Twenty-four Hours At Fontevraud Abbey

Oct. 12, 2019:

In the quiet of the Grand-Moûtier at Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, the wind carried on it the constant whisper of a thousand years.

I sat, regretful in my exhale, as the Abbey sleeps.

It is the silence when I am the most terrified and at peace. I lingered on the waxing moon, just three days short of full release, and shook.

This place—this holy, sacred, venomous, cruel place—soothed me in the darkness, and I submit.

Midnight, at Fontevraud.

The twenty-four hours I spent in seclusion at Fontevraud reshaped me as a person and also reshaped the storyline of Woman On The Wall in profound sorts of ways.

It was here that I learned of the legacy of the Boubons, of the underground river of Fontevraud, the cloisters, the immense power of the Abbess of Fontevraud, and the remarkable features of this place that help us all reach beyond the veil.

It is my hope to return to Fontevraud soon and spend a significant amount of time doing some serious study of the site, as it has emerged as the Mother House—the pivot point—which every story/novel that comes from my work on the Woman On The Wall will revolve.

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The moon rising over Fontevraud

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The galleries of the Grand-Moûtier

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The Grand-Moûtier

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L’eglise abbaye

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Royal crypt

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In the refectory

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Walking the galleries at Midnight

 

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.

 

 

Young Author Spotlight – The Scariest Trip by Bonnie Xu

Note: This week’s featured story is from Grade 6 young author Bonnie Xu. Her vivid imagination and love of storytelling inspire Bonnie to put so much effort into her work. Relatively new to Canada, she has struggled with writing foundations such as homophones and verb tense. However, this week she took some big risks writing a mystery that was a bit out of her comfort zone. It turned out a wee bit scary and really fantastic.

 

The Scariest Trip

By Bonnie Xu

 

My class went to the famous dark forest for an adventure trip. Mostly, I just wanted to explore new creatures. It didn’t turn out how we imagined it would be.

It was the scariest trip ever—so creepy and mysterious. That day will live forever in everyone’s memory and I shall be the girl who lived.

The night was so silent we could hear our own breath. I stopped and all of the footsteps stopped. It was weird, but I could still see my two best friends in front of me in the distance.

“Amanda and Sarah!” I yelled.

It was no use, they kept on moving.

I was very weary and chose to stay behind to rest for a minute and then catch up to them. I slowly turned my head a little and  . . .

“Ahhhhhhhhhh!”

They were no longer my classmates but instead turned into walking skeletons.

“No, no, this can’t be happening,” I thought as I trudged along. “Now what? I have to salvage my two best friends just in case they also turn into skeletons.”

How would I do it? Not in the gloomy night! There was no way to rescue my friends and get out of there. I didn’t even know where they were. At that second, I heard a familiar scream and could see a strange looking house not far from me. Sarah, I realized immediately, was in danger.

I felt like I was running faster than a jaguar, even faster than a rocket. I zoomed past where I was before, sprinting toward the house without blinking. I kicked the wooden, cracked door open with a BOOM!

“Enter will die” was written everywhere on the entrance wall, but I felt brave. I was not scared anymore.

I saw something handing in the middle of the hallway—a bloody head. It made me fall on the floor. I noticed who it was the first second I saw it. I couldn’t stand it anymore. My heart broke and I began to bawl. Poor Amanda.

“Aha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,” said a creepy voice. I looked to where the sound came from and saw a wicked witch.

“What did you do to Amanda and Sarah, you ugly fool?” I shouted at her, eyes full of tears.

“You don’t address your queen like that. Otherwise, she will also be dead,” commanded the witch.

I turned around trying to figure out who the “she” was. I saw a girl hanging from the roof by a rope. A sparkly, sharp knife was right in front of her neck. I dreaded losing another friend.

“What do you want then?” I asked, confused.

“That! Power!” answered the witch.

“What on Earth are you talking about? My necklace, power? All that I want is my friend and to leave this place right now!” I shouted at the witch.

“Hmmmm. You give me the necklace, I’ll let you go,” she said slowly as if she didn’t care.

I was never going to give her my necklace. My parents gave it to me before they died in a plane crash.  The necklace was the only thing I have to remember them.

“Have you decided yet, you fool?” the witch spoke.

“Bonnie, don’t!” Sarah called out.

That just made everything worse.

The sparkly knife poked into Sarah’s throat. Her blood splashed everywhere.

“Noooooo!!!” I roared and turned to the witch. Flames of fury appeared in my eyes.

“You shall be dead!” I shouted, holding my necklace tightly, hoping there was real power. I closed my eyes and concentrated.

“Flash!”

The red lightning came from my necklace. That was the most powerful magic I had ever seen.

And, I survived.

I woke up in my bed two days later. All of that crazy stuff seemed like a dream, but I knew it was not.

 

Header image courtesy of  Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

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.

Day 38 – Manuscript Pitching On Twitter

The balance between pitching completed projects and working on new projects is always tricky for me. I’ve started blocking out days of the week to separate the two very different mental states needed for each. However, days like today require a quick, motivated shift in gears.

As I’ve mentioned before, Twitter is an amazing place for cultivating writing community relationships, keeping track of other authors, agents, trends. It is also the go-to these days for getting seen by prospective agents.

Pitching a manuscript is a long-term process. So, taking every opportunity to get my work out there requires paying attention and dedicating the time necessary.

D7P-cwQW0AAFYKeToday, I’m participating in #pitdark hosted by author Jason Huebinger

I get to toss out my wee pitch for the novel for more than fifty agents to consider whether they want to request pages or not.

The nerves get the best of me with these things—judgment of the world and all.

 

 

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Are you on Twitter? I would love it if you would retweet my pitch to show your support. Don’t like it, though. That is reserved for editors and agents.

xo