This Is An Overseas Post

4 Things Trappist Monks know about Safe Spaces for Creativity

Abbey and church buildings painted white with red trim against a blue sky
Abbey Mariawald, the only existing Trappist monastery in Germany. Founded 1470 A.D. Heimbach, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about safe spaces to create art. On the weekend, we visited Abbey Mariawald, famous for its split-pea soup. Judging from the number of motorcyclists, families, and hikers, they’ve hit on something with universal appeal. They also have a private life that soup-eating tourists don’t see.

  1. While tourists are welcome in the shop, the cafeteria, and the patio, the rest of the Abbey was closed up tight. The Abbey, the Abbey church and the long wall around them were painted a dazzling white. If you want to go in, you have to ring the bell for the Porter and tell him your business.

Physical defenses. We went into the church at 2:00, the time for the None service. We didn’t have to speak to the Porter, but there were 4 physical barriers:

–A glass double-door entry to get into the church,

A metal grille with a gate labelled “Nur für Beter” [only for those who want to pray]

–A fence-like rood screen between the congregation and the monks.

The hoods of the monks. Trappists wear white robes with hoods, so each monk had yet another way to make an individual safe space while singing or praying.

The monks chanted the short service in Latin and the ethereal sound swirled around us. It felt magical.

It would have been impossible to sing that way with a constant stream of doors opening and closing.

Monks know how to structure their space and their time so they can make their art in community.

2. A writing community can be a safe space. Two other writers and I held a one-day writing workshop at the local YMCA. We created a “writers’ buffet” with a variety of writerly tools to choose from, ranging from writing prompts to character and plot development and an exercise on the dreaded inner editor. Everyone liked the tools. But the most empowering thing we did was create a supportive atmosphere for writing.

3. Writers stop writing because they don’t feel “defended.” Jennifer Louden’s and Jennie Nash’s  (Author Accelerator ) recent webinar about getting scary work done advertises a course, but also truly inspiring and insightful tips. According to Jennifer and Jennie, writers don’t stop writing because of fear of failure or even fear of success. Writers stop writing when they don’t have a protected area to create their work.

What’s even worse: When we don’t have a safe space and we stop writing, this can devastate our creativity because then we’re not keeping promises* to ourselves.

*Keeping promises: For a sort of evolutionary narrative what taking out the trash has to do with creativity, check out Chris Fox’s short video.

Cows resting and grazing in a beautiful green meadow with the hills behind changing colors for fall.
These cows at the Abbey Mariawald apparently feel well-defended. Cows might be a useful addition to your next writing group. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

4. How to create defenses for your creative space. In his excellent book, Motivation for Creative People, Mark McGuiness writes about separating internal and external outcomes to create a safe space for ourselves to write.

Focusing on the outcome: publishing, prize, earnings etc. takes us out of our safe space.

Focusing on the goal of making the-scene-we’re-working-on more exciting, funnier, or more vivid takes us deeper into our safe creative space. This is what we mean by “flow.”

The monks at Abbey Mariawald have been singing and praying since the year 1470.  We could take a page from their book** and

–Separate the business and creative sides of our work.

–Choose physical spaces that let us fall into the work

–Seek out other creative people to get the writing juices flowing

–Practice keeping small promises to ourselves.

**I love this tactful request to tourists to return “borrowed” notebooks. What might you request to make your creative space safer?

Note from the monks of the Abbey Mariawald asking that you return the notebook if you accidentally take it with you

“Dear visitors of the Abbey Mariawald, We would like to offer you the chance to follow along in the Divine Office and in this way to lift your heart up to God. If you happen to take this notebook with you when you leave, please make your confession to your priest and let the notebook wander back to us. The monks of Abbey Mariawald.”

 

 

 

 

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Life’s soundtrack should be big: Rossini Opera Festival makes a splash

Front door of Rossini Theater with palm tree and poster for Rossini Opera Festival
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is on the radio and I’m thinking about emotion in music and the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy was over the top! I love watching live orchestras and this one had 5 string basses. 🙂 And the audience was as fun to watch as the opera!

I didn’t expect a fashion event. Of course people are well dressed at a fancy cultural event, but there was so much creativity in people’s outfits. Italy takes fashion seriously.

