On Writing: When Outlines Attack

Back in my early days of novel writing, I was addicted to reading how-to books. I raced through one after another with barely a breath between them, let alone time to apply what I’d just read. Eventually, I became disgusted with my lack of progress after eight years of working on the same novel and decided to read a book and actually do the exercises in it. That book was The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray:

“A dynamic 52-week program to help you produce a finished novel…one weekend at a time.”

I can already hear the groans of the writers in the audience who sit down to a blank sheet of paper and start writing a novel with not one bit of a plan in mind. Bear with me. :-)

On Weekend 1, I started with character sketches and completed one for each of my characters. I progressed to the characters’ back stories, their dreams, the contents of their closets, and then it was time for storyboarding, sketching out scenes, and setting the stage. I’ll admit I was having fun in those early weeks, exploring and discovering.

Soon I had a 3-column table listing every scene that would eventually be in my novel in excruciating detail. I was ready to sit down and write. And that I did, right up to the last quarter of the book where I stopped dead and lost all interest in finishing.

The following year, I showed up for a writing workshop at my local library. We were told to bring our in-progress novels and any other materials that we had created to facilitate the writing process. As we went around the table, each person held up a chapter or two and told a similar tale about how they had sat down to a blank page, begun writing, and hadn’t gotten very far. Then, it was my turn. I pushed my hand truck up to the table and started unloading my specimens. [click on graphic to enlarge]

My turn to share at the writing workshop

The shock and horror on the faces of the other participants will never leave my memory. It was like I was the star of a circus freak show.

When I finished my spiel, the instructor stood up and said something so simple and obvious, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t thought of it before. But it was truly a light-bulb moment for me [click on graphic to enlarge]:

You must unlearn what you have learned.

Then she turned to the others and said, “She needs to do less plotting and outlining, but you need to do a bit more.”

I barely heard the rest of it because my brain had jumped into high gear. I realized she was right. I had already written the novel in summary form and dreaded writing it again. A few years later, I would study personality typing tools like Myers-Briggs and realize that I am an unstructured person by nature who had been forcing myself to operate in a super-structured way for an extended period of time. That mistake had sucked the creativity and fun out of the writing process.

“If I had a plot that was all set in advance, why would I want go through the agony of writing the novel? A novel is a kind of exploration and discovery, for me at any rate.”  —Chaim Potok

From that point on, I did away with the tomes of reconnaissance on my characters. When I had an idea for a new novel, I’d jot down some notes and play with the idea like it was a piece of clay, mushing it this way and that until I saw something I liked. Over the course of the writing process, I’d record a bare-bones list of scenes, maybe 1-2 sentences for each scene. Sometimes the scene had already been written. Sometimes it hadn’t and I didn’t want a good idea to slip through the sieve that is my brain.

The skeletal structure of my outline made it extremely flexible. I could delete or add ideas whenever the mood hit. It was also helpful as a Cliff Notes-type tool to remind me what I had already written, so I didn’t have to waste time rereading chapters before getting down to the task of writing. Perhaps the best part of such an outline is that it makes the dreaded synopsis, a submissions requirement of many publishers, much easier to write because it is already in “tell/don’t show mode,” which is how a synopsis should be written unlike the novel itself.

I’ve seen debates online where writers claim their approach to writing is the better method. Writing organically, or not, is a good thing only if that is how you write best. If it’s not, forcing yourself to work that way is a major chore. And let’s face it, writing is hard enough when you’re doing it in a manner that is true to your personality type.

With that said, I do think it sometimes helps to sprinkle a pinch of “opposite function” into the stew. For example, when you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you feel yourself floating off into space, maybe a bit of a plan would help. And if you’re recording every last detail in an outline before you even begin writing and find that you’re stuck, maybe it’s time to put away the outline, take a notebook outside and just start writing whatever comes into mind. These kinds of tricks often help to awaken the part of your brain that’s having a long siesta.

In 2009, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an exercise in which you write a 50,000-word novel in one month. I started on November 1st with the barest hint of an idea and had to come up with 1,667 words of pure, unthought-out originality every day. I managed to churn the words out for about half the month until my novel The Benefactor was published and book promotion took precedence. However, I did end up with about 28,000 words of a novel that I was looking forward to continuing. I planned to proceed in the same manner—without a plan—but because of the complexity of the story, I repeatedly found myself in a labyrinth of dead ends. I wasted a lot of time before I gave in and wrote out a brief outline to make sense of the various twists and turns and to gear up for an equally complex second half.

As a technical writer in a my day job, I’m happy to plan out the details in advance to be sure my documentation covers all the bases. At night, I prefer to be a bit more creative and meander the various paths that could lead to the end of a novel. But I’m most comfortable doing that with a crude map in hand, just in case I get lost along the way. That’s who I am.

