Thursday, November 2, 2023

NaNoWriMo '23 -- It's All About Me! (And You Too!)


So here we are again: November and National Novel Writing Month and the eternal question: Why am I doing this??

Because I love it, I suppose!

Whatever the reason, this year has found me throwing myself into creative challenges with more than reckless abandon. I had barely recovered from July's Camp NaNoWriMo when I decided to go for Inktober '23 (31 days of daily ink drawing with mandatory social media posting) and then the next thing I knew I had to do "the real" NaNoWriMo . . . and off we go.

When I first thought about signing up for NaNoWriMo 2023, my intention was to simply continue the story I had started in July. Although I had reached my 50K goal, the manuscript was in no way complete, so it made sense to think November would be a good time to write another 50K to finish things off. 

That all changed several weeks ago when I couldn't sleep one night and got up to write instead. Suddenly I was immersed in a new story, one I hadn't expected to write and one I didn't really want to write. Working on a "shiny bright idea" with so many other projects calling for attention felt like a very bad idea. But there it was and it wouldn't go away so I thought, use it for NaNoWriMo!

While it was easy enough (maybe too easy) to switch gears into a new plot and theme, the abruptness of the change didn't give me any time to assemble my usual scrapbook-style journal of prompts and photo references. I had a great journal full of mood boards and creepy settings to use back in July, but there wasn't a single item I could use toward my new story. Very quickly I had to come up with an entirely fresh approach: rather than rely on my usual magazine cut-outs, I could dive into my own life and make the prompts all about me! (Sort of.)

I was inspired by the example set by one of my Twitter (X) friends, writer and poet, Janis La Couvée, who is currently exploring memoir writing. Her recent tweets on the subject reminded me of a workshop I had taught while I was living in Carrollton, Georgia: "Write Your Memoirs, You're Never Too Young To Start." It was a fun class and I know of several full-length manuscripts that were written for both family record-keeping as well as more general publication. However, other than a blog post with the same title, I haven't thought of memoir for a long time until it occurred to me that using prompts from my own daily life and memories could be what I needed for NaNoWriMo. 

In other words, I'd be "memoir writing" but with a twist. I could assign my memories to fictional characters who could take them wherever they wanted to go. For instance, as a small child I wanted to be an archaeologist, something I obviously never did (unless you count Albuquerque yard work as a trial run), but a fictional character could actually work for a museum.

With that direction in mind, I've made a quick 30-day list I'm happy to share for any kind of writing you might be doing this month yourself, whether it be NaNoWriMo, a genuine memoir, or even a month of poetry.

Taking the words: "base a scene on," or "your main character remembers (something from the list) which then triggers (action or emotion)," try:

  1. A favorite song.
  2. A disliked poem.
  3. Most hated childhood food.
  4. Most frightening moment.
  5. Happiest day.
  6. Three items inside your handbag or pockets.
  7. Three items of clothing you love.
  8. Three items of clothing you never wear.
  9. Favorite pet.
  10. Worst day of school.
  11. Your best childhood friend.
  12. A letter you never wrote.
  13. Favorite book: go to page 93 and use the first line you read.
  14. A restaurant you would never go to and why.
  15. Your attitude to shopping.
  16. A hobby or skill you would love to have.
  17. A place you have always wanted to travel to.
  18. Favorite color.
  19. Most disliked color.
  20. Your last argument.
  21. Something you're allergic to.
  22. Your car (or lack of one).
  23. An item in your house you wish you could get rid of.
  24. An item you wish you still had.
  25. Greatest fear or phobia.
  26. Housework.
  27. Favorite movie.
  28. What you are wearing this very minute.
  29. What you really want to say to your neighbor(s).
  30. Your daily routine as it is now, or how you'd like it to change.

And there you go: 30 prompts for 30 days! Feel free to use them in daily order or for a more spontaneous writing session, mix them up and use at random. Or add your own ideas; after all, you know your own life best!

Tip of the Day: Although NaNoWriMo requires both planning and organization, you can still start a day or two late and be a winner. One way I'm focusing on writing, and writing only, is to clear my work space and limit my writing tools to the basics: my Alphasmart; a lined notebook for writing in cafes, parks, or the middle of the night; and a new sketchbook with a small number of my favorite pens and pencils. The sketchbook is for visual brainstorming in between writing sessions and to keep the creativity flowing whenever I need a break. Now to go write my 50,000 divided by 30 equals 1666.666 words for the day. Happy November! Happy Writing!

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Return from #CampNaNoWriMo 2023

Lakeside, CampNaNoWriMo 2023  

Back home from CampNaNoWriMo at last! Well, okay, so I never went farther than the Albuquerque Museum Cafe and any relation to travel, camping, or singing 'round the campfire was all "let's pretend." But isn't that the definition of creativity? Using the imagination and taking it as far as it will go?