Black "flat" shoes with sequins and bow ties in three places.
These beautiful sparkly shoes would please any Dorothy or reform any Wicked Witch.

La pietra del paragone was set in a wealthy Duke’s house, complete with swimming pool on the stage. In the opening scene, the cast sang while wearing 1950’s swimming suits in bright colors.

How can you sing, fall into a pool, come up dripping, and sing some more? Don’t people have to breathe?

The comedic characters were dressed in ever more extreme fashion with amazingly clashing shades of salmon and mustard. Of course, the hero and heroine got more and more elegant.

I’ve always enjoyed the comedy of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and accessible operas like Carmen and The Magic Flute. This performance made me feel that singing at the top of your lungs is the only way to live.

Things are going on in the world. Make a noise! Belt it out! Articulate at top speed! And dress up. 🙂

Is what we mean by catharsis? I thought the “sense of relief from extreme emotions” only applied to tragedies. This wasn’t one.

When my mom was getting chemotherapy years ago, she listened to Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle. At the time, I wondered if that would ruin the music for her. But I think it was a way to give a heroic backdrop to a life and death battle.

Life is ridiculous and tragic and heroic. Opera with a swimming pool is just the ticket.

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Basic Garden Vocabulary in German and a side-trip to Mexican Oregano

Vegetable garden overtaken by poppies, nasturitiums, cosmos and zucchini plants
Clearly this garden needs tools and more plants. 🙂

I’ve never grown vegetables in Germany–until this year. That means I need lots of new words!

If you’re considering gardening in Germany, maybe this list will help you out. Or provide you with a little entertainment. Or I’ll just be able to look things up here when I forget them. 🙂

die Gartenschnur–garden twine, jute, often dyed green here.
die Harke–rake (memorization: Rake and Harke both have r’s in them.)
die Hacke–hoe

Note: When my father-in-law (from Northern Germany in Sauerland) said Hacke or Harke, I always thought it was the same word. He pronounces the “r” way back in his throat, somewhere near his toes. When we visit this weekend, we’re going to have a Harke/Hacke challenge. Stay tuned!

Update: I’m crushed at how wrong I was. Even I can hear the difference when he says them. On the bright side, I can finally ask for the tool I want.

die Samen–seeds (not to be confused with der Samen which means seed of the human variety.) Or stay on the safe side and use:

das Saatgut–seeds

der Setzling, die Setzlinge–young plants ready for transplanting into the garden.
das Unkraut, die Unkräute–weed, weeds
die Kräuter–herbs

And for the Dark Side:

der Laubbläser–leaf blower. I was hoping for a creative word for the whining distractions like the German word for vacuum cleaner–der Staubsauger–which is literally “dust-sucker” but I guess you can’t get more literal than leaf blower.

Oh no, now I need to buy 8 different kinds of oregano–these all sound so delicious!

According to the Californians at Rancho Gordo, who are experts in beans of all kinds, these are the two kinds of Mexican Oregano I need to try.

Mexican Oregano

and

Oregano Indio

Who says book research isn’t a plus for family life? You’re probably wondering what Mexican Oregano has to do with 11th century Italy. I was looking up how to cook beans in a glass fiasco for my revised Chapter 1. Anyway, I’m sure Mexican Oregano helps keep up with the zucchini harvest.

Uh, no. My chapter isn’t done. Funny you should ask.

Bye!

Hope your writing, reading, and summer are all going well!

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Forgiving yourself for what you did “on purpose”

Window with six panes looking out on a street with church and palace towers in the distance.
Forgiving yourself can change your perspective. Image: View of yellow palace housing University of Bonn from Greek/Latin library. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

Whack! The little girl smacked her tiny rainbow umbrella down on the restaurant’s marble table with an unexpectedly loud crack. No one was hurt; nothing was damaged–or even knocked over–but her eyes widened in horror.

“But I did it on purpose!” A storm of tears followed and she hid her face against her mother. I wanted put an arm around her and say, “We’ve all done things on purpose. I’ve felt exactly the same way. And so did St. Peter.”

When we see the shocking results of something we’ve done “on purpose” we’re dismayed. Sometimes we hurt someone we love and that makes it even worse. But sometimes a “small” failure horrifies us needlessly. We send ourselves off into a spiral of critique and hurt ourselves most.

