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Tuscany

Praise/criticism

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We’re in Isla Holbox, Mexico right now with new groups of writers who are exploring, creating, discovering and encountering. Each of our retreats includes a series of prompts, often in question form, designed to get our minds going, to dig deeper and to tap into that river of authenticity that takes us to an open place. We try to write in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, in a limited period of time. to eliminate the inner editor and just get some words down on paper. In Tuscany 2016, one of the presented questions was ‘What’s my story of praise and criticism?’ Below is my response.

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It’s the thing that goes on, the thing I can’t control in other people’s heads and barely in my own, the one that tells me, Good Lord, Woman, haven’t you learned how to pack a suitcase yet? The wonderment at somehow convincing myself that squeezing all of the air out of a space would make it easier to carry, when, in fact, it’s like that thing they say about the Earth, how if you squeezed all of the air out of everything then the planet would be the size of a soccer ball but still weigh the same. And sometimes that’s what I carry. But these things are no longer the driver, but simply the screaming kids in the back seat. I long to be elegant, to never clatter my silverware or trip over my own feet, and if there are lessons to be learned from these distractions, I don’t know, but that’s all they are, distractions. Because age is good for something, and that’s knowing that most things are silly and that there are no somedays. That all you really have is to be here now, and some years are more prone to remind you that it’s time to use the good china and the pretty linen and to wear that dress. You learn that you can’t avoid the dark, and in fact, it’s long past time to seek it out. You learn that sometimes pain is least painful when you crawl inside it, become it, to find the smallest origin of it and expand inside of it until it bursts. To look under the bed and say, hello, monster, come out and play. You begin to see the beauty in the whole, to understand that painters seek the right kind of light not for the light itself but for the play of light and dark. You begin to dust off that heavy trunk in the corner that carries the carefully folded and preserved statements and lessons passed along for the sake of safety or good intention or not such good intention, the collection of proclamations, yellowed and frayed but very carefully kept, the ways you still convince yourself you’re not enough just as you are. You begin to unfold them and see them as silliness, too. Maybe you actually find something in there that can be spun into silk. You invite the shadow on the other side of the mirror to laugh with you, and maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t but you see it for what it is. You cry for the ones who won’t be convinced but then you let it go. You see the falseness and have no patience for it and maybe now that you’ve unfolded some parchment from the trunk and it’s not so heavy anymore, you start to let your impatience show a little more. You stop hiding your crazy. You start seeing through the veil, you start seeing more clearly what is real, what is life, what is love.

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Why cats are natural writing companions

A six-toed Hemingcat.

A six-toed Hemingcat.

Molly, my first writing companion.

Molly, my first writing companion.

For the past 22 years, I’ve had kitty friends keeping me company while I write. My first kitty Molly took up residence on an ottoman next to my desk while I painstakingly constructed my first novel, now my book-in-a-drawer, and since then, there’s always been a feline companion around to keep me on track.

Whenever I travel, I look for them, too, and they always seem to be looking back. Travel and creativity and cats have become a sort of natural trinity for me; whenever I’m out of my element these four-footed magical mascots seem to check in to see how things are going. They offer a sort of continuity and familiarity between solid ground and the ether of creativity.

Occhi Verde.

Occhi Verde.

In Tuscany where we stay for our retreat, my feline friend is Occhi Verdi—Green Eyes. The first year, in our writing circle near the end of the retreat, he joined us and settled into my arms, a farm cat but also an agritourismo cat; he knew how to welcome guests. The second year, we arrived and he marched up to me as if to say you have been gone an awfully long time. The following year, he greeted me during a breakfast sunrise, waiting not-quite-patiently for me to share my yogurt bowl.

 A few years ago a friend and I decided to take a winter trip to Key West. We went, marginally interested in Hemingway but more so in the six-toed cats, supposed descendants of his original companions.

