Are you longing for a bit of a solitary creative refuge in the middle of this quarantine?
Many of us continue to remain holed up in our homes across the globe. These many weeks of solitude (or sharing space without any breaks) leave us struggling with our sense of peace each day.
One of the ways I work with my writing groups to help ease anxieties and create space right now is through flash fiction using famous artworks as inspo.
My obsession with beauty, passion for museums, and love of storytelling led me to it, and students have adored the combo.
So, in celebration of art, support of museums, and an offering of solitary creative space, I’ll be posting a visual writing prompt each day along with light instructions to help guide you in this sweet process.
To kick things off, let’s go with Thomas Cole’s The Journey of Life: Youth. I love this painting for its ethereal quality and room to create your own interpretation. It hangs in the American National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“Je suis désolé, je parle un peu le Francais,” I responded. I’d been on the ground in Paris just a few hours and had not engaged my language skills long enough to do anything other than apologize for my poor French.
“Oui. Merci, monsieur.”
“Do you know of her?” he asked in English, much to my relief, rolling a cigarette with one hand and adjusting his plaid, wool scarf with the other. “Most people don’t stray off the path here. Are you searching for something?”
We stood for a moment and admired the subject which sparked him to interrupt an odd Canadian woman’s wander through the lonely graves along the South wall of Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
“She’s extraordinary,” I whispered. I knew he’d caught me half in tears in the moments before our first words. I’d been searching for more than half an hour for Monument aux victimes des Révolutions and wanted her to be it.
“May I ask why you are looking for it?” he asked upon learning of my quest and odd interest in Communist Paris.
“Marie Guerrant,” I told him.
“Who is she?”
“Muriel Gale’s pseudonym.”
Puzzled, he introduced himself as Olivier, one of the historians of the cemetery.
I returned the courtesy, offering up myself as a novelist, which cleared up any confusion he had earlier about why I’d be tossing around names such as Marie and Muriel.
Paris plays a key role in the Woman On The Wall as the place where our main character, Elijah Gale, returns to eight years after her grandmother Muriel’s murder.
Muriel, a Holocaust survivor, is buried at Père Lachaise under the name Marie Guerrant (Mary at War) in the novel. She was also a Communist – a seemingly unfathomable pairing. However, the woman had always been an enigma whose politics favored the people rather than power.
Olivier’s eyes lit up.
While he had to take up a position at the front gate in under half an hour, the charming middle-aged Parisian who looked every bit the part offered an arm and his knowledge to guide me through my search for answers amongst the dead.
From that point, he walked me along the boulevards lined with maples and acacia beginning their dramatic shift from summer’s hues to the vibrancy of Samhain. The stories of the interesting and uncommon flowed from him as if they were his own.
The graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Edith Piaf remained far in the distance. Instead, we chatted about the quiet, undecorated graves of people who lived out eternity inside one of the most noted cemeteries in the world. Graves like the one that carries the name Marie Guerrant in Woman On The Wall. Graves that serve as masks for lives we will never know or understand.
I found myself struck by a knowing as to one of the reasons Muriel never revealed her true identity. Père-Lachaise’s most wrenching memorials haunt the walkways, those to the dead of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other concentration camps.
Olivier spoke of how soil from those places was mixed with that at the graves. We walked past sculptures of emaciated souls and I understood as if Muriel shared it with me herself. She was a survivor of Dachau who worked to preserve lives, culture. Being buried amongst those who died in the camps would have defeated her in death. She preferred the power of anonymity in order to make sure that work continued on.
Despite the fact that Muriel is dead long before Woman On The Wall begins, I love her as a character. She drives Elijah in the best and worst ways, and I’m genuinely fascinated by her impact on the entire cast.
The last bit of the walk proved quiet and had me wondering if Olivier was either irritated or lost in thought. As we made our way to the cemetery entrance near Rue Robineau, he turned to me once again.
“You know they call it The Wall,” he said of the Monument aux victimes des Révolutions. “You’ll find it in the park up that hill. No one really ever goes there.”
As he spoke the words, my entire body seized up with a sense of awe at the serendipity of the one sculpture I’d come to see carrying the moniker of the novel I am writing. My eyes overflowed with tears.
“It was never allowed to be inside the cemetery for reasons no one really knows,” he continued. “You must see her, incredible, holding back the revolutionaries of not just the Commune, but all of the generations.”
“She was their protector, then?” I asked.
“Their Sibyl, you might say.” he replied.
As the first stop on my first day in France, this proved to be the beginning of a truly remarkable confluence of time and opportunity during which people such as Olivier dropped into my life to reveal extraordinary details I would never have otherwise known.