One thing I couldn't pretend away though, was how difficult CampNaNo turned out to be, and it wasn't just the very-real mosquitoes. Getting up every day to write close to 1700 words eventually became a Herculean effort and I did have to spend several days catching up with my word count, July 31st being the worst. I didn't finish writing that night until 11:44 PM. On the dot. It was a long evening indeed, but I made it across the finishing line just as the first street racers started roaring outside my windows down Route 66.

Now that two weeks have passed since the end of camp, I guess the big question is, WHY? Why did I want to do something so, well, challenging? Short answer: I wanted to see if I could. This year has been difficult for me on so many levels, and despite hours and hours of grief journaling, my creative writing often found itself buried under mounds of administrative paperwork. Signing up for CampNaNo was an opportunity to start over and see what direction I truly wanted to follow.

It was a good choice. As soon as I actually sat down to write I was back in one of the safest places I know: the blank page. I wrote in cafes. I wrote beside my condo's swimming pool. I wrote in the park. I wrote in bed. I got it done and I'm glad. There are so many benefits to joining in with a writing challenge, starting with:

  1. Discipline. No excuses. You just have to write--so do it!
  2. Commitment. Setting a challenge goal of 50K words or simply 50 pages is a promise to yourself, one you want to keep. It feels good to keep your promise.
  3. Finding a schedule. A challenge is a good way to figure out your best writing times of the day or night. For me it turned out to be mid-afternoon. With a latte.
  4. Visible progress. A writing challenge can bring a good dose of instant gratification. Watching your word counts and pages add up is immensely satisfying.
  5. Freewrite like you mean it. I love freewriting, letting the words pour onto the page without editing, censoring myself, or worrying about "what people will think." Participating in a challenge leaves little time to do anything other than write, write, write, and often you have to abandon linear thinking, switching scenes on the fly, inventing new characters, ignoring transitions. It's great.
  6. You're part of a global effort. It's fun to imagine all those other writers out there suffering enjoying themselves day after day, night after night. Writers tend to be loners, so what's better than a world-wide writer's group?
  7. That idea you always wanted to play with? Now's the chance to go for it.
  8. Beginner's mind. When you're writing fast you don't have time to think about the rules or the "right" way to approach your story. Every sentence is a new beginning, a new way to express yourself. You don't need answers, you just need to listen to that voice asking "what if?" and follow what first comes to mind.
  9. A chance to experiment with form and genre. Bored? Turn your mystery into a series of short stories. Or add some recipes. Or poetry. Mix and match styles and write outside the box--you might find a brand new voice for yourself, the one you've always been looking for.
  10. You can discover what it is you don't like to write. 20,000 words into your manuscript you might discover that you hate writing novels, and that's just fine. Maybe you would much prefer to specialize in personal essays, or you might never want to pick up a pen again, deciding that abstract landscape painting is your true calling. Now's the perfect time to find out.
  11. You'll have 50K words to edit. I'm sure you've heard the truism that writing is re-writing. Except you can't rewrite a manuscript without a first draft. Join a challenge and you're guaranteed a first draft to rewrite for as many drafts as it takes.
  12. You'll have a manuscript to publish. Yay! What more incentive do you need?

Regarding that last point about publication, as worthy as it is to eventually publish your work and while 50K is an excellent start, a full-fledged, polished manuscript really needs a minimum of 75,000 to 100,000 words to be a satisfying read. My plan is to go for that 100K goal after taking a several-month break. For the moment my pages are packed away in a folder, but as soon as November's National Novel Writing Month 2023 rolls around I plan to jump in with both feet and get that story finished. Until then, you can find me in the craft room painting more landscapes.

Tip of the Day: Now's the time to consider signing up for what will be the 24th year of NaNoWriMo. Begin by collecting writing prompts, character and other reference photos, and doing any research you might need to have in place before November 1. Even if it's a simple outline or a plan dividing 30 days into plot points and chapter breaks, it can be helpful to have your compass ready and your backpack full of ideas ready to go. As they like to say at camp, "Be prepared!"

Thursday, June 29, 2023

31 Writing Prompts for Camp NaNoWriMo '23

Two days to go and here I am, preparing for yet another July and another Camp NaNoWriMo! 50,000 words in 31 days; a totally off-the-cuff decision to participate, but one I'm actually pretty excited about. 

To get myself ready for the big event I've got a new notebook, my favorite pen and extra cartridges of my favorite violet ink (yes, I always write my first drafts by hand), a good supply of snacks, and a dozen or more excellent cafes to visit for those days when I have to write with a latte or else.