We were entranced by the kitties, often named after famous people, that occupied the house and the grounds. We stood at the graves of Kim Novak and Willard Scott. We followed one confident feline who seemed to take over the tour. We explored the grounds. We said hello to cats perched on fence posts and lolling in the garden. They seemed bored with tourists but mostly tolerated our affection, except for the seven-toed Greta Garbo, who really did want to be alone.

Me with Greta Garbo, before she got reclusive.

Me with Greta Garbo, before she got reclusive.

The proper term for cat with more than the usual number of toes is polydactyl.

My cousin, a victim of spellchecker, once sent out a message that informed the family we got a new cat and she is a pterodactyl.

Hemingway isn’t alone. Lots of writers have shared their writing space with cats, and some like William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates, and Nobel winner Doris Lessing have written books about them. For me, a cat’s special (and often weird) behavior provides metaphors for the creative process:

1.     Cats are like ideas. You can’t force them to come to you. When they do come, they’ve chosen you for a reason, and it’s best to pay attention. Nurture the relationship.

2.     Cats would rather sit. Writers sit. Writing is a solitary activity and sometimes we write for a long time and forget until we emerge from our bat caves and wonder where everybody went. Now you’re not alone, and you’ve got the best kind of company: One who gets you, and one who’s quiet.

Hazel.

Hazel.

3.     Cats are creatures of routine. A cat you live with will learn when you should be working. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be, he or she will often stare expectantly and incessantly or resort to meowing and nudging. My Maine Coon kitty Hazel was insistent that I sit where I was supposed to when I was supposed to. Writers need that: A reminder to sit down and focus.

4.     Cats also remind you when it’s time to take a break. There’s food, you know, and you do have to eat.

5.     Cats go directly to the source of pain. On a particularly painful day when a relationship ended, my sweet brown tabby/Siamese mix Molly curled up on my chest, finding the exact place where I felt the physical pain of emotional separation. As writers, sometimes we need to follow cats directly to the wound.

Rocket.

Rocket.

6.     Sometimes they know where the story is going before we do. Perhaps you’ve read about Oscar, the cat who could predict the deaths of hospice patients and sit with them in their final hours. This cat had an extraordinary sense. So do our characters. Let them tell the story and lead you to what’s happens next.

7.     They operate on instinct. My newly adopted 14-year-old lynx-point Siamese cat, Rocket, a darling who likes to lounge in the sun and drape himself on warm laps, nonetheless is an efficient mouser. There’s no moment of hesitation or thought – it just happens, and you find yourself with an unexpected and unsettling gift waiting for you. Writing can do that, too, offering up twists you really didn’t see coming.

Rocket, hunkering down.

Rocket, hunkering down.

8.     Sometimes they turn and scratch the shit out of you. The best characters can be those who don’t do what you expect them to do. Predictability is boring. Also, we each have those hair-trigger pain bodies that set us off – what are your narrator’s raw nerves? What is the moment, person or action that gets your character’s goat?

9.     Sometimes they tell you to just hunker down for now. The aforementioned Rocket prefers to curl up under a blanket. Sometimes the writing process can make us feel that way, and sometimes it’s okay just to stay in bed and regroup.

10. Cats are naturally curious, and so are writers. Wandering is good for our souls. Come wander with us in Mexico, Maine, Tuscany or Costa Rica. There’s room for you, and maybe you’ll even meet a friendly feline guide on your journey.

Marrakech cats.

Marrakech cats.

The why and why not

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There’s a reason you searched “writing retreats” or clicked on something that led you here. Something that said Italy or Morocco or Mexico or Maine and yoga and wine and yes, okay, writing. Maybe it’s a bit of escapism — you’re sitting in your cubicle or at your kitchen table, wondering trying not to think of the dozens of “to do” list items you have that day and that evening and tomorrow and the day after that. Maybe the idea of scribbling in a journal overlooking the fields of Tuscan grapevines sounds like a great idea for a daydream. Maybe it’s crossed your mind that you’d love to be a writer but it’s too hard or it takes too much time or someone else must be way better than you. Maybe you don’t speak the language of whatever country you’re dreaming about and couldn’t imagine trying to navigate such a sea change.

