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I count myself lucky to have found artist Niya Christine before she started her 365 Paintings project in January 2013. Every day I looked forward to a splash of colour and a playful story in my inbox. I ordered one print (“Red Poppies, Random Numbers and a Birdie“) and am seriously coveting another (“507 Year Old Clam and a Barking Snail“) to hang over my mantel.

Niya made all these paintings while also working her day job as a designer. And now she’s Kickstarting a deluxe art book based on the project and its evolution. I jumped at the chance to interview her for my Hours for Art series. Enjoy!

Alison: Your 365 Paintings project was a carefully constructed labyrinth, giving you a structure and system to channel your creativity in 2013. Tell me about how you constructed that labyrinth: what triggered the idea? How did you come up with the parameters?

Niya: I love that you use the word “carefully.” At the time, “carefully” couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was more of an insistent urge; a wilful and rough declaration of a vision that I wasn’t sure was achievable. Kind of like when a cat throws itself across the room at a ball of yarn with the scant urge of unravelling it, only to find that it snowballs into the china cabinet.

The project began with very low expectations. I was incubating the desire to simply do a watercolour a day and post it in under an hour ~ to consider it a colour spa. I would have been happy enough to fill my brush with purple paint and water, make a splash and be done with it. I was mentally fatigued with work and suspicious of how I was accounting for real achievement. We get an endorphin rush when we solve a problem ~ it’s easy enough to be satisfied with that ~ until suddenly years have gone by and what matters most has gotten lost. What it netted out to was that I was mostly managing my days vs. building my dreams.

Loungechair beansI picked a theme for the first month of “Coffee & Tea” simply because I wanted to see what tea- and coffee-stained paintings might look like. I hadn’t planned at that point to have an ongoing trail of monthly themes. I had my watercolour set and container of French press coffee, brush in hand, ready to be blobby. I felt tricked when my first painting was bags of coffee beans taking a sun bath on a beach in Mexico. Really? Wasn’t I in a meaning coma, healing? Why couldn’t I have just painted some coffee splats with a bit of colour and been done with it? How was I going to keep this up?

I had set up my blog and people were subscribing. I did that for accountability. My promise was to post whatever painting happened that day, no matter what. To further unravel my first inclination towards the simple colour spa … the bags of coffee beans took on characteristics and story lines. They wanted me to tell their story. Demanding little buggers.

This is where the snowball happened. I’d had enough experience with painting in my life to know that when a series wants to occur, my plans need to get out of the way. Flushed and forever forgotten. If they do come back, it’s real love. But most of the time, they don’t. The paintings that followed the “Lounge Chair Coffee Beans” were just as surprising to me and never preplanned or conceptualized. “Drunken Pigeon on a Coffee Diner Sign” – “Teabags of Character” (the teabags looked like wise ol’ ancestors), and more. And they kept evolving into scenes. The characters were chatty. Urgent and talkative little buggers.

I had to design a system to manage the complexity and the time. Clearly, I had created a monster and organization was the only control I’d have.

That’s how it happened. The months that followed were days filled with much deliberation ~ protecting and nurturing the creative time and space ritual for the work to do its thing. I was simply the ethos mother.

[Editor's note: What you've just described seems to me the epitome of care-full, Niya! Your "insistent urge" as a primal form of deep caring about yourself and your art, and then your attention and adjustments as the project declared itself to you. Careful doesn't have to mean cautious or exact; it can also mean being solicitously mindful and taking pains. So thanks for your spontaneous, intuitive, and enthusiastic portrait of careful!]

Alison: I’ve done smaller projects like yours, such as NaNoWriMo and the Clarion West Write-a-thon, which required regular writing and a certain amount of discipline. I’ve had mixed results, in that I did create and produce a lot more than usual, but I also found myself writing while tired or overwhelmed, and other parts of my life got neglected. Did you have any fears going into this? Were they realized? Did new difficulties crop up that you hadn’t expected? In what ways was it easier than you anticipated?

Niya: Great question. I’m a “keep my word” person. The biggest fear I had was that life stuff would overwhelm the commitment I made ~ letting myself and others down. On the other side of that (because I knew it would have to be very extreme for me to let that happen) was the fear that I would be stubborn and burn myself out. Luckily, neither of these extremes actually happened.