I’d love to hear about your light-bulb moments in writing or self-discovery.

 

Horror: What truly terrifies you?

There are countless books and movies that attempt to scare us. Some succeed; many fail. Being scared out of your wits is a personal thing, it seems. What succeeds in scaring you may completely fail to frighten me. So, I ask “Which bits of a book or movie are capable of truly terrifying you?”

There’s something exhilarating about entering into a potentially scary experience. It’s a delicious sensation that builds and creates goose bumps on my skin and chills in my core. I curl up tighter on the couch and sink lower under my blanket. My hands make their way closer to my face so I can hide my eyes if necessary. This is a good kind of scariness, one that you anticipate when watching certain movies.

It is in no way similar to feeling disturbed by themes that involve violence done to children, which does my head in but could never result in the scary sensations described above. In fact, I can’t watch horror movies or read books that involve harm coming to children.

When I was a kid, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories scared the heck out of me and probably set the foundation for what I would later find scary, namely suspenseful horror that is not overdone and psychological in nature. For example, Fortunato being walled up, one brick at a time, in the wine cellar. The thought of being trapped like that and no one ever knowing where you were was terrifying to me at the age of eight.

About that time, there was a TV show called The 4:30 Movie that had theme weeks. Vincent Price Week was a favorite. Several of his movies were based on Poe classics and to this day, when someone mentions Edgar Allan Poe, I see Vincent Price’s face (and hear his distinctive voice).

Then there was Monster week. Though I’d watch intently as people screaming in Japanese fled the city with Godzilla, Rodam, Gamera, or Gargantua chasing after them, I was never scared by these fake, rubbery monsters. The horror came later if Mom happened to cook something jiggly like eggplant parmigiana. Then, I’d hear the screeches of Gamera and Godzilla coming from my plate. To this day, whenever I bite into an eggplant parmigiana hero, I always think of them.  

You see the similarities, right?

As a teenager, I saw the standard teen horror flicks. With the exception of the original Halloween movie, the teen horror movies just never did it for me. They relied too much on cheap thrills and such far-fetched plots that eventually I decided to willingly unsuspend disbelief. Cheap thrills leave you hungry for something more substantial. Sure the startle factor is powerful, but it’s short-lived. Something would pop out at you and you’d scream. Remember what you did after screaming? You laughed, right? Because it was more a feeling of “you got me” rather than “wow, you really scared me down deep and that fear is going to linger for a while.” After the movie, you’d walk home with your friends and rather than looking over your shoulder in fear, you’d laugh at who screamed the loudest at those moments.

A good scare is a lot like garlic. It lasts long after the story has ended. Here are some of my favorite, scary viewing/reading moments:

Jaws: It doesn’t matter that I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever be eaten by a shark. The possibility exists and so I’m never quite at ease ever since I saw this movie as a kid.

Open Water: To start, I have a fear of being under water. (I won’t tell you how old I was when I finally learned to put my entire head under the shower, cheeks puffed with extra oxygen stored up.) This movie had me on the brink of an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t stop watching it. Even if I didn’t have a deep-water phobia, as clearly the divers in the movie didn’t, you can’t escape the horror of their situation. First of all, it happens in real life—fly-by-night operations leave divers behind. Then there’s the near certainty that you’re going to die and probably in a gruesome way. The nudge of the shark wasn’t even as terrifying as waiting for the shark’s nudge after the partner died and drifted off. The suspense made me sick inside. Oy! I’m starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it.

Communion (the book): It is a mistake to read this book in bed at night. It terrified me. It’s supposedly a true story about author Whitley Strieber’s encounters with aliens at his cabin in the woods, and there are witnesses. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter; it feels real. And the horror of this book carried over into my real life in strange ways. See my post Signs for the details. And speaking of Signs…

Signs: I love this movie because you don’t see the aliens until the end and it’s still scary as hell. The rustle of those corn stalks gets me every time.

Fire in the Sky: Freaky. Freaky. And can I just say, freaky. The whole “based on true events” thing already kicks the scare-o-meter up a few notches for me. DB Sweeney cowering naked in the corner of that shack made my hair stand on end. And the whole icky, sticky beehive-like thing was disgusting, but in a scary way. Imagine waking up to find yourself in something like that. Jeez. But that part only worked for me after the rest of the movie had done its job.

Twilight Zone: The Movie: Can you honestly tell me that when you take a night flight you don’t look at the wing expecting to see that thing standing out there? Shiver.

Planet of the Apes (the original): This is not a scary movie, but the final scene on the beach stayed with me a long time with all the unspoken facts: There’s nowhere to go. You’re where you wanted to get to, but it’s not what you thought it would be. Your life is a nightmare you’ll never wake up from.

