toward the reader, using magic and constructing some kind of magical device, as opposed to walking, head down, struggling against bad decisions, guilt, voices inside.
I usually start by sharing a rough sketch with the author, which could be just a character study, or a very simple composition with a background, and this gets us going in some direction, even if it's not quite right. After that it's just doing the work, building up the scene, working in details, making changes here and there based on the author's feedback. It's iterative. In most cases there are seven or eight--and sometimes as many as ten--cycles of posting updates and responding the author's comments and direction.
Like any story, after you have what seems like brilliant idea, great characters, the end of the world to face, and how your characters are going to save it from destruction, you just need to put your fingers on the keyboard and get to work.
Finally, some questions and tips I'd like to share. Does it help that I'm also a writer? Probably. I think the more important aspect to look for is the ability to form a working relationship--especially if you're turning out a book or two a year. Commissioned art is work, and you want to find someone who can not only create art in a style you like, but who also works well with others, takes criticism, allows for a reasonable amount of feedback. How many artists out there are doing book covers? Many. Check with your writer friends or others you interact with on FB®, Tumblr®, G+®. See who they're using for cover art. I'd also check out the book cover groups on deviantArt™. I've been on dA for years and I never cease to be blown away by the talent I see there. There's a wide range of it, but dig around and you'll find someone you like. What about pricing? I would expect to pay at least several hundred dollars (USD) for a cover, and it usually goes up from there. Things are typically cheaper for existing work an artist has posted--that happens to fit your story well. Definitely spend some time looking at portfolios and asking around. With a little digging you will find really creative, kick ass artists, some of them working for years, some of them breaking into the market.
LJ Cohen is the author of THE BETWEEN and most recently FUTURE TENSE. Her SF novel, DERELICT (along with its Chris Howard cover) will be published Summer, 2014. http://www.ljcohen.net
Chris Howard is an author and artist. His books include THE SEABORN SERIES, SALVAGE, DRYAD, NANOWHERE, and TELLER. He has created original cover art for several of LJ's books. http://www.saltwaterwitch.com
When I surrender and let that voice lead, when I trust myself and my process enough to give in, when I let the story blossom from my heart and operate from what can best be described as a place of writerly Zen, I remember why I signed up for this crazy job.
Best. Feeling. Ever.
It's intoxicating, addictive, and revealing. Because when I slip, when I let mind come in and dominate, when I start worrying about what comes next or begin projecting my ideals or expectations onto the story, I derail. The word river dissipates, becoming a feeble, fretful trickle, and the doubt clouds gather, blocking the light of the story sun. Like, for example, last Tuesday. It was one of those miserable days where you feel like you're slogging through a sea of melted Velveeta™, fighting for every word, hearing them fall flat as they land, such hollow, empty victories. It wasn't the first time I'd experienced this, of course, but it was a first for this story, so I was in a bit of a state that night, thinking I was losing the mojo. What I was doing was losing my mind, or maybe my memory, because I'd been away from the story for three days and had somehow lost track of my timeline. I was writing the scene as if one thing, this big thing, was happening in real time, when in fact, according to what I'd already written, it was three days past that event. No wonder my character wouldn't cooperate. I was trying to impose fresh, raw feelings on her that she would already have processed, at least in part. She was doing her best to stop me. A bit of backtracking and several strikes of the delete key and we were off and running again, proving that I don't get to lead, I get to pace her.
Trust me, she whispers. All I have to do is listen.
This is what happens when a story sweeps me away, when I surrender to the glorious ride that is an unfettered, mostly unplanned zero draft, keeping the words close to my chest and close to my heart, letting them be, for this one brief window in time, mine, all mine. It's a magic carpet ride, the rush that keeps me going through endless rewrites and edits and the interminable bouts of waiting that are part of a writer's job description.
I'm closing in on the halfway mark and I'm on track to be done with this draft in early April. So forgive me if I'm a bit distracted and distant. Trust me, it's not personal. And at least I won't be picking you up late after school because I forgot to set the alarm on my iPhone, or neglecting to fill your kibble bowl.
I'll do my best to keep up with my bulletin board updates and maybe even begin a countdown of the WIP progress on the writing-related sticky, though sometimes things like that make me antsy. I'm generally on Twitter a couple times a day, so if you're wanting more chatter from me, that's a good place to start. Not following me yet? Why not??
Artist Spotlight: Anders Zorn
Take a good look at this painting. If you didn't know anything about it or its artist, you might assume it's done in oils.
Sommarnoje ©Anders Zorn- Wikipedia Commons
If you've ever tried painting with watercolor (the sort in tubes, not the little dried pancakes used in kindergartens across America) you know they're tricky. They have a tendency to bleed around the edges, to mute and smudge and fade with the slightest wiggle of your brush… or at least my brush. Even the most perfectly executing dot or dash has a way of blending in, becoming indistinct and fading into the whole. That's why they work so well for pointillism, where the strokes are distinct up close but disappear into the landscape of the work from a distance. That's how I think of them, at least, so when I saw Zorn's paintings at the Legion of Honor exhibit, I was blown away. The details are amazing and crisp, the paintings full of nuance, light and movement.
Who is Anders Zorn? I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't know prior to this exhibit, and I don't think I'm alone. His isn't a common household name like Monet or Picasso, which is a shame. His art can easily stand amongst the masters and it has, in museums around the world.
Anders Zorn was born in Mora, Darlarna, Sweden on February 18, 1860, and attended the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm from 1875-1889. He met his wife, Emma Lamm, in 1881, and she was his partner - and frequently his model - for the rest of his lifetime. (That is Emma, standing on the dock in the picture above.) Zorn was named Chavalier of the Legion d'honneur for the Exposition Universelle at the 1889 Paris World Fair in 1889, a high honor to receive at the age of 29.
Zorn was a successful and renowned portraitist who travelled extensively, painting the wealthy and socially elite, including three US presidents: William Taft, Teddy Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland. He made exorbitant amounts of money on his portraits, which allowed him to continue his travels, amass an impressive collection of art which he bequeathed to Sweden, and paint the subjects he loved in his off-time. He was the epitome of a working artist, doing portraits on commission to support the work of his heart. His portraits, mostly in oil, are excellent and he was famous for capturing the personality of the sitter and transmitting it to the canvas. Personally, I prefer his watercolors, his naturalistic nudes and landscapes and, most especially, his stunning, realistic representations of water. Zorn had a lifelong fascination with water, filling canvas after canvas with it, attempting to capture its motion in paint. I'd say he succeeded brilliantly.
Click here for information on Anders Zorn and a look at more of his work
A Chair of One's Own
I've wanted a comfortable chair for the corner of my office for quite some time, a place to sit and ponder, dream and journal and get away from my desk for a minute without leaving my workspace entirely. But the room is small, space is tight and I wasn't willing to settle for anything less than the perfect chair. During the post-holiday
furniture sale at World Market, I finally found it. Huzzah!
It works nicely in the spot and is super comfy, too, just the right height for my short legs but with a wide enough cushion that I can sit cross-legged if I please. (Most often, I do.) I love curling up in it at first light with a steaming mug of coffee in the windowsill and my journal perched on my knee, and it's the right angle and distance from my desk and the boards above them for those moments when I'm musing, needing to back away from the letters on the screen and focus on the big picture. It took us a while to find one another, but I think we're the perfect fit.
Here it is: Year's end, another chapter of life revealed. For me, 2013 was mellow and sweet, devoid of extreme highs or lows, filled with plenty of familiar pleasures, beautifully simple moments and quiet good times. It was my favorite type of year, really, one that is hard to define with a "best of" post because it was like a bowl of garden-picked plums, each one slightly different but just as delicious as the others in its own particular way. Sure, there were milestones, like my son getting his driver's license, his first job and applying for college, and my other son taking on his first big role in a theatrical production (with a solo number!) and starting jujitsu, but these things were experienced vicariously. My accomplishments were a bit simpler but equally fulfilling. I completed a major rewrite and saw a book out on submissions, wrote half of a new novel then changed course and started another. My husband made me a new pond, deep enough to deter the rapacious egret and, therefore, deep enough to support an actual lotus, which I ordered from a dealer in Texas. It arrived in tuber form in late March and finally bloomed in August; the waiting was worth it. I tipped our diet even more heavily toward locally-produced, organic foods and kept up with the yoga and meditation - though, admittedly, I could use more of both. We vacationed in Santa Cruz and took daytrips to San Francisco, visiting the museums and the Academy of Sciences, in keeping with our family traditions. Even the holidays were fairly quiet and relaxing, just the way I like them. All in all, it was a lovely year, a good set-up for the sea changes heading our way in 2014, when my first born graduates high school and flies off into the world.
Like I said, it's hard to pinpoint "best ofs", but I'll give it a go:
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
NOS4A2, Joe Hill
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
He's Gone, Deb Caletti
When We Wake, Karen Healey
Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
Night of Cake & Puppets, Laini Taylor
Oz the Great and Powerful
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Much Ado About Nothing
Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.
Once Upon a Time
Girl with a Pearl Earring: the Dutch Paintings from Mauritshuis
Darren Waterston: the A Compendium of Creatures
Impressionists on the Water
Mazzy Star, Seasons of Your Day
The Strokes, Comedown Machine
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito
Matt Nathanson, Last of the Great Pretenders
The Cardigans, Long Gone Before Daylight
I feel like I've been skiing (sometimes backwards, frequently shouting whee!) down the steep slope of time since Halloween. There were crunchy leaf piles and windy days and much baking of all things pumpkin. The great Thanksgiving escape to Santa Cruz was closely followed by my son's eleventh birthday adventure in San Francisco and, now, the holidays are suddenly upon us. Yes, I have officially been caught out. I'm behind on everything, but as the song says, I'll have to muddle through somehow. I'll be back after the festivities with a rundown of my favorite reads/tunes/adventures of 2013 and some exciting news from the writing trenches. For now, I'll leave you with a picture of Oberon, the office cat, who has vacated his post on my desk for a more sparkly perch.
A Fantastic Feast
Several years ago, when we started spending our Thanksgivings in Santa Cruz, we decided to take turkey off the table. We have nothing against the traditional meal - in fact, we usually make it on the day we're home decorating our tree - but when you're at the beach, the idea of spending the whole day in the kitchen loses it's luster. So we took a page out of our friends' idea book, and started picking our menus from different world cuisines. We've had Italian, Portuguese, Indian and French Thanksgivings so far; this year, we went Moroccan.