Fears were realized many times, yes. But there were many things that grew out of the creative practice that balanced fears and exhaustion. The top three: People, playfulness, commitment. I had to keep reminding myself that since this was my project, I got to course-correct and re-assemble it to make it work. And in doing so I learned a lot about how creative you can be when you are the designer of your work patterns.

Frequency gained momentum as the days went by ~ I either flexed to it or tensed up. When I flexed, without fail, delightful discoveries were made; energy and creativity I didn’t know I had came out to play. In addition, what I came to trust was that as long as I respected the commitment with the same value and energy I gave to other obligations … the project itself buoyed me. It was a rock-solid pocket of joy and adventure there for the taking every day. Discipline became freedom.

Creativity is fun after you’ve fired perfectionism and given it a big severance package (because it gets bored fast). The willingness to produce bad paintings in front of my subscribers brought those tendencies to their knees. It was painful at first. Now I see perfectionism as the enemy of creativity.

Blue-CakeNiya-June2013Alison: In knitting parlance, there are process knitters who love the act of knitting, and there are product knitters who love having a finished item to wear or give. Creating daily was your “process,” and the final paintings were your “product.” Were there other products of the process (intended or unintended)? Did you love one more than the other? How did the two intertwine?

Niya: I was fascinated by the process and learned to trust it early on in the project. The product was secondary ~ I’m still culling the product. It’s pretty fun to look at the paintings now in calendar format and remember the feelings I had daily and monthly in relation to the subject matter. For instance, the cows. Their surly bovine character and soulful eyes. I could have painted cows forever. And how I expected to love using coffee as a stain on watercolour paper … but got impatient with it and used brown ink. Or when watercolours were too precious for the mood of the day, I’d glob up my finger with acrylic paint and finger-paint a new painting on top of it.

Since my number one rule was that the painting needed to be finished in under an hour, there wasn’t time to think. I just jumped in with a fuzzy sense of direction and something came out on the other side. Something awful or surprisingly delightful or just so-so. If I ever thought about product before the painting was done, it would have destroyed everything. I was always teetering on that edge.

I think my training in product design early on in my career helped. Patience for process and discomfort is a requirement of quality design.

Sometimes a painting would go out there that I was too tired to see objectively. I’d wake up in the morning to a lot of comments and positivity from subscribers. Always a surprise, these blurry blobs. These bursts of “who-knows-what-or where-from-it-comes” shared with readers and the celebration of being alive that comes from that.

Alison: Did you notice a tension between the part of you that wanted to paint and the part of you that didn’t want to paint? How did you work with that tension? (If we could eavesdrop on those two parts talking to each other, what would it sound like?)

Me: It’s late, I’m very sleepy.

Painter: Nope, it’s time to paint.

Me: I don’t want to, I just want to go to bed. It’s been a helluva day.

Painter: How about some Russian Caravan tea with real cream and gobs of honey?

Me: Excited. Okay, let’s do it.

I know it sounds overly simple and like a fast switch. But when the body and heart are in an argument and you give the body something really yummy … (like kids) the two become best buds in a nanosecond.

I had to keep things simple ~ to not over think it, like diving in a cold pool. It’s not as cold when you put that thought out of your mind. I always felt more fulfilled at the end of the day after painting ~ always. Even if I didn’t want to, I knew I had that satisfaction to look forward to.


Alison: How did the project affect your relationship with your audience?

Niya: My audience surprised me the most. I got love letters for a year. Can you imagine? I mean real squishy love. One of my favourite tweets: she quoted a story line with “this is from my daily painter, everyone should have one.” She had encapsulated exactly what I wanted people to feel.

We are all managing and mitigating email. I wanted people to wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, open their email boxes and see some big bold colour, maybe something funny and not too long. I aimed for micro-fiction for easy and pleasurable reading. It was a good-feeling-thing all the way around. The only thing I would do differently is paint daily but post weekly. My stats show me that 65% were daily opens. People generally would wait until they had some real time and then sit down and slowly go through a week or two of the paintings. I think daily was too much for some. I did have this core set of people that got addicted to the daily dose. They would open it last to savour it in the morning. They wrote their interpretations and responses immediately. I loved that. I miss this routine with them quite a bit.

Alison: How are you feeling now that the 365 Paintings project has ended? Freedom? Sadness? How have you navigated the transition to new projects in 2014?

Niya: The answer to this is tricky. When I finished, the overall feeling was neither freedom or sadness ~ just excited about the next phase. I’d only just begun.