With that said, I think I’m a bit clearer about what scares me. It’s the sense of being trapped without control, whether it be in the middle of the sea, among talking, dominant apes, or prodded by aliens. And most likely, this loss of control scares me in books and films because it disturbs me in real life, too. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you’re shocked by this admission. :-)

Your turn. What truly terrifies you?

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

A difference of opinion is no reason to eat my brain.

For many of us who read novels or watch movies in genres outside the realm of “this could happen in real life,” there is a willing suspension of disbelief before we enter the theater or open the cover of a book (or press whichever Kindle button). We’re excited. We’re ready to be entertained. And we participate in the experience by opening ourselves to what realists would call the impossible…

Tonight I am guest blogging over at Celluloid Zombie about the willing suspension of disbelief. Though Richard Lamb and I disagree on this topic (just one of many), he’s busy at work and will permit even someone he disagrees with to guest blog at his site. Lucky for me.

So jump on over with me to Celluloid Zombie and chime in and tell us your opinion.

Ramblings on Running

This past Thursday, I set out for my regular run in good spirits, but within three blocks I just wasn’t feeling it. Knowing that those first few blocks are usually the worst for me, I told myself to run two more blocks and then decide whether I would be finishing with a walk instead. Somewhere during those two blocks my mind became engaged in other matters and when I noticed my surroundings again, I was almost at the 1 mile mark. I decided to do a 1.5 mile run and walk the rest of the way home. But when I got to the 1.25 mile point, instead of going straight, I made a right turn that would take me onto my 5K (3.1 miles) route.

I’d only run 5K once, the day after my 46th birthday back in June, and though it felt like a great achievement, it wasn’t one I thought I’d be repeating any time soon. So, I told myself “just go as far as you can…no pressure.” That line was repeated a few times along the way, in between the distractions of passing some neighbors and an older gentleman running who I exchanged the “running nod” with. As always, the “people encounters” energized me. Before long, I was crossing the 5K mark and slowing into my walking cool-down. I was a bit stunned that I had run another 5K when the session had begun with me wanting to stop after 3 blocks.

The next day at work, I was talking to a fellow runner, and before I could voice the thought, my friend said “isn’t it weird how there’s no rhyme or reason to how you feel when you start out and what you end up accomplishing during the session?” I thought I was the only one who felt that way—that slightly out-of-control, is-this-within-my-will uncertainty.

[Speaking of out-of-control, we won’t mention getting on the scale after running 5K and eating right all day only to find that I was 2 pounds heavier. Yeah, yeah, I know muscle weighs more than fat and all that crap, but it’s demoralizing, okay?]

Today, I set out for my run and I had the sense I was going to shoot for the 5K distance again. I didn’t want to be too enthusiastic. I’m a bit superstitious that way. Sure enough, I finished my third 5K, came home and did my crunches and stretches, and felt like I had conquered something. I no longer think of the 5K as a fluke in my running history. It’s something I can do on a regular basis.

[I guess that’s why I immediately started researching 10K training plans despite saying several weeks ago that I had no intention of increasing my distance. The Couch-to-5K program and Robert Ullrey’s podcasts that I used to get me to this point were a huge part of my success.]

So, what have I learned about my needs for a successful run:

  • Psychological state at the beginning of a run is not a good indicator of how it will end up, so “just do it.”
  • Running one or two more blocks when I want to stop gets me through the lethargy.
  • Bargaining with myself along the way usually results in running farther than the bargain offered.
  • Double knotting my shoe laces ensures the neighborhood kids won’t need to hear my muttered obscenities when I have to stop and re-tie.
  • I feel better in the early morning when the sun isn’t at its hottest, but I don’t feel like running until about 11:30 AM or so. See the “just do it” bullet above.
  • Negativity saps my energy, so ignore the idiot drivers and the smelly garbage trucks.
  • Encounters with people along the way seriously energize me, so acknowledge everyone in your path and feel the good vibes come back to you.

Please feel free to share your tips and tricks. Oh, and does anyone have a recommendation for a GPS/pedometer thingie so I can change my route and still know how far I’m running?

Felix the Cat and MacGyver Picnic on a Purple Sarong

I’ve been on holiday in England the past couple of weeks. A travel blog post is on its way, but in the meantime, I was wondering…

Do you have tangible items in your life that are symbols for your dreams and desires?

You might remember that I attended a Writers’ Retreat in Virginia Beach back in May and, while there, visited the Edgar Cayce Center. In addition to several books, a purple tie-dyed sarong with fringes caught my eye. It didn’t match my bathing suit, and yet I knew I had to have that sarong. It was more than a beach cover-up. It was a fabric talisman that would transport me from suburban mom to sophisticated world traveler with a minimum of luggage. I would carry it with me on every trip and this one item would eliminate the need to pack several others. Sure, at the beach or pool, it would function as a cover-up, but there were several other uses for this piece of plum material. Felix had his bag of tricks, but I would have my sarong, and like MacGyver, I would transform it into anything I needed at the moment.