As I rode the Metro to the Museé de Cluny that afternoon, I marveled at how clear Muriel had become. The pace and path of Elijah’s return to her grandmother’s home in Paris and the role it played in the story firmed up in my mind.
Now, I needed to know, who were these victims of revolutions locked inside the stone of this Wall?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been circling around this concept of slow travel a lot lately.
It’s not shocking to anyone who has spent literally even one day with me that I am a bit of a doer. Chilling is not my thing.
I’ve got lists and then lists for the lists.
I survive on accomplishment alone.
It’s my insecurity, I get it.
To do is to have a purpose. To chill is to, well . . .
Yet, upon reflection, I’ve begun to understand how my urge to do, do, and then do some more is based almost entirely in the fear that I will somehow be thought of as less, miss out, that I only get one shot at things, and that everyone else is staring at me thinking I’m an idiot unless I am superwoman mounting the to-do list like the queen of everything.
I am taking myself to France in October to, well, chill.
See, it’s a problem.
I am taking myself to France in October to research The Woman On The Wall. For those of you who don’t know, I’m writing a novel about the true identity of the Mona Lisa that is half epistolary love story and half Indiana Jones-style thriller.
I know, in my head, I am going to Paris and Amboise to chill and get to know the places where the novel is set as well as possible in 14 days. I’m not going to play tourist.
Then, the other part of my head goes bananas. I have like a billion to-dos in Paris in my Google Maps. I can do 12 hours a day in the first two days I get off the plane, right?
This article killed all of my need to do Paris (in a good way), giving me permission to just wander through my quick 72 hours there.
Yes, me and La Gioconda are hooking up.
We’ve already texted.
She’s expecting me.
However, I have now basically just thrown my crazy to the wind and decided that everything else in Paris can just happen.
If you hold this Dazzling emerald Up to the sky, It will shine a billion Beautiful miracles Painted from the tears Of the Most High. Plucked from the lush gardens Of a yellowish-green paradise, Look inside this hypnotic gem And a kaleidoscope of Titillating, Soul-raising Sights and colors Will tease and seduce Your eyes and mind.
Tell me, sir. Have you ever heard A peacock sing? Hold your ear To this mystical stone And you will hear Sacred hymns flowing To the vibrations Of the perfumed Wind.”
This beautiful creation by poet Suzy Kassem pulls me back to it time and time again, as does the stunning brilliance of the peacock.
Peafowl, as they are often referred to, are ancient creatures steeped in the lore of nearly every recorded civilization on Earth. That wee detail proved enough for me to begin to notice the presence of peacocks as iconography as I researched the Renaissance for The Woman On The Wall. The discoveries I made sent me down a rabbit hole that refuses to spit me out the other side.
The peacock, it turns out, is a mysterious, subtle presence in an extraordinary amount of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Persian, Hindu, and Pagan art throughout the ages. The Renaissance is no exception. If you examine the scenes of nearly any Madonna and child, religious gathering, ascension, angel visitation, even the Sistine Chapel, a peacock is likely to make a subtle, unobtrusive, yet significant appearance.
I posit that the true significance of this magnificent creature is much overshadowed by its reputation in modern culture as a showoff.
In fact, if we dipped back to the Renaissance or earlier periods in our trusty time machine and tried to make a case for the bombastic nature of this bird, most people would banish us back to the 21st century, horrified at such foolishness.
My suspicion is that, at some point, those who feared the deep symbolism and potential powerful hold such an animal might have over humanity made a story up about it so we’d all be like, “You arrogant peacock. I will strive in this pious life of mine to not be like you.”
It’s possible we ought to rethink such conditioning.
The peacock, since time immemorial, is a symbol of immortality and the all-seeing one. Once I found this out, I started to examine the potential connections between them and the oracular Sibyls of the ancient world.
This was a big moment for me because I’d long looked for an anima (not animal) connection to the collective unconscious as it related to the Sibylline. As oracles, their connection to dimensional realities and access to other realms had to have been the strongest out of all. Their connection to the animals who live between the worlds, or could cross over, made sense to me.
Without getting too Wikipedia, the whole immortality piece is said to have come about because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death.
It’s definitely oversimplified and vastly underexplored to state that early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery to denote the value of immortality. They even used peacock feathers can be used during lent as church decorations. Of course, the whole immortality gig is linked directly to Christ in that tradition. So, this makes sense.
However, my limited experience with research has proven that folklore and legend is rarely the sole reason for integrating it into art, and most definitely not the reason for including it in church ritual. Not to mention, the peacock is very much NOT a Christian symbol at its origin. Therefore, associating it as a symbol of Christ without taking the rest of history into consideration is dismissing thousands of years of storytelling and knowledge.
