La Gioconda

“Is this the line for the Mona Lisa?” the older woman behind me asked as her husband moved up and down the snaking procession of people asking anyone who looked like an official Louvre employee if they’d actually made it to their destination.

There we stood, eyes alighting upon the gorgeous glass Pyramide du Louvre that is the iconic “You are here” sign for the magnificent museum. It was 8:52 a.m. and the line tripled, then quadrupled, then trickled well past the initial security screen and out into the rainy morning.

We had arrived, nearly ten minutes early in fact, for our 9 a.m. appointment. We’d done everything in our power to ensure such a meeting took place—bought our tickets in advance, made reservations online, left nothing to chance.

However, I. M. Pei’s architectural wonder could not convince those of us who had another sort of iconic masterpiece in mind that we’d not screwed this all up and would be stuck in a line that led to, well, not what we came to see.

It turned out that EVERYONE was in line for a visit with La Gioconda, and we’d totally done the right thing. Those of us with advance tickets and reservations for the very first slot of the day trotted right through, up the stairs, up more stairs, and then some more, and one more flight just to make sure.

The museum docent that I stopped to talk to at the top of the stairs said that in half an hour those stairs would be packed with people waiting, waiting, waiting. Some might wait for three hours for a glimpse at the beauty beyond the doorway.

So, I stopped talking and scurried toward the magnificent Galerie Médicis where she stood, glassed-in, amongst some of the most spectacular paintings in the history of art.

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Dwarfed by the size and absolute divinity of the 24-panel Marie de’ Medici Cycle painted by Rubens 400 years ago, there she sat, roped off, barely visible. Visitors, fifty or so at a time, were let past the ropes that kept them penned back from her as well.

With that, the stopwatch began.

One minute.

That was all the time you had in her presence.

Time enough to click a selfie, take a picture or two, and then—poof—all the anticipation and work put in to stand even in her vicinity was over.

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It was the most magnificent moment of my life.

No woman on this Earth is more mysterious and sought-after than the Mona Lisa. From obscurity to utter obsession, the world has latched itself upon this simple portrait. Everyone seems willing to speculate on her identity and nobody really knows who she is.

I spent far more time with her in other places—hours and hours at Clos Lucé and in da Vinci’s gardens at Amboise.

However, that one minute proved one thing to me—that this glorious goddess with whom women crave a moment and men desire with the greatest of passion is a vessel for immeasurable power.

While men wage war on the Earth, she conquers the mind. Her territory, her imperialism, lies within.

And so, Woman On The Wall seeks to explore the true identity of La Gioconda, this woman who has inexplicably captured our hearts, as she watches over the world.

 

A Journey Without Expectations

I’d tried desperately to curb my urges, yet preparation for France owned me.

My kids made it clear they wanted no more of this level of obsession.

“All you think about, all you talk about is France, mom,” my oldest daughter kept saying, deservedly irritated that she got little of my focus.  “What are you going to do when you don’t have France anymore?”

“That’s not possible,” I would always reply.

Really, though, I worried.

For three months, I’d immersed myself in planning and research for the novel research to come. I spent three hours a day learning French, surfed French websites, made appointments with French historians, booked tours, packed twelve times, read every book I could. With two weeks to cram it all in, I had to make sure my focus proved laser-sharp, and I wouldn’t walk away from this experience wishing I’d gone and done something different.

I literally planned every moment of every day. Error, jet lag, language barrier, time—none could be a factor. I had sworn off the need to account for any of them.

Ken said I was the Fort Knox of travel planning. Everything right down to what would happen if I caught a cold had a solution in place or a detailed map and itinerary attached to it.

Then, the day before I left, in the middle of working on Woman On The Wall this popped up. Just a little note. Nothing profound. Nothing more than a reminder sliding in while I pounded away at the story of Elijah, the main character:

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It hit me like a brick. What if no moment I’d so carefully mapped out worked out the way I planned? What if I went to France and found nothing? Or something totally different? Or hated it? Or everything went sideways on the first day and the rest of the trip was garbage? What if I couldn’t keep up with my schedule? What if I missed this or that? What would I possibly do?

This was the first solo research trip of my life, and I’d left no room in it to just experience anything, to see where a lead took me, or listen to the wind and follow it.