On a windy day, it’s a hooded scarf.

When there’s no time to change for dinner, it becomes a wrap that dresses up my outfit.

Tied in a few places, it’s a halter top…

…or a bohemian skirt.

At the outdoor market, I’ll pack up my fruit, cheese, and wine and carry it over my arm.

In a pretty meadow, I’ll lay it down for an impromptu picnic.

Back at the hotel and without a proper dining table, I’ll drape it over my suitcase and serve a decent cup of tea.

Caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, I’ll hold it above my head and run to shelter.

When injured, I’ll use it as a tourniquet or to support a sprain.

Even when I don’t speak the language, I will delight children with a game of peek-a-boo.

In a church, I’ll cover my shoulders.

Where religious norms in other countries require my head to be covered, it shall be…in purple tie-dye. Hmmmm, maybe not.

In a pinch, it’s an extra towel.

After waking up at 5 AM and traveling hours to Bath to take part in the Jane Austen festival and consuming way too many scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, I’ll lay my sarong out on the grass in a park and take a two-hour nap.

And at the end of the day, I’ll wash it and hang it to dry so it’s ready for another day of adventure.

That was my thought as I stood there holding the purple sarong in my hands. And it was a thought that made me very happy indeed. So, I bought it and brought it with me to England three weeks ago. I’m happy to say it came in handy after the Jane Austen festivities. :-) See photo below.

Lack of sleep + cream tea sugar high = eventual coma. Would Jane Austen have behaved in such a manner?

Are there items in your life that are symbols or reminders of who you are at heart or where you’re heading in life?

Sun Smart on a Rainy Day

My new mantra: I love my pasty skin.

A few weeks ago, I dragged my family to a local park for a free, skin cancer screening program sponsored by Senator Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr. We had visited a dermatologist last year for a full-body exam, but there were one or two spots that required follow-up. Considering how high my co-pays are, I was happy to have the opportunity to get some peace of mind for free. Even if that peace of mind involved the words “age spots.”

It was an overcast, rainy day. While we stood on line, Colette Coyne of the CCMAC (Colette Coyne Melanoma Awareness Campaign) talked to us about skin cancer. Her daughter, Colette Marie Brigid Coyne, had died from melanoma in 1998 at the age of thirty, and she and her husband set out to increase awareness, especially among young people, about the dangers and causes of skin cancer.

She made a good point about reaching out to children. Years ago no one wore seat belts, but now kids get in a car and remind adults to fasten theirs. If you educate kids, the behavior modification carries on to future generations, as well as influencing some of the “new trick”-challenged old dogs among us. And it’s probably best to get to them before they become teenagers and are influenced by the standards of beauty promoted by magazines, television, and the movies. A desire to look tan often results in baking in the sun or in a tanning bed. Not a good idea.

Colette engaged my son in conversation and presented him with a shirt made from sun-protective fabric (a regular tee shirt offers little protection, and even less if it’s wet), a hat, sunglasses, and a bracelet that changes color in the presence of ultraviolet rays. She directed him to walk out in the rain while wearing the bracelet. He did and it turned purple, despite heavy cloud cover—a powerful lesson that you need to protect yourself even when you can’t see the sun.

We’ve all read or heard about the dangers of ultraviolet radiation. In 2004, I had my photo taken with a UV camera and was horrified to see how much sun damage I had even though I’d never been a sun worshipper. Despite being inundated with facts and news reports about skin cancer, I sometimes think it goes in one ear and out the other. “It can’t happen to me.” In the last few years, however, several people in my extended family, all under the age of 40, have been diagnosed with melanoma. I, therefore, urge all of you to click here now to learn more about what you can do to protect yourself and your family. There’s no need to become hysterical or paranoid. With a bit of common sense, some inexpensive items, and a few minutes spent in preparation each day, we can all enjoy healthy lives.

Many thanks to Colette Coyne and her family for sharing their story with us and helping to make a difference. Contact her for information on bringing the Be Sun Smart® program to a school near you.

Travel: Gaeta, Italy in October

 This one’s for you, Nan.

If you dream of Italy, possess an explorer’s spirit, and enjoy immersing yourself in a foreign culture, have I got the vacation for you. Take a sledgehammer to your itineraries cast in stone, burn your vacation to-do list, and never again wake at an ungodly hour to catch a stuffy tour bus en route to crowded attractions. In Gaeta, you can’t help but fall into the rhythm of the natives, a rhythm steady enough to keep you on course but with breaks in the beat for some solo improvisation. Perfection.

Gaeta? Never heard of it.