However, as time has passed this month, I’m definitely grieving. We humans and “change” ~ does it ever get easier? I’m still spending daily time in the studio. I’m exploring children’s book illustration. The other change is marketing, packaging, selling art and books. This will take some time to make everything happen ~ probably a year. I’m balancing these efforts with the work-a-day world. I’m still very connected to the project and my supporters. So I only feel sad when I can’t devote everything I’ve got (time-wise) to this next phase. But this was true last year as well; the activities were just different ~ more private.  Mostly though, I’m just very excited about all the possibilities as the paintings get productized. I have a set of classes I’m working on and the books right now.

Unattainable-CoffeeNiyaJanuary2013Alison: I love that you are including the story of your year in your book of paintings. How did the format and content of the book come together for you?

Niya: I envisioned this as a book as the story paintings kept coming out over the year. Something like: 365 paintings, 12 months, 20 topics; Bunnies, Bicycles, Cows, Canaries, Quirks, Curiosities, Fish, Dogs, Doors, Coffee, Tea, Wine, Kites … etc. It was simply going to be a record of the project in print in an organized fashion ~ a keepsake for my audience.

However, I was getting a lot of emails and requests to share the behind-the-scenes evolution from month to month. People wanted to know about the difficulties in detail and how I fashioned a creative practice within the demands of life. I have a lot to say about this. There were some tragedies and joys in 2013 that made painting a huge challenge. I learned a lot about what it means to reclaim something that matters for life vs. the net result being “just” a project or experiment. It challenges everything when you claim it as a new life-long habit.

So … as people were thinking about pulling up their dreams into a creative practice, they needed guidance. Guidance, resources and secrets were ongoing requests. I became very excited about creating a book that doesn’t just expound on the health and joy of creative practice but digs deep into the details and mobilization of its reality.

There is a ton of research about the power of problem-solving from the resting part of the brain vs. the executive part. We are a culture that generally operates from our frontal lobes. To reflect, be a child, unplug from outer distractions and listen requires a bit of re-learning, I think. Self-esteem plays a role. But there are other practical strategies I found to be useful over time that I want to share.

I edited the original vision of the art book to make room for the creative practice and memoir aspects. I want the book to be universal no matter what people are wanting to create. There are principles and creative-thinking approaches that I hope will be useful to any body of work.

I was close to sending the proposal to agents and publishers when I realized that even if it was picked up, it might be 2015-16 before it comes out.

Which is too long for a project that happened in 2013. I then turned to crowdfunding to fund a limited edition book print run for the full color beautiful book I had in mind + practices and tools and my story for readers.

That’s my story … so far! Thank you for this fabulous interview!


Thank you, Niya! I hope everyone will check out Niya’s Kickstarter and make a pledge because I’m more keen than ever to read her book. Here’s a link to a calendar of all the 365 Paintings at a glance. You can also find Niya on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.


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In 2014, I’m going to read as few books as possible.

I know, it’s an unusual goal. Who resolves to read less? Isn’t reading good for you? Every single list of advice for aspiring writers says, “Read a lot. Read as much as you can.”

And since books are like oxygen to me, reading less is a scary prospect. Last year I read 100 books. The year before that, 63 books. This year I’m asking myself to keep the total to 36. Three books a month.

Why the change? Well, in the fall I noticed that Margaret has been in charge of my reading habits for quite a while. She loves tracking the books I finish, and she loves seeing the numbers add up ~ they give a nice boost to the ego.

Mireille does get involved, insisting that I read the best books I can find, the ones that fill me up with truth and beauty. She has me copy down particularly good quotations for future use.

(Don’t know who Margaret and Mireille are? Read this post.)

But Margaret’s emphasis on volume naturally leads to speed, more short books (graphic novels and children’s books), and adult books that are quick and easy to read (meaning more genre or plot-driven books). I always have a steady stream of new material coming in through holds placed at the library, and the due dates force me to finish books quickly and return them.

Mireille often feels bloated on this reading diet. She hardly has a chance to process one book before we’re on to the next. Instead of talking or writing about the book, or letting the stories and ideas sink in, she just gorges herself and moves on.

Margaret would never permit me to re-read a book because it wouldn’t contribute to progress on my goal. She encourages audiobooks over podcasts. She even has me ploughing through books I don’t particularly like just so they will “count.”

Performance-based reading isn’t a new thing for me.