I could freak out, unable to control it all. Or, I told myself after recovering from the icky, cold sweat I broke into, I could go without any expectations and have faith that all of the work I put in to get there would lead me to experience France in a way in which stories simply blossomed, taking shape without being forced.

Hmmmm.

I promptly dumped my rigid itinerary in the trash, marked the few things that I could not miss, and hopped on the plane with the mindset that anything I faced in those next 14 days would be transformative.

I’ve tried to control nearly everything my whole life. It was time to just experience it all.

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From that moment, I swear it was like the universe offered up its nod of approval, jacked me into the energy of place, and set me on a path to discovery that even I could never have imagined.

France took me in, opened its soul for me to be a part of, and left me a changed woman.

For the next several weeks, I’ll be posting the tales of magick, time travel, serendipity, and the great confluence of modern-day life alongside that of the Renaissance which defined my French sojourn, deeply reshaped the story being told in Woman On The Wall, and brought me to a place at the edge of the veil where I found far more than details for my novel.

I look forward to sharing this experience with all of you.

 

 

The Writer’s Studio – Personal Sovereignty

My brother said something to me the other day, “Robin, you have to really look at your sovereignty and ask yourself why you are letting XX affect you this way.”

I’d been complaining to him a lot, irritated by people who we like to call petty tyrants—those who exert their control by forcing what they know is a habitual reaction from you in order to manipulate.

He, however, was having none of it and told me so. I found it impossible to debate the merits of his assessment. I’d given my personal responsibility away and blamed it on another person.

I’d been procrastinating and whining about not having enough time for the things I love for a month. It definitely had to be because of all of these tyrants.

Over the course of the next few days, as I grew increasingly short-tempered in a wide range of areas related to freeing myself of these damned tyrants, I heard his bellowing voice in my head, “Why are you giving away your authority over the way your life plays out?”

My aggression with others grew and grew. My mind offered no willingness to bend to things I’d, before that point, conceded to for any number of reasons.  I blamed others for my limited work on my novel writing, for frustrations at work, for situations that left me without things I needed, for communication that never quite communicated what I desired.

The funny thing was life didn’t get any better with all of this standing up for myself. It actually devolved. 

Intolerant and thoroughly pissed off at others, I’d reached my  boiling point. Everyone received my venom. I’d become a tyrant in defense against tyrants, lost myself and my productivity in the ugly circle of fury.

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That’s when my husband stepped in.

“Robin, you control how you work and create and move through the world. Set the parameters, walk away from that which does not serve who you really are, and go from there.”

At that moment, my husband’s sage words sparked a deeper realization of what my brother meant—how I’d been taking the hatchet to myself thinking I was standing up to others. How I could make my way back to my creative, productive, communicative, centered self.  He wasn’t telling me to go kick some butt. He spoke of sovereignty in terms of responsibility for how one reacts to others as they move into and out of your life.

It wouldn’t take days or even hours. It took about ten seconds to step into that responsibility and say, “I will choose to serve the health and well-being of me, my sweet family, and what we need to live our best, most purposeful lives. I will react in a way perpetuating such purpose.”

Understanding that my ability to navigate through life is first and most significantly impacted by the mindset going in shifted my perspective and sparked a renewed sense of purpose.

So, as August dips out of sight and the start of Fall descends upon us, I’m going to dig in and live with more purpose through the simple yet incredibly demanding act of personal sovereignty—taking responsibility for how I respond to the ebbs and flows of my life, and determining through my own actions how it all plays out.

In The Writer’s Studio – August, The Dead Month

Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.

Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.

The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.

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For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.

This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.

Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.

For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.

I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.

Classes and curriculum, mapped out.

Coaching training, done.

Schedules, made.

Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.

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Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.

Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.

I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.

Finally.

On Being Distracted

So, I sat down fifteen mornings ago with the intent to pen a tome on the reality that I’m about as focused as a light breeze meandering through the desert these days.

I’m exhausted.

My head is spinning.

I’m almost late for everything (on time is late for me).

My patience for crazy is wafer-thin.

I have lists for lists of the lists I haven’t completed because I forgot to make a list.

My mind drifts and lingers in useless places like the social media dark universe and daydreaming.