Maybe it’s exactly what you need.

Something happens on our retreats. Not to everyone and not every time but frequently enough that we know we have something special going on. We’ve conjured the right combination of distance, time and beauty, and we call to the people who are ready to take a big step of faith into possibility, of believing that their light and passion exist somewhere inside even if they can’t quite feel it right then. We become each other’s magic.

We wanted this to be a different kind of retreat — there are places that offer in-depth critiques and there is a place for that. But we just want you to write, and to write without the pressure of it being “good.” We offer encouragement, positivity, and the cameraderie of creation. It can be a beginning point for a new piece of writing, a new direction for a current project, or just that — a beginning point, period. We write, yes, but we take the time to just be. Usually with yoga and probably wine and definitely good food and sometimes horses and other fun stuff.

We have space for you in Mexico, Maine, and oh, yes, we can still make room for you in Morocco. Come unlock your magic with us.

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Writing Prompts and Writing Retreats

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What’s the deal?

Why is it that we say we love to write, we want to write, we NEED to write and then, we don’t even sit down to do this thing that we love and want and NEED.

Or we sit down to do it, the writing that we love and want and NEED, and we don’t know where to start?

I have many ideas of what I want to write about, stories that have nagged at me for as long as I remember. Stories about shoes by the side of the road. Stories about the woman who lived in a tree.  Stories of the places that dead people go. And I’ve started many of them…

And then I don’t finish them.

We are just about the funniest things I know, us writers. Us people.

I’m not saying that all writers are like that. In fact, there are some writers that just hole up and forget to eat or smoke or straighten up their pen pots. I’m not one of them and I don’t hang out with them but I know they exist. I’ve read about them while I’m eating and smoking and fiddling around with my pen pot, trying to find the stream of inspiration to jump in.

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So I think the biggest reason that I created writing retreats is because I need help with writing. And it turns out that I am not alone – I’ve never gone to a writing retreat (either one that I created or one that someone else did) and been the only one there. And I’ve not been the only one who needed help holding still, help getting started, and help finishing.

Sometimes I like to be different. But when I am feeling insecure about something I want to do, feeling as though I am one of a glorious bunch of creative is like a divine boost.

Thank you to those who joined me in Tuscany.

I am so grateful for your help.

WOW Wallooning

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It started as most things seem to do for us, a “hey, why don’t you…?” invitation that led to a “could we…?” and we found ourselves together again at the Walloon Lake, Michigan home of our good friend, author Robin Gaines. We intended it as a summit of sorts, a planning and strategy session, and we did some of that. But it went as it goes when we get together, an alchemy that churns and spins our souls into some kind of special collective gold. It sparkled in the sun and rain. We came together from faraway, through time zones, air and water, each of us carrying the bumps and twists of rocky pathways, knitting our distinctive selves. We share and reconnect. We conjure and we are just simply there together and somehow we see more clearly.

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While we were there, we visited the nearby Sweetwater Lavender Farm owned by another good friend (and Robin’s daughter) Kalin Sheick & her husband Matt. We pinched lavender between our fingers, the scent of hard work and passion and a little bit of luck. Setbacks happen, like the April snowstorm that wiped out a painful percentage of their lavender crop this year. They kept going. They continue to shape their farm into the vision they have for it. Meanwhile, there are flowers and weddings and daily living to be done.

Each of us – of you – work through our own snowstorms, metaphoric or not. They come. The weather changes, the pressure drops or intensifies, lightning strikes. We try to manage our daily lives while buried under three feet of snow. It’s never easy. Sometimes we pick up a shovel and get to work right away and other times we watch the light dancing on the crystals and wait. Sometimes we put pen to paper. Sometimes we open a bottle of wine and have a dance party.

