Inspiration: Friends, Stones, Stories...

My friend, children's book author/illustrator Paul Owen Lewis took this photo. That dark silhouette of a human being is me, hunting for agates. Paul and I went on a long walk the other day, working off Thanksgiving meals, and talking about writing, creating books, and being artists. We walked on the beach and discussed the differences between those who are compelled to create "art" and those who are more "family-oriented." Now, I'm not saying that artists are not family oriented. Not saying that at all. We both just happen to have a lot in common - we came from less-than-ideal family circumstances, we both write and illustrate, and neither of us has had biological children. This is no formula for being creative, by the way. There are as many stories behind the stories of authors and illustrators who have been "inner directed" to bring their inspirations to life.

Here we are, cold and happy. Hand-held portrait by Paul. We both love to find things on the beach. I hunt mostly for agates, but I also find petrified wood, jade, jasper, "zen" rocks, which are just stones that I respond to, and the occasional seal's tooth. Paul likes sea glass and perfectly spherical stones. As much as we have in common, we are just as different. Non-artist friends used to ask me how I could be friends with other authors and illustrators. "Aren't they your competition?" they would ask. "Not at all," I always answered. "Their ideas and their ways of doing things are completely different from mine." Just like Paul and I live in the same neighborhood, on the same hill, we have different views. When we walk the beach, he also sees things that I don't, and visa versa. Actually, that's not true. I find sea glass and give it to him. But there is comfort there in the fact that we are not wired the same. We share the same space, but we bring our own original perspectives to what we experience. That comes out in our stories and our art, as well. It is our fingerprint... or mental print, or something like that.

What I've discovered is that friendship with my fellow creative folks is inspirational, not competitive. We need someone else who understands the strange world we inhabit. A world where ideas sometimes envelope us in a fog that makes us seem "not present" to our spouses or significant others. We find ourselves laughing, or crying at something we've read, or heard in song lyrics, and we feel things sometimes too deeply, or we find ourselves in weird synchronicity with our little world when the iPod chooses the perfect song to play with the story we are reading or writing, or just the thought that has gone through our head. 

So friends play a role in my creative process and keep me out of isolation, which I can easily slide into especially in the claws of winter. 

The stones also play a role for me. (and I don't mean the Rolling Stones, although I do love the sound of both that band and the sound the real stones make on the beach as the tide massages them in and out.)

I mean these stones. While I am out there, lost in my fog, searching for these little treasures on the beach, I am writing in my head. I am talking to my characters. I am singing song lyrics. I am telling myself subconscious stories. The agates sparkle and glow at me and ask me to take them home. They are my inspiration on my walking meditations. I bring them home and polish them, just like you would write down your ideas and then start polishing them. Over time, when I collect hundreds of agates, all polished, and waiting... I turn them into this:

...an agate luminaria candle holder. I have these all around my home, and they not only light up the dark nights, and make meals elegant, but they warm my soul. Each one of those little beach finds have found their potential. I hope that I can do that with stories, too. The pieces gradually come together to create a whole that is more powerful than the individual parts. It takes polishing, patience, and time.

Another thing that Paul and I both have in common is this love of natural objects. I know this is true for so many artists. 

Give me a beautiful bone, or a fabulous feather. 
Show me a root ball or a field of heather. 
Take me to the beach and leave me alone. 
Don't buy me an iPad or a new cell phone. 
I don't want a fancy vacation.
Just natural beauty and sweet inspiration.

You can sing that in the key of E, kinda bluesy.
I'd love to know what inspires you.

With love,


Fear and Loathing in my Brain

I shouldn't feel this way. All doom and gloom and can't and won't. But I do. This photo recently taken in New York's meatpacking district reflects my angst. It also shows that my black Levi's are way too short for my 5'6" frame leg length. (I actually think they were stuck on my boots. The pants should have been tucked into the boots.) Fashion faux pas aside, what pray tell is causing me all this trepidation?

Come on, guess?

No. It's not the fact that I haven't posted in a couple of weeks. Sorry about that, I apologize.

No. It's not the impending Thanksgiving holiday and the incoming brother, and the outgoing finances from impending holiday spending and a studio/garage construction project over budget.

No. It's not even the rejection I just received on a picture book project from the publisher I've worked with for over sixteen years - and the fact that the editor I've worked with all those years has not personally contacted me in ten months. I'm over that.

Okay, I'll tell you.

But first here is another photo to show you how I feel.

Mummified. Or perhaps petrified. (I think you would feel petrified if you slept on a bed made of stone.)

What is causing all this is the fact that I just finished a draft of my first novel. It's sitting there in hard copy form, all 282 pages of it so that I can give it a read through and find all the typos, grammatical errors, missing transitions, and what have you. I had to print it because I can't edit on screen. Can't find typos to save my life or my vision. I've been working on this story in parts over the past year or more, but threads of it go back longer.

At first, when I finished it, I was elated. I thought I was so clever and creative. But now, only hours after I hit the save button for the last time, not so much. That stupid radio station that Anne Lamott talks about in her book, "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life"- "KFKD" has been playing in my head. It's been telling me, "you suck. This sucks. NO one is going to like it, care about it, want to read it, want to publish it, etc... don't quit your day job." But my day job is writing and illustrating.

True, I made myself cry a few times while I was writing it, but maybe I was pre-menstrual or something. Maybe the outlandish narrator I dreamed up is completely far fetched. I won't say who he is, but I will say he exists in the imaginations of anyone who has ever read Mother Goose. Was I nuts to think that would work?

Yeah, I know I need to give it a rest. Both the complaining and the draft. I need to be objective enough to read it through before I go apply for a job as holiday help at Fred Meyer. And I know I'm not the only writer who has ever gone through this. We are all our own worst enemies sometimes. The only remedy seems to be a couple of glasses of wine, or a publishing contract.

I know, I know. Shut up. I should be thrilled that I did this. It's no easy task to write a novel. I marvel every time I read one I truly love. How much blood, sweat, and psychiatrist bills did it take that human miracle of a being to put that together? How many nights did they wake up and realize that they had a better direction for their character? How many times did their story change right in front of their eyes and fingertips as they were typing it? How many people get to weave bits and pieces of their lives, their thoughts and their concepts into something others may someday connect to?

The truth is, I really don't know if what I wrote is good, is worthy... but I have to believe in it. I have to take it to the next step. I never realized that writing was such an act of bravery, but it is. It really is.

To all of you who hang your literary laundry out to dry - I stand with you in solidarity. And now I'm going to take my underwear off the flag pole and go work on some picture books.

By the way, if you have any good ideas on how to deal with this mental gymnastics stuff, post a comment. It will save me on my shrink bills.
With love,


A Sensorial Journey: Where Writing Can Take You

You could say it started with the papaya. Or you could say it started with my birthday at Blackcomb mountain in British Columbia. Or even before that- it could have started with visiting my sisters-in-law in San Francisco and staying at the Hotel Vitale across the street from the Ferry Building. Stories can begin anywhere, and sometimes finding the origin is like doing an archeological dig. It can virtually go back in time until we are all somehow connected by sequences of DNA. 

For the sake of time and space, I'm going to say it began in the shower at the Hotel Vitale. It was there that I discovered Fresh products, namely the Soy Shampoo, the Pomegranate conditioner, the Lemon Sugar Shower Gel and the Sugar Lemon Body Lotion. No, this is not an advertisement. It was simply a moment when I discovered something that smelled beautiful and felt beautiful, and added some pleasure and luxury to my life, and I began ordering the products online so I could bring that experience home.

Now we can fast forward to last January when my husband and I made a last minute reservation to spend my birthday skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia. It was the twentieth year that we had been going to ski there- and it was the place where we first "dated" and discovered that we had so much in common that we wanted to ski parallel for the rest of our lives. It was the day of my actual birthday, and it was pre-Olympics, but not by much. The snow was not great, but I was thrilled to be on a mountain on my "day." We broke for lunch early to avoid any crowds, and that was when he came up to us. 

"He" was a representative of Intrawest, the company that owns most of Whistler/Blackcomb. Now my husband would have shooed him away in an instant, but it was my birthday, and I was feeling a little cheeky. When I told him it was my birthday, he had an instant comeback: "You must be turning twenty-something." Now this 48 year old was quick on her feet and responded, "my ski jacket is twenty years old, I don't think so." Mr. Sales was suave though, and he replied, "I can buy you a new ski jacket."

Long story short: it was one of those resort club membership deals. Something my husband and I would never have gone near except maybe in a bad economy for the free wine and cheese. Yet we went along for the ride and I didn't get the free jacket, but I did get some nice mid-weight capris and a zip-T from the Salomon store. We didn't sign up for the big deal, but we agreed, especially since they didn't want to let us leave, to take the resort for a "test run." They called it a "passport."

Booth had never been to Mexico, and their resort in Zihuatanejo looked mighty fine, so we aimed our compass and our frequent flyer miles in that direction, and next thing you know, we were there... or here:

Zihuatanejo exceeded our expectations. But I'm not writing a travelogue. However each morning we would visit the delightful Isabel on the Calle Adelita and drink her incredible juice that she prepared fresh for so few pesos it was ridiculous. 