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Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

I re-opened this draft today and realized the “On Being Distracted” headline proved so valid that I couldn’t even get around to finishing a blog post on the topic.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask myself, beginning the misguided self-talk that leads me deeper and deeper down.

On one side, I am remarkably busy.  My writing coaching business is booming, and I work with students all around the globe almost every day.

I also work with students all around the Lower Mainland almost every day, which means I’m spending a crazy amount of time on public transit. That level of contact with people, in and of itself, is enough to unsettle even the most chill of souls.

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Photo by Hugh Han via Unsplash

There, boom. The coaching part of my life is mapped out and accomplished with only the normal bumps in the dealing-with-other-humans road.

However, in the rest of my writing life, the lack of forward motion proves startling.

I sit down to edit, query or work on the novels – nothing.

I sit down to read (I haven’t read ANYTHING all summer that wasn’t for work) – nothing.

So goes the flow of being, and I recognize it as just that. Sometimes, you can’t squeeze more juice out when one side of your life is at full-speed and requires all of your attention. I will get back to a balance which gives me the time and energy to focus, probably sooner than I think.

Yet, I can’t help but feel like I am failing myself as a novelist.

Where’s the devotion?

Where’s the getting up every day and writing no matter what?

Where’s the “Do whatever it takes” required to make anything of yourself in this world?

I have beaten myself up without end for these times when I am tapped out, and I genuinely believe that I have to figure out how to honour them rather than let them steal pieces of me away.

Meanwhile, I’m still busy berating myself for choosing to finish three seasons of Outlander rather than write, or talk to friends on social media rather than read or research or focus on the craft in personal ways.

I suspect my head is waiting for the novel research trip, which is less than six weeks away. At least I can guarantee a bit of an endpoint for all of this foolish distraction.

 

 

 

On Writing When You Are “Too Busy”

I swear I will take my night-sweaty peri-menopausal level of rage out on the next person who tells me, “You just have to commit yourself to write every day.”

Stop already, writing gurus.

Those of us working our faces off at trying to live our authentic selves through a devotion to writing get it. The getting-words-down part is crucial to literary success.

Dayjob.jpgHowever, I’m quite committed to attaining success at a few other elements of life as well:

  • Raising woke, healthy kids
  • Investing in my relationship with my husband
  • Nurturing and discovering fulfilling friend and colleague relationships
  • Paying my bills

Let’s be real, paying the bills is probably the top of that list. A lack of financial security puts a real damper on creative genius and that whole zen vibe most of us long to achieve in our personal lives.

We are busy, sometimes too busy, paying those bills to want to come home and write.

While my DH and I have attempted the “You go pursue your creative bliss. No worries about working a day job” thing at different points in our lives, money is a real thing.

We live in Vancouver, Canada—one of the most expensive cities in the world. Leisurely creative genius either comes at a tremendous personal price or is the exclusive purview of the already-wealthy.

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Photo by Harshil Shah via Flickr

 

Since the kids want to go to university, we want to live in Vancouver proper, and staying married is a life goal, we both need to work.

Being busy isn’t going away.

I teach creative writing, which is a true personal investment and labor of love for me because I adore bearing witness to creativity emerging from young people. To me, I have the perfect job, where I never actually stop writing.

I love it.

I’m an introvert who forced herself to become comfortable in extroverted situations. In a perfect universe, I’d roam the Earth searching for stories and bits of information, coaxing people into offering up their family tales and cultural tellings, consulting with elders on how to best share those pieces, alternately hiding away to write and then emerging to learn more before returning to hide again. With teaching, I get to do that.

However, when I settle into my writer’s studio after the week of coaching young people through their own storytelling, I find myself a bit unmotivated to work on my own stuff.

I’m exhausted. Plus, there’s so much to do: book research, website maintenance, social media, querying, working with editors, learning how to write better myself through webinars and sessions with my own coaches.

The list grows.

Balancing that with kids, mundane chores such as laundry, and just catching up with my own energy leaves me struggling to get more than a word or two on a page some days.

I want to give you a peek inside how I organize myself, but efore I lay down my process for staying in the writing flow let me just say this:

Some days, writing just doesn’t happen—and that is OK. My theory is that one lost day is self-care. When it starts to turn into multiple lost days, considering a reset of priorities may be in order. 

