I’m Alive…and 49 Pages Closer to “The End”

You lookin’ at me?
(Thanks MKD for the photo.)

Another heavenly week has come and gone. This was year 2 of my Virginia Beach writing retreat with the Doll Babies. If that’s conjuring up images of sweet, little ladies popping bon bons as they write, well, the bon bons are not far off course, but sweet…nah. If you saw us coming, you might think we were a gang. We’ve got the thriller-writing motorcycle mama, and the tattoo-covered fantasy writer. Then there’s the one that sounds like My Cousin Vinny. Ahem. Throw in a former investigative journalist, a nuclear plant engineer, and a flamenco-dancing biologist. Don’t let the two southern belles fool you. And beware of the one who induces death by chocolate every night. Scarier still, the one who cannot be bribed with chocolate cake and has some frightening ideas on revenge. You don’t want her moving those ideas from the page to the street. Trust me on this.

Were we having fun yet? Hell, yeah!

Long story short…I had hoped to complete another 18 manuscript pages, but I ended up with 49. Don’t ask me how. As everyone sat at their computers for hours, I got up for a snack, and then some relaxation on the beach, and then a run and shower, and then a nap. Oh, look at the time—dinner. You get the idea. Whatever works.

There were moments I wanted to skip over the tough scenes and write the easier ones. But I knew I’d never have this kind of uninterrupted time again, so I forged ahead. It was a good decision. It forced me into the dreaded middle of the novel and I got some momentum going.

Besides the writing, there were a few other highlights:

I went down to the beach, one morning, sheet in hand. I kicked sand into a few umbrella holes, laid out the sheet, and then lay down with my eyes closed. The sound of the surf lulled me into a meditative state. A short while later, the excited screams of two women disrupted my peace. “Oh my God. Look at all those crabs.” I lifted my head slightly, shaded my eyes with my hand, and realized the women were pointing at me. My sheet was surrounded by crabs. Those umbrella holes I covered up…not umbrella holes. The crabs were digging themselves out of their wrecked homes. They looked angry. Some of them wielded little beach sticks in their claws. Frankly, they were menacing. I grabbed my sheet and ran.

Another day, a fellow writer and I walked to a nature preserve. It was a long walk. A very long walk. It was hot. We didn’t have water. All the snack bars were closed because it wasn’t quite the season. When we arrived at the entrance booth, a friendly man gave us each a cup of water and then told us to mind the venomous snakes and the wild pi-igs. Wild pigs? Yup, those ones with the tusks. I was convinced he was having some fun with me and my New York accent. Not so. There’s something about the word pig pronounced with two syllables that scares the hell out of me.

So now it’s back to the real world. Work. Bills. Chores. Not enough time to write. No worries. I’ve got memories of ten women sharing their stories, eating good food, laughing like crazy, not a care in the world. It’ll keep me going until next year.

A strong suggestion for my readers: Do this for yourself. You don’t have to be a writer. Carve out a week with like-minded people. It’s food for your soul.

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.

Manifesto

A talented artist I know, Jon L. Adams, includes a personal manifesto on his website. It got me thinking about what I believe and how I want to live. I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list, but for now, here it is:

Love is a renewable energy source. Keep giving it away. You’ll never run out.

Ask questions. People love to talk about themselves.

Listen like you don’t have another thing to do.

Words can be lethal weapons. Choose them wisely. Once spoken, they can never be taken back.

Give away the last dollar in your pocket. It will come back to you tenfold.

Protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Live, work, and love with passion.

If you hate your life, stop complaining and make a new one.

Unstick those tight muscles, work that jaw, and smile.

When you’re outside, really breathe.

Daydream often. What can be visualized can become reality.

Believe in a force greater than yourself. Call it what you will.

Find the gem in everyone you meet, even if you have to dig through a ton of coal.

Believe people when they tell you who they are. But then look beyond their faulty self-vision.

Never mistake a thin, sheetrock wall for an impenetrable fortress. If there’s a moat and the drawbridge isn’t lowered, swim across. Most people want to be found.

Watch a child sleep. There’s no greater peace.

When a friend can’t stand on his own, carry him on your back.

Giving is its own reward.

Show appreciation always.

Tell/show people you love them always.

Respect yourself and others.

Sit still in nature every day and appreciate the miracle around you.

Try new things and meet new people.

Read, read, read, and learn.

Write, write, write. There is nothing that can’t be worked through once it’s written on a piece of paper.

Fight injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.

Laugh.

Laugh some more.

Apologize sooner rather than later. Less time wasted.

Eat really good food and work those muscles.

Grow old gracefully.