This past October I fell in love with Gaeta, Italy during a two-week stay with a group of writers I met online. (For more on that story, click here.) Like many people, I wasn’t familiar with Gaeta, despite traveling north to south in Italy twice in the past. But I was familiar with two of the products Gaeta is known for…Gaeta olives and buffalo mozzarella. That was a good enough start for me.

Look at that sweet mozzarella face on the supermarket shopping bag.

It turns out this present-day fishing community was a renowned tourist resort to the wealthy, ancient Romans and its seaport had trade and military significance. In fact, its fortifications date back to Roman times. Who knew?

Driving with the Italians…and Michael Jackson

We flew in to Fiumicino Airport in Rome and found our driver Lucio, who would transport us the two hours to Gaeta. This was a less expensive and infinitely more comfortable option than lugging suitcases through stations to catch two different trains.

There’s no roller coaster that tops the exhilaration of driving with a real Italian in Italy. It’s a religious experience. And where else could we have enjoyed the endless Michael Jackson music that Lucio played for the length of the trip. I’m not sure if he was a fan or if he thought his American passengers were. Every once in a while his left hand would come off the steering wheel and do a little circular motion in the air, and the rest of us would erupt in a high-pitched “ooooo.” We joked we were singing along in the spirit of the great Mr. Jackson, but if I’m being honest, it was more a high-pitched squeal of terror—high speed, sharp curves, oncoming traffic, and a one-handed driver. Wait, I feel another “ooooooo” coming on…and maybe a wee, butt clench.

Two hours later, the music track was still playing, and Michael was instructing us to “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” Clearly, Lucio hadn’t. And I’d realized much earlier in the journey that screaming “Zio, zio” (the Italian word for uncle) at the top of my lungs did not translate as a cry of surrender. ;-)

All jesting aside, Lucio was a wonderful driver and a charming man and I’d hire him again. Case in point, after a long train journey back to Gaeta after an exhausting day in Rome, we exited the station, not looking forward to the bus ride ahead of us.  Standing outside, as if sent by an angel, was Lucio with his cab parked at the curb. We let out a cry of joy and rushed toward him. He looked a bit frightened and probably has his own blog where he tells of the crazy Americans and one English guy he once drove around. 

Villa Accetta: A jewel on the Gulf of Gaeta

We finally arrived at Villa Accetta, which has been owned by the Accetta family for several generations and in existence even longer than that. In fact, it appears on an ancient map of Gaeta in the museum of Formia, a neighboring city. As I passed through the gates, I couldn’t miss the view of the blue-green Gulf of Gaeta, framed by fuchsia bougainvillea and swaying palm trees. According to Villa Accetta’s website:

“Built on Roman foundations, the property sits above the fresh-water spring called Artacia Fons that flows into the sea. Homer, Dante, Virgil and Ovid all wrote about this spring, where Ulysses and his crew found drinkable water after months at sea.”

The Gardens at Villa Accetta

The circular staircase leading to the various apartments has at its core a passage to this grotto, which supplies the property not only with water but also cool, fresh air. All of the apartments have views of the sea, from terraces, balconies, or oversized windows. The soothing ripples of the water lapping against the shore of the private, pebbly beach lulled me to sleep many a night. Once or twice, the sea turned angry and blasted the exterior walls of the villa with a violent spray. In the early morning, I’d look out at the calm water and think I’d been dreaming the night before.

We explored the property with rumbling tummies until a member of our party, who had arrived a few days early, led us to the old, handmaid table on the terrace, where she had set out a Gaetan feast so beautiful it could have been a spread for a photo shoot: fresh, and I mean fresh, balls of buffalo mozzarella waiting to be scooped from a pot of liquid; gorgonzola; olives; tomatoes; pancetta bread; cured meats like salami, capicolla, and prosciutto; finnochio (fennel); and wine. We were half starved from our journey and ate with relish, which is just a nice way of saying we inhaled our food like cafoni. With bellies bursting with joy, we returned to our individual apartments to take the customary afternoon nap. Boy, did we need it.

The Rhythm of Gaeta

The rhythm of Gaeta is a soothing ebb and flow. After a while, you suspect that the sea, and not blood, flows through the veins of its inhabitants. Before sunrise, the fishermen set out in their boats; before sunset they return to lay out their catch at the daily fish market. Day after day, I was drawn to that market to see what treasures had been pulled from the sea and what I might be eating at a local restaurant later that evening.

View from "port hole" window beneath Villa Accetta

In the mornings, we’d have sfogliatella and cappuccino for breakfast at Triestina, our favorite café. You may be familiar with the flaky, clam shell-shaped version of sfogliatella. But there is another variety I have never seen in New York called sfogliatella frolla, which has a smoother dough but the same filling. You’ll never find a cappuccino in the States like in Gaeta. Perfect every time. And even if you do, you’ll pay at least $4.50 for it rather than 90 cents or a Euro. For all you “bacon and eggs” people, fuhgeddaboudit. Not gonna happen. I suppose you can improvise with groceries bought at the PAM supermarket in Gaeta and cooked up in the villa’s kitchen, but isn’t it more fun to have a reason to eat pastry for breakfast? And there’s no need to worry about your figure. The terrain is so rugged with its ancient stone pathways, steep hills, and long stretches of beach that I didn’t gain a single pound and came home with a few new muscles.