I even brought my tagine.
Our main dish was a spicy chicken tagine with apricots, rosemary and ginger. Tagines are simple to assemble but they take a while to cook, so while it was bubbling away, we opened some good wine, munched on some hummus and veggies, and made the side dishes.
We paired the tagine with melon and mint Salad with orange flower water, carmelized carrots with sweet paprika, couscous and wedges of pita bread.
Since half of the party was well under 21, we served hassir romman b'limmoun, a spritzer made of pomegranate juice and orange juice, with orange flower water and mint. It's lovely and refreshing, a great counterpoint to the spice tagine.
After dinner, we had my favorite dessert: Moroccan orange blossoms. Rounds of orange dipped in rose water, drizzled generously with honey and topped with cinnamon. It's so sinfully delicious but completely guilt free. (I don't feel guilty about honey, do you?)
While the rest of the world is dining on leftovers, we'll be moving on to something new, because there wasn't a single scrap left to save.
Tools of the Trade
Ah, writers. Creatures of habit, frequently prone to superstitious beliefs, worship of the amorphous deity known as The Muse, and strange, arcane rituals frequently involving caffeine. Whether we light a candle, brew a quadruple-shot latte, say a prayer to our characters asking them to behave, or turn on Freedom to lock down the internet before we begin; whether we do our best work on a laptop in a crowded café, ink it longhand in spiral-bound notebooks while reclining on our vintage chaise lounge or sneak to our desks at 4 a.m. while the kids are still sleeping. We know the practices that hit our creative sweet spot and we cleave to them, as fiercely and rigidly as our deadlines and travel schedules allow.
I don't have a particular deadline or a travel schedule at the moment and, alas, that chaise lounge is only a dream of things to come. I work at my desk in my tiny office and, over the years, I've collected some tools that transform this space (once optimistically referred to as the "dining room" though how one could fit a table and chairs in here is a mystery to me) into my own personal sweet spot. They've become the bones of my writing rituals and, while I can certainly write without them, I generally prefer not to.
Front and center are my Bose® headphones, as comfy and worn-in as a good pair of slippers. I write to music, turned down low enough to be considered white noise. It helps me focus, tuning out the rest of the world and tuning me into the story.
Then there's my trusty tetsubin, purveyor of excellent teas. My son gave me the burner that sits beneath it; fire up a tealight inside and you have warm tea for hours. Beside it are two of my favorite cups from my rather extensive and ever-growing collection. Occasionally, I drink coffee and sometimes - only rarely, when I'm writing in the evening - I'll have a glass of wine. But tea is my drink of choice, the elixir that best ignites my creative spark.
I use and love Evernote for planning and plotting and keeping track of research, but when I'm down in the writing-mine carving out words, whiteboards and dry-erase pens are my go-to. I track plot threads, make "fix-it" notes, line-map action sequences, doodle room diagrams in bold, fruit-scented colors. Some of these get transcribed onto paper or into my Evernote files, but the whiteboard is my favorite medium for brainstorming and quick fixes. I think it has something to do with impermanence; anything on the whiteboard is just an idea, swiped away with a single stroke. It makes them both freeing and practical.
At the bottom right is the small, Tibetan bowl borrowed from a friend last month, because I wanted to see how it worked before I invested in one of my own. Isn't it cute?
For the last year, I've been using a larger Tibetan bowl in my meditation practice and my yoga teacher uses one to signal the beginning and end of savasana. Their resonant tones have become signals to my brain, letting it know that something - something that isn't grocery list making or parenting or daily life ponderings - is about to happen, something wonderful and absorbing and outside of the ordinary. That's what writing is for me, so I thought, why not? Why not see if the chime of a Tibetan bowl could signal my brain that it's time to get still and focus, to surrender to the work ahead. Then, when the hours are up and it's time to unplug from the story and pick my kid up from school, maybe it might give me some closure, help me shift back into ordinary brain mode. So far, it seems to be working. I may be investing in my own wee Tibetan bowl soon, or maybe I'll just ask for one from Santa.
Music and the Muse
Over on my Inspiration page, I talk a bit about how music plays into my writing process. But I've just run across a very clear example of how deep this connection goes and how a particular song can unlock a scene or, in this case, reveal a character's layers and drop a missing puzzle piece into place. I thought I'd share because I love talking about this stuff, but fair warning: I'm going to be somewhat vague out of necessity.
The Smith's "How Soon is Now" has been on the WIP playlist since its inception so I've heard it dozens of times by now. A few weeks back, I realized that it suited one of the characters, both lyrically and musically. At that moment, in my mind, it became Liam's song. He's one of the four protagonists, but he doesn't have a POV, so everything we learn about him comes from what he says or does, as filtered through the perception of someone else. That makes it harder for me to dig into his head, to understand what's driving him and how his particular backstory influences the overall arc. In fact, I only had snippets of his history worked out, little bits and pieces I thought might be relevant in one way or another. But his father, Niall (a character who isn't present in the narrative and can't be until near the end of the book, if at all), kept cropping up. He was mentioned by both of the characters with POVs and one of those references riffed on first line of "How Soon is Now".
Want to hear it? Go here.
(Confession time: I wasn't a huge fan of The Smiths in the eighties so I spent a couple of decades thinking that first line said, "I am the sun and the air", which made it a much more sensible choice as the theme song for Charmed, since the Halliwell sisters were supposedly Wiccan witches with elemental ties. I have Pandora Radio's lyric display function for enlightening me as to the real words. But I digress…)
I wasn't sure why Niall kept weaving himself into the story, but I went with it, assuming it would all make sense in the end or get deleted during revisions. I'm so glad I did. Because last week, I was waiting in the car line at my son's school, listening to Pandora to pass the time, when "How Soon is Now" began to play. Suddenly, Niall revealed his hand, cinching up some very loose plot threads. I'm sure it was all there already, lurking in the back of my brain, but the song unlocked it for me. It didn't have anything to do with the lyrics, really. It had more to do with the connection I'd formed between the song and Liam (the son and heir) that led me to think about what his father might and might not want for him which, in turn, led me to the big ah-hah!
Fun, right? Now, go listen to the song again, because it's awesome.
I'm spending the day at my desk, bumping up the word count, but I have my pal Jack to keep me company.
He's filling my office with that melty candle burning pumpkiny scent that says Halloween is here. There's a big bowl of candy on the counter waiting for our friendly neighborhood sugar hunters to appear, and a batch of chili Colorado simmering in the slow cooker so we can eat before the festivities begin. For tonight, there will be trick-or-treating on streets flanked by fabulously decorated Victorians with crunchy leaves beneath our feet and a waning October moon overhead.
May your treat bag overflow with good chocolate and good cheer!
And There Were Cupcakes!
Goals are a good thing, but some of them take a long time to achieve, so long that maybe you feel as if you're not getting anywhere at all. This is discouraging at best, so I try to beat off the blahs (or the blues) by setting incremental goals and celebrating the small steps along the path. Like hitting 30,000 words in the WIP, which theoretically would be a bit beyond the 1/3 mark if this were a later version but in zero-draft land, is probably a bit short of it. Still, it seemed like a good, round number, worthy of celebration. I'd found this amazing recipe online and was dying to try it, but I made myself hold off, made it the first landmark treat for the new book.
Pumpkin cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting. Mmm.
They were delicious, completely worth the wait. I haven't decided what the reward will be for hitting 60,000 words. Maybe it'll be a pumpkin pie (have I mentioned my obsession with pumpkin?) or maybe I'll splurge on a carton of my favorite sea salted caramel gelato. Or I could skip the extra calories and get myself a new CD, a sparkly pair of earrings or a new pair of cashmere socks…
But first things first. The next 30K!!
Firsts and Lasts
Or lasts and firsts…
The last of the heirloom tomatoes. (Goodbye, garden. Sleep well and dream of springtime.)
The first of the pomegranates. Also…
The first loaves of pumpkin bread. (Don't blink or you might miss them. They'll disappear just that fast.)
Hello, autumn. It's nice to see you again.
A Museum in Your Lap(top)
Or on your desk or your tablet…
This gorgeous, high-resolution image of Vincent Van Gogh's Irises comes to you courtesy of the Getty Museum and Trust, which has just launched their Open Content Program, releasing high-quality digital images of artwork in the public domain to… wait for it… the public. That's right. The Getty now permits you not only to visit their collection online but to download images for your personal, business or artistic endeavors, "making roughly 4,600 high-resolution images of the Museum's collection free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose". All you have to do is fill out a simple online form (very simple, only two questions) and drop them a note about your intended use, not because they're restricting that use in anyway, but because they're curious about what these images might inspire and where they might travel.
I'm fortunate to live in easy driving distance of several world class museums: The deYoung, Legion of Honor, Asian Art Museum and MoMa in San Francisco, and the newly renovated Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and I avail myself to them regularly. But some folks aren't as lucky and have to get their art fix online. Many museums (including the ones in the links section on my insipiration page) have virtual galleries on their sites featuring parts or all of their collections. But the Getty Museum has just taken the digital museum concept to the next step.
Why do this? Why let images that belong to them be used and/or modified without payment, thanks or even credit? Because their philosophy is based on the idea that "understanding art makes the world a better place".
That's a philosophy I can get behind. For more on the Getty's Open Content Program, go here. Inspiration awaits.
Life called. I answered.
It's been very quiet here for the last couple of months. My apologies. But for the first time in forever, I haven't been on some sort of deadline during the summer, so I decided to kick back and hang out with my sons. They're back in school now and I'm back to writing, feeling more rested and relaxed than I have in years, full of inspiration and ideas and sunshiny goodwill. So thanks for your patience, and stay tuned. There are changes brewing here on the site and regular blogging will now resume.
I BLAME IT ON BIG.
I was in college when Big hit the theaters, far too old to be afraid of silly things. But as Josh Baskin stepped in front of that Zoltar Speaks machine and slid a quarter into the slot, a chill ran down my spine. And when that cold-faced, evil-eyed animatronic man behind the glass began to move, I wanted to close my eyes and wait for it all to be over. I have a phobia about human-looking things that move, you see, probably stemming from an unfortunate, early childhood encounter with a bad horror movie about a doll that came to life at night and ran around the house killing everyone with a hatchet. (No, it wasn't Chucky. I'm older than that.)