But with all the supplies and comforts in the world, there inevitably comes that moment when I'm half-way through my coffee as well as my daily quota (1,613 words per day to be precise) and I'm hit with: "Oh, no--I'm stuck! What comes next? What on earth should I write?" 

Which is why I've always found it more than useful to have a list of writing prompts ready to go.

Back in 2021 I shared a similar list that you can view here if you feel you need for even more suggestions to help the words flow. All of my prompts, this year and those before, are simply to get things moving again, especially for those times I've lost a sense of who my characters are and why they're doing what they're doing. The prompts can be used for new scenes, back story, or just to shake things up and go off on an unexpected tangent. I know this can sound a little scary to dedicated plotters, but as a life-long pantster, I highly recommend the surprise of the road not only less-traveled, but also going for the one you never knew was there in the first place.

So here we go: 31 prompts for 31 days. Use them, share them, change or tweak them to fit your own story needs. Whatever you choose to do, the main thing is to keep writing!

  1. Write about an inheritance that isn't about money.
  2. Add a character obsessed with the paranormal. How does this affect your plot?
  3. A character accidentally stumbles onto a movie set. How, what, why?
  4. Three secrets your main character will never tell.
  5. Three secrets your villain wants to tell the world about your main character.
  6. Characters: main, villain, secondary--one of them witnesses an illegal act. How will this pivot the plot into a new direction?
  7. Write about the time one of your characters went to summer camp when they were ten years old and hated it.
  8. The same character had a completely different experience at the same camp whey they were fourteen. What happened?
  9. An unexpected job offer. What and why?
  10. Write about your characters' feelings about relationships.
  11. A costume party with sinister undertones.
  12. Your main character is going to an event but loses the invitation or the tickets. What happens now?
  13. A visit to an animal shelter.
  14. Several of your characters are having an argument about religion. Why? What are they saying? What is the aftermath?
  15. Write about a new skill or hobby your main character is learning and why they want to learn it.
  16. Choose a favorite piece of music for each of your characters. Write about why it's their favorite and how they feel when they hear it.
  17. What is your main character's imaginary "safe place"? When do they most often go there?
  18. Write about your villain's favorite book and how it has influenced them to be who they are today. How will it figure in your plot?
  19. Write about a childhood rejection.
  20. What is your main character's most meaningful piece of jewelry and why? What would happen if it was lost? Lose it.
  21. A sudden, forgotten memory. What triggered it?
  22. An event your main character doesn't want to attend. Why?
  23. Write about a time your main character said "no" and regretted it.
  24. Write about a time your main characters said "yes" and regretted it.
  25. A neighbor knocks on the door in the middle of the night. Why? 
  26. Your main character finds a hidden letter in a used book.
  27. Your villain steals something valuable. What and why and how will this change everything?
  28. Write about your characters' feelings about children.
  29. What was the worst thing a parent or teacher ever said to your main character and how did that affect the rest of their life?
  30. Write about a dinner party that includes both your main character as well as your villain.
  31. No matter what point you've reached in your story--write the beginning to your sequel!
Tip of the Day: With any writing challenge there's always the temptation to write beyond your daily quota, particularly when you find yourself on a roll and think you could write nonstop for the next twenty-four hours. I can tell you from past experience it's not a good idea. Rather, it's the perfect set-up for burn-out. Writing 7,000 words a day might sound wonderfully productive and impressive and that you're beating the competition, but before you know it, you'll be too tired to keep up the pace for long and will do anything to avoid your next writing session. Worse still, you'll justify not writing because you have "extra words in the bank" you mistakenly think will tide you over. Believe me, I'm all for creative effort, but this is one time slow and steady really does win the race. Good luck, have fun, and don't forget your hat! It's hot out there.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Watercolor Lessons for Writers

I love to write; I love to paint, usually on the same day and often at the same time. Ink and watercolor, stories and images, my mind swirls with so many ideas it's a wonder I can settle down long enough to work on anything. If I could write and draw with both hands, that would be my ideal definition of time management.

Between the two, however, watercolors--no matter how many hands I use--will always be my most difficult challenge. Words come more easily to me than any skill with paint, probably because I consider writing to be talking on paper, and I'm not exactly an introvert when it comes to conversation. After I'd published my how-to book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, I was delighted when one of my writing students said, "The book just sounds like you!"

I don't know to what degree my watercolors "look like me" and I hope it's very little. At the moment they tend to be rather gloomy, not exactly how I want to be pictured for the rest of my life, but let's consider it a phase.