After breakfast, we’d take in the sights. There are castles, churches, beaches, shops, outdoor markets, ancient paths to walk, mountains to climb, legendary sites to visit, and neighboring towns to explore. But don’t lose that rhythm or you’ll find yourself hungry and locked out of shops when the entire town closes for its big meal of the day and siesta. After all, this isn’t Rome with its tourist restaurants and menus written in 37 different languages. The first day, we walked through the streets a bit stunned, realizing what had happened, and stared longingly through screenless windows at families sitting down to their pranzo. You don’t make that mistake twice. And so, just before 1 PM, we’d stop at the salumeria or caseificio to pick up some fixings and head back to the villa for a leisurely lunch and siesta.

Sometimes, before that afternoon nap beckoned, we’d stroll on the villa’s beach, collecting shells, beach glass, unusual stones, and what I like to think is some kind of ancient Roman building material. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. ;-)

After naps, we’d freshen up and add a layer to our outfit since the October nights can be a bit cool. Then it was on to the passegiata, the pre-dinner stroll that is an Italian tradition. We’d pass the fish market to marvel at tender octopus and tiny clams, and then walk on to the piazza along the waterfront path. No one was in a hurry. Dinner doesn’t happen before 7 PM.

Memorable Meals

On that unforgettable afternoon when we realized we hadn’t planned for lunch, we wandered through the deserted streets until I spotted a statue of Padre Pio, a much loved saint in Italy. Padre Pio has a list of credits to his name, but he is now officially my patron saint of finding food in Italy when everyone has closed up shop and returned home for their big meal of the day. That’s because he sat at the entrance of La Saliera da Mario, the only restaurant open for business, it seemed. We ordered platters of bruschetta, fried calamari, gnocchi, seafood salad, and cheese and cured meats and passed them around the table. After lunch, the proprietor brought bottles of amaro, an herbal liquer, and grappa to the table to finish off the meal. Nice touch.

When the scent of the wood-burning brick ovens called to us, we headed to Da Emilio for pizza.  I enjoyed the quattro stagione, which featured salami, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and Parma ham over a crisp, evenly cooked crust. For appetizers, we sampled the mixed seafood appetizer, fried calamari, and fried alici (whole, pan-fried anchovies). Let me tell you, Gaetans know how to catch a fish and fry it up in a pan.

Down a vicolo off the Via Indipendenza we happened upon L’enoteca di Luigiraschi. A lucky find since that was their last night serving dinner before closing up for vacation. The steamed mussels and clams were tender and sweet and the garlicky broth was quickly sopped up with bread. The seafood salad was fresh, as all seafood is in Gaeta. As delicious as it all was, one dish really stood out—the seafood risotto. We all had a taste of it and then kept eyeing it as our friend ate his meal. Some of us were bolder than others and I have the fork marks in my wrist to prove it. (Located in Gaeta, Via Indipendenza, Vico 1, 15)

There’s a traditional pizza in Gaeta called tiella, and Nari is the place to go for it. I only wish that these restaurants had websites so I could link to them. Tiella is a stuffed, pan pizza. I adored the zucchini/calamari tiella. I also sampled the one stuffed with onion. (Located in Gaeta, Via Duomo 11/17)

In the best gelato category, Il Molo wins. We ordered multi-flavor cones and sampled each other’s flavors so we’d know what to order next time. There were many “next times.” Nutella and bacio were good. Pistacchio, coffee, and coconut—excellent. (Located in Gaeta, Piazza del Pesce, 1)

Finally, if you happen to take the bus into Formia, the city next to Gaeta, you must have lunch at La Cucina della Nonna where Italian homecooking like your grandma used to do it is what you’ll get. Here, you grab a tray and point to the things you want if you can’t speak the language. We had stuffed peppers, pasta with eggplant, and potato stuffed with prosciutto. And then I saw the little chunks of golden, roasted potatoes and had to have them, too. The couple who run this restaurant are entertaining to say the least. I knew enough Italian and the man knew enough English to share some conversation while we ate our meal. The woman, recognizing that I was American, automatically threw packets of ketchup and mayonnaise on my tray, which I returned to her unopened at the end of my meal. She practically hugged me as she beat her chest and complained in Italian about the Americans who come and put mayonnaise on her food. I assured her that this American, raised by Italians, would never do such a sinful thing. She complimented me on being one of the few sane Americans that she had met. Like I said, entertaining. (Located in Formia at Via Nerva, 14)