Many years ago, I was told that the definition of an “avid reader” was someone who read at least one book a week. I was already tracking my reading in the Book Lover’s Diary that Shawn gave me for Christmas 1997 (inscribed from “a Book Lover lover”), so of course I made a spreadsheet to see how well I was performing. I had read quite a bit in grad school, both the assigned volumes (30 linked short story collections as background for my thesis project) and the guilty pleasure stuff like James Herriot and Edith Nesbitt.

Counting the books I read using this measuring stick of 52 books a year for an avid reader set me on the course of “more is better.”

Then I came upon the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2012, which turbo-charged the whole venture. Now I could see the goals that my friends set, and congratulate or chastise myself depending on how I compared. I got that hit of satisfaction when I finished a book and logged it on Goodreads, watching my total inch up.

Last December 2012, just when I was setting my new Reading Challenge goal, I read a Slate article that only fed my obsession with more. In 366 Days, 366 Books, Jeff Ryan describes how he read a book a day for a year, and I adopted many of his strategies to meet what was for me an ambitious target: 100 books. I fell behind a little in the spring but picked up over the summer and then crammed 15 short books in the last weeks of December to meet the goal. But the victory felt a little hollow.

And I had a flashback to Grade Five. Mrs. Taylor was hosting a reading contest for the class, and first prize was a new book. I remember that we got bonus points for reading Canadian authors, so I raided the library for Jean Little and Janet Lunn. By the end of term, I was solidly in the lead, but I needed just one more book to reach a total of 100,000 points.

446678The trouble was that the contest ended the next day, and I had read everything on my shelf. The library had closed for the evening. So I begged my parents to let me finish The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald, the special book that we’d been reading aloud as a family.

Can I just emphasize? Reading this book would not help me win the contest ~ I had already won. Reading this book would only help me reach a meaningless milestone with lots of zeroes.

Bless my parents’ hearts, they said yes. They let me carry the book off alone and dash through the remaining pages, treating it like a commodity instead of a sacred ritual. And I’d like to officially apologize to them: Sorry, Mom and Dad and Melody. Sorry for putting my focus on numbers ahead of our shared reading experience.

(By the way, I chose a copy of Bel Ria: Dog of War by Sheila Burnford as my contest prize. Thanks, Mrs. Taylor!)

Penelope Trunk says that the things we measure are really important. And I realized that the way I tracked the books I read significantly affected the way I read.

So in 2014, I’m trying a different tack.

Fewer books. More short stories and literary fiction. Fewer library books and more purchases (because I can choose more carefully, slow down, and savour books I own). More discussion, online and at book club. More memorizing poetry. More re-reading books. Maybe even less reading, more writing. (Find me on Goodreads to follow my book consumption delectation.)

Once I started questioning “more and faster is better” in my reading life, that led to examining other patterns and habits too. Which eventually led me to my word of the year for 2014. But that is for another post . . .

Speaking of books, I’ll be posting an update soon about my own progress with Pilgrimage of Desire. I’m also reading an advance copy of Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider, so I’ll be writing about that. And later this week I have an interview with Niya Christine, who is running a Kickstarter campaign for a gorgeous book about her 365 Paintings project.

God, I love books. This year I’m going to love them differently, but my love will never die.

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc


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I’m turning forty in September, and as a birthday present to myself, I went to Eric Maisel’s Deep Writing workshop at Hollyhock retreat centre on Cortes Island. (Eric is my creativity guru. He trained me as a coach and his teaching has had a huge influence on my life. So meeting him in person and spending six days in session with him was a big deal for me.)

Inspired by Nova Ren Suma’s Writer’s Colony Diary, I kept a journal of my time at Hollyhock.

Here it is. (I’ll warn you now that it’s a long post, almost 4,000 words, but I trust you’ll find it interesting.)

Day 1: Friday, August 9

9:56 pm

The basement Chat Room is the only depressing place at Hollyhock. Almost as if they made it drab and gloomy on purpose to punish us for needing technology when we’re supposed to be having a glorious unplugged experience in nature. And yes, I plan to breathe the fresh air and do yoga and walk in the garden.

But I also plan to write like the dickens. And for that I need my computer.

Computers are not welcome in the Lodge or the Ocean Deck or my dorm room. Computers are only allowed in the Chat Room and in Bluff House, where Eric Maisel is leading our Deep Writing workshop. So I am looking at cement walls in fluorescent light and listening to some kind of generator noise because my computer is verboten elsewhere. This will not stop me.

