Notes on (surviving) the writing life

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Making creativity a habit


I’ve been recently inspired by Twyla Tharp’s book THE CREATIVE HABIT: LEARN IT AND USE IT FOR LIFE.

Here are some quotes:

Some people find … the moment before creativity begins … so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.
I always—always—am compulsively motivated to do something to avoid beginning. Suddenly I will need another cup of coffee, or a snack, or …
After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.
I know this works, I know this is true: I preach it, yet I don’t always succeed in doing it. Today is an example. I frittered away the morning hours answering emails that I told myself were urgent … but, frankly, anything can wait a few hours.
So: it was just an excuse.
The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.
Yes, I’m shouting these words! At myself as much as to all of you.
Here are some more delicious quotes:
In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative … 
there’s a process that generates creativity—and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual.
It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time.
If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.
That’s the reason for the exercises. They will help you develop skill. Some might seem simple. Do them anyway—you can never spend enough time on the basics.
Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into … creativity. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.
It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
Read this blog post for more quotes and an example of one of the creativity exercises Tharp gives in this book. Always carry a pencil is one. :-)
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Who is Twyla Tharp?

Among many other things, Twyla Tharp is an artist, choreographer, and creator of the smash-hit Broadway show, Movin’ Out. She has created 130 dances for her company, the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. She is 74 now, and far from slowing down: Choreographer Twyla Tharp brings two bold new works to Kennedy Centre — an interview in The Washington Post. My hero!

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A few great links to share

Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. Be sure to click through the individual paintings and read the explanations. It’s wonderful how you can zoom in for a close look. I especially liked “The listening Housewife.” For a review of this exhibit, read this post.


Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count, an inspiring— and funny—Ted-type talk by Brené Brown.

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What I’m up to

I’m having a hard time with the revision of Moonsick. I keep stirring the pot, but it’s slow to thicken. This beautiful photo of “Man in a fog” by Harman Wardani feels perfectly expressive of my state of mind.

Reading Tharp’s book, I realized that I have a ritual that triggers creativity: I record the day’s writing goals in a notebook and — bam! — I’m off to the races.

You may have noticed that my website is being revised (so that it will be visible on all devices). It’s still in the construction phase, so please bear with us.

The world news continues to be both distracting and extremely distressing. This cartoon, which I posted to FaceBook, has been getting a lot of “likes,” so I gather most everyone feels the same:

News cartoon

Have a good week … . Stay sane!

Shouldn’t you be writing?

Bailey at the window001

Yes, I should!

I’ve been MIA: sorry.

I have far too much going on, and now … the international news is devastating. A novelist by nature spins out horrific scenarios. It helps to curl up in a fictional world.

A few links to share …

• Coincidentally, I’m reading The War Reporter by my SMA and FB friend Martin Fletcher: set in Syria. It’s excellent: I recommend it. Martin has been an award-winning foreign correspondent in Middle East hotspots for much of his life: he knows whereof he speaks and he’s a fine writer.

• In the much-needed calming department: The ONE Thing You Need To Do On Sunday For A Stress-Free Week. Excellent advice.

Especially for us history geeks …

• Mr. Darcy Strips off …  It’s often difficult to find out what’s under those clothes, and even more difficult to find out how they’re put on … or how they come off. :-)

And last, for writers in need of a title …

• This list of titles of 18th century novels is hilarious. It’s really so hard to choose. Here are a few of my favourites:

The Expedition Of Little Pickle; Or, The Pretty Plotter

He’s Always In The Way

Love And Madness. A Story Too True. In A Series Of Letters Between Parties Whose Names Would Perhaps Be Mentioned Were They Less Well Known Or Less Lamented


I took the photo at top decades ago. I was working at my desk (and yes, likely writing), and I looked up to see our Palomino Bailey looking in the window. Miraculously, I was able to get a photo.

(Every time I look at this shot, I think: she needs her forelock combed!)

I have joined an informal NaNoWriMo Facebook group which is helping me keep on track. Speaking of which …

YES, I should be writing.

Have a good week. Send healing thoughts out into this sad and far-too-violent world.

My take on HARD CHOICES, by Hilary Rodham Clinton


Hilary Clinton’s HARD CHOICES was a game-changer for me. It’s going on my “Best of the Year” list.

Many dismiss this book as campaign positioning. I see it as far more. I think it’s a valuable historical document, a very detailed account of what one term as US Secretary of State entails. I also think it’s Clinton’s “for the record” legacy.

I came away extremely impressed with what she accomplished—or tried to accomplish—and impressed, as well, with the role of the US in attempting to keep world peace. The world is a tinder box of explosives; the job of the US Secretary of State is critical!

Hilary’s “Smart Power” approach—diplomacy being the most important part of the equation—strikes me as sound. She makes very strong arguments for environmental protection and equality for women worldwide being key to both US security and economic development. She is a tireless advocate of Democracy. She’s a little more of a Hawk than I like, but that’s easy for someone not in the thick of it to think. Her humanitarian values are front and centre.

I came away from reading Hard Choices wanting to campaign for Hilary for President. I’m no longer a U.S. Citizen, but the U.S., like it or not, has an enormous effect on the well-being of the world—my world—and whoever is running that country will have a profound effect on my life and the lives of those I hold dear.

I highly recommend this book as an overview of the extremely serious problems in the world today. (It would be a worthy task for any book club to take on. The discussions would be heated, without a doubt!)

I’m both heartened and alarmed after reading this book: heartened because of the worthy work being done, and alarmed at how how fragile things are. A party less inclined to effective diplomacy and one that does not recognize key dangers (one that denies global warming, for example!) could spell disaster for our world—my world.

I rarely speak out on political issues. Some of my wonderful readers and very good friends are not in agreement with my views, I know, and would be inclined to dismiss anything written by Hilary Clinton. I urge you to read her book, and then let’s discuss.

Note: I listened to the Audible edition—all 27 hours of it!— and I highly recommend it, with a few cautions. The lion’s share of this very long and detailed book is narrated by Hilary, and she does a fantastic job. I didn’t care for the other narrator, Kathleen Chalfant; she puts too much emotion into her voice, which, for me, is distracting. Fortunately, she only narrates the short opening and closing sections, which are not the meat of the book.

Hilary Mantel: on “opening up the past”

Dove Grey Reader, a delightful UK literary blogger—”a Devonshire based bookaholic, sock-knitting quilter who was a community nurse once upon a time”—has said that she feels fortunate to live as a contemporary of Hilary Mantel: “… perhaps this is how the Victorians felt about George Eliot or Dickens…

Sing me to sleep by Flóra Borsi











That’s a wonderful thought. There are times when I think I would do well simply to immerse myself in the work of Hilary Mantel, as well as the books she has found enlightening.

There are many video interviews of Hilary Mantel on YouTube. I love this one especially, where she talks about “opening up the past.”

Hilary Mantel on "opening up the past"












The amazing “photo” at top is by Flóra Borsi. It expresses, for me, the depth of what one might learn by immersion in the work of someone like Hilary Mantel.


On meeting readers, snow and To Do List overwhelm — plus links of interest to Napoleonistas and Serial addicts

I got back home last night from a flash-trip to Edmonton for a “reading” at StarFest, the St. Albert Readers Festival in Saint Albert, Alberta. I’m still aglow from it! It was such a special evening. Close to 100 in attendance—”sold out”—and a wonderful crowd. I’ve honed my talk-with-prizes—such fun!

Here’s a wonderful comment a reader put on Facebook that the StarFest organizer just sent me:








The most wonderful thing about being a writer is having you READERS. <3

I’ve a million things to do, so I’m going to leave it at that for now. It was lightly snowing when I got back last night and in week and a half my husband and I turn into Snow Birds and head south.

You might have noticed that my website is changing. Please forgive the awkward transition phase—the visuals, especially. I have to change the basic design—the “theme” in WordPress language—so that it can be read more comfortably on mobile devices (i.e. tablets and smart phones). Ultimately, it’s going to look very much like it did before, but better.

Sundry Sundae delectable links:

SundaeWebLinks for Napoleonistas … 

• I love this painting of Napoleon. So very like him.

Links for travellers …

On giving the fountains at Versailles a new look. I used to be horrified by such changes, but I’ve come to see them as so very, very French … and a wonderful thing.

Links for Serial podcast followers …

• If you were one of the billions following the Serial podcast, you will want to know the newest (and shocking) revelations: here, here and here. This new form of Net journalism could have a very positive effect. It would be a relief to see justice for Adnan, and—one prays—changes made to the “injustice” system that incarcerated him.

Have a wonderful week! 

On thickening plots with index cards and the Order of Good Cheer (i.e. Canadian Thanksgiving!) — plus links of interest to writers and other creatives, historians and clutter warriors


Sorry, Peeps, I’ve apparently disappeared on you! I was doing my best to post at least once a week, and — voilá — now two weeks have passed.

An update: 

The plot does indeed thicken: with index cards, the old standard. My extensively detailed Excel plot sheet bombed on me. Excel is complex, and once it stops working, it’s challenging to fix—at least for me. (If I do need a spreadsheet at some point, I think I will use Numbers.)

But for now, returning to index cards is refreshing.

What’s nice about index cards is that you can move them around and clump them up. You can throw them out and add more. You can lay them out, squint at them, and rearrange them. The other thing you can do is stick post-it notes to them. I had piles around: Random Thought Capture I think of them. Sticking them on index cards and putting them in a semblance of order is calming.

What’s eating up my time:

  • Pondering plot (puzzling);
  • Research (fascinating);
  • Taxes (aggravating!);
  • Health: getting shots, check-ups, consultations, plus learning how to sleep using a CPAP machine (challenging);
  • Fixing things (sigh);
  • Finding things (double sigh);
  • Gardening (oh, my back!);
  • Reading: catching up on many issues of The New Yorker, Renaissance, and The New York Review of Books before we head south (yikes!);
  • Preparing for Canadian Thanksgiving (yay!), always a big, boisterous celebration at our house;
  • Preparing for a trip west to give a talk at StarFest. (:-) See below!
  • Getting ready to fly south for the winter. (What? Already?)

An event coming up …


I’m going to be flying to Edmonton next week to give a talk (with prizes!) at StarFest, the St. Albert Readers Festival in Saint Albert, Alberta, October 16, Friday night at 7:00.

I’ve heard that this is a great festival; I’m very much looking forward to it. Do come!

Sundry Sundae delectable links:


 Links for writers …

• À propos to the above: 7 ways to write a plot outline; The Infographic.

What agents think. :-(

Links for creatives (i.e. everyone) … 

• I read—and loved—Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. She is so gently hectoring in an altogether inspiring way. Elizabeth Gilbert on the perils of ignoring your creative self. Right on, sister!

Links for Napoleonistas … 

• I adore Canadian cartoonist and history-loving nerd Kate Beaton: Napoleon wasn’t so short after all: a cartoonist’s take on history.

Links for historians …

Opium Eating: The Lincolnshire Fens in the early nineteenth-century.

Links for just about anyone …

• Who isn’t overwhelmed? I find Stephanie Bennett Vogt’s books on clearing clutter — both mental and physical — inspiring. I’m looking forward to her newest book A Year to Clear and enjoyed watching her three videos on clearing: Reducing Overwhelm, Releasing Stuck Energy, and Getting Spacious.

Happy Thanksgiving Canadians! 

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