I'm not into video games, so I surprised my husband* by demanding one of his arcade tokens at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk last week. "Why?" he asked, his look shifting to startled amusement at my response.
"I'm going to have a chat with Grandma Fortune Teller."
"I hope she doesn't tell me I'm going to die," I said, making him laugh as he passed me a plastic coin.
"She would never do that," he said. "Just look at that sweet face."
Fortunately for me**, she didn't say I was doomed, but the jury is out on the sweet face business. I know she's supposed to look wise and kind, but I'm not buying. You?
I dropped the token in the slot and she started to move, passing her hands over her row of tarot cards, tilting her head back and forth and blinking thoughtfully while I stood there, feeling a bit ridiculous and more than slightly creeped. Then a card spit out of the slot below and the machine went dark.
It's a simple, tan-colored piece of cardstock, the size of a standard business card, nice but unremarkable, just like the fortune printed on its back, which reads:
I didn't take Grandma up on the offer. Instead, I fiddled with my onyx and turquoise bracelet as I went to find the one I've chosen for my life's companion who does, in fact, make me very happy. I found him in "Classic Corner", playing this.
Some things never change.
Things I Love: Heirloom Tomatoes
I haven't done one of these posts for a while, so I figured it was about time, especially since my garden is bursting with one of my favorite things on Earth. I absolutely adore garden-ripe, homegrown heirloom tomatoes. And look! They love me, too:
The Play's The Thing
Our local Shakespeare troupe likes to experiment with settings and time periods, so this production was set at Orsino's disco in New York City, circa 1975. I wasn't sold on the concept going in, but it was a sparkling success from the whirling disco ball to the last shiny button on Viola's white John Travolta tuxedo. (Also the rendition of "Jive Talking" by Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Feste was hilarious.) We were being joined by a few friends, so we arrived at the amphitheater early, scoring seats on the lawn front and center. We picnicked, we lounged and we laughed - a lot. The whole cast was great, but Malvolio in his "yellow stockings and cross garters" rather stole the show, and helped ease my youngest son's angst about those orange tights required for his Scuttle costume…
WHEN STORIES ATTACK
A Shiny New Idea smacks us upside the head. Or kicks us in the gut. Or - if we're really lucky - wakes us from our mundane dreams with a kiss...
Unfortunately for me, it's usually the slap or the kick, and it jolts me right out of my complacent belief that I have some control over my process. If I did, I could calmly and sweetly tell the New Shiny to take a number and get in line, could tell the new characters to hush and have them listen. (Believe me, I have tried.) But that's never quite what happens.
Let's borrow from movie terminology and call the appearance of the New Shiny the "meet cute". In romantic comedies, this is the moment when the characters first connect, when their eyes lock across the room or they accidentally bump into each other in a grocery store. We see the instant chemistry even if they don't and we know that inevitably, these two shall become one. But once that first rush of attraction ends, our film characters have many hurdles to jump before they get to the happily ever after. The game of getting to know you must be played and the relationship must be grounded in reality before it can ever bloom into something worth keeping.
So it is, too, for the writer and the New Shiny.
There are characters to unearth, plot lines to concoct, locations to be fleshed out, research to be done. All of this takes time and cranial space, things that a writer caught in the heat of a deadline crunch or the struggle to finish a recalcitrant work in progress simply doesn't have. And that recalcitrant work in progress? It's like the steadfast lover or devoted husband who has somehow lost its luster. It's so tempting to turn away - maybe for a moment, maybe forever - and taste the sweet forbidden fruit of the New Shiny. Because it's just got to be better, more satisfying and (please oh please oh please) easier to write.
I think the appearance of the New Shiny during a frustrating first write or edit or during a time when we need a delicious distraction is not an accident. I believe they come along to keep us going, to keep us engaged. And honestly? The New Shiny doesn't always make it to the finish line. Every writer has a stack of ideas that fizzled before they saw the light of day. But I've come to recognize the good ones by the way they sneak instantly into my dreams and the way the top of my skull gets tight whenever I think about them. (Yes, I'm weird. Please don't judge.)
So what is a writer to do when the New Shiny appears at an inopportune moment but is just too tempting to resist? Flirt with it. Give it an hour or a day, or maybe even an hour a day for a week or two. It'll probably be happy with that, and you will, too. As long as you don't jump ship on the project at hand, this can be one of the best ways to keep the creative fires burning. It can give you the impetus to finish the work, because once you're done, you can devote all your time and attention to the glorious New Shiny.
At least until the next New Shiny comes along...
de Young Museum for the first (and second) time this spring, it literally stole my breath. I'd seen an exhibit of Vermeer's work at the Smithsonian years ago, so I shouldn't have been surprised by how much the Girl loses in reproduction. Prints of Vermeer's work, no matter how skillfully done, never quite capture the intrinsic luminosity of his paintings.
I'm not talking about the play of light on a canvas, I'm talking about something deeper, something more elusive and harder to describe. It's light, certainly, but it's the light of the artist combining with the light of the subject to create something so brilliant and shining that it transfixes the mind and touches the soul. I think it's sort of the equivalent of saying namaste to someone - the light in me honors the light in you - through a piece of artwork, and it isn't restricted to paintings.
Arvo Part's Alina. Pure radiance captured in the silences between notes. Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Mette Jakobsen's The Vanishing Act, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Words, imagery and characters spinning entire worlds of light. The haunting, mesmerizing tone Karen O's voice takes on in certain Yeah Yeah Yeah's songs, the one that always makes me pause and shiver. The shimmer of Mary Oliver's poems spilling across the page, drawing me deep into her cherished woods, pulling me along the path to Blackwood Pond.
You know the feeling, that deep, soulful ah-ha that rises when something beautiful speaks to you, calls you to perfect stillness and rapt attention. That's what I'm after when I'm reading, when I'm admiring art or listening to music, and it's what I'm striving for whenever I write.
I'm still off on a tangent (or several of them, really), spending my days painting, planting our summer garden, reading all sorts of fun things, watching great movies, doing yoga, hanging with my kiddos and soaking up sunshine before I voyage into the depths of the writing cave and begin the next book. But I wanted to share this picture I snapped on my iPhone with you, because it so perfectly captures California - or my California, anyway - and it makes me smile every time I see it. Enjoy!
OUT OF GAS
My youngest goes to a small school out in the country and as I was driving home from dropping him off the other day, I realized that I was running on fumes, literally and figuratively. It was easy enough to stop at the gas station and fill up the Accord, but refueling myself requires a bit more time, a lot of spaciousness and an excellent place to sit. Like this one.
I'm on the cusp of starting a new book but before I do, some quiet time for contemplation - and for plain-old zoning out - is in order. I need long walks, beach-sits, yoga, sunshine and fresh air. I need good books; the fun, brain candy sort and the deeply-thinky kind, too. I could also use some local, healthy food and maybe (probably) some extra sleep and Santa Cruz is the best place to get it, because there's nothing like the sound of waves in your ears all night to guarantee sweet dreams. So off we go for a refuel, a refill and a recharge. See you on the flipside.
I've been so attracted to blue lately. Maybe it's the sky or the lovely turquoise bracelet a friend sent me, or maybe it's the set of hand thrown rice bowls I stumbled across and had to buy. Whatever it is, I'm compelled to dig out my tubes of cerulean, indigo, cobalt and ultramarine, of Prussian and Thalo Blue, and cover an entire canvas. What better song to inspire me - and you - than Billie Holiday's "Am I Blue?".
Go on. Get messy and have fun. You know you want to.
BUSY, BUSY, BUSY...
Image created by L. Shelby.
I'm closing in on the end of revisions, navigating the rapids of The End in a titanium yellow kayak. (I like titanium yellow. It's assertive and cheerful, such a confident color.) The waters feel a bit treacherous and require a great deal of focus, so please forgive the lack of fascinating content here at the blog. I have a bunch of cool stuff to share and discuss and I promise I'll get to it soon.
In the meantime, it's February, so have a love song of sorts.
This one comes to you courtesy of New Found Glory and my WIP playlist. It's a stellar cover of the Sixpence None the Richer tune with a fun video - and, yes, that's Haley Williams from Paramore jumping around with the band. Enjoy!
Things I Love : My Pond
Once up on a time, it was an ugly raised flower bed built out of old railroad ties. It was here when we moved in and we did our best to pretty it up, but it never quite made the grade. A few years back, I suggested tearing it down entirely, but my husband had a much better plan.
Our sons were happy to dig the dirt out. (Shovels! Mud! Yay!) Once the bed was empty, we lined the inside and tiled the outside, added river stones and plants and over 250 gallons of water. Then came the fish - free mosquito fish delivered by the county and three dozen "feeder" goldfish spared from becoming turtle snacks. The fish grew, the plants grew, and red dragonflies and common buckeye butterflies made our pond into a nursery. (Ever seen a larva? They're kind of icky, yet strangley cool.)
These photo were taken by my friend Annette in the pond's heyday, before a hungry egret discovered it last June. It took two weeks to find a humane way to deter that bird (high fives the creators of the ingenious Scarecrow Sprinkler. Sadly, the answer came a bit too late for most of our fish; only a half-dozen of them survived. (Boohoo.) But the pond is now secure and when the water warms up this spring, we'll get them a bunch of new friends - friends who can grow fat and happy amongst the lilies instead of being turtle food.
I think it's nice to start the year feeling upbeat and uplifted, so here's one of my go-to happy songs, Blue October's "Jump Rope". I love this song so much that I have a couple of lines from the lyrics pinned to the bulletin board in my office. If you're not in the mood for Paint This, you could always play a guessing game and try to figure out which ones.
Paint, write, draw, sculpt or dance away. Or maybe make yourself a nice cup of chai and just chill.
For more about Blue October, go here.
Happy Friday! Get messy and have fun!
Bird's Eye View
Okay, so it's really the view from the observation tower at the de Young Museum but it was such a lovely, clear day you could see all the way tothe bridge and it got me thinking about all the good times we had in the city this past year. 2013 is upon us, but before I dive in headfirst I wanted to muse on 2012 a bit and share my personal "best of" list.