We’re so grateful to Robin and Kalin for hosting us and giving us this time to breathe and see the light and magic of the lake and ourselves. We continue to shape our organization into what we envision, building our retreats and travels and offerings, and we look forward to having you become part of our beautiful, intricate tapestry.

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Tearing away the layers/ by Kate Brown

"This is Kate. She's from Australia. She just hitchhiked here and was attacked by a dog." The dark-haired goddess said to the table filled with women that I had never met.

Each fragment of her statement was true, just not in that order. I am Kate. I am from Australia. But, I didn't hitchhike from Australia to Tuscany, although that would have been something I could have spent the next few days writing about. I'd hitched a ride from the nearest town of San Gimmy - shortened from San Gimingnano because Aussies abbreviate just about everything. What had happened was that the hostel in Pisa messed up and told me that I could get a bus from some end-of-the-line, butt-fuck nowhere station to San Gimmy when, in fact, I couldn't. Luckily, I found a couple that agreed to share a "taxi", otherwise known as a local in an unmarked car preying on tourists, and I sure as shit wasn't getting in one of those alone. 

Being me, and dressed like a teenage mutant ninja turtle with my 15kg rucksack, I had figured I would walk the remaining seven kilometres to the farmhouse from San Gimmy. I reckon I got about 100 metres before sticking my thumb out. 

The photo was I think a follow up appointment, and I didn't need the wheelchair but it speeds up the process if you look like you do. Getting a lollipop was a clear highlight.

The photo was I think a follow up appointment, and I didn't need the wheelchair but it speeds up the process if you look like you do. Getting a lollipop was a clear highlight.

In my pigeon Italian and with almost as many hand gestures as the average Italian, my driver and saviour wanted to join the retreat in the two minutes it took to arrive. I quickly said thanks and left her with Regina.

Regina was also right about the dog attack, but it didn't happen on the 100 metre walk and two minute drive. It happened in a Belgian backyard about six weeks earlier, but I was still wearing a bandage to protect the newly forming scars from the sunlight. This is a familiar story to many of my friends and family, and to some of you WOWers.

In short, I was bitten twice by a golden retriever; once on my elbow and once on my ribs. I got seven stitches while Benji just got put down. For some reason, even though I was travelling for a whole year, this attack (along with the retreat of course) was a highlight. Although, I don't go around saying this because, well, that shit just sounds masochistic and let's-stay-away-from-her level of weird.

In the immediate weeks after the attack, I hit my lowest point; one of the lowest of my life. I couldn't wash my hair. I had to learn to brush my teeth and wipe my arse with my left hand - obviously not at the same time! I couldn't write about it and most of the time I couldn't even talk to anyone at home because of the time difference. All the while still living in the house of Benji's owners.

Before I had begun the trip eight months earlier, without the much of a plan, I felt privileged and loathed the spoilt manner from which my fellow citizens could act or speak. I wanted to tear away every layer that I had grown up believing, imposed by a culture without thought. I wanted to cut the skin away from my own flesh like separating the thick hide layer from a leg of ham. 

But, here all I really needed was a dog. 

Currently residing in Sydney, Australia, Kate has spent most of her life in Darwin, Northern Territory, and has worked in finance, aviation and hospitality. Writing is a hobby and part of her current studies at Edith Cowan University, which draws on her unique upbringing, diverse travels, and distinct wit. Kate's style is exploratory and experimental, yet tackles social dilemmas while incorporating the subtle humor and ironies of every day life. She's shown here in Florence 2014 with fellow traveler Debbie Brosten.

Currently residing in Sydney, Australia, Kate has spent most of her life in Darwin, Northern Territory, and has worked in finance, aviation and hospitality. Writing is a hobby and part of her current studies at Edith Cowan University, which draws on her unique upbringing, diverse travels, and distinct wit. Kate's style is exploratory and experimental, yet tackles social dilemmas while incorporating the subtle humor and ironies of every day life. She's shown here in Florence 2014 with fellow traveler Debbie Brosten.