Before you leave Formia to head back to Gaeta, be sure to stop at Pastacceria Troiano pastry shop, where we ordered one sfogliatella and one sfogliatella frolla and they wrapped them as if they were a gift for a king. The pastries happened to be delicious, as well. Truth be told, we never made it back to Gaeta. We parked ourselves at a park bench overlooking the sea and ripped into that beautiful packaging for a taste. (Located in Formia at Via Vitruvio, 76)

Places to See

You’ll discover many delightful sights as you wander the streets of Gaeta and travel to neighboring towns. Here are a few of my favorites:

Via Indipendenza – This narrow, stone street will have you believing you stepped back in time. Shops, stores, and restaurants line the way. Be sure to stop and stare into the kitchen of the man who bakes the sfogliatelle and cornettos for the local cafés and shops. If you’re a local kid, he has a just-from-the-oven pastry for you. If you’re not, no cornettos for you.

The Wednesday outdoor market - If you can’t get it here, it doesn’t exist. Fruits, veggies, meats, pastries, housewares, clothes, shoes…even pets. (Located in Corso Cavour, near the old Station.)

Old Gaeta – How I loved strolling along the sea and winding in and out of the old, narrow streets. Check out the Angevin-Aragonese castle and the old Sant’Erasmo bell tower.

Serapo Beach – When you leave the villa early in the morning and think it’s a bit chilly, turn yourself around, go back inside, and put your bathing suit on under your clothes. I’m glad I did. By the time we’d made our way into town and had our breakfast cappuccino, it was beach weather. We stopped and bought some panini and a bag of taralli (lightly sweet, anise flavored cookies) for a picnic lunch and ended up lying on the pristine sand of Serapo. The water was a bit chilly for me, but then my pool has to be 85 degrees before I venture in. So, stick a toe or two in and see for yourself.

Serapo Beach

Sperlonga – Ah, how I wish I could be back in Sperlonga for more than just one afternoon. Next time, I’ll rent a place there for a few days. When you get off the bus at sea level, you are in the center of a small town on a beautiful beach. If you stand on the beach and look up at the mountain, you’ll think there are a few houses up there. But when you start hiking the uphill roads, you’ll find a complex maze of alleys that lead to a hidden “city” of restaurants, shops, a piazza, sea views, serene shrines, and an ancient church. Oy, I could weep. Apparently, there’s a lot more to see. So plan to spend more than just a few hours. And have an alternate plan to get back to Gaeta since the buses don’t run between the two towns in the evening.

Beach at Sperlonga

View of Sperlonga from within the hill town

Annunziata Church – I happen to love churches and this one didn’t disappoint. Be sure to check out the paintings inside. It is said that Pope Pius IX, while living in exile in Gaeta, formulated his ideas on papal infallibility here.  

Montagna Spaccata  – Legend has it that this mountain split upon Christ’s death. Visit the church, see the tiled Stations of the Cross, and be sure to take the 200+ steps down to the grotto (Grotta del Turco). Also check out the handprint seared into the mountain wall, said to belong to a Turk who did not believe in the legend. 

Montagna Spaccata - The "Split Mountain"

Rome, Naples, and Pompeii  – If you want to visit “big city” sights, take the train from Formia station. Gaeta is about halfway between Rome and Naples, and depending on which train you take, it’s about an hour and a half to a two hour trip.

The Last Night and Day

For our last night, we stayed at the Hotel Malù in Rome, a more relaxing option than racing against time to get to the airport from Gaeta. I’m not even convinced it can be done. Disregard the warnings about staying near Termini Station. It’s a bustling area of shops, restaurants, cafés, churches, and fountains. Hotel Malù is owned by a lovely family and operated in a building with other apartments and hotels. Security was tight, prices were reasonable, the room was immaculately clean, well-decorated, and comfortable, and there was free wi-fi in the common areas, helpful for last minute travel inquiries. The delightful Ivan suggested Le 2 Colonne restaurant and I ate my final meal listening to the bells of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Heavenly.

il Bugso Bunny

Some Additional Links

Slow Travel Italy

The “Riviera di Ulisse”

Welcome to Gaeta and Welcome to Sperlonga by the Shapcott Family

Head Games

 Head Game

I’ve been thinking a lot about mind, body, and spirit and how to integrate the three. The trouble is, well, just return to that word “thinking” in the previous sentence. I’m a thinker. In fact, my preference for thinking and overthinking is so strong, I should really introduce myself as “Hi, I’m Margaret, and I’m an OverThinker.” You get the point.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I admitted that I see myself as a head sitting on a table—no body—my brain taking in information, processing it, and spitting it out in useful chunks. It’s a bit difficult to approach the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit when you sometimes don’t feel your body. Case in point, while deep in thought, I’ll walk into a piece of furniture without realizing it, barely register the pain, and find a huge bruise a few days later with no memory of how it got there.