We got in lots of getaways, beach time, art exhibits, concerts and even some live theater, courtesy of my youngest son's theatrical debut in the musical Mulan. (He tore up the stage as Shan-Yu, the dastardly leader of the Huns.) I didn't make it to the movies as often as I'd have liked and I didn't do anything but glance with trepidation at my as-yet-unopened sumi-e set, but I did survive my eldest learning how to drive. I saw one of my novels go out on submissions while I blew another to smithereens and re-wrote it from the ground up. I developed a passion for gouache and art journaling, got my lazy butt back into bi-weekly yoga classes and honed my skills at making Indian and Thai curries. I reclaimed the practice of writing in a journal (with a pen!) and continued reading poetry with my morning coffee. (The top flavors of the year seemed to be Hafiz, William Carlos Williams and Rilke.) I drank oceans of tea (and plenty of ocean, too) and discovered ThisIsMyJAM, which allowed me to bring Paint This to the blog. There were tons of great moments in 2012 and plenty of happy memories were made. The following list features some of the highlights, in no particular order whatsoever.
- Best Adventures:
- Vegas, baby.
- Meeting my agent in person and tromping through Golden Gate Park with her.
- Boogie boarding on Twin Lakes Beach.
- Experiments in Japanese Monotype printing.
- Learning how to cook Moroccan food in my new tagine pot.
- Best Art:
- Man Ray and Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism
- The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy
- The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism
- Best (new, at least to me) Music:
- Billie Holiday, The Lady Sings the Blues (Remastered)
- Yellowcard, When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes (Acoustic)
- Shiny Toy Guns, III
- Silversun Pickups, Neck of the Woods
- Metric, Synthetica
- Bree Sharp, A Cheap and Evil Girl
- Best Things I Watched:
- The Vampire Diaries
- The Avengers
- Firefly (for maybe the tenth time)
And last, but never least…
- Best Things I Read:
- The Vanishing Act, Mette Jakobsen
- Anna Dressed in Blood, Kendare Blake
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Lanie Taylor
- Arcadia, Lauren Groff
- Stay, Deb Caletti
- Ready Player One, Ernest Kline
- Fang Girl, Helen Keeble
- Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
A new year, a new journal, this one an unlined red Moleskine, thanks to Dash and Lily's Book of Dares which, as it turns out, was the last book I read in 2012. It was also one of my favorites of 2012, as you'll see when I get my "best of" post up next week.
It's always a bit bittersweet taking down the sparkly lights and the glittering ornaments as December draws to a close, but I like the house clean and back in order before the year ends. I know it's just the flip of a page or the replacing of the old calendar with a shiny new one (this year's version features the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh) but the first day of a new year always feels so full of potential. I'm not one for resolutions; instead I choose a word or phrase for the year, a mantra of sorts that represents what I hope to bring into my life in the months ahead.
The word for 2013 is harmony.
Wishing you a happy and harmonious new year!
Here Comes the Sun
The Winter Solstice is our family's holiday of choice. We celebrate Christmas with our extended families on both sides which makes for a couple of crazy busy days, so years ago, we claimed the Solstice as ours. It falls on a Friday this year, but my sons have minimum days at school and my husband is getting off work early. We'll have good food (I'm making a Moroccan feast this year, including a spicy chicken and apricot tagine, because it tastes ever so sunny), an exchange of gifts and enjoy an oasis of downtime in the midst of holiday bustle.
Here's our favorite Solstice song, courtesy of the Beatles. Sing along if you like. I bet you know the words.
Wishing you peace this season, no matter which holiday you celebrate.
It's the "most wonderful time of the year" again, and I'm trying to dig up some holiday spirit. Truth is, I'd rather be working than shopping and my jeans forbid me to bake. I do love sparkly lights and decorations, though, especially when night falls so quickly. And, naturally, I love thematic tunes, though I'll skip the Andy Williams and Mannheim Steamroller, thanks very much.
I have an extensive holiday playlist - surprise! - filled with all sorts of fun, festive songs. Some are non-traditional arrangements of familiar songs, others are songs most folks might not consider holiday fare at all. (What, Grandma? You don't like blink-182?) My house, my rules and I figure that if it mentions snow or winter or December, it's fair game!
So, in keeping with the holiday vibe, I'll be sharing some of my favorite tracks over the next few weeks, for your inspiration and entertainment. I had crazy fun with a palette of gouache and Elliott Smith's "Angel in the Snow" the other day;I hope you'll be similarly inspired.
For more information on the late Mr. Smith and his amazing music, go here.
A Garden of Thanks
It's Thanksgiving, the point of which isn't really turkey - at least not for me. I'll be spending the holiday in Santa Cruz with family and friends, and while I'm out wandering the tideline, I'll be counting my many blessings. But there are a few folks I'd like to thank here, like my sweetie, Greg, for his patience and endless support; my sons for their patience and all the laughs; my agent, Nephele, for believing in me and working so hard to help make it happen; my critique partners and beta readers - Katy, Kate, Deb, Becka, LJ, Annette - for insights, edits, brainstorming and cheerleading; and last but never least, a big thank you to the fine folks at Jar O'Marbles for managing my lovely website and putting up with all my silly technical questions.
Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday and too many blessing to count!
GETTING MESSY & HAVING FUN!
I finally had a chance to try Japanese Monotype printing, thanks to my fabulous friend and friendly neighborhood art therapist, Kelly. It rocked!!!
Kelly says it's an exercise in release - releasing tension in your shoulders as you press, but also releasing control, because there is a huge element of chance. Monotype printing (as opposed to Monoprinting, which allows for several copies of the same print to be made) produces a different result each time, even if you don't change your color palette or textural materials. Once you put the paper down, the variables of pressure and paint thickness come into play.
We began by brushing liquid watercolors onto plexi-glass sheets. (Acrylics also work, as do oils, though apparently the oils are harder to transfer and messier to clean up.) Once the thick base layer was down, we added organic materials. I chose bamboo.
I could have allowed the leaves to create white space, but I wanted to play with their shape and texture. So a second coating of paint was applied. This time, I sprinkled on some metallic acrylic powder to jazz things up.
Once we had the paint down, it was time to bust out the toys. The traditional tool is the baren, a disk made of lacquered cardboard or layered paper backing containing a flat, woven rope coil. The disk is covered with a dried bamboo leaf, flat on the front and twisted across the back to create a handle.
Paper is laid across the prepared plexi sheet, and then the pressing begins. This takes some muscle, more than I expected, and it's not unusual (or detrimental, as it's considered part of the texturing) for the organic matter to pop small holes in the paper.
We also used rubber brayers and the flat sides of wooden spoons, since we were experimenting. I was aiming to get the shape of the bamboo twig on the paper, and using the spoon along the edge really helped.
Then it was time to peel off the paper and see what we'd created. My son and I did for prints apiece, and we each deemed one of them worth keeping. But getting good art wasn't the point; we were there to get messy and have fun. And we did!
This week's game will be a little different, since I'm participating in a virtual writing retreat from November 3-12, and one of my offerings to the group will be musical writing prompts. I'm kicking the weekend - and the retreat - off with Spinnerette's "Baptized By Fire", but you'll only have access to that song until Monday, when my jams will start changing every other day. Feel free to join us in using the various prompts, or to simply enjoy the tunes!
Paint, write, draw, sculpt or dance away. Or maybe make yourself a nice cup of chai and just chill.
For more about Spinnerette, go here.
A WEE TREAT
It's Halloween, my favorite holiday of the year, and in keeping with tradition, I'm offering up a bite-sized creepy tale. Unwrap a piece of your favorite fun-sized candy, and enjoy!
They're fighting again. Jess bolts before the screaming dissolves into violence, before the neighbors call the cops and her parents get hauled away. She runs, stumbling over the pocked asphalt that separates the clusters of dilapidated houses and rusted double-wides barely holding back the forest.
Live Oak Preserve, says the sign at the end of the road. But it's not what the locals call it.
Haunted Holler. Spookville. Witch Woods.
The place is loaded with history and none of it is pretty. There's the hanging tree at the north corner, the slave cemetery in the east and the scorched remains of Old Lady Simmons' cabin smack dab in the middle. Most folks avoid the woods, especially at night, but Jess isn't afraid here. The woods are hers.
Hers and Casey's.
They've been neighbors since kindergarten, best friends since first grade. Then one long, cold night two Octobers back, they became so much more. She can't believe he left without her. They had a plan. They'd been saving up money for nearly two years. They were going to get out of here. He'd be eighteen in a week, she'd catch up with him a month after. That's what they'd been waiting for, because they know what would happen if they got picked up and dragged back. Their parents have zero tolerance for ingratitude.
Jess staggers to a stop by the lightning tree, gasping for air and trying get her bearings. Her world hasn't been straight since she woke up a week before, alone and in her own bed. She'd thought maybe they got lucky, maybe this was one of those rare nights when both of their houses were quiet, when their parents were too tired - or too drunk - to do anything but pass out, so she and Casey didn't need to take refuge in the woods and each other.
But Casey wasn't waiting on the porch the next morning and he wasn't at school all day. When she went by his house, his brother said Casey took off the night before and didn't come back. Jess looked for him, but he wasn't in any of their usual places.
Their things -the sleeping bags and flashlights, the dinged cooking pot, and the army backpack stuffed with canned food and bottled water - still wait in the cavity of the cabin's crumbling fireplace. Casey didn't take their money, either. It's still in the coffee can under the fallen cypress out by the old well. She's going to take the money and hit the road tonight. Maybe she can catch up with Casey, find out what happened. It must have been bad, because he did something he never does. He broke his promise.
You and me, Jess. Forever and ever.
Digging into the backpack, she grabs a flashlight. Clouds crackle overhead, but the woods are otherwise still; no bullfrogs, no owls, no raspy orchestra of crickets. The silence feels wrong, almost wrong enough to send her running for home. But she keeps pushing forward, one step at a time, until she reaches the twisted bones of the cypress. Balancing the flashlight on one of its branches, she crouches, reaching for the coffee can.
She jumps, knocking the flashlight into a pile of moldy leaves. She sees the outline of the figure standing by the old stone well, but it's too dark for details. She doesn't need them, though - she knows that face by heart, knows that voice as well as her own.