Tea, Tuscany & a Birthday/ by Justine Gilbert

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Early morning, there is a softness to the sky that will later give way to storm or fluffy cloud or perhaps that intense azure ring from edge to edge that is so famous here.  I sit with a cup of tea (most un-Italian) and survey the vista in front of me. Somewhere in my soul, I smile because I am home.

My affinity with Italy started with my mother, Fiorentina born, a maternal thread that spooled out to my childhood and beyond. It stretched across Italy from Rome to Milan on many journeys, but in recent years, my life settled for a short span of time in this region.  I have learned so much here: the annual cycle of the contadini, the growling of the tractors as they plant and harvest crops, the cacciatore, with their khaki uniforms and loud pops of the shotguns as they fell the pheasant and wild boar, the agriturismo, with their fields that change colour from green spring to beige blanched summer broken by yellow sunflowers and violent red tomatoes, on to the purple of autumn spotted with pumpkins, and sometimes - if we are lucky -  the white coating of a short snowfall in winter that decorates every ancient roof with a magical dusting. 

I have learned it is hard to find work here, and even harder to make that work pay, so that one can live, eat and survive.  If you are not Toscana, you can never be truly one of them, and yet you will be accepted into the community provided you have the economic means to do for others, either by spending or barter or by being a good inquilino. I admire the Tuscan people, they have had few handouts, survived wars and bombing - still they plough on, paying their way and developing ‘un modo da vivere’ that is envied the world over.

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This land, and all the people I met, became my fourth child.  I helped to plant oliveand fruit trees here, my legacy after my death. I helped to restore vegetable plots, I put in a wood burning stove and learned to use a chain saw so that I could slice the dense wood required into manageable chunks to ease the winter cold with a piping hot stufa.  I endured the zanzare - the ever present mosquitoes, the papatachi, the voracious midges, and I watched with fascination as a myriad of lizards moved rapidly, seamlessly from rock to rock, shedding their tails when predators lurked, so that one did not notice their disappearance into the crevices, whilst the ejected limb wriggled in the dust. 

I walked dogs here, down dry river beds and across the beaches at Cecina.  I have laughed and shared a love of Italy and all things Tuscan with new friends under a silk black sky with diamonds, whilst fire flies blinked across the fields. 

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I have loved watching the birds of prey who settle on the telephone poles and then swoop with unerring accuracy to pick out the field mice.  With fascination, I acknowledged small black scorpions standing their ground on the terra cotta tiles, unafraid of a large human foot approaching.  I have seen the deer, turn and bound away in the pine woods, chased by dogs that had no chance of keeping pace and occasionally the ‘irskine’ or ‘porcospino’ that rattled away hurriedly to hide - illegal to hunt, yet they are prized for their meat. They are a remnant of Ancient Rome and its African connections.  I have seen the many migrants, their ebony faces staring into mine, hawking any trinkets they could find to make their way north to Belgium or Germany.

I remember with pity the many caged dogs that reside in the woods, who sit, barking and howling, waiting for a chance to be released into the hunt by their hunter masters. The chickens in coops, the swallows that circle, the rise and fold of the hills making their nest in the barns, the daily chatter of friends in the piazza, the richness of the local wine, oil and food.

I am sixty years old and I am grateful to have had my birthday here, grateful for the friends who travelled an hour from Montecatini Val di Cecina to share it with me.

And last but certainly not least, the warmth and friendship of Wide Open Writing, an adventure in authorship never to be forgotten and hopefully to continue and follow for years to come.

Grateful for having experienced all of this.  Thank you.  Thank you. Thank you.

This post originally appeared on https://teawithjustine.wordpress.com.