That’s changed a bit over the past few years. I’ve become more conscious of my body. I exercise regularly and take note of how my body feels and moves. Slowly but surely, I am trying to be mindful—ha, ha, mindful, can’t escape those head words—of my body. I still have a long way to go.

So, how about you? What part of your body best represents or symbolizes who or what you are in your life or how you operate? Think in terms of caricature. Are you a pair of helping hands? Heels dug into the sand? Atlas shoulders supporting the weight of the world? A womb or lactating breasts nurturing the masses? Or is your head sitting on the table next to mine?

On Children

Thanks to Rebecca Mullen of Altared Spaces for sending me the link to this wonderful video. The song is based on the poem “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran and was written by Sweet Honey in the Rock and performed in this video by Mebuyan.

On Children
Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

A Vacation for My Soul

I’ve always believed that the universe sends gifts our way when we most need them. My most recent gift came via email from my friend Julie Compton. There was a spot available at a writers’ retreat at a rented beach house in Virginia Beach. Nine other women who had known each other for years had room for a tenth. Was I interested? I admit for a brief moment I was transported back to school yards of yore and uttered “that sounds like hell.” My friend laughed and reassured me, “not these women.” I decided to go for it because I was beginning to feel despair over the lack of writing momentum with my next novel.

I flew in on Saturday and shared a shuttle to the house with Geri and Cal. We chatted merrily, unaware that our driver was hopelessly lost. When we finally arrived at the house, Linda and Mary welcomed us with gift bags filled with writing goodies and showed us to our rooms, the doors of which had been decorated with name plaques and doorknob signs requesting privacy for the writer within. Within the hour, Terri-Lynne DeFino, author of the fantasy novel Finder (but playing the role of gourmet cook), arrived with Signa. Finally, Diana and Sara (the dessert diva) pulled up. Julie would arrive the following day.

The Doll Babies, as the group is called, range in age from mid-forties to eighty-something and comprise talents and successes too numerous to list. Each woman had something special that drew me in and made me want to know more. I was reminded that everyone we meet in life is a potential teacher. If you pay attention, you can learn some wonderful things (about yourself, even) from other people. There’s something magical about admiring traits in others and realizing you can adopt them for the betterment of your own life. What a gift. Needless to say, a week just wasn’t enough, especially since I sensed immediately that this writers’ retreat was going to be about a lot more than just writing.

There’s something about being out in nature that sets me right, reminds me of who I am from the top of my gooey grey matter to the tips of my toes, and airs out my mothball-scented spirit. The house was huge, and there were balconies attached to every room that provided an awe-inspiring view of the beach. Before long, the natural rhythms of the ocean infiltrated the beach house and my existence. There was no set schedule, but my days seemed to flow as follows:

  • Wake to the sound of waves breaking on the shore
  • Exercise – I finished another week of the C25K running program.
  • Have breakfast
  • Write – I completed several scenes and had a breakthrough on a part of the novel that had me stumped.
  • Break for chats about writing and publishing – Writing is a solitary existence and it’s nice to know you’re not alone.
  • Do crafts – There’s something therapeutic about this even though I’m not very good at it. Focusing my mind on stringing beads or pasting paper silences the mental hamsters.
  • Eat dinner (and dessert) – Guinness beef stew, wine, homemade chocolate cake. Yum!
  • Converse – Listen to the stories of 9 amazing women.
  • Fall into a peaceful slumber, waves still breaking on the shore.

As an unstructured person (who secretly wishes she was more structured), this routine soothed. Life is best lived when we enter into its rhythms. I think my cells mutated from the joy of it all. :-)

As wonderful as it all sounds, there was more. A spontaneous trip to Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment got my mind percolating about my purpose and how I can better integrate body, mind, and spirit. This was live-changing and it’s why it’s taken me so long to write this post. I needed to process it all. (Thank you to everyone who contacted me, wondering where the heck I’ve been. Who says you don’t make real friendships online? It’s nice to be missed. :-) )

What this experience taught me was even though I think I’ve carved out “me” time by working only 3 days per week, it isn’t the same as going on retreat minus all the distractions, personal and electronic. Sometimes we need to isolate ourselves from our routines and the roles that we play in our daily lives (not to mention the other people in our lives and the roles they play). We must fast from the things that keep us from going deeper, enter into a meditative space, ask the questions, and wait for the answers. Some questions in life are complex and it’s okay not to have all the answers. In fact it’s probably better to live a while without the answer than to rush into the wrong one. With all that said, I intend to make every effort to take a trip like this on an annual basis to share some one-on-one time with my soul. I hope you’ll consider doing the same. You deserve it.

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