Unlike a manuscript draft which can be rewritten ad nauseum, you only get one chance with watercolors; start gloomy, stay gloomy. There's no going back. Once you begin, there you are. Watercolors simply cannot be "fixed." Whether it's a bug flying into a freshly painted surface, or my hand suddenly dropping a loaded paintbrush onto a pristine area that was meant to remain white, things happen. Yet with every "mistake" I have also discovered I can turn happy accidents into something worth keeping. So what if the white paper is now orange? Call it a sunrise. Bug smears? A vital part of my style.

The other day while I was painting outside on my balcony (not for glamor, but because it's the best place to make a mess), I started thinking about how I would feel if I had to give up one or the other. There was so much I had learned from each discipline and not about technique alone. Patience, realistic expectations, perseverance, these things are integral to my approach to creativity and stem from rock-solid basics:

1. My Favorite Supplies. Every new watercolor painting begins with paper, paint, and brushes, and preferably high quality paper, paint, and brushes. But something I've learned is that quality rarely has anything to do with price. In reality, quality is whatever is the most fun to use. A springy brush from the discount store or a smooth-gliding glitter gel pen can make me want to paint or write all day. Most of my painting disasters have stemmed from using the most expensive supplies because they weren't conducive with what I was trying to do. Student-grade paint, for instance, has turned out to be in many cases much richer in color than pricey "professional" brands. Brown paper bags are an amazing background for painting with opaque watercolors.

It's the same with writing tools: take those gorgeous leather-bound journals you see lined up in bookstores or gift shops. Gilt-edged blank pages, jewel-toned covers; they terrify me! They're so difficult to use: the covers don't fold back enough for writing on the go and the paper can be too textured, making my pen skip, stop, and eventually destroy the pages with ink blots and holes in the paper. For me, the very best journals and notebooks are spiral-bound and have cardboard covers I can collage with my own designs. The paper inside accepts any kind of pen, even an ink-dipped twig. I can't write in anything too genteel, nor with a designer pen that looks great advertised in a magazine, but is so heavy it could double as a snow-shovel. Struggling with supplies because they're beautiful and what "the professionals use," is a surefire way to write or paint nothing at all.

2. Work from light to dark. A frustrating aspect of watercolors is how you have to work in layers. It's nearly impossible, for instance, to create a shadow area in a painting with just a single stroke of dark color. To make matters even more frustrating, watercolor has a tendency to always dry lighter than what you thought the color would be. You have to lay down an initial wash, wait for what seems like forever for the paint to dry, and then add another layer of color. And then another. Sometimes this can go on for an entire day!

When we're writing, it's tempting to want to get everything right with only one draft. But more often than not we have to write, and write, and write some more to really achieve the exact meaning of what we're trying to say. Don't give up when you re-read a first, second, or third draft and find it to be too "light" or lacking the depth you want. Keep going. Experiment with different approaches to your subject matter. The main thing to keep in mind is that you will reach the right shade with perseverance. Keep going.


3. Let the paint dry! Depending upon where you live, waiting for a watercolor layer to dry can be fast or molasses-slow. In Albuquerque where I'm currently based, I don't have long to wait, but when I was living in Georgia, the humidity kept my paper wet for hours. Whether you're in the desert or at the beach, it's still boring to wait for paint to dry, but it's also essential. The quickest way to create "mud" on the page is to rush into adding fresh paint before the previous layers are dry. My solution has been to work on several pieces at once, which is also the way I write. At any given time I have about three manuscripts in progress: a short story, a journal of ideas and freewriting, and at least one novel. If my enthusiasm wanes for any of it, I can move to something new.

Multiple projects can be helpful with painting, too. If my paper is taking too long to dry, I like to doodle in my sketchbook, or put some color washes onto a new sheet of paper. While the clouds are drying on the first piece, I can start painting the hills on another. It's a handy trick that saves time and keeps me from wanting to rush in too quickly, and thereby destroy, whatever I'm working on.

4. Don't over-mix your colors. A common error many watercolor artists make is over-mixing their colors: putting, say, some blue and red on their palette and stirring it into purple soup. A much better technique is to wet your paper with clean water, then drop in some blue followed by a drop of red and let the two colors find their own chemistry. The ensuing violet shade will be much richer and more interesting than a standard recipe purple.

For writers, over-mixing colors is the equivalent of over-editing. Polishing and rewriting a piece too many times can edit the life right out of it. Sure, you want your words to be clear and understandable, but don't over-strive for perfect grammar or syntax if it's going to end up putting your reader to sleep.


5. Use your largest brush. Tiny, delicate paintbrushes are cute and look as if they're exactly what you need for painting hundreds of tree leaves or fur on a cat, but the truth is you can get into terrible trouble by being too finicky. It's a lot more liberating, and exciting, to paint bold and quick with your largest brush no matter how small your paper is. Using a flat, wide brush is the equivalent of freewriting, letting first thoughts, first words spill onto the page in broad strokes and unrestrained, uncensored expression. You can always go back later into a piece with a smaller brush, outlining and emphasizing your details. But start too small and you'll be fussing over your work for hours and days without any visible progress.