 

Born in New York to a mother who was a ballet dancer and a father who was a journalist, I moved to Long Island and then to London at the age of six. I spent many summers in Italy for reasons of my father’s work, and we all lived in Rome for a year.  My family has had an ongoing love affair with Italy. I began writing as soon as I could write and have had a lifelong passion for literature, poetry and the written word. I would call myself a Scribbler. I write because I must. My thoughts come to me in words I press to the page. I became an English teacher and my writing was focussed on school plays, short stories and poetry much of which I shared with my pupils. I have a B.Ed (Hons) from Leeds University (Yorkshire, UK) - the part of the world where the Bronte sisters grew up. I also have an M.Ed in Literacy Difficulties and Dyslexia assessment. There is nothing more rewarding that seeing a child blossom as they find their creative writing potential, and it has been very fulfilling to be a part of that. I created websites for reading reviews, ran creative writing workshops and competitions, and spent a life encouraging pupils of all ages to write and read.  Three children, two husbands and three dogs filled my personal life (not all at the same time!).  When I wrote my first full length novel at age 54 - set in Tuscany - I opted to upload it on the Kindle site, rather than go the traditional publishing route. My aim being to create a virtual shelf of books to share with friends and family. Indie publishing gives people an outlet for their creativity and I think it’s the best thing about today’s world of literature.   I took early retirement, and moved to Tuscany, where photographing and writing blogs began my focus for annotating an amazing part of the world. I began with  serendipityinitaly.co.uk  and went on to write  hugsfromitaly.wordpress.com , followed by  usachronicles.wordpress.com  when I spent six weeks with family, and subsequently, having left Italy to go back to London, I am currently writing  teawithjustine.wordpress.com   My second novel has been inspired by people I have met, but its completion will be due entirely to WOW, without whose help and guidance, I might have given up. Now I know, in my sixtieth year: Every good book takes the reader on a journey. If you feel you have a book in you, never give up, if a tale is worth telling, it is worth the time to see it through, no matter how long it takes you.  Two Sides of the Coin is due to be uploaded on Amazon Kindle in December under the name of J P Chan Gilbert.

Born in New York to a mother who was a ballet dancer and a father who was a journalist, I moved to Long Island and then to London at the age of six. I spent many summers in Italy for reasons of my father’s work, and we all lived in Rome for a year.  My family has had an ongoing love affair with Italy. I began writing as soon as I could write and have had a lifelong passion for literature, poetry and the written word. I would call myself a Scribbler. I write because I must. My thoughts come to me in words I press to the page. I became an English teacher and my writing was focussed on school plays, short stories and poetry much of which I shared with my pupils. I have a B.Ed (Hons) from Leeds University (Yorkshire, UK) - the part of the world where the Bronte sisters grew up. I also have an M.Ed in Literacy Difficulties and Dyslexia assessment. There is nothing more rewarding that seeing a child blossom as they find their creative writing potential, and it has been very fulfilling to be a part of that. I created websites for reading reviews, ran creative writing workshops and competitions, and spent a life encouraging pupils of all ages to write and read.

Three children, two husbands and three dogs filled my personal life (not all at the same time!).  When I wrote my first full length novel at age 54 - set in Tuscany - I opted to upload it on the Kindle site, rather than go the traditional publishing route. My aim being to create a virtual shelf of books to share with friends and family. Indie publishing gives people an outlet for their creativity and I think it’s the best thing about today’s world of literature. 

I took early retirement, and moved to Tuscany, where photographing and writing blogs began my focus for annotating an amazing part of the world. I began with serendipityinitaly.co.uk and went on to write hugsfromitaly.wordpress.com, followed by usachronicles.wordpress.com when I spent six weeks with family, and subsequently, having left Italy to go back to London, I am currently writing teawithjustine.wordpress.com  My second novel has been inspired by people I have met, but its completion will be due entirely to WOW, without whose help and guidance, I might have given up. Now I know, in my sixtieth year: Every good book takes the reader on a journey. If you feel you have a book in you, never give up, if a tale is worth telling, it is worth the time to see it through, no matter how long it takes you.

Two Sides of the Coin is due to be uploaded on Amazon Kindle in December under the name of J P Chan Gilbert.