Joy pushes her to her feet. She's almost there - almost in Casey's arms - when lightning flashes. She freezes, her heart lurching into her throat. Casey is covered in slime; it soaks his clothes, drips off his shaggy, dark hair. His neck lists slightly, resting against the stark white of his collar bone, thrusting up through gristle and skin. His face is gray under layers of blood and bruises, and his right eye oozes from its socket. But the left one is fixed on her, bright and so, so blue.
You and me, Jess. Forever and ever.
His words - his voice - echo up from the well. They're followed by the hollow splash of coins hitting murky water. She remembers the night they made their pact to get out of here. They'd tossed pennies into the well to seal the deal, laughing as they made a slew of hopeful, happy wishes. Then Casey had kissed her, and promised her forever.
She spins to run, but stiff fingers grip her arms. The mossy stones of the well press against her legs, their dampness seeping through her jeans. Casey's hands slide across her shoulders and up her neck, like they always do when he's about to kiss her. But his lips are black and torn, and his fingers leave wet trails against her skin. He's pushing her back, leaning her over the stone casing as he lowers his rotting lips to hers. The scream burns her throat and she starts to struggle.
You and me, Jess. Forever and ever.
She shoves against him, unbalancing them both. Dank air rushes up to meet her and her shrieks bounce off the rock walls. It feels like she's falling forever, but it's over too soon. She lands face-up in the slimy water. Takes one last desperate breath, one last look at the sky so far above them. Then Casey's weight hits her, pushing her under, taking her down.
She hears the frantic pumping of her heart, the thick gurgle of the water as it sucks her in. Beneath that, she hears a voice. An old woman's voice, whispering in her head…
Careful what you wish for…
© Lisa DiDio. Do Not Reprint
Getting spooky and multi-media with this week's game, since it's almost Halloween. Here's Nox Arcana's "Nevermore":
With a link to Poe's The Raven:
Once upon a midnight dreary…
And an illustration from an 1884 Edition of The Raven by Gustav Doré:
As noted on my bulletin board, I have a new computer. Since my husband and I are both technologically challenged (I, far more than he) it took a considerable amount of time to get all the data transferred from my old PC and get the new one up and running. We still have a few snags to sort out, but I'm happily back at work - so happily, in fact, that I neglected to post a regular blog. Oops.
But here, for your pleasure and (hopefully) the delight of your Muse, is this week's musical inspiration, Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You".
Paint, write, draw, sculpt or dance away. Or maybe make yourself a nice cup of chai and just chill.
For more about Mazzy Star, go here:
Get your inspiration (or maybe just your groove) on with "Heart is a Beating Drum" by The Kills. If you haven't played Paint This before, here's how it works:
Give the song a spin or three and see what it pulls from you, then paint (or draw or dance or write) it out.Not aiming for a lyrical translation here, more of an emotional response. Go forth, have fun and get messy!
The Kills are one of the bands I discovered when building a playlist, and I fell hard and fast. Learn more about The Kills, buy their music or stream some of their songs for free at their official website.
Official The Kills Page
Things I Love: Sunflowers
This week's musical inspiration is brought to you by Yellowcard and ThisIsMyJam.
For more info on Yellowcard or to hear more of their music, visit their official website. (Just click the picture below)
This morning, I went outside early to fill the birdbath and feed the goldfish. The sunlight was hitting the pond and in the spaces between the water lilies and the irises, the water was a rich, luminescent green, a color I associate with Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park and the paintings of Paul Cézanne. It's a gorgeous color, one of my absolute favorites, but in our pond it signals an algae invasion and means it's time to clean. I'm not ready to face that job just yet; I'd rather talk Cézanne and Stow Lake. (Really, do you blame me?)
Cézanne has long been one of my favorite impressionists. Admittedly, I'm not crazy about his portraits or his still lifes, but his landscapes, especially any of them involving water and trees, almost always grab me by the heart. What can I say? It's that green. I remember the first time I walked around Stow Lake and spotted this bridge.
There may have been a bit of squealing, because I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite Cézanne paintings, The Bridge at Maincy.
Yes, I know the bridges aren't exactly the same, but the way the light always plays there, between the green water and the arching tree, creates a similar resonance. You see echoes of it again here, in Bridge Over the Pond.
And then, there is Strawberry Hill in the center of the lake, with its towering trees and rioting foliage and patches of golden, sun-bright earth, all beautifully reflected in the water.
Just like the High Trees in Jas de Bouffan.
Stow Lake was a favorite hangout of mine during college, and remains a frequent haunt for me whenever I'm in the city. I love being there, walking the quiet pathways around the lake or rowing a rented boat across the water. It always feels like I'm touching magic, like I've somehow fallen right into one of my favorite Cézannes. Now, if I could only ascribe that association to pulling handfuls of slimy algae from the pond. It really is such a pretty green…
Let's Play a Game
Sorry, I have WarGames on the brain, thanks to Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (a seriously fun and geeky read). But the game in question has nothing to do with war; it's all about art.
The MC in one of my novels is a young artist with a haunting past. Her guardian periodically leaves a stack of CDs in her studio, each marked with a sticky note indicating a track number. (What is it with me and the sticky notes?) She uses those songs to draw her feelings out onto the canvas. They call their game "Paint This" and, for them, it isn't really a game at all. It's a fusion of actual art and music therapy techniques.
But we're just playing here, having fun, exploring the ways music can inspire creativity, evoke emotions, and color our impressions of a moment or experience.
So here's how our version of Paint This works. I've picked a song for you. You can find it on my This is My Jam page.
Give it a listen, maybe even twice. Close your eyes, see what bubbles up inside you. I'm not asking you to illustrate the song or paraphrase it in some way, though you could do that if you want. I'm suggesting you allow the tune, the mood, the imagery of the song to stir the pot a bit and let whatever rises to the surface come flowing out onto paper, canvas, the sidewalk (if you're into chalk), a whiteboard, clay. The medium is yours to choose - words, images, colors, photos. Collages, paintings, poems, stories, sculpture. It's all good. It's your game. Have fun with it!
If you want to work with "Breathing Underwater" - or just listen to it at will - you can stream it from Metric's official website and/or show them some love by following their links to purchase the song.
While you're there, check out their other great songs (all streamable) and their brand new video for "Youth Without Youth".
I'm jazzed to have the lovely and talented Morgan Keyes joining me here this week. Her new novel, Darkbeast, is a flat-out fabulous middle grade fantasy. (And its author is flat-out fabulous, too!)
[M.Keyes:] Many thanks to Lisa for allowing me to visit and tell you about my middle grade fantasy novel, Darkbeast.
In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life. Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.
In Keara's world, the Travelers perform two basic types of "revels": Holy Plays and Common Plays. Holy Plays tell the stories of the twelve gods and goddesses. They are absolutely set in stone; no one can change even a single word of a Holy Play, without risking the wrath of the Inquisitors.
Common Plays, though, evolve over time. They're stories of common people, of daily life. Each Common Play has a moral, but the performers have a lot of leeway about how they frame the lesson, how they get to the punch line.
In creating the two types of theater, I drew on various real-world historical performances. The Holy Plays are loosely based on Passion Plays, on cycles of drama that told the story of Jesus to a largely illiterate crowd. Passion Plays were preserved over decades (and, in some cases, centuries.) Controlled by Church authorities, they remained the same, performance after performance after performance.
Common Plays, on the other hand, are loosely based on Commedia dell'Arte, on improvisational theater that covered a wide range of everyday topics (love stories, master-and-servant stories, etc.) Common Plays were different every single time they were staged; often, specific data were incorporated from the real-world place where the play was performed.
Holy and Common - both provide a chance for me, the author, to define the world of Darkbeast. Through Holy Plays, my readers can see how things have always been, for centuries in the past, since the gods themselves walked across the earth. Through Common Plays, my readers can get valuable glimpses of how life is lived in Keara's time, at the very moment the story unfolds.
In the course of Darkbeast, a new sort of revel unfolds. The new play shows readers a potential future, if only Keara and her colleagues can prevail.
So? What about you? Do you prefer plays (or novels or poems) that hold to strict models? Or are you more attracted to open forms, ones that are easily modified? If you were a poem, would you be a Petrarchan sonnet or blank verse?
Morgan can be found online at:
Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including: Amazon, B & N, and Indiebound
Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat. Also, there were books. Lots and lots of books. Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C. In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads. Because there are still books. Lots and lots of books.
Things I Love: Fall!
My favorite season is here. I know the official "first day" isn't until the equinox (September 22 this year) but for me, fall begins a bit earlier. My sons are back in school, the nights are getting longer and cooler, the first goldfinches have returned from their migration north, and just a few days ago, the breeze kicked a handful of dried birch leaves across the sidewalk. Their familiar chattering rustle had chills of delight running up my spine.
So what do I love about fall? Longer nights, cooler days, fresher air, crunching leaves, the smell of cinnamon. Honeycrisp apples, delicata squash, pomegranates and pumpkin patches. Monster movies, scary stories, costumes, bite-sized Snickers and freshly baked pie, still warm from the oven. I love all the new things that fall brings in - a new school year, new writing projects, new boots, new sweaters. (My passion for fun, funky cardigan sweaters knows no bounds. I blame Max Azria.) I can't wait to pull my favorite tea cups and tetsubin out of the cabinet, knowing they'll be on my desk all day every day, and I look forward to evening walks under falling leaves.
There's something I love about every season, but autumn has always been near and dear to my heart. It feels like this one is full of wonderful potential, with all sorts of lovely harvests ahead.
Water Under the Bridge
I can't believe it is September. I'm going to call the summer of 2012 the one that got away, since so many of the things I planned to do never got done and certain things simply didn't happen. I didn't paint, didn't so much as crack the lid on my new sumi-e set or take that class on Japanese mono-printing, didn't do much gardening or see the new Batman movie. I don't regret it though, because what did get done - what did happen - was fantastic.
I finished a book, got feedback from my writing buddies, edited it and sent it off to my agent. I watched my youngest shine in his first summer musical theater production. I spent days and days on the beach, swam in the ocean, tried boogie boarding for the first time. I hiked in the redwoods and in Golden Gate Park, ate some killer meals, watched some amazing sunsets and started taking yoga again. I read great books, saw a few fun movies (though not Batman, alas), spent tons of quality time with my three guys and hung with my BFF, Kristina, who is always busy teaching first grade during the school year. There wasn't a minute wasted, really, so I can't complain.
It was a fabulous summer and, ready or not, here comes fall. Can't complain about that, either, because it's my favorite season. I'm looking forward to autumn, to new projects and to new, fun things coming here on my website. Stay tuned!
Of Ostriches and Earthquakes
We spent the last Sunday of summer vacation at the California Academy of Sciences.
(This shot was taken from the tower of the de Young Museum across the concourse. It was a foggy day, and I was using my iPhone, so it's a little blurry. I like it, though, because you can see the living meadow on the roof, with all the wee people on the observation deck.)
The Academy is one of our favorite haunts and we're members, so we visit three or four times a year. We're always happy to hang with the leafy sea dragons in the aquarium and the blue morpho butterflies floating loose in the rainforest dome, and the planetarium shows are always stellar. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.) But this visit had a specific purpose; we went to check out the new exhibit, Earthquake.
We stood in line for the quake table, a faux Victorian built over a shake mechanism that simulated the 1989 and 1906 San Francisco earthquakes. My guys thought it was cool, since they've never experienced the real deal. I have, however, and when that groaning rumble rose from beneath us, I had major flashback chills.
The planetarium show was new, too, and it illustrated the ways that earthquakes have shaped earth's continents over the millennium. The entire exhibit was fascinating but the best part?
The sign said they were about six weeks old and OMG, they were stinky. I mean cute. Stinking cute. Yeah, that sums it up.
The little one on the left was so sleepy, it could hardly keep its eyes open. It finally gave in when it fell over. It stayed down, and its pal cuddled up to it for a nap. Too sweet. (Except for the stinky part. Pee-euw.)
So what do ostriches have to do with earthquakes? Like emus and kiwis and other members of the ratite family, it evolved from an ancient inhabitant of the super-continent, Pangaea. When earthquakes broke the continent apart, flocks were split and evolved in ways unique to their specific environment. What's wild is that all of the ratites evolved to be flightless birds, despite evidence that their common ancestor could fly. How's that for an odd coincidence?
For more information on the California Academy of Sciences or the Earthquake exhibit, visit the Academy's webpage at CA Academy of Sciences Or better yet, visit the Academy in person!
A Fresh Canvas
An empty flowerbed, a blank page. Tabula rasa, the clean slate. New beginnings, where anything is possible and the road before me is wide open, full of unimagined discoveries and adventures yet to come.
I've been working on my young adult urban fantasy novel since March, writing the zero draft, getting notes from my critique partners and beta readers, editing and polishing it. I sent it off to my agent this week, so now it's time to pause, to refresh and reflect, to paint and garden, clean up my office whiteboards and reorganize my desk. I'm not sure what comes next on the writing path - more editing, maybe the next book in an ongoing series or a new project entirely - but when I figure it out my "canvas" will be primed and ready
The End. Two of my favorite words. Not that I actually ever type them, but they're in my head and on my lips as I dance around my office, spinning like a love-drunk dervish. Finito, el extremo, la fin! Zero draft* complete. Whee!!
Months of work behind me, but still plenty ahead. Some writers dread editing and revisions, but not me. I love editing, love polishing, honing, finessing the story until it shines, sometimes even more than I love the initial act of creation.
First things first, though. A few days hanging on the beach, reconnecting with my ever-patient family, soaking up the sun and basking in the glory of those two little words.
* A zero draft is an even messier, more unrefined version of a first draft. Kind of like a rough, rough draft, only sexier. It's the version nobody but my most trusted (and brave-hearted) compatriots ever sees.
Art or Science?
Maybe a bit of both. NASA solar scientist Nicholeen Viall has created a new imaging technique that charts the heating and cooling patterns of a certain area of the sun over a 12-hour period. Incidentally, it also creates some truly stellar art.
Van Gogh Anyone?
Photo Credit: NASA/SDO AIA/Viall ©NASA
One Step at a Time
"How do you do it?" she asked. "I mean, really. How can you? It's so many words."
Writers get a lot of questions about what we do, the big three being What do you write? How do you get your ideas? and Are you published?, none of which are particularly easy to answer unless you
A) write mystery or some other easily recognizable one-size-fits all genre, B) can blather convincingly about your Otherworldly Muse without landing in a straightjacket, or C) do in fact have a book currently available in stores and aren't in one of the many other (and more common) phases of the publishing process.
But despite my years of writing (we won't discuss how many), it was the first time I was hit by this particular question and I could tell the asker genuinely wanted an answer. Luckily, it was easy to give.
You write a novel the same way you do almost anything else, like building a relationship, painting a picture, following a recipe, learning a new language, planting a garden.
You do it one step at a time.
You'll have to clear some space first, mental, emotional and physical. Then you take a deep breath and go for it. That first step is sometimes the hardest. Once you've taken it, though, you take another, then another, then another, and pretty soon you get your bearings, find your rhythm. Sometimes you'll feel as if you're sprinting, other times, it's like you're slogging through a river of melted Velveeta. But if you want to get there badly enough, you'll stick with it, stay on track, and keep moving forward until you (eventually, finally, omigod I did it) hit The End. Then you get to edit and revise, revise and edit, then edit some more, but that's a post for another day.
One word, one sentence, one paragraph, one scene, one chapter. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That's how you do it.
Sure there are notes and research and - if one is so inclined - outlines and character bios, but those aren't what make the novel. Books are made up of words on the page, marching one after another, carrying the story forward, bringing it to life. There's no magic formula, no special elixir that transforms an ordinary person into a bestselling (or just plain selling) author.
The only way the words will get on the page is if you put them there, one at a time.
Things I Love: Pie!!
Really, what's not to love? Flaky, buttery crust filled with juicy, delectable fruit or some sort of decadent custard. Pie trumps cake any day, at least at my house.
It's also quite the motivational tool. Since my Satsuma plum tree produced a bumper crop - most of it quite high in the top branches - I needed a little help bringing in the harvest and the declaration that "he who picks shall have pie" got all three of my guys out into the garden in record time.
Now to bake, and make several extra batches of filling for the freezer. Because I haven't met a pie I didn't like (except mincemeat, which I simply refuse to qualify) but plum is my favorite. At least until the peaches and the Granny Smith apples are ready for picking…
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: EMILY CARR
Rights Wikipedia CC Public Domain
Did you hear that? Silence. The sound of my hands frozen over the keyboard. Because despite having taken several college Art History courses, I knew nothing about the Canadian art scene. I had officially written myself into a corner and revealed a huge and embarrassing gap in my education.
Fortunately, one of my critique partners lives in Vancouver and knew exactly whose art my character would love. She told me to look up Emily Carr, so I did.
And I fell in love.
Emily's paintings are bold and richly colored, painted with heavily textured strokes that remind me a bit of Van Gogh. I'm particularly drawn to her forests and trees, where sky and shadows swirl and the branches seem to move in an invisible wind.
Odds and Ends ©Emily Carr- Wikipedia Commons
Emily spent her summers in the Canadian rainforest, camping and painting out of her old gypsy caravan with a troop of dogs, a rat named Susie and a monkey named Woo as her only companions. She was a religious woman, and she found God in art and nature. (I can totally relate.) She was self-critical (also can relate) and never saw much fame or success during her lifetime. (So don't want to relate!) I loved her descriptions of other people's paintings, the way the pieces moved or inspired her, and appreciated her constant struggle to be the best artist she could be. But as I read, what struck me over and over was her unbearable sense of loneliness. It's a constant ache, permeating every corner of her life so thickly that you can feel it, even when she doesn't mention it directly.
Emily Carr; Vancouver, BC - ©Kate Austin
Here are some links, if you're interested in learning more about Emily's life and her work:
Fantastic "Virtual Museum" of Emily's work, provided by Vancouver Art Gallery
A detailed biography from the Canadian Encyclopedia
The bio on this one is abbreviated, but there are links to a number of her paintings, including "Cedar Sanctuary", which is probably my favorite.
My Kind of Nirvana
Our Santa Cruz vacation was simply blissful. The weather was fantastic, the house was perfect and we got rested, rejuvenated and reconnected with each other after a crazy busy spring.
There was sunshine and surf:
Leisurely walks on beaches:
Afternoons spent watching my youngest and his trusty boogie board take on the waves:
A day at the Beach Boardwalk:
A visit to The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park:
Which included a hike down to Aptos Creek and some wading therein:
There were also sightings of wild violas,
A pair of dolphins (Sorry, the picture didn't turn out. They were constantly moving!) and some cool beach art:
And we all dressed up (in wetsuits) and went out (into the ocean).
I ended each and every day in the same way - with sandy feet and a happy heart.
When You Read This
I'll be sitting on the beach sipping San Pellegrino and watching the waves roll in.
School is out for summer, and we're kicking things off with our annual week-long sojourn in sunny Santa Cruz, CA, my favorite place on planet earth. I'll be unplugged and fancy free, but when I return, I'll be stirring up some summertime inspiration, including spotlights on some fabulous artists and poets, adventures in sumi-e and Japanese mono-print making, more of my favorite things, and a new game for you to play along with if you're feeling inclined, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, turn off the computer, go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine! But don't forget your sunscreen…
Writing on the Wall
It's good to have peeps with mad skills. About a month ago, I asked my future nephew-in-law, Colby, who is a welder, if he could help me do something about all the tiny whiteboards and corkboards cluttering my office wall. Since he's a cool dude, he totally hooked me up.
So much space. So many possibilities.
I think I need a new multi-pack of scented dry-erase markers, don't you?
See that blue area in the center? That's the work in progress, the next write thing, the characters, world, theme, tone, plot, voice, all of it mashed together, taking over the middle of my mind. The deeper I get into the project, the closer I get to the end, the more that space expands, pushing all the clouds of red and green and gold (which would be the rest of my life threads) farther out until, somewhere around the last ten thousand words, there's just a thin ring, a few remaining strands like sleep, grocery shop, cook, eat, and do the laundry because nobody has clean socks. Everything else gets rather a nebulous amount of attention, if it gets any at all.
So, if you've noticed a few missing posts here? That's the reason. Bear with me - I'll be done with this draft by June 7 (or else) because that is my sons' last day of school.
In the meantime, you should check out Hubblesite.org.
There's tons of cool stuff there, including great pictures of our fantastic, amazing universe…and my metaphorical brain.