Tip of the Day: Find an old manuscript you've put away, one you've given up on either because you were tired of editing it, or tired of marketing it without adequate response. Taking the suggestions listed above as a guide, see if you can apply any of them to your story. Do you need to take a new approach to your theme with some freewriting? Are there scenes that would benefit from added layers of darkness? Have you been using too small of a "brushstroke" to paint your setting or your characters' emotions and reactions? See how far you can go in a new direction. (And don't forget: Extra credit for writers who try some watercolor paintings based on their plot!)

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Los Caminos de la Vida

The paths of life
are not what I used to hope
are not what I used to believe
are not what I used to imagine
The paths of life
are very hard to travel
they are hard to walk
and I can´t find a way out

Los Caminos de la Vida

The paths of life,

They are not what I used to think,

They are not what I used to imagine

They are not what I used to believe.

The paths of life,

They are very hard to walk,

They are very hard to travel,

And I can't find a way out. 


I hope I am not as desolate as these song lyrics imply, but I have to admit to feeling somewhat lost without my husband. Nothing in my past prepared me for the road of grief and loss; no one ever told me it would be so hard. But that doesn't mean I'm entirely without direction or hope, or that I can't "find a way out."

One of the things helping me to find a way both in- and outward has been my return to reading. Not being able to read during the initial stages of grief is apparently quite common, so finding myself once again enjoying a book has been a huge relief. At the top of my "that was so good!" list is a book recently published by my friend and former writing group member, Suzanne Blazier. In September of 2019, only months before we were all hit by the pandemic, Sue did something I had often dreamed of doing but never had the nerve to try: she walked the Camino Francés, the historic pilgrimage route from  St. John Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Campostela in Spain and then on to the Spanish coastal town of Finesterre. 

It was a very long trip. And far more difficult than I realized until I read the full manuscript. From nearly-impassable trails of sharp, jagged rocks to battling constant rain and catching a debilitating cold, it's a miracle Sue came home in one piece at all. Yet, regardless of her challenges (maybe because of them?), Sue managed to find a wealth of beauty and meaning along the way, moments she made time to write about in her insightful journal that eventually became Prancing in the Pyrénées, Sloshing Through Galicia; My Way Along the Camino Francés.

I don't want to give away too much of the story, because I hope you will read Prancing in the Pyrénées for yourself, but I do want to say how much I love this book, and for reasons that have nothing to do with me ever walking the Camino. 

The first time Sue's story inspired me was while her book was still in manuscript form. It was smack in the middle of the pandemic restrictions. All of my writing and art groups had closed down and the only activity open to me was endless walking, something I mentioned in my last post on Urban Writing. Back then I suppose we were each in a separate state of shock, unsure of what was really going on. My "therapy" was to walk every day. Each morning when I would embark upon my solitary and lonely walks, I would imagine I was on the Camino, making a pilgrimage of some sort to understand what on earth was happening. Some days I would walk thinking of how the world could heal itself; other days I would walk in an attempt to figure out what I meant by "healing." Thinking of Sue's trip gave me a reason to walk beyond mere exercise.

Now that the pandemic is over and the manuscript draft is an actual hold-in-your-hands book, Sue's story continues to inspire me. I keep turning over what Sue achieved, thinking of how she did it and how to use the same motivations that kept her going forward. Chapter headings such as "Solitude," "Where are you from?" and "Re-entry" have made me think of how I, as well as other readers, could use these titles as journaling or writing prompts in our own lives. Some ideas that came to mind were:

1. Write a travel memoir of your own. This might seem a bit obvious, but if you focus on trips that were more than "just for fun," what significant journeys have you taken that were deeper than rest and relaxation? How were you changed by travel?

2. What do you need to travel with? What can you leave behind? Besides being an entertaining read, Prancing in the Pyrénées definitely has its practical side. Advice on topics from language skills to what items to bring or leave at home are invaluable tips for anyone seriously planning a Camino pilgrimage. As a dedicated minimalist, I was impressed with Sue's pared-down list of travel items, from clothing to toiletries. There are so many areas in our lives in which we carry too much: shelves of unused art supplies; books on a TBR pile that will never be read; photographs of distant events that mean little or nothing to us. What do we really need to carry, not just for survival, but to be happy?