My alarm woke me before 5 am today so I could make the day’s journey to Cortes Island. My itinerary was thus:

  • City bus downtown
  • Greyhound bus to Horseshoe Bay
  • Ferry to Nanaimo
  • Greyhound bus to Campbell River
  • Ferry to Quadra Island
  • Taxi across Quadra
  • Ferry to Cortes Island
  • Shuttle van to Hollyhock

I happily spent the time by myself, reading Small Damages by Beth Kephart, listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, napping, watching the scenery, and taking self-portrait photos. But the whole way I was dogged by what I would normally call guilt but is more accurately named “distress at making others’ lives more difficult in order to do something nice for myself.” It’s not that I feel undeserving of this five-day escape to what is basically summer camp for grown-ups. I just struggle with how it puts other people out. My friend Alex babysat the kids for the day. I left Shawn with practically no groceries in the house and a scribbled meal plan on a sticky note. He will have to go to Costco with two children BY HIMSELF. He will have to leave work early to pick Lia up from circus camp. All the things I usually do. I should have let myself feel exultant to get away, but instead I felt distressed.

But when I arrived on Cortes around 4:30 pm, the specialness of this time and place started to seep in. I went swimming in the ocean and saw a purple starfish. I ate plums from the garden, and cake sprinkled with marigold blossoms, and dates so pure I was sure they were the Platonic ideal of dates of which all others are a pale imitation.

Best of all, I spent 90 minutes in a room with Eric Maisel and eleven other writers. Eric is masterful at telling writers what they so desperately need to hear — that creative anxiety is utterly normal, and that we can still show up, trust the process, dispute the thoughts that don’t serve us, and do the hard work because we are writers. With the assured cadence of his voice, he had us eating out of his hand in no time. At the end of the discussion, instead of sending us to our rooms, he told us to write for 20 minutes. We all dove in with pencils and pens scratching, chomping at the bit to get words down on paper.

Afterward, I came to the Chat Room so I could download my 750words.com journal entries from last year. My plan is to write Part 5 of Pilgrimage of Desire while I’m here. Twelve or fifteen thousand words. No, scratch that. My plan is to write like the dickens, as much as I want, whenever I want. Look at that, I just did.


Day 2: Saturday, August 10

10:39 am

It’s our first Deep Writing morning session and I’ve spent the last twenty minutes staring and sighing at my laptop screen. I’m trying to figure out where to re-enter Pilgrimage — I stopped working on the draft three weeks ago, just before we left for our Ontario vacation. I did do some free-writing about our time in Europe, but I’ve lost the thread of the narrative, a sense of the structure, what belongs in each chapter. There’s too much, and I don’t have all the building blocks in front of me, so I’m not sure how to start piecing things together.

I wonder whether I should work on something else, something that’s easier to start. I don’t want to waste my time here (waste? How would I waste it? I’m engaged with my writing. What more can I do than show up and trust the process and make mistakes?). This morning I woke up before 6 am (thank you, jet lag) and read over my journal entries from last summer. Flooded myself with emotions and images from that turbulent time in my life when we were trying to get settled in Ontario and then suddenly took a wild left turn to Vancouver, when I was trying to write two books at once and getting thoroughly over-worked-up.

Afterward I went to yoga and continued to be bombarded with random images from my past: the library in Alphen aan de Rijn, a street in Beijing, Nico’s Angry Birds pillow that I used as a zafu in Malaysia, the cover of a John Gardner book. Feeling buffeted by double-vision, here and not-here. Is Pilgrimage the thing I want to work on here? I do want to make progress on it. But I want to be open to this experience in the present, not living in the past. But that is what I must do to write a memoir. So I dither, re-read, edit, worry. Then I come here to work it out in words.

For a while I’ve been thinking of writing cards for the Post Secret project. When the idea came back to me last night, it gave me a jolt. I wonder whether the gift shop has post cards? I wonder why I feel this need to get the secrets out. I wonder whether I dare to even write them down. I wonder what that experience would be like. I wonder whether I am just trying to avoid sitting with Pilgrimage.


11:29 am

Next writing session. I’m trying again with the book. Here are the thoughts that are not serving me at the moment:

  • That chapter is banal and needs a lot of editing.
  • I am so sick of myself.
  • Why can’t I see the shape of this chapter? Usually I can see it.
  • Now I have too much source material. I could spend hours reading notes and not write anything.
  • I am really sick of myself.