Things I Love: Flip Flop Weather!
Okay, so I live in a sunny stretch of Northern California, where it's flip flop weather ten months of the year or more. This winter was so mild that I only needed real shoes for about three weeks.
That's great, because the more time I can spend in flip flops, the happier I am. I blame the fact that I'm a fifth generation Californian and a life-long beach bum. Flip flops - or fling flongs, as my youngest son likes to call them - are versatile, comfy and convenient, especially for those of us who don't allow shoes in the house. One pair by the front door, another by the back, and you're good to go.
I'm embarrassed to admit how many pairs I actually own, but I will say that my four favorite pairs are all Reef®. Same goes for my favorite two pairs of real sandals. (Because, hey, sometimes you have to dress up!) The company bills their footwear as "ridiculously comfortable" and it's the truth. Plus, they're fun!
Shoe diva? Not me. I'm the flip flop queen.
A Tale of Two Terrapins
I love turtles, but I wasn't thinking of them when I picked Benjamin Moore's Terrapin Green as the new paint for my office walls. I just loved the color - a rich, vibrant but earthy hue that reminded me of lakes and mossy logs and afternoon sunlight in a thick forest. It wasn't until a friend referred to it as "turtle green" that I made the association, and it took a nudge from her (and quick check of the dictionary) to get the joke and my vocabulary lesson for the week.
Terrapins are North American freshwater turtles.
My friend said she likes thinking of me surrounded by my "shell". I love that imagery. It makes me feel that I can tuck in tight and leave the rest of world behind when I'm writing.
The guy in this photo may or may not be a terrapin (or a guy) but he's cute. He was posing for the guests at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park when I visited earlier this year. It's a nice pad if you can get it, rather like my lovely turtle green office.
The new definition of butthead:
Can alternately be used to describe head butting.
This post has been brought to you by the letter S, for silly, sublime and strangely serendipitous. (Because I desperately needed something to blog about.)
And by the number 2, for two two-toned kitties napping in an awkward position. (Though perhaps it's not awkward if you're feline? Hmm. Suddenly glad I'm not a cat.)
I Got An A!!!
Even better, thanks to my Juxtaposition post, I got to have lunch with Ms. Redenbach. We ate red curry and pad thai, drank jasmine tea and spent two hours catching up. It was wonderful, and we're doing it again soon.
My sons find it funny that I keep in touch with my high school English teacher. But Sandi (I get to call her that now, because I'm a grown up) means the world to me. She taught me about the power of rhetoric, introduced me to Shakespeare and directed me in three high school musicals. Most importantly, though, she encouraged me to think of writing as something more than a hobby. She saw the potential in me and she nurtured it. (Now and again, it even came off as a double dog dare.)
I promised her long, long ago that when I got my Oscar, I'd thank her on stage. My dreams have changed since then, but my gratitude for all her support and encouragement over the years has not.
So thank you, Ms. Redenbach. From the bottom of my grateful heart.
Coffee and Poetry
Poetry is a habit of mine; it goes so perfectly with my first cup of coffee.
This is a fraction of my ever-growing poetry collection. Maybe a third, but probably closer to a fourth, especially if you count the poetry volumes I've downloaded to my Kindle. The collection began with three volumes, purchased on a whim in a dark and dusty used bookstore during my first year of college. Sure, I'd read poetry before, when it was assigned to me in class. But other than Shakespeare's sonnets (because I read pretty much everything the Bard ever wrote), I'd never sought it out, never considered it as recreational reading. Silly me!
They were having a 50% off sale on poetry that day, so I left the store with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese and the Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats. And a lifelong love affair began.
I want to share one of my favorites (from the public domain, of course). Since it's mid-March, when we celebrate all things Irish, here's a little Yeats, to enjoy with your coffee.
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossoms in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands:
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
My beloved high school English teacher (yes, there is such a thing, though I understand they're as rare as unicorns) was a huge fan of the word juxtaposition. Ms. Redenbach used it whenever possible and encouraged us to do the same, so much so that I once laughingly accused her of only giving A's to essays including the word. (Naturally, I found a way to use it in every written assignment. I was planning on college, and thus was concerned about my GPA. Plus, it amused me.)
It is a great word, and it floated into my mind when I was standing in front of a collection of James Abbot McNeill Whistler's Nocturnes last month. You see, I'm a fan of his work and of Chopin's Nocturnes, and I'm also intrigued by the connections between music and art. I could certainly see why these particular paintings were in harmony with the kinds of moody, dreamy, twilight compositions put forth under the name "Nocturne". I think it's fascinating, this juxtaposition of color and sound, evoking a very similar resonance and - at least for me - a common response in mind and body. See what you think. (Oh, and Ms. Redenbach? If you're reading this, I get an A, right?)
Play this :
Courtesy of the Internet Archive:Community Audio
And look at this:
Flowers top the list of my favorite things. My mother kept a beautiful garden and, as she liked to say, I inherited her "gardening soul". Maybe it's more of a habit, since I've been doing it my entire life. During my college years in San Francisco, I applied my green thumb to houseplants, which required some effort and a few dismal failures. (Sorry, ficus benjamina. You and I do not get along.) Happily, some of my best successes were with blooming tropicals, including my personal favorites — orchids.
They're resilient (as long as you don't over-water or put them in blazing, direct sunlight) and so cheerful. They have such little cute faces, don't they? Though my husband did say that some of the orchids we saw at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park last weekend looked like they wanted to eat us.
A Matter of Perspective
Last weekend, we visited the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
We went specifically to see this lovely lady, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Medusa.
Most of us are familiar with the Greek version of Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters and a mortal-hating monster from the get-go. But Ovid spun the myth a bit and in the Roman version, Medusa was a beautiful temple priestess who made a very bad choice. She had a passionate love affair with Neptune and - in a fatal act of poor taste - they got up close and personal in Minerva's sacred space. Oops.
Naturally, they got caught. And, as is almost always the case in these classic myths, Neptune wasn't held responsible for his part of the deal. Minerva unleashed her full wrath on Medusa, transforming her into a hideous, serpent-haired beast upon which no man could look without turning to stone. (Never tick off a Roman Goddess. It doesn't end well.)
Many artistic renditions of Medusa show her destruction at the hands of Perseus, like this one, by Caravaggio. Yuck. Ugly, right?
But Bernini focused instead on the moment of transition, infusing Medusa with humanity, letting us see and feel her regret - and her torment - as she undergoes the change.
There was a side-note about the possibility of this statue being a visual pun, i.e., making a stone figure of Medusa, who turned men to stone. It's an amusing idea, but it wasn't nearly as interesting to me as the empathetic treatment of the subject.
We all make mistakes and more often than not, we pay for them. Medusa's price seems exceedingly high, especially when you're staring into that pretty, young and terribly desperate face.
Last weekend, my husband had a work thing in Las Vegas and I tagged along. You've all heard the adage that begins "What happens in Vegas…" but I assure you, I have nothing to hide. Truth is, Vegas is so not my scene. I don't gamble and can't get behind the idea of wandering down the street guzzling fruity alcoholic beverages out of colorful plastic bongs. I hate the pervasive stink of cigarette smoke and as for the other pursuits Vegas offers? No thanks. I'm happily married and plan to stay that way.
The other half of that "happily married" equation is equally disinterested in the typical Vegas repertoire, so we did what we do best. We found quiet, elegant restaurants and enjoyed some excellent meals and - since we were back in our hotel room well before midnight and didn't turn into hungover pumpkins - we went out walking in the mornings while most everyone else was sleeping it off. Along the way, we did a little art appreciation, Vegas-style.
This lovely replica of Winged Victory stands outside Ceasar's Palace. I've always had a soft spot for her. She's so graceful for a headless chick, and she has a cameo role in one of my books.
It was a relief to see her, really, because my eyes were still wonky from trying to absorb the details in this cheestastic rendition of Neptune and his court.
We hit the Bellagio next, because I love their conservatory garden. Meandering through the endless corridors, we stumbled across one of Vincent Van Gogh's self portraits. The hallway light was reddish, so the photo I snapped with my phone looks terrible. That's okay, because the copy was rather awful, too. I've seen the original in person; it's much better.
The Bellagio's conservatory was all decked out for Chinese New Year. Fierce dragons with glowing eyes crouched in the flowerbeds, flicking their tails and blowing smoke.
Tucked in the back, I spotted a more understated display. At first glance, I thought it was a painting, but as I approached, I realized it was something else entirely.
It was living artwork. Awesome.
Now that I can get behind.
Artist Spotlight: Billie Holiday
©Gottlieb, William P., 1917-, photographer. No Known Restrictions
I bought my first Billie Holiday album on actual vinyl in a record store on Haight Street in 1986. I walked into the store and heard "I Cover The Waterfront" playing over the speakers, and fell instantly in love. I remember the cover of the album - white, with a picture of beautiful Billie, her trademark gardenia pinned behind her ear - and I remember the way I felt when I listened to it the first time, curled up on the couch in my apartment nine blocks from Golden Gate Park.
Awed. Transported. Broken and healed all at once.
My Billie Holiday collection has expanded tremendously since then, though it's on CDs, not vinyl. Just last week, I discovered a remastered version of The Lady Sings The Blues on iTunes, so Billie's music and I have entered the digital stage of our relationship.
And I do have a relationship with Billie's music. That instant attraction became a deep and abiding love. Her music has been there for me through thick and thin, growing pains and moments of celebration. Billie's voice has colored my entire adult life, and it all boils down to that moment, in that store on Haight Street in San Francisco, when I was just nineteen. So it's no wonder that Billie snuck into my creative process, that she and her music found their way onto the pages of a young adult novel set in San Francisco, with the Haight as its hub. No wonder her music means so much to my characters, that it colors their experiences just as it colors mine. I think it was inevitable.
For more information about Billie's music and her difficult, all too brief life, start here.
To sample some of her music in the public domain, go here.
Or, here's some of Billie's music- just press the Play button. Enjoy!
Here's another of my favorite things. I'm a bit obsessed with this particular shade of blue. I can't stop painting with it. It's nuanced, deep and rich, evocative of the sky at the edge of dark fall, just before all the color bleeds away.