3. Many years ago when I was still thinking about what it was I most wanted to write, I took take a class on travel writing. At the beginning of the class the instructor explained the origins of the word "travel," saying that it came  from the Old French word "travail" which in turn was a reference to weaving, describing the action of a shuttle carrying thread back and forth through other threads on a loom to create a piece of fabric. To my ears, "travail" was more closely related to "trouble" than travel, but I also have enough horror stories of my own to know how troublesome travel can be! In her book, Sue does an excellent job of sharing her travel-travails and how she overcame them, persevering to complete her trip in the best way possible. Have there been times in your life when you wanted to give up on a project, goal, or dream? What did you do to keep going? How did you encourage yourself? What roads or projects were you forced to abandon? Do you think of re-starting any them, and if so, how could you make that happen?

The Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, once wrote that reading is a pilgrimage. He believed that readers are forever changed by what they read, and in turn they cannot help but express that inner change to the world around them. I couldn't agree more. From Sue's book I've learned how vital it is to clear the road for those who follow, write the guidebooks for those need them, and to be as honest and open about our lives as we can be. Whether you plan to walk to Spain or sit reading in the sun with a cup of tea, Prancing in the Pyrénées will be the perfect travel companion.

Tip of the Day: As an additional resource, Sue has also created a blank Camino Journal for pilgrims to take notes and record their days. Although the book is designed for travelers, you might want to think about using it to journal from the prompts I've listed above. Use it to brainstorm your most memorable paths and journeys. What could you write about them? What did you bring home to share?

While you're writing, here is Los Caminos de la Vida in its entirety. It's a sad song, but like so much of life, strangely filled with comfort despite the darkness. That said, may your path be always safe and sure.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Urban Writing


Ever since I moved a few years ago to downtown Albuquerque I've done my best to fit in as much walking as I possibly can.  At first I tried walking once a week, choosing different routes and scenery for each separate outing. Then came the pandemic restrictions and I began walking much more frequently, solitary journeys spent exploring the exteriors of closed businesses, locked libraries, and empty churches. It was a somewhat melancholy pursuit, but it was also a healthy way to get fresh air and sunshine and, of course, exercise. It was also a good opportunity to think about my manuscripts and other creative projects without distraction or conversation. Yes, it was lonely, but it was also time well-spent, especially as I would often take photos to later use as reference shots for some at-home urban sketching sessions.

In the last year things have changed considerably. Most places such as cafes and shops are fully open, more people are out walking or bicycling, and the general atmosphere is a lot more upbeat, exactly what you'd expect from a busy urban environment. I love the activity--even if it is more crowded and not as easy to take photos of individual businesses without appearing overly intrusive.

However, the change from "empty deserted street" to "watch where you're going" got me thinking about how fun it would be to switch from "urban sketching" to "urban writing." How could I use what I saw on my daily walks as writing prompts rather than solely as potential scenes for drawing?

A big part of urban sketching is what artists refer to as "reportage." More than simply drawing or painting what you see in front of you, reportage asks that we give an impression of what we feel and think about a scene. In other words, what's the story? And what do we personally bring to the sights we are witnessing? What part of us makes the scene our own?

To explore these topics more fully, I wrote up a list of ideas to get my pen moving:

Urban Story Prompts

  • Choose a location and then write a scene that takes place there in the past.
  • Take the same location, but now cast it into the future. What has changed? What is better, or worse? What are the people like?
  • Could the same or a different location be the setting for a fictional crime? What could I add to make it more sinister?
  • Or how about using that setting for a romantic tryst?
  • Is there a particular area I see every day that could be the catalyst for neighborhood dissatisfaction? A place that a group of characters might want to tear down or drastically improve in some way? Why do they want to do this; what's their motivation? What's preventing them accomplishing their goals? Politics? Money?
  • Choose and use a location as the basis of an important fictional memory for one or more of your characters. It could be an entirely new piece, or woven into something you're already working on.
  • Create tension by showing a character's fear of a setting, or their excitement at the prospect of going, or returning, there for some reason.
  • Invent two characters that have just left the place you are looking at. Why were they there? What transpired? What was their mood when they left?
  • Use the setting, even if it is a beautiful, elegant environment as the backdrop to a dystopian, Orwellian nightmare.
  • Or how about as the setting for a whimsical, heart-felt children's picture book?
  • Imagine the setting at midnight. Add some supernatural or paranormal elements.
  • What are the possibilities of using your setting for a nonfiction piece? You might enjoy researching the site or area and then writing about a little-known aspect or history of the place.
  • Could the setting be an essential part or reason to write a memoir of some sort? Is it a place you know well and therefore holds a wide series of associations for you?

Whether or not you are more than familiar with a certain place or are seeing it for the very first time, try to tune into your emotions as you write. As with all the best and most productive freewriting sessions, write about what makes you sad or happy or nostalgic about a certain view or group of buildings. Don't stop to erase, cross out, or censor what comes up for you. Always go with your initial thoughts and instincts.