Eric is talking about ways to calm our anxiety and stay with the writing. If I weren’t in session, I would probably take a nap right now. A way of fleeing the anxiety. Instead, I need to disperse it some other way. This journal helps. But I need some better thoughts.

  • I can always go back and edit.
  • My story will be interesting to the people who need it.
  • Sometimes I see the shape, sometimes I don’t. I know I’ll find it.
  • I’m here to write.
  • I love my story, even when I’m sick of it.

Tears on that last one. And here’s another one: “I am not my story.” Pilgrimage is not me, it’s my work. I can be sick of my work without rejecting myself. And I can stay with my work even when I’m sick of it. I can find things I like about it.

I’m also watching myself go through this, saying, yes, yes, you know how this goes. You recognize the resistance and how to persist and reframe. You’re moving around, trying to find out what the work requires. You’re okay. You’re not doing it wrong. You don’t need to have prepared better. You showed up where you’re at and you’re curious about how this process will unfold. It may not be dramatic. There may be no epiphany. That’s okay. You’re okay. You can keep trying again.

What Eric is teaching us, and what I’m remembering again, is that writing isn’t a mountaintop experience. It’s part of our daily life. So in a place like this, with the pressure to have a really profound experience of change and enlightenment, I need to give myself extra permission to just have the experience I’m having. I anticipated this issue ahead of time, of wanting the retreat to count EXTRA SPECIAL MUCH, but that doesn’t mean I can avoid it.

I used to only have mountaintop writing experiences, because I had so much resistance and anxiety that it took a crucible like this to break through it. Now I have a regular writing practice — yes, it could be more regular, but it’s pretty darn regular. Isn’t it more valuable to have a regular practice than a spectacular experience?

Am I thinking now that I didn’t need this workshop, I didn’t need to be here? I already know deep writing, I just need to keep doing it? Hmm, I’m going to say, I haven’t discovered why I need this workshop yet. I am prepared to discover why. I won’t try to decide why ahead of time.


2:07 pm

I went to lunch stewing in my funk. It didn’t help that I was ravenous — I overate at dinner last night and promised not to repeat the experience this morning, but I should have had another egg and more apricot polenta to tide me over.

I ate alone because I was too rattled to make small talk. But after lunch I took my coffee to sit with a few other Deep Writing participants. Pyx, a painter in her seventies who lives on Hornby Island, asked me how my book was going.

“I’m struggling,” I confessed. “If I were at home this would just be an off writing day and I’d try again tomorrow. But it’s the big, expensive retreat that I’ve been looking forward to for a year, so it’s frustrating that things aren’t going well.”

“What would you say if you were coaching yourself?” she asked.

Good question. The fact that I’m supposed to know this stuff already makes it worse.

“I guess I’d say that I should decide to relax and just have the experience I’m having instead of feeling bad for not having a peak experience.”

“Does it make a difference that Eric is here?” I had told Pyx that I studied with him and looked up to him very much.

“Most of what he’s saying is familiar — I’ve heard him say it before or I’ve said it to others. I’m not going to have the exciting epiphany that I see others having, where they have a sudden hope that their writing life can be better, because I already have a pretty good writing life.”

“You miss the high,” Pyx said.

“Yes. That’s right.”

Pyx talked a little about her own creative disappointments. She’s worked as a painter for decades, but her art is not in the Whitney or MOMA. She didn’t have a solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. And yet there are three hundred, four hundred people who have bought her paintings and find them meaningful. Shouldn’t that be enough for her?

I’m blinking back tears as she talks because I feel her disappointment and my own, and because I’m glad to be having this moment of connection with her.

“I notice that I discount other people’s meaningful experiences with my previous work,” I said, “because I’m no longer having a meaningful experience with that work. So the book of short stories I published a decade ago, or the blog post I put out last year, they don’t count with me anymore, even though other people are just finding them and appreciating them. Like Eric was saying, it brings me back to the primacy of my own sense of meaning when I write.”

“Yes,” said Pyx. “I decided that, whatever happened before, I am here, now, writing.”

We talked more about my book. I told her that the last section was about our move to Vancouver, about grieving something that’s over even when the new thing is very good, about trying to preserve the values of Operation Hejira even when we weren’t on the road. About being ordinary again after you’ve been special.