Finding inspiration

“You have treasures hidden within you … and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think small.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

One of the first questions people often ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” They’re rarely satisfied with the answer, because truthfully, I don’t know.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed in a collective unconscious, a source of archetypal characters that we as humanity carry with us. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book on creativity and inspiration, Big Magic, believes creativity exists on a level of enchantment, something mystical and magical. She says ideas exist independently and may visit you, and if you’re not ready or open to a particular idea, it will visit someone else.

Gilbert tells the story of a very specific plot line she developed for a manuscript but did not carry through. Soon after, she met author Ann Patchett, who later told Gilbert about a book she was writing that essentially had the same, very specific plot line as Gilbert’s original idea. Nobody had shared (or stolen) an idea. Coincidence? Gilbert believes the idea wanted to come into existence and had moved on to another author to make it happen.

Sound a little “woo-woo”? Well, creativity is mysterious. You can chalk it up to coincidence or shared experience. But I’ve seen happen frequently firsthand, either in ideas or elements. For example, a writer friend and I swapped manuscripts and discovered we had both created a character with exactly the same name. A lot of it naturally has to do with being a part of a culture that’s exposed to similar kinds of stories, news and events. But a lot of it’s downright spooky.

The mind wants to be ready and available to capture ideas. But most writers and artists go through dry spells. This winter I’ve felt stuck – lacking inspiration, meh. I opened my works in progress and don’t feel much like working. I think creativity can go through cycles, too, just like the seasons. I feel like winter has descended on my ability to create, too, slowing things down just a bit.

When that happens, how do you “unthaw”? How do you draw creativity out of the ether and onto the page?

1.     Acknowledge that you’re feeling creatively blocked. It sets in motion the intention to be unblocked, and it tells the universe that you’re ready to work and you would like an idea, please.

2.     Hang out with other creative types. Their mojo can rub off, and more likely than not, they know what it’s like to get stuck. Solidarity helps you feel less solitary.

3.     Cross-pollinate. Find another creative outlet. See a concert, go to a wine-and-painting night, take a dance class, make a construction-paper alligator with your child. It all comes from the same place.

4.     Recognize a response from the universe when you see it. Example: Without my bringing up the idea of feeling blocked, a new acquaintance mentioned that sometimes creativity suffers when the mind is in a state of confusion. Determining the source or learning to accept the state of confusion can help shake things loose. The idea that a distraction was blocking me was worth exploring, and helped move my mind around the obstruction.

5.     Recognize potential sources of inspiration or seek them out. I’ve had a lot of success with writing prompts, which can come from a number of sources, including single words that evoke memory or feeling. Try flipping through a book of poetry and reading a single line – write about how it makes you or your character feel. Choose a word from a newspaper article. Ask a friend what’s been on his or her mind and see if you can relate it to what a character is feeling and thinking. At a recent dinner gathering of other creative types, I asked each of the guests for “an interesting word” with the intention of using some or all of them in a writing exercise. (It’s also a fun way to start discussions and learn what might be top of mind for your friends.) They offered up the words “riveting,” “empowerment,” “lyrical,” “Mississippi,” and the invented “bulbalicous,” referring to a proliferation of tulips in the spring. (Yes, you can make up words.) How do you use the words? Any number of ways. Can you use all five words in one paragraph? Can you write a poem that is both lyrical and bulbalicious? What does empowerment mean to you? Do you remember learning to spell the word Mississippi in school? What would your character feel riveted by? Which word evokes the strongest emotion in your character?

6.     Get out of your element. Take a writing retreat. Put yourself in a change of scenery: It can do wonders for your creative mindset. We have two retreats coming up this year, Writing in the Wild at Borestone Mountain in Maine, and a Tuscany writing retreat, Tuscany: A Retreat for the Senses. Getting out of your element on your creative mindset: You don’t have to believe in magic to make it work (though it helps).

Remember, the mind wants to be creative. Why not see what it can do?

An earlier version of this blog post appeared first at http://millwriters.org/finding-inspiration-in-winter-by-nikki-kallio/