Lastly, be sure to include as many details of your setting as you can: doors, windows, gardens, the cat under the tree, the way light falls on the pavement. You might not want to use absolutely everything you write when it comes time to edit, but it's handy to have a full account to pick and choose from.

Tip of the day: Keep in mind that you don't always have to go for the photogenic or "postcard perfect" scene. Dilapidated, neglected, and forgotten "out of the way" places can often be the most fun to write about. Enjoy your walk and don't forget your notebook!


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Grief Scarf

One night during the early weeks following my husband's death, I listened to a radio interview with Michelle Obama promoting her most recent book. Part of the conversation delved into how she had used knitting as a way to fend off depression and anxiety during Covid. Up to that point in the discussion, I had only been half-listening, not really paying attention, but at the word "knitting" I perked up, curious to learn how something as basic as yarn could turn your mood around. I was also intrigued that a First Lady could share such common feelings as anxiety and depression.

Until I discovered--and became more interested in--beading and art, I loved to knit. Over the years I made both my husband and myself countless pullovers, cardigans, vests, and of course, scarves. My main times to pick up yarn and needles were Sunday mornings when we watched motor racing on TV: Formula One, Indy cars, Moto GP, super bikes. Honestly, my husband would have watched lawn mower racing if it had been televised and the mowers went fast enough. Sitting beside him cheering on his favorite drivers I grew to love the sport too, but found I needed something like knitting to feel a little more productive during those endless lap-after-lap battles. After a while, though, we eventually had enough knitted clothing to last several lifetimes and I began to simply enjoy the races without the need for extra activity.

But after the interview with Mrs. Obama, I thought, well, maybe knitting would be fun. I had the needles, and a trip to the craft store was easy enough. The next morning I got in the car and drove to the nearest strip mall, quickly finding a soft, lilac/lavender chenille I thought would be perfect for a winter scarf.

When I got home is where things became more challenging. Of the dozens of needles I had packed away, the only size I didn't have was the one the yarn called for, Number 9. Too bad, I thought, 8.5 will have to do.

I didn't have a pattern. No problem, just cast on some stitches, right? I knew that if I knitted a standard stocking stitch it would result in a curled scarf that could double as a pool noodle, and garter stitch seemed too easy. Moss stitch would be the one for me. Which would also require that I concentrate, be aware of what I was doing at all times, and be willing to unpick any wrong stitches; none of which I was very good at right then and there.

Never mind, I told myself after the first several mismatched rows. Just carry on no matter what happens, exactly how I was living my life at that point. I was becoming familiar with making mistakes and taking countless missteps. Much of the time all I could do was laugh through my tears as I imagined my husband's mock-horror at my inexpert attempts to get by.

But "get by," I did. Last week I finished the final row of the scarf, and people, it is the worst thing I have ever made in my entire life. And you know what? I don't care. Every dropped stitch, gaping hole, wrong pattern twist is a witness to how I'm surviving, and I'm proud of myself. I'm trying. I'm doing my best. I've knitted a scarf that when it's scrunched around my neck not a soul will know what's "wrong with it."


There are so many lessons woven into this strange little piece of handiwork, first and foremost being that even in the depths of despair, when I was certain I couldn't walk across the room or turn on a light to see what I was doing, taking some kind of action, any action, took me to the next step. After that, I took another, and another. I kept going.

I learned that creativity doesn't have to be grand. I might not have the energy or focus to work on my new novel, paint a series of watercolor forests, or submit my last manuscript to sixty different agents, but I can still do something. Knitting is soothing, meditative, a rhythm of knit one, purl one I find calming regardless of the order I follow. Working with my hands helps me to watch movies and news programs more easily. (For some reason I previously couldn't sit through more than ten minutes of any program without feeling restless and scared. I'm glad to say that's well behind me now.) 

More than anything else, the Grief Scarf, as I call it, taught me that mistakes are unavoidable. They happen. I have the choice to fix my stitches if I think they are important enough (I don't), or I can start over and use my new-found strength and knowledge to try a fresh outcome. Which is precisely the path I've chosen, starting all over again with a new project I've named the Happy Scarf:

This time I've got the right size needles and I'm going with easy and fail-proof garter stitch. I chose a bright yellow inspired by the Japanese practice of kintsugi or kintsukuroi: mending broken items, mainly pottery, with gold. In Japan, when an object such as a valued tea cup breaks, molten gold is poured between the cracks, making that object more beautiful because it has a history, including flaws and accidents. It represents, as I read in one online article, "a life well-lived." A worthy goal if I've ever heard one.

Thank you as always for visiting. Keep stitching!