This morning, I’m trying to start work on the umpteenth revision of a particularly stubborn work-in-progress. Instead of an umbrella beating a marble table, I’m beating up on myself. The familiar inner critic’s comments show up right away: I made this mess of a draft, I did it to myself, it’s my own fault.

A classic case of I-failed-and-I-did-it-to-myself.

I only know one remedy. Go somewhere private–like the middle of the forest–and confess my limited-ness out loud:

I can’t do this by myself. I need help. I tried and I failed. Forgive me for my shortcomings. Forgive me for my ludicrous resentment of the shortcomings of others. Let me hide my face for a while.

It always surprises me. As soon as I stop making myself the center of the universe, I can show my face again. Relief! I’m not the boss. I can start again with a lighter heart.

It’s so deceptively simple and it saves so much heartbreak.

What helps you when the critical voices threaten to shut you down?

Resources:

Carolyn Kaufman’s excellent blog posts:

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part 1

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part 2

Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame and vulnerability is a good intro to her work on living a whole-hearted life.

An inspiring conversation about courage with Brené Brown and Oprah Winfrey

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Growing into shape: A 1,000-year-old linden tree

Enormous linden tree with a green canopy that makes an almost perfect half-dome over its thick trunk.This 1,000 year old linden tree has such a perfect shape from the outside. A really old tree gives me a new perspective on life and how long it takes to grow something beautiful.Close-up of linden tree showing a trunk almost as wide as a compact car.

This one almost certainly saw a procession of Emperors passing by. It’s very near the open-air museum of Tilleda, a kind of “Emperor rest-stop” as old as the tree.

The sign says this tree stood in the cemetery of a Cistercian convent, in the village, Kelbra. The tree is still here, but there’s no sign of the cemetery.Sign in German Klosterlinde, Alter: ca. 1000 Jahre Standort: ehem. Friedhof des Zisterzierserinnen Klosters Kelbra.

Things look far from effortless on the inside. View up into the heavy branches. Some were braced against the trunk with huge straps.Looking up into canopy of linden tree. Thick branches and lots of green leaves.

It’s a comfort to see a tree loved so well. I recently went to a reading where the author said the content determined the shape of the book. A tree makes it really clear how much the shape of anything depends on the space around it.

If you love old trees, you might like this epic tree too.

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Sometimes the only thing that helps stuck project

. . .is walking around it.

Am I the only one who has to move to get my brain to work? I’m getting the big creative “guns” out today: Scissors, tape, markers in all colors.

What do you all do when a project Just. Won’t. Budge?

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Sketching, the “saggy middle” and The Winged Pen

Paris metro station under construction with spikes covered with orange balls imbedded in the crumbly wall.
A “sketchy” metro station in Paris looks more like St. Stephen pierced with arrows. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

Today, I’m over at The Winged Pen’s Master Your Craft blog post series.

What–you ask–is Master Your Craft? Each Wednesday, the Winged Pen discusses prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING.

(Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.)

My post is about that devious stretch of story landscape known as “the saggy middle.” This morning, I realized I left something out: sketching.

Sketching is what you do when you’re feeling your way into a piece. This isn’t about the whole outline versus drafting controversy. As we all know, there’s more than one way to figure out a story. I always have to use ALL the ways.

Drafting, in my mind, is letting the imagination lead you through an experience.

Outlining, in my mind, is hovering above a story to see which way you’re headed before dropping back down into it.

A sketch tests a tricky part of your outline on another scale. . .if my hero said this, what would happen? Sketch it and find out. Test your thinking with your imagination.

A sketch hints at a possible sequence in your “messy draft”. . .make a list of scenes you’ve already written. Do they make a chain? Test your imagination with your thinking.

I’m sure this seems obvious to all you industrious writers, so what’s my point?

Alternating between outlining and sketching can get you there when everything seems hopelessly stuck. Libbie Hawker writes about “beats” to fill out a story outline. Rachel Aaron writes about the power of getting excited about a scene you are going to write.

Do you do something similar? Or something very different? Please share in the comments.

 Read the Winged Pen post on “saggy middles” here.

Close-up of unusual spikes capped with orange balls.
Getting a fix on your story. Image: Close-up of unusual spikes capped with orange balls. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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