It also looks spectacular next to cadmium yellow. Just ask Van Gogh:
Café Terrace on the Place du Forum
The Starry Night
Random Acts of Creativity
It's an early January morning, and I'm enjoying a walk on Seabright Beach in Santa Cruz with friends and family. We end up down by the jetty, which separates the beach from the harbor outlet, and the kids start playing hide and seek amongst the large, interlocking cement structures that frame the waterway (and remind me of tumbled jacks, tossed by a giant). Suddenly, I stumble across this:
Photo ©Dominique Niccoli Messchaert, used with permission
And I'm grinning like an idiot. Someone took time out of their busy life to make this lovely glass mosaic and affix it to an ugly but functional structure (hopefully with permission!) and there it sits, broadcasting it's happy message, waiting to brighten everyone's day.
Random acts of kindness get good press, but random acts of creativity are equally wonderful. I love walking a stretch of sand and finding a fabulous castle or a mandala made of seaweed, shells and beach glass. I love strolling through the woods and finding a tiny fairy house constructed of deadfall and sparkling mica stones. I love making these things and leaving them behind even more, hoping that someone will stumble across them and wake up for a minute, jarred from their fiftieth mental review of their endless to-do list. I hope if they do happen to see it, they'll pause for a minute, to smile and wonder about the person who left this treasure behind. Maybe they'll even be inspired unleash their own inner Andy Goldsworthy.
To be crystal clear, I do not advocate, endorse or appreciate vandalism of private property and I'm not talking about obscenities spray-painted on bridges or scribbled on bathroom walls. I'm talking about transient works that nature and time will quickly wash away (like seaweed mandalas and fairy houses), things that can be removed without effort or damage to their host structure like the works of the guerilla knitters, or more permanent works done with appropriate permissions.
Walk Off the Earth's cover of "Somebody That I Used to Know" is an amazing display of teamwork. It also proves I'm not lying when I'm tell my son he doesn't need a whole van full of fancy, expensive instruments to have a band. All you need are microphones, a guitar, and some mad sharing skills. (Musical talent doesn't hurt, either.)
To learn more about Walk Off the Earth and maybe show them some love, visit them here or click the image above:
Walk Off The Earth
LJ Cohen and I have a number of things in common. We're both named Lisa, and we're both young adult novelists, boy moms, local food aficionados and avid Dr. Who fans. Also, we share the same agent, which I hear makes us sort of related. (Step-clients? Authors-in-law? You decide.) Besides, she's just flat out cool. So how could I - why would I? - pass up the opportunity to have her guest blog today, when her awesome YA faerie novel, THE BETWEEN, is being released into the world? (On Friday the 13th . See what I mean? Cool.)
I'm very happy she accepted the invitation, and I'm sure you will be, too. You know, since I've already read the post. Insider intel FTW.
Words are important.
When I was growing up, I was often told that I needed to learn to let things go, that I 'felt' too much, took things too seriously. I was always vaguely disturbed by the whole 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' advice I was constantly given. Even as a child, I had the sense that people who said that were wrong in some fundamental way. Though, at that time, I didn't have the maturity or command of language to explain why.
From my vantage point of adulthood, my experience as a mother of teens, and having worked as a physical therapist with people in chronic pain, I understand how words, even more than sticks and stones, have the power to wound.
Language is one of the most important ways we make sense of the world and our experiences in it. So much of what we believe about ourselves emerges from the stories we create, which in turn are far too often based on the stories others tell about us.
One of the stories told about me growing up was that I was too sensitive. That kind of label can distort one's sense of self, especially in coping with hurtful things others can say. A theme that emerges again and again in my writing is that of learning to trust in yourself and your own strength. That I can use the power of words to convey this, is a little bit of magic.
When I began to write, I really began to understand the importance of language. To this day, if I need to understand something, I write about it. Just the act of putting an experience or a feeling into words on a page creates a kind of needed distance between me and the event, so I can find clarity without drowning in the emotion. Sometimes I work through this process in a journal entry, sometimes in poems, other times in fiction. I think everything I write has a little piece of my deepest self in it, even if I'm writing through the voice of a young man who sees a house no one believes is real, or a girl who talks to ghosts. No matter what the scenario, I work hard to be authentic in my approach to the story, using language carefully.
While I don't write exclusively for young adult readers, I do find myself returning to the YA genre more often than any other. I think that may have something to do with my all-too-clear memories of a time in my own life when I didn't feel powerful and didn't know how to trust myself.
If I have any 'message' in my work (and I am so not a fan of morals or messages deliberately embedded in YA and children's literature), it is this: trust in your own strength and don't be afraid to create your own story. The words you use to describe yourself are the ones with the true power.
You can visit LJ at her website:
THE BETWEEN is available in trade paperback through Amazon, and in e-book format at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. Links to all the sales portals are here:
Get your copy here: THE BETWEEN
Things I Love
Once a month, I'm going to share a little something I love with you here. You know - *pauses and cues music* - these are a few of my favorite things… (Yes, whiskers on kittens definitely qualify. So cute and fuzzy!)
Let's kick this off with one of my absolute favorite things:
Long early-morning walks on winter beaches.
Walks on spring, summer and autumn beaches make the list, too, but there's something about the chilly air, the broody sky and the wild waves that speaks to me, and the way the light plays on the water is mesmerizing. Also? In a crowded place like Santa Cruz, finding a big stretch of sand relatively empty is a rarity during the other seasons. But in winter, only the diehards come out early. We're like the postman. Neither rain nor fog nor icy breeze can keep us from our duty.
Our duty to walk the shore, listening to the roaring waves, watching sea birds and the occasional passing whale or sea lion while breathing sharp, salty air.
Now, that's my kind of job.
Here we are again, poised at the cusp between two years. Time feels so fragile and fleeting these days, like a vision of sunset on water.
2011 was a great year for me, personally and professionally. My family shared a number of wonderful adventures and vacations. I spent lots of time on the beach and in museums, read fantastic books, did a nice bit of traveling, had a couple of romantic getaways with my sweetie, spent quality time with friends far and near, ate (and cooked) some incredible food and discovered some fabulous music. In other words, I got to do all the things I love best. In the category of "always wanted to but never took the time", I took a couple of pottery lessons and threw some decent stuff on a wheel, and - thanks to my pal the art therapist - finally unleashed my inner painter. (Look out, world!)
Professionally speaking, it was a landmark year. I spent the first half of it querying agents and writing two manuscripts. (Yes, two!) Took a chunk of June and all of July off (mostly) with my sons, then went to the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference and had a blast hanging with my writer friends and pitching to agents in person. In August, I signed with Nephele Tempest (She really is a rock star!) of The Knight Agency, then spent the balance of the year editing all three books and getting prepped to go out on submission.
As for 2012? I don't believe the world will be ending. I think the Mayans were either hinting at something a less literal, or they ran out of room on their calendar stone. J
Personally, I'm not a fan of New Year's resolutions. When I'm ready to make a real change in my life, I go for it, regardless of the date on the calendar. Instead of setting a bunch of resolutions I'm unlikely to keep, I choose a single word or a short phrase at the beginning of each year. That word or phrase becomes my guiding star, my mantra, my meditation. For 2012, I've chosen ENJOY.
I have so many wonderful things happening in my life, I want to make sure I enjoy each and every one of them. I don't want to waste time worrying or wishing. I want to be immersed in whatever I'm doing whenever I'm doing it, and fully appreciate the place I'm in and the people I'm with at that exact moment.
I hope 2011 was kind to you, and that 2012 brings you health, happiness, inspiration and success. Carpe diem. Do what you love, love what you do. Don't waste opportunities or time (just in case I'm wrong about the Mayan thing) and above all, ENJOY!
I'm typically not a fan of miniature Christmas villages, but we were in Pleasanton visiting friends this weekend and the display in the window of the wine shop downtown caught my eye — and tickled my whimsy. I loved it so much, I just had to share.
Look! It's a mini version of San Francisco!
Here's Fisherman's Wharf (including the schooner that's parked at the docks) with a wee Coit Tower peeking up behind it.
The Golden Gate Bridge
And the famous San Francisco Victorians flanking Lombard Street (it's a little dark thanks to the glare on the window, but the bright yellow taxi is taking the curves down the hill).
In the window across the entryway was another display, equally charming and familiar to Northern Californians… Napa Valley wine country. (After all, it was a wine shop!)
Wishing you a happy, whimsical holiday — no matter which one you celebrate!
Wow. Just, wow.
Added bonus? A new vocabulary word (always a plus).
Murmuration: a flock of starlings. Who knew?
Splashing Words Over You
(Hey, it's better than paint!)
It's launch day for this blog and my Shiny New Website!
Wow. I have a website. That sounds so official. I've been blogging for years, but having my Very Own Site makes me feel like a grown-up or something.
Oh, wait. I am.
Parts of that are lame, like the bills and laundry and stuff. But the autonomy is pretty great. Of course, as Peter Parker says, "With great power comes great responsibility."
Responsibilities like having a website and creating a platform and other such promotional activities that are part of a modern day publishing career. Here's the thing…
*leans in to whisper* I'm not so good at overt self-promotion.
Consequently, you won't find a lot of that on this blog, though when I have a Big Awesome Announcement, I'll be sure to make it here first. You also won't find discussions of politics, religion or current events. Sure, I have thoughts and opinions about all those things, but this blog isn't a forum for them.
So what is it for, exactly? (Drum roll, please.)
Why on earth would I want to do that? It seems so optimistic.
Maybe it is, but I'm a fan of optimism. And I believe the creative spark exists in all of us, and that it's part of what makes us human. Also, as Fyodor Dostoevsky said:
Do I honestly believe that? YES. I do. It seems overly simplistic at first glance, but it's not. Seeing the beauty inherent in the natural world, the beings around us, and the works of art humanity creates to express feelings, open hearts, share stories and touch souls gives us hope; and hope, my friends, is nothing to sneeze at, especially in times like these. (Brace yourself. Here comes more Dostoevsky.)
Also, it just plain sucks. So, with a hopeful heart and endless optimism, this blogging journey begins. I'm excited to share all the cool, interesting and fabulous things I stumble across, think about or experience with you. Maybe you'll get inspired. Maybe you'll do something magnificent, or at least have a laugh. Doesn't matter what brings you here or (hopefully) gets you to come back, I hope you enjoy your stay.