Here’s how I keep myself from swirling down the lack-of-progress hole, even when I juggle a billion to-dos and know that reaching for another cup of coffee at 9 p.m. involves dire next-day consequences.

1. Plan Ahead.

Oh crap, here she goes telling us to plan, plan, plan.  I agree this tip is annoying. However, I find nothing more satisfying and empowering than mapping out my days ahead of time, waking up in the morning with clear goals, and getting it all done.

This suits my writing style, as I am a Plotter with a capital P. If I don’t plan, I am unfocused and aimless. This is my devotion to leading a purposeful life. It definitely doesn’t work for everyone.  You’ll also see I don’t really “write” every day in terms of novel work. I will blog, work on short stories, edit. Creating silos for work makes it less overwhelming.

 

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My planning calendar is broken down into purposeful days

2. To-do lists.

Make me a list and I will go slay a day. I’ve even started writing little “Yay!” notes or “You kick ass!” comments when I check things off to remind myself how satisfying it is to take care of my business. A big thing here is that I often have one or two things that just don’t get done. I make it a habit to transfer those to-dos to the next day’s list. No excuses.

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Today’s to-do list

3. Plan for breaks.

I break my day up into the following:

5:30-7:30 a.m. – Me time. Catch up with my brother, my friends, my Instagram, my meditation, my cat, my need to sit in silence.

7:30-8:45 a.m. – the epic chaos of getting the kids off to school.

9:15-10:45 a.m. – Yoga or blogging depending on how much my back and spirit hurt, and whether I can interact with humans on any given day. Today, it’s blogging even though I wanted to go to my fave yoga class because, well, humanity is not happening. 😉

11 a.m.-3 p.m. – Kill that to-do list.

3 p.m.-7p.m. – Kids, non-writing bits of life, and dinner on days I don’t work. Teaching on days I do.

4-8 p.m. – Some days I have long editing sessions.

8-10 p.m. – editing, reading, wishing I had the energy to edit or read.

10 p.m.-5:30 a.m. – I am religious about my sleep. Only if I am moved by serious inspiration or Ken wants to talk do I ever violate the 10 p.m. rule.

4. Set goals and be OK with hitting most of them.

Like I said, I aim high and get most of the way there some days. I’ve had to become comfortable with the ebb and flow of making a good life rather than achieving at all costs.

5. Be OK with pieces of your writing life taking time.

We are such an instant-gratification culture. It’s an epic challenge to understand that creativity must bubble and simmer and set. Pieces take time, and you must commit to the long game. Understanding that this sort of life cannot be conjured, but more chipped away at, gives you the drive to keep going.

However, don’t take so much time that you get lazy. Remain driven and go chase those creative dreams.

6.  Understand there will be sacrifices.

Another UGH in my book of advice, and I think you’ll be surprised by what I recommend sacrificing in this quest for creative living.

Creativity takes energy and time. It requires you to clear yourself out and open up to intuition, imagination, ideas, and perspective. You may think the Hunter S. Thompson facade of hard living makes an amazing writer and is the epic life goal. However, HST shot himself. I’m not down with that sort of end.

It was this year in particular that I realized getting clear with writing also meant getting clear with myself.

I stopped drinking. I don’t eat meat. I exercise every day and am working toward dropping all the weight I put on as a result of sitting and ruminating about writing.

I got into meditation, which is incredible.

I rearranged my work situation for balance.

I quit people who’d I’d allowed too much access to me.

My DH and I made big lifestyle choices that allow both of us to partition off work and creative pursuits despite the wonderful reality that both of our jobs are creative.

I am busier than ever. However, this “sacrifice” and push toward self-care has opened up a crazy ton of creative space I never had access to before.

Do I recommend you take my path? Not really. Go do your own thing that works for you. These are simply ways of doing to consider. My only words of remaining wisdom are to not use the “too busy” excuse for not writing, but consider how writing can find its important place on your daily to-do list.

 

On How I Broke Down When Writing Feedback Hurt (And Won)

The other day, literally within a few hours of me doing the “I am amazing at this” dance after I wrote what I considered a killer short story submission, I got an e-mail.