Monday, January 16, 2023

My Year of Letting Go



 My husband died on September 9, 2022. My world has completely fallen apart, and I must learn to build it back again. Piece by piece, just like my husband would have wanted me to.

My husband was the handy one, a self-taught engineering genius with sixteen patents to his name. There wasn't a thing he couldn't fix whether it was a twelve-foot high molding machine or a broken buckle on my shoe. But for all his mechanical skill, a broken heart might have been too great a challenge, even for him. Then again, when I think really hard about it, I know he would have come up with an answer, probably something along the lines of, "Don't just stand there crying, get to work! Come on, dry your eyes and grab that hammer." Yep, he was a man of action.

With the onset of his illness however--stage 4 liver cancer that suddenly appeared the day we came back from a trip to Texas--I found it next to impossible to continue my usual creativity-based schedule. On the good days when my husband was sleeping or watching TV, I managed to do a little drawing or some editing on my WIP, but blogging, and on any kind of regular basis, was an activity that left me cold. How could I blog when all I wanted was to bury myself alive?

In the early years when I started my blog, my initial intention was to help beginning writers. As time passed, it grew to include art-making, beading, travel, a variety of topics to encourage creativity in anyone who stopped by to read, no matter their level of skill. To round out the theme, I always wrote two kinds of annual "bookend" posts: one listing my personal highlights of the old year followed by a related post listing the things I hoped to achieve for the New Year ahead. Included with my list was also a chosen word for the year. 

For the start of 2022, I wrote out a few simple goals (most left unaccomplished) but more importantly, I wrote that I was going to be open to whatever life brought to me. To accompany my new attitude, I chose with no sense of irony whatsoever one of the happiest words I know: optimism. Seriously. Optimism. I'm still reeling from the disconnect, wondering, "what on earth was I thinking??"

And yet. There might have been something profound life was trying to tell me, a message that perhaps wasn't applicable to 2022, but certainly can be considered for 2023. Optimism might be the word telling me that if I can put aside my fear for five minutes, it might be the very thing that will keep me from utter despair. It might be the only word I will ever need to help me stay focused on all that is good and worthwhile.

During the worst of my husband's illness, I would try to help him sit up in bed and drink some water or juice by holding onto the glass for him. My reluctance to hand the glass over without hovering to catch it would drive him nuts. Repeatedly he would say, "Let go!" and I would say, "No, YOU let go." This would go back and forth until one of us gave up and the water spilled everywhere and we were both drenched, when we would start all over again. Eventually it became a sort of game, something--as crazy as this sounds--we would laugh about.

One afternoon though, after changing the blankets for the umpteenth time, I found myself thinking about what "let go" really meant. In my heart I knew, as much as I hated it, that my husband had to let go of life. It was inevitable, a kind of "if not today, then tomorrow" type of knowledge. I knew the longer he remained alive, the longer the suffering would continue, for both of us. I had to let go of wishing this wasn't happening; let go of my expectations of what our life was "supposed to be"; let go of the business we had spent twenty-seven years growing together. I had to let go of, well, everything.

Nearly five months later, I'm beginning to understand that letting go isn't the horror I thought it would be, and that optimism can help in ways I never thought possible. Optimism is helping me let go of the big things along with the small: accepting that we no longer share a creative work space that allowed for car restoration along with novel-writing; that we're not going to order cocktails at the top of Sandia Peak ever again, or share a plate of potato chips while we watch Jeopardy!, or that we won't be moving to Portugal, an idea we toyed with while drinking our cocktails.

In other words, I've started to let go, not of my happy memories or even my grief for that matter, but letting go of hyper-vigilance, fear of the future, constant worry about what will become of the material things I've had to release, the business being number one. As I let go of what were essentially terrible burdens, I am discovering that there is now room to keep the things my husband would never want me to be without: Gratitude for the wonderful life we had together--forty-eight years!; belief and reliance upon the power of creativity to pull me through to wherever it is I'm going; and my strong belief that each one of us has an undying purpose and reason for existing in the first place.

One of the last entries in the journal I kept while I was still actively resisting the idea of letting go turned into a poem of sorts:

Wild Horses

I wish wild horses could take me away,

that I could fade into ink

and never return, just spread out 

fainter and fainter until I was only a

landscape, emerging from a stranger's pen.


Re-reading these lines, I realize the horses have always been by my side, waiting patiently for me to give them free rein. It's time I let them take me into a new chapter, the one I promised my husband I would eventually enter and that I would make the best of. For that promise alone, I will let go and begin to write not with sorrow, but with hope.

Thank you for visiting and thank you to everyone who has continued checking in on my posts even when I wasn't here to write them. I appreciate you all so much. Have a happy and creative New Year. I'll be back.