“I missed the high,” I said.

Pyx asked more questions and we wrestled the themes back and forth: the call to adventure, adapting to changing needs, material simplicity. She said that she thought the thread of connection with family would be especially compelling for young parents struggling to enjoy each other amid the avalanche of stuff and activities.

She got me excited again about the book. And she helped me look at it as a book again, and not as a mass of memories.

“Thank you for talking to me about it,” I said. “I’m going to try to stay in the now.”

“Could this moment be any better?” Pyx asked, holding my eye with compassionate intensity.

I didn’t know whether it was a rhetorical question or not, but I answered anyway. “It would be better if I hugged you!”

So I hugged her. And yep, it was better.


5:41 pm

This morning, as I was sitting waiting for session to begin again, Eric asked, “Are you okay?” Maybe he noticed me struggling and sighing.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m just trying to find my way back into the book. It’s been a few weeks.”

“Trap door!” he said.

“That would be nice!” I said.

I’ll have to tell Pyx that her conversation was my trap door, because I’ve dropped right back into the book again. I wrote almost 500 words during our first afternoon writing stint, and I’m set to do more now. Working on Pilgrimage just feels normal again. How amazing that it can turn on a dime like that. This (by which I mean Eric’s teaching, the structure of the class, and the people I’m here with) really does work.


Day 3: Sunday, August 11, 2013

6:11 am

Typing out the date, I realized it’s my brother’s birthday. I just texted him.

Yesterday added up to a great writing day. Almost 1,000 words done on Pilgrimage, which finished off Chapter 15. After dinner I spent a little time in the hot tub, then came back to my computer to do a few hundred words so I could start fresh on Chapter 16 today.

Now that I’m working again, I feel like I can set a more realistic goal. I’ve decided to go back and finish Part 4, so that means three chapters of 3,000 words each in three days. I have two hours now before breakfast. And, go!

12:00 pm

I don’t know why I’m always surprised to be more productive. I’ve written 2,000 words in 2 hours today, which is almost double my usual speed. I think I try to protect myself from disappointment by not expecting more, but that sometimes backfires by making me settle for less.

This is our second writing session of the morning and instead of writing I went to the yoga studio and did a little movement. My left shoulder was very tight even before we went to Ontario for vacation, and it’s still tight now and getting worse because of all the writing time. I didn’t realize there was a yoga class this morning — that would have helped.

Eric had us write “I will not” statements for our writing practice. I don’t like to make too many rules for mine because I just know I’ll break them and get down on myself, and I also know that I don’t need too many rules to get the writing done. So I wrote “I will not give up.” Just that one rule will get me to the next book, and the next one.

Then I wrote, “I will not neglect my body.” I really do need a regular yoga practice and proper food and massages and shoulder exercises to stay in good form. By naming them to be in service of my writing, I can make them meaningful to me.

Finally I wrote, “I will not discount the importance of my morning writing practice.” When I first started trying to develop a morning writing practice in 2006, I saw it as the be-all end-all solution to my writing life. I was ecstatic when it worked and despondent when it didn’t. I tried again in 2009 with more success, but still was never regular. Afterward, I downgraded early rising to just one of the tools in my toolbox for getting my writing done. (Others were coffee shops and retreats and “writing in the middle of things.”)

I have used early rising quite a bit in the last few years, but during the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I got into a bad cycle of writing very late at night and sleeping in. I know that’s not sustainable for me, so I’d like to once again elevate the importance of writing first thing in my day and writing in my office.


Day 4: Monday, August 12

11:42 am

Ah, how quickly we get used to the good life. Already I am starting to take for granted the gourmet meals prepared for me, the absence of children’s demands, the freedom to read, sleep, and write whenever I want to. This life is beginning to feel normal, routine. I get up early and write, I go to yoga, I eat blueberry pancakes and eggs dijon, I listen to my foremost creative mentor speak, I work on my memoir. This is the most perfect, luxurious life I can imagine, and on the third day in I have already adjusted to its wonder.

I’m not judging myself for this, just noticing. It’s human nature to acclimatize. I am trying to keep myself slow and appreciative. And I will carry away with me what this retreat is providing — chapters of my memoir finished, creative lessons reinforced, new friendships, a deep hunger for rest and nourishment fed.