We spoke in Spanish and English and I could tell you more stories, but I have to get back to the papaya and how it wound up taking me on a journey. Yes. That papaya. The one that Isabel juiced and added to the orange juice sitting there... I could drink one now.

Flash forward to this August, and an email in my inbox. It was from Fresh. I had been ordering their products online for years, so I was on the mailing list. They were announcing an essay contest to tie in to the new "Eat, Pray, Love" movie that they had just created fragrances and candles for. I had not seen the movie, but I loved the book. The contest asked that you write an essay in 250 words or less describing a "sensorial journey" that you had taken, and include a photograph. I knew immediately what I was going to write about. Even though I had been to Zihuatanejo in April, it was still vivid in my mind and my senses. So I wrote this essay, I titled it, "Zihuatanejo in a Bottle:"

Can you smell that papaya? Can you smell the salty sea air as it flows around Isabel’s fruit stand on Calle Adelita in Zihuatanejo, Mexico? Can you smell the oranges she just juiced to mix with that papaya, that huge cup of sunshine that you are about to drink as you inhale the scent of health, relaxation, the very vitamins and minerals that make Mexico a place to be breathing in? There are almond trees, mango, and banana trees around the corner. There is the central Mercado filled with the intoxicating aroma of tortillas frying, salsas cooking, fresh coffee beans, Mexican vanilla and cinnamon. There are waves rolling in from the bay and fisherman bringing back the catch so fresh it smells like the ocean. There is the warm scent of your husband’s neck, after an afternoon on the beach, his first time in Mexico and he swam with a five foot long loggerhead turtle. There is an afternoon breeze, filled with a cocktail of songbirds, tropical flowers and love. If Zihuatanejo were a fragrance you would want to live in the bottle. We were only there for six days, but the scent of this trip, this enchanted paradise will thankfully never wash out of our memories. 

This is 212 words. A paragraph. I wrote it in fifteen inspired minutes, and I included the photograph of that papaya at the top of this post, and then I sent it off into the cyber-ionosphere.

The beauty of the contest was that you could read the other entries and see their photos throughout the month of August. On September 1st, the contest closed and the judging began. 

I had never entered a contest like this before. Sure, I'd clicked some buttons and randomly entered into some lottery-like mass-marketed things that gave you virtually no chance of being anything but spam. I'd tried my hand at the New Yorker Magazine Cartoon Caption Contest thinking I was actually funny enough to win the prize of a signed cartoon print. (which I could have drawn myself.) But a contest where my writing was being judged, no, not really. (Not unless you count my application for the MFA program, but that wasn't supposed to be a contest.)

On September 9th I was in the plumbing supply store buying a toilet for my new studio under construction and my cell phone rang. It was the publicity assistant at Fresh calling to tell me that I had won the Grand Prize in the Fresh Eat Pray Love contest. I was nearly speechless. Not to mention embarrassed because I was staring at toilets.

Over the next few weeks, the reality of what I had won started soaking in. My little essay- barely one at that, had garnered me and my husband a trip for two to New York City- hotel and airfare, and I was to meet with Lev Glazman, the co-owner of Fresh to consult with him as he was to create my own personal bespoke fragrance. 

It is a long journey from Seattle to New York City for such a quick trip. But Lev had taken an even longer one from his childhood in Russia to the incredible company he and his partner, Alina had created. My experience meeting Lev and the stories he told were more valuable than any airfare or hotel or shopping spree. The connection was as potent as what I learned about fragrance, which held a lot of irony for me.

I used to wear fragrance. I stopped wearing it in 1997 when I went through major clinical depression. I stopped being able to smell or taste back then. I stopped eating and sleeping. After medical intervention and a lot of inner strength I pulled out of that tailspin, but I didn't recover my ability to tolerate a personal scent. But over time my chemistry changed, and little by little I started to warm up to natural essenses- mostly made by my friends at Tree Frog Farm on Lummi Island. 

What Lev showed me- or actually revealed to me- is that we respond so differently to fragrance. We have our own way of smelling and tasting that is unique to who we are. Some of us may be incapsulated in a commercial fragrance, but some of us may be a mysterious layering of code: floral, woodsy, citrus, musky... it's mind boggling. Good thing Lev is a genius and a scent-ual spirit guide.

This personal bespoke fragrance is a "once in lifetime" opportunity- a dream that I didn't even know that I was wishing for when I wrote those sentences. Now I realize that my writing has taken me to a place I didn't know existed before and I have so much to learn. My husband is excited, too. He had never told me, but he secretly had mourned that I had forsaken fragrance after my depression, and now I will have one that is me alone. 

What is even better is that this will invariably inspire not only more words, more stories, but hopefully friendship as well. 

Think about it. What does your writing do for you, and where can it take you? The possibilities are endless and hopefully the journey is just as sweet.