Ten Years to Refill My Well

I got married in 2007 and, with a determination I wasn’t sure I had, in the year leading up to our wedding, I saved enough money to get us a two week honeymoon in Paris.

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It was magical and fun and beautiful and funny and exhausting, like most long trips tend to be. But any frustrating or disappointing moments in the trip have, over time, turned into the funny stories we tell at parties.

I promised myself that we would do something just as awesome and fun every five years for our anniversary because we both love to travel and see new places so much. And five years is a long enough time to save up for trips by doing it slowly.

Unfortunately in 2011 we both were laid off from our jobs within a week of each other. Any fun, overseas trip in the following year immediately vanished. Fortunately I had an idea the lay offs were coming and that’s why I started self-publishing in 2011–hoping to create a passive income that would help us. It took a long time for that plan to come to fruition, but eventually it did. But not in time for our five year anniversary, only in time to help carry us as my husband also built his business, which helps me run this one during the lean times.

So, you know, giving up a trip on our five-year-anniversary was worth it since we got to become our own bosses and work from home. But one does miss Paid Time Off and a boss telling you, “take your vacation days or we’re going to cancel them.”

But last year, just after our nine-year-anniversary we started talking about how long it had been since we’d taken more than a long weekend for ourselves. The more we talked about it the more desperate we were to make it happen. Our ten-year was one year away. I’d done it once before (of course then we both had corporate jobs with steady, reliable incomes and PTO), maybe I could do it again and get us somewhere for that big 1-0.

It took saving every dollar we got from Christmas gifts and birthdays (specifically telling family not to buy us “things” unless they were from our travel wish-list) and scraping every penny we could spare from income, giving up going out, shopping, and often saying “no, not this time/year” to friends many, many times. But as we saved up enough for plane tickets and accommodations and the lost income from taking time off, we knew it was worth the cabin fever.

And last month, we went to Ireland for two weeks.

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Now, this wasn’t just a vacation. I’ve been struggling for a while to think of a new story, to find new characters and new settings for a long while. I have my open series that I work on, but I want something new. Something witchy. Something darker. Something magical.

I know, Celtic influence and Ireland especially isn’t breaking any molds, but I wanted to go to the land of (some) of my ancestors and touch the ground they walked on, touch the stones they prayed on, breathe the air they once breathed. I wanted it to inspire me. To fill my well.

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We kept a travel journal along the way, taking time every evening to detail everything that happened each day. When I had access to WiFi, I posted updates with photos so I could recall everything that I loved so the exhaustion and jet lag (and sinus infection whomp-whomp) we would undoubtedly suffer wouldn’t muddle our memories or make me forget anything important.

I got to touch those magic stones and walk through the portals. I got to pick acorns from Druid trees and eat wild blackberries growing around stone circles. I got to climb hills to stand at the seat of kings. I withstood gale force winds to walk the ancient Celtic settlements. I braved the edge of the world as my fear of falling knotted the muscles in my back. I dipped my hands in holy wells, letting the water cling to my fingers.

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I won’t lie, some things did break my heart. Seeing the misappropriation of Celtic goddesses, them turned into Catholic nuns, hurt. Seeing their holy places over-run, twisted and diminished hurt. But who knows, maybe that will help me in my story.

I’m still not sure what the story is going to be. I am torn by the idea of creating a new world or sending a character into a strange world or what. But my mind is starting to race with possibilities and possibilities are exciting. I’m actually looking forward to brainstorming as I go back over the travel log and photos and see what speaks to me.

And I really hope it won’t be another ten years before we get to do something like this again.

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On the Importance of Ritual

The other day a reader asked me if I ever wrote in long hand, much like Neil Gaiman is known to do. I do not–never. I hate the idea of writing something by hand knowing I’ll just have to type it again later, creating twice the work for me. But, I conceded, I do hand write my outlines, always. I tried to type one once because I always end up adding asides and run out of space on my papers, and I thought it would be nice to be able to just add in a line when I needed to but there was no magic in a typed outline.

So, always type a story, always hand write the outline.

Funny, right?

But it got me thinking about the rituals of writing. Any art, really, but writing is my magic, so that’s what I’m focusing on now.

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Any professional artist will tell you that you can’t wait for the Muses to speak to you, otherwise you’ll (almost) never get any work done. You have to make your Muses speak on days you just don’t feel like it. On days where you only have an hour, or less, to get the words done. You have to force the magic to make the art.

And there are ways to do this. There are ingredients to every spell and if you manage to figure them out, you can create the magic potion to get the art done even under the worst situations. A few years ago, I was stuck at jury duty for the full 8 hours. I got so much writing done that day, it must’ve been a record, all because I have my ritual to make the magic.