Seeing this editor’s name in my InBox brought on a mixture of excitement and fear as it usually does. She’s incredibly talented, and I literally sobbed when I recently got the request from her to see pages of Geist.

Excitement soon turned to crushing defeat.

Phrases such as, “Your writing didn’t resonate with me as much as I had hoped,” made me bleed from my eyes.

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It actually hurts me right now to repeat her feedback. I hesitate to share it with you because I feel like it marks me as a failure — talentless, like one of those people on American Idol who humiliate themselves in the audition phase and make the blooper reel for millions to take note of what not to do.

Her words started me down a wild path of self-doubt, echoing in my head over and over.

I even shouted into the Instagram void with one of those long Stories that I’m mildly grateful now I’m unable to reshare.

I shut my computer and walked away.

This moment, after such an amazing high from writing that morning, demanded a lengthy self-flagellation.

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Me: I must suck at this. Time to seriously rethink my place in the world.

Higher self: I’m literally going to beat you with a stick if you don’t stop this level of bullshit.

Me: But, she said she hated it.

Higher self: No, she said she didn’t connect with it.

Me: Yes! Hatehatehate!

Higher self: *Sigh* Did you read the rest of the e-mail?

Me: Fuck off, I’m going to go mainline chocolate and watch Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant fall in love for the hundredth time.

Higher self: Read it now, you pathetic, thin-skinned pansy.

Me: Maybe it’s this abusive relationship with you I need to reconsider.

Higher self: *tapping foot and glaring at me*

Me: I’ll read it, shut up already.

2 minutes later

Me: Oh.

Higher self: She told you how to fix it.

Me: I didn’t read that part.

Higher self: Of course not, you were too busy confirming your own insecurities.

Me: But, what if . . .

Higher self: Re-write the damn chapter. Dig deep. Consider if what she has told you makes sense, if you have known all along that this needed to be fixed all along.

Me: But, I don’t want to re-write it. I’ll have to tweak the whole front of the book.

Higher self: Do you have an agent?

Me: No.

Higher self: Do you have a book contract?

Me: Stop already.

Higher self: When was the last time someone who has the capacity to get you from no agent and no book contract to agented author with a book deal took time to critique your work and show you specifically how to fix it?

Me: . . . I hate you.

Higher self: You love me.

Me: Why did you see this when I didn’t?

Higher self: Got yer back, baby.

downloadThe whole feedback thing sucked, but opening to truth is often not the finest moment in anyone’s life.

I took her recommendations and rewrote the chapter based on her notes, sent it off to a group of trusted friends and mentors to review and offer their honest feedback as well (per her recommendation), and spent the night going over it line-by-line with my brutally honest husband.

2 a.m. rolled around and I dropped into bed, satisfied that one of the most humbling writing days in recent memory may have opened up a massive wound, but refusing to step back into an old place of “to hell with this” meant it became one of the most instructive writing days in recent memory too.

Don’t let the brutal truth of writing feedback stop you from pursuing the craft. Use it to get better.

On Why Writing Is So Damn Hard

Let me be clear, I breathe the written word. It is my life force, my prana, my life purpose, my escape, my clarity. It is also my most complicated, vicious, taxing, and painful relationship. Nothing comes even close to the challenge a devotion to writing inflicts upon me at every turn.

Writing is so damn hard.

While that may come off as me prepping for a whiny diatribe on the travails of the writer’s life, it actually constitutes me launching into a bit of a love poem (I SUCK at poetry and do not pretend to have any training in it whatsoever. So, indulge me):

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Oh word that I write

Bringing to life so many wishes.

Oh word that I write

How you keep me from doing the dishes.

Every day I sit and stare and think of a million other things to do.

Then, with a whisper, a pull, and a shove, you force me to feel something that draws me back to you.

No laundry is done. Take-out pizza for dinner again tonight.

I made my kid walk home by herself

because you and I are having a fight.

Characters haunt my dreams

Settings drive me to call my travel agent friend.

Yet we all know the balance of my bank account

means that little fantasy has to end.

Oh word that I write

does it count to make a writing playlist on Spotify instead of banging out Chapter 3?

Oh word that I write

It’s been eight hours staring at you. I have to pee.

Why do you tease me like this?

Why do you always get your way?

Oh word that I write

How I need you

To make sense of my life every day.