I am a little stalled on Chapter 17. I have the theme, “Anything Is Possible,” but I’m trying to decide which scenes to include that speak to the theme, and how overt to be in addressing it. Eric says, “Choosing causes anxiety, and writing involves making choices.” I have fifteen more minutes of writing time, and I will spend it sitting with my options and making choices — no pressure to write.


Day 5: Tuesday, August 13

10:20 am

I finished Chapter 17 yesterday — just kept sitting with it and adding to it over and over again until it was done. I’m ashamed to say that I also let myself get distracted during my writing sessions with my email and internet and that felt . . . almost poisonous, somehow, that I let the world into my sacred space. I want to remember that feeling so I remember to avoid it.

Today has begun emotionally. I got up a little later than usual and sat with the beginning of Chapter 18, but didn’t add much. This is the chapter about our return to Canada and our decision to move to Vancouver, a tumultuous time to go back to.

Then I went to yoga class, because despite the wonderful Thai massage I had yesterday, my shoulders and upper back are still very tight and sore, and I knew I needed to move so I could get through the writing today. At the end of class, when I was rolled on my side in the fetal position, the instructor had us thank ourselves for our practice and for one other thing. I opened a tiny crack to the love I feel for myself, and was suddenly aware of my deep need for that love, for feeling myself beloved. And of the need for releasing all this stirred up emotion, and of how very precious and important this time here has been to me. I sat on my mat with the tears coursing down my face, waiting until everyone left, just breathing into the feeling of longing and blessing.

Just before our first writing session today, Eric had us write our shoulds on a piece of paper so we could tear it up and throw it into the air — a little ritual to help us release those tight places. I wrote, “I should have finished and published several more books by now,” and the emotion welled up again. And I know this thought passed through yesterday, dry and intellectual, just a cool observation that if I could write a chapter in a day, surely I could have finished a book or two by now. And here was the thought working itself out of my skin like a piece of shrapnel.

Around the room we went, everyone reading their should and tearing it dramatically into bits. I wept the whole time, my writer’s heart and my coach’s heart breaking in sympathy with all these regrets. At the end, I read mine with feeling, adding a petulant coda at the end — “like all my friends from grad school did!” — then ripped and tossed it away.

And now this page absorbs my emotions, like the tissue I needed afterward to mop my nose and cheeks.


Day 6: Wednesday, August 14

10:33 am

Our last Hollyhock deep writing session.

We are already saying good-byes, exchanging email addresses, planning Facebook groups and writing retreats to stay in touch. Twelve writers began the retreat making small talk about where we live and how old our kids are, and those conversations spun out wider and deeper, into threads of ideas and sinews of feeling that connected us close.

What am I taking home with me? A renewed commitment to daily writing practice, particularly in the morning. The sound of Eric’s voice calmly reminding me to “err on the side of my own opinion” and “trust the process.” New writing friends in Vancouver, Victoria, the States. The bedrock assurance that I will finish this memoir. 13,000 words, including three new chapters of Pilgrimage, and the reminder that I can write a lot when I put in the time. A vision of the next writing project and the one after that, which I know are waiting for me. A decision to do things for my body that support my writing: yoga, singing, eating protein.

Last night I wrote a little after dinner, not much, but enough to remind myself that this work is important to me. Then I went back to the Lodge, where writers were gathered over wine and chatter. I become engrossed in discussion with the writer next to me, Adriana — a discussion we carried with us to the hot tub overlooking the ocean, and then into the ocean itself, on bare feet over rocks and logs, the bioluminescence in the water mirroring the stars overhead (I’m sure I’m not the first writer to say that, but it’s no less beautiful when you see it yourself for the first time). I told Adriana that my word of the year is Stardust, and I added these little creatures, dinoflagellates, to my list of the many ways stardust has appeared to me in 2013.

I’m sorry that this time is over, a memory now instead of an anticipation — or am I? Because now I have the tangible gifts of this time to take home with me. And this record, in words and pictures, of what it was like.

A peak experience. Not noisy and ecstatic like whitewater, but quiet and powerful like an ocean current. Happy fortieth birthday to me.


P.S. One of the things Eric talked about was the importance of owning your identity as a writer. We went around the table and each of us had to say, “I am a writer” out loud. It felt momentous and also matter-of-fact to assert this about ourselves.

My mini-class, Claim Your Artistic License, is about just this thing: recognizing and declaring your identity as a writer or artist. Sign up on my mailing list to do it yourself!


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