First, I outline. Now, if you’re a pantser, this part doesn’t apply to you. But for me, I allow myself at least a week to complete an outline before I ever start a new manuscript. You’ll have to figure out how detailed or loose your outline needs to be, that in of itself is its own magic spell. If too loose you leave yourself sitting at the keys, trying to figure out how to get from point D to point M. Too detailed you might feel like you’ve already written the story and lose your excitement to actually write it.

Secondly, if this is the start of a brand new book, not part of a series, I allow myself a day to start to curate a soundtrack for the book/main character. I know, this seems like one of those “I’m an artiste! I need my special music to write!” kinda things, but it’s not. For many, both reading and writing a book plays out like a movie in our heads and what is a movie without a soundtrack? You need the creepy notes that warn you the monster is coming. You need the pounding base to choreograph a fight and get your heart moving. You need the sweet strings of a romantic moment. But, I think, most importantly, it gives you the feel of the book or main character. This, for me, is what helps me get into the right headspace for a book, no matter where I am or what mood I am in. And with each book in a series, I add more and more songs to the list until it’s hours and hours long.

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I also have a few universal playlists to help me with certain types of scenes. If I’m in the middle of fights or battles, I have strong lyric-less soundtracks from movies or video games to help me. If I’m trying to get into the head of a strong, angry female, I have a playlist of what I call “angry power” songs, only sung by strong female vocals.

You could be trapped in the middle seat of coach, on a full flight, but you put your headphones on and turn on the soundtrack of your book, and bam! Watch the words flow. I won NaNo last year in that exact situation because I had my music.

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This also helps if you’re working on more than one project at a time. For example, I’m working on a witch book in my Matilda Kavanagh series and I’m working on a piece of flash fiction that is a spin off from my post-apocalyptic Ash & Ruin series. Neither MC is the same and both worlds are totally different. So, they have their own soundtracks to help me switch my brain depending on which one I want to write in.

Third, I always have something to drink. Usually it’s coffee, but sometimes just water. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. It adds to the level of comfort as you stare into that bright screen and create indents on your wrists as you pound away.

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There are other things, like I try to write in the mornings, but if I miss that window, I don’t skip on writing unless it’s One Of Those Days. It’s always easy to make excuses to get out of writing, but unless you’re under a contractual deadline, you’re just letting yourself down by putting it off or treating it like a chore. I mean, some days, it does feel like a chore but when it’s done, damn that’s a good feeling.

Figuring out your rituals to help you get shit done is important. It’s not being a fussy artiste, it’s creating magic. Allow yourself the special combo of ingredients that will allow you to create art no matter what the situation. Make no excuses for doing what you need to get it done and give yourself no excuses to avoid it.
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Speaking of… I have some words that need writing before dinner.

Creativity as Therapy

The last month has kicked my butt. If I’m honest, this year has kicked my butt: it’s been a roller coaster of good and bad, with few breaks between the ups and the downs and the deeper-downs. But May has been the worst, and my husband and I have been mourning the loss of a beloved pet.

Grief is a bear. With it come sadness and depression, and depression comes hand-in-hand with a whole host of fun little friends like fatigue, social disconnection, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in hobbies and other day-to-day pursuits. For creative types like myself and a lot of you reading this blog post, this can translate to a loss of creative passion. When you’re exhausted and can’t concentrate and don’t want to see anyone or do anything and simply getting through the day is a struggle, writing (or sewing or painting or whatever it is that you do regularly) becomes an impossibility. In short, depression dries up the well.

May is, coincidentally, Mental Health Awareness Month, and a lot of smart people have been writing about this year’s theme, “Life With a Mental Illness.” I’ve lived with depression and anxiety, and I’ve written about that struggle elsewhere. This year, I want to focus on creative acts as a treatment for the loss of creativity.

I was discussing my sadness and the complete creative drought that has accompanied it with my very wise friend Emmie Mears recently, and she suggested that I experiment with new-to-me creative endeavors as a method of exploring and releasing my grief. I could paint or draw, even abstractly, as a way to capture my emotions and memories, and then, later, I would have a visual record of how I felt during this time. The result would be a tribute to my pet and, just as importantly, a tribute to my own feelings.

I thought this was a brilliant plan, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great way to work through depression and anxiety, as well as grief*. One of the most important methods of self-care is acknowledging how we feel when we feel it: many people try to dismiss or ignore feelings of depression or anxiety, and that denial does nothing but compound our feelings of inadequacy or, worse, “craziness.” Self-stigmatizing only makes it easier for society as a whole to dismiss mental illness as self-indulgent or non-existent.

Exploring a new artistic pursuit, particularly in an improvisational or freeform way, may allow us to shut off the thinking/judging parts of our brain and simply allow free expression of emotion. When we don’t have standards of quality or accomplishment we feel we need to meet, we’re able to create without judgment. And for writers, in particular, when we stop trying to use our words and instead simply create, we’re forced to acknowledge our feelings for what they are, rather than trying to explain them away.

In the end, we’re left with a record of our feelings that we can and must acknowledge as something outside of ourselves.

There are lots of free, gently-guided ways to experiment with new forms of creativity. I’ve rounded up a few here that you can check out, and Google is awash in other classes, challenges, and how-to’s. Maybe one will speak to you!

Index-Card-a-Day Challenge: I’m intrigued by this one. The goal is to create a 3×5 piece of art every day for 61 days. You can draw, paint, doodle, make a collage, sew, whatever strikes your fancy, and you end up with a physical record of everything you did or tried to do. This might be a good way to try to work through a specific problem.

Year of Rock: If you’re a musical type, you can sign up for free classes to learn guitar. While this is less free-form, you might be able to explore a side of yourself you haven’t yet been able to express. Plus, for some, the chance to turn off anxiety and simply listen and learn might have added benefits.

Art Journaling: There are approximately one bajillion links on Google about art journaling, but this art is about as freeform as you can get. That Pinterest link to “How to Start Art Journaling” ought to give you a few thousand ideas.

Free Craftsy Classes: Craftsy offers a HUGE range of courses and subjects, and the free classes might allow you to explore new crafts in a commitment-free way. Unleash your inner cake decorator! 

Private Pinterest Boards: Since I mentioned Pinterest, I can personally vouch for the creation of private Pinterest boards as a method of portable collaging. Pin places and things that make you feel peaceful; pin images that inspire you; pin images of memories or dreams. Use your private boards as a mini-getaway.

How do creative endeavors help you to work through difficult times? Have you ever experimented with a new art as a way to work through a difficult time in your life?

*Yes, art therapy is a thing that already exists! However, therapy can be pricey and inaccessible for many individuals.

Mourning the Loss of an Artist Unapologetically

Sunday night we lost a great artist. The ripples that went around the world as people found out about David Bowie’s death built into a current that pulled so many of us down. It’s always a little strange when a celebrity dies, someone who you probably don’t even know, but their death touches you as much as losing a friend. Sunday I lost an idol I never got to meet.

I saw so many people openly express their grief, myself included, while others seemed to apologize for their feelings. Embarrassed for being sad over the death of someone they didn’t even know. I get it, it’s kinda of like heading off the teasing before anyone can say something to you like, “You’re a little too upset over this.”

But you know what? No, we aren’t.

I wrote about my experience of hearing the news and while I took the time to write that post, I of course was listening to the Starman, and totally broke down and cried. When I heard the news it was a gut punch. It stopped me in my tracks. I was speechless for a minute, but I didn’t cry. I thought, maybe I wouldn’t. When we heard the news about Robin Williams, I was sad, but didn’t cry until I watched Dead Poets’ Society later on. But writing out my thoughts about losing David Bowie, as brief as they were, I cried.

I was introduced to David Bowie at three-years-old when he was The Goblin King, like many my age. It was insta-love. And to this day, The Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies. I watch it unironically and with affection. Jareth was my first villain-crush. Every villain that touches me, reminds me of Jareth. I have dreamed of writing my own Jareth, but fear I won’t do him justice. But that sort of good-bad-guy love was shaped by this artist. No one else could have done for that role what David Bowie did.

I would come to love his music as I got older and his dark record, Outside, would help me through a tough time in junior high school. A record none of my friends enjoyed, but I did.

David Bowie helped me and influenced me. I am sad he is gone and no one will make me feel embarrassed for it. When an artist dies, it is no more sad than any other death, but we may feel it differently. We know no more art will come from them. We’ll have to cherish what they left behind. We have to accept the idea that something else that might’ve changed our lives, our perception, our own art, will never be.

Listening to Blackstar is difficult, but I’m doing it. It’s his farewell letter to us. I don’t know how he managed to create this, knowing the end was coming, but it is something to be appreciated.

Don’t ever let anyone make you feel badly over your feelings. So what if David Bowie didn’t know you – you knew him even if you never met him. He shaped you, just like any other artist that makes you think and feel.

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ETA:

I wrote this post yesterday, 1/13/16, before the news of Alan Rickman broke this morning. Everything I said above applies to this great man as well. I am crying with you. Alan Rickman was another amazing artist who touched me and so many other people. Another artist who portrayed villains and anti-heroes in a way that made you question which side you were supposed to be rooting for. He was a favorite and I am so very upset right now. This has been a hard, hard week for us.

Alan Rickman. Always.

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