The Beginnings of a Blog

My first blog entry and it seems there is nothing more appropriate than a few paragraphs on finding the time to write. I can find so many reasons for not starting now, whenever now may be. Bills to pay, desks to clear, books to read. You know how it goes. But whenever I take the time to write and throw away the phone and any other distractions, I’m always amazed by what I end up with. Today was one of those days. I printed out what I had on my novel-in-progress to refresh my memory, applied sunscreen, and headed outside with a cup of coffee and my Neo (more on the Neo later—for now, just imagine a portable word processor that is smaller than a laptop).

There is nothing more inspiring to me than being in nature, and today was certainly the day. Even the tree cutters and landscapers couldn’t get me down. I was in my own little world, doing my thing, typing away out front on the driveway. My neighbors still look at me strangely when I do this. I’m originally from Ozone Park, New York where everyone sat out on their front stoops. On Long Island, people don’t do that. (In fact, you rarely see your neighbors except when you ring their doorbell to politely ask them to refrain from feeding the half dozen feral cats that have decided your front yard should be their litter box. Geometric progression nightmares keep me awake at night, but I digress) I figure when I get published, the neighbors will no longer look at me strangely, but will nod knowingly, aware that they had been witnesses to a minor miracle in progress.

Needless to say, I got tons done in my novel. And the creative energy generated by just taking the time inspired me to complete the tasks I left behind in order to write. Writing must always be the priority. I’ll never create anything good if I first sit down to write after a day of mind-numbing chores.

So, more on the Neo. But first let me say that many years ago I invested in a popular laptop, one of the first models that had a full-size screen. The thing weighed a gazillion pounds and put off heat like a sauna. I thought I would cozy up with my laptop and write the great American novel in my bed at night. How many times do you think I attempted that? How about not once. The thing was just too clunky. So, I continued with my notebooks and pens. I am a sucker for supplies. My husband tells me I get an eerie gleam in my eye whenever we drive by a Staples store. I buy college-ruled spiral notebooks with colored covers and perforated pages. In the past, I used to write with a fountain pen, but lately I’m into those blue and white barreled Bics with the four colors of ink. I use the blue and black ink for writing my drafts and the red and green ink for editing my drafts.

I always feel much more creative when I am writing longhand than when I am typing. Typing is too mechanical and detracts from my creative flow. I have written entire novels longhand with no problem. My issue is when it’s time to type them into my computer. I HATE that part. It is the most tedious thing I have ever done. And I can’t pay someone to do it because they wouldn’t be able to read my handwriting. I tried bypassing the longhand stage and just typing into my desktop computer, but the distractions were a hindrance: email, stock quotes, Webkinz, Amazon, you name it. And then, I found something called a Neo by Alphasmart. I don’t quite know how I stumbled upon it. Probably in a frenzy of web surfing to avoid typing my manuscript. But there it was, a tiny little device, smaller than a laptop and under 2 pounds that offers a full-size keyboard and a screen that displays three to six lines of text at a time (I prefer four). That’s it. No email, no games, no Amazon, no stock quotes, no instant messaging, no distractions. It’s so small I can sit anywhere and type away and when I’m done I plug it into my computer and all my info gets put into a Word file. What more could I ask for? And with only four lines of text displayed at a time, I’m not tempted to constantly edit my work as I am writing (the worst form of writer’s constipation). With three batteries, I get something like 700 hours of juice. It automatically saves my words and shuts down when inactive. When I press the on button again it takes me right back to where I left off. There is room for 8 different files. Some of the techies out there will complain that it isn’t enough. But that’s the point, it’s simple. All you do on it is type your words.

Oh, and it offers a typing tutorial for those who are still using hunt and peck. In fact, at $200, I bought one for my eight-year-old son who is a budding writer and he has been learning how to type with the proper fingers. He also uses it to record the play-by-play of the Islanders games. It comes in a lightweight carrying case, with the cord to connect to your PC when you’re ready to upload, and a user manual that is very clear. Originally it was marketed to schools for students. But I have to say, it is one of the best gadgets I have ever seen for writers who want to get back to the basics and just write. In closing, let me say that I was not paid any money to say any of the above. I really do love it. In fact, I am writing this first entry on my Neo.

It’s got to be after 7 PM and I’m still sitting outside, although I’m wearing a sweatshirt now because the wind has whipped up a bit. It’s time to go in. But the creative energy is still high. I’m zapping some to all of you writers out there who are looking for a bit of inspiration. Just get outside or wherever you’re most creative and start writing whatever pops into your head. Before too long, the juices will be flowing. If anybody out there has any good tips on getting down to the task of writing, I’d love to hear them.

Nitey nite.