Let’s step way back in time:
The peacock’s origin is, as far as we know, India. Hindu mythology is packed with peacocks, and they were worshiped with exceptional reverence, associated with Sarasvatī.
In Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the peacock feathers were considered much like the evil eye. They were all-seeing. It’s no secret that Egyptians, in particular, had a jonze for immortality. Again, though, this leads my seeking mind to wonder where the peacock got its reputation as the immortal oracle.
Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock.
Greek mythology declares the peacock created by Hera out of her watchman, Argus.
Christians call it their own as it was the creature that refused to eat the forbidden fruit at Eden and was granted immortality for such a pious act.
Islamic legend claims it was cast out of paradise. However, Ottoman iconography carries the bird on everything from mosaics to dishes.
In China, the bird was a symbol of the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese equated the peacock with divinity, rank, power, and beauty.
This led me to a fascinating fact that the peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm. In India, Persia, and North Africa, this allowed for the title of protector as it became the defender of royal (or any for that matter) households.
It also shows up in 16th-century illuminated manuscripts and in front of the Vatican even today.
A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from sorcerers according to Pliny (my personal go-to while exploring the connections between alchemy, science, and the metaphysical). Meanwhile, the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits.
Alchemist thought the fan of the peacock (cauda pavonis) is associated with certain texts and images that are useful in turning base metals into gold.
So, as you can see, the peacock may have some cause to be a bit cocky. However, I believe it instead to be the keeper of secrets far deeper than the simple myths that exist surrounding this gorgeous creature.
The peacock plays a primary role in The Woman On The Wall. Stay tuned to learn more, as da Vinci was an enormous fan of the birds who still walk the grounds of Clos Luce today.
I got up this morning planning to work on an article for a corporate client. This is pretty straightforward work, crafting a piece based on an interview I did last week about a technical topic I’ve done a fair bit of reading up on.
Segmenting my days into mental spaces is something I attempt to practice with some level of religious commitment. It’s a serious business to go from corporate article to fantasy novel writing to lesson planning for creative writing classes. I need to keep a clear head to stay clear on my goals.
However, my devotion to schedule-related doctrine wanes with embarrassing regularity, especially when I get distracted by a digital rabbit hole.
Welcome to my morning, where I got up and went to YouTube to put on ten hours of cello music. Instead, a video on an ancient religious order called The Scarlet Council appeared in my feed (I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I love a good historical conspiracy theory). How could I refuse such an offer to delve into ancient mysteries?
Well, it’s 2.5 hours later and I’m back into corporate mode – black turtle neck and hair up in a bun ready to bust out some business-focused material.
The reward is I wrote thirteen pages of The Woman On The Wall (1500 words or so) while listening to the 70-minute video despite the fact I’m getting a later start than I wanted to on the other work.
This is my life, trying to balance curiosity and the need to create with my more intellect-based writing projects.
I’ll shift again in about two hours, prepping for an evening teaching creative writing classes.
Despite the chaos, it’s satisfying to know I’m quite capable of connecting my deep calling to write to everything I pursue in life.
Lately, people ask me why I write and I just tell them, “For me, writing is the mother blood. Everything else manifests as a result of it.”
In fact, it’s easy and honest to say that I’ve spent pretty much no significant period in my life reading any sort of rhythm or rhyme.
For a long time, I dismissed such musings outright.
Who wants to read stuff that you have to guess at the meaning?
I’m a novelist, not a poet!
Then, of course, came children.
I read SO MANY RHYMING BOOKS when my kids were little, and I started to realize the true cantor of words. Then, how spoken word carried a lyrical quality when written well. Then, how writing poetry could help me become a better long-form writer.
I was hooked and slightly ashamed at my willingness to dismiss such a gorgeous art form.
As I started teaching creative writing, I used it as a way for kids to develop their descriptive writing skills. The results are often amazing
This past week, I introduced my wonderful Grade-1 student, Rickie, to this sort of magic. He got to take home a copy of the lovely Children’s First Book of Poems with illustrations from Cyndy Szekeres.
He pored through it for the last week, and got to pick out the one that made his heart sing.
It was, indeed, a lovely tale about a lonely puffin who traded eating fish for making friends with them (and got to eat pancakes instead, bonus!).
We spent time today learning how to use descriptive words to write a rhyming puffin poem of his own, and it turned out so great.
In the end, though, the biggest win from all of this poetry was receiving an inspired text from his mom over the weekend with him reading a newly minted poem written by Rickie himself. Then, I got to see the hard copy of it today: