Ciao from Lucca, Italia!


Greetings from beautiful (and, today, rainy) Tuscany. My colleague, Helena Hill, and I arrived two days ago with one of the eleven women joining us on this writing and painting adventure for the next ten days. All but one of the rest of the group are expected within the hour. 

We are at a 400-year-old villa run by the inimitable Karolina Lenart, a fabulous chef, and her husband and family. We were welcomed warmly with a lovely pasta lunch and wine. 

Yesterday morning I walked down from our rented flat in Lucca (we came two days before the retreat) to the cafe below to be greeted by Boris the bulldog and the friendly, and, thankfully, English-speaking staff.  I gobbled a sticky and sweet rice pastry with my cappuccino as I wrote. Boris was friendly but not so much that you were assured he liked you. Coincidentally we encountered another bulldog this afternoon at the villa— Bonito. See if you can guess which is which.


The overnight flight from LAX was uneventful and I even managed to sleep about five hours, though fitfully. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had the entire row of three seats to myself. I also watched two movies and listened to almost four hours of my audio books—Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Pam Houston’s new memoir, Deep Creek, Finding Hope in the High Country. I finished Pam’s book early this morning when I awoke at 2:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep.

Honestly, every human being who cares about the natural world—and perhaps more importantly those who don’t—needs to read this book. It is a lovely treatise on the value of hard work amid the reality of nature and death and grief and loss, humanity and animals and the environment, human folly and hope and despair. It’s funny how someone whose life experiences are so vastly different from your own nevertheless can feel like a deeply connected sister or best friend. 

Our flat in Lucca was vast by European standards—three bedrooms and two bathrooms in the heart of Lucca town. Lucca is a medieval walled city filled with colorful buildings, fine leather shops, boutique clothing and pottery shops, restaurants and gelateria. Oh, and churches, towers and cathedrals. 

Tomorrow—Casa Fiori, painting and writing, on our Call to Adventure.  


Overcoming Creative Blocks

writers block.jpg

I don’t believe in writer’s block, per se, but I do believe we can sometimes create blocks around creative goals. Perhaps we were discouraged as a child by a well-meaning parent or teacher. Perhaps, like me, you were told to quit daydreaming, or told that writing – or painting or dancing or acting – was fine as an avocation, but not something you should take seriously.

Recently, I asked a well-published poet whom I have known for a long time if he would read some of my poems and recommend me for a grant I was applying for. After a week, he wrote me an email and told me he thought my poems were “unremarkable,” that I should probably stick to prose, and that he couldn’t recommend them.

Well, as you can imagine, I was devastated. Not only because it was in contrast to what others had told me, but also because there was not a shred of encouragement in his assessment. No, “If you did this with the poem it would work better,” or “The form doesn’t seem to work here, have you tried this…?” or “The lines could be enlivened here with more figurative language.”

That criticism kept me from writing poetry for nearly six months. Even though, intellectually, I knew better than to put stock in it, it still cut to the core. I let it keep me from doing one of the things I love. Now, after all this time, I am tenuously picking up my pen and writing poetry again.

It is a lesson I learned a long time ago and should have heeded.

Give yourself the gift of not inviting criticism from anyone who is 1) a relative, 2) an academic (more on this in a minute) 3) a friend who doesn’t know anything about writing (or dancing, or painting, etc.) 4) anyone whom you have not paid for their professional opinion.

That said, many writers belong to critique groups, and if you have found one peopled with skilled and experienced writers whom you admire and who are already published, bravo. Writing groups can be successful. Just make sure they are helping you grow as a writer.

Now, about academics. Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) says academics are often frustrated artists who are trained to critique, to take apart, to deconstruct. So that’s what they do. Sadly, often because they are not following their own creative path, they are particularly critical. They rarely offer the kind of encouragement artists need, especially young artists just beginning to practice their craft.

In any case, if criticism of any kind doesn’t resonate with you, disregard it.

Your writing – your art – is yours, no one else’s. Remember that. And trust in yourself and your creative gifts. Everyone’s creation is worthy.

If you find yourself truly blocked, there are a few practical things you can do to shake yourself out of it.

One is to do something else: Go for a walk, watch a good movie, take a nap, read a good book. Let your subconscious work while you focus on something else. Whenever I do this, I always come back to my writing desk with renewed energy and usually some good ideas or a solution to a writing problem. In fact, there is research that indicates that when you stop trying to force something to happen and turn your attention elsewhere, your brain takes over and solves the problem. That’s why many people recommend that you pose a question or problem to yourself just before falling asleep so your mind can work on it while you sleep.

Often the opposite works: Just begin writing, even if you write “blah, blah, blah” and continue that for three pages. Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) both recommend this method. Just write; don’t worry about what it says or how it looks. Eventually you’ll see it turn into something.

I have journaled every morning for most of my adult life, but have recently followed Cameron’s advice and am doing it with much more intention. And you know what? I can honestly say the words are flowing more readily, and my creative side is dancing a jig.

Don’t allow others to discourage you from practicing your art. Stay on your creative path.



Inspiration Knocks

“Creativity is a scavenger hunt. It’s your obligation to pay attention to clues, to the thing that gives you that little tweak. The muses or fairies – they’re trying to get your attention.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

When I read Liz Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, I was going through a similar life transition and deeply resonated with the book, as did millions of others. Since then, I have been intrigued to see her interest in creativity become a passion, and I have learned a lot from her. (See her amazing TED talk.)

The quote above, from the October Oprah magazine article about Gilbert and her new novel, The Signature of All Things, is a great reminder to be aware as writers.

Prompts from the universe, your muse, fairies – whatever you want to call them – are real. But hearing them requires slowing down and listening, being receptive to the creative gifts that come to us. Several times I’ve had powerful experiences like this.

More than 20 years ago I wrote a scene in a creative writing class. I really liked it, but didn’t have a clue where to take it. So I put it away and only very occasionally looked at it. I just didn’t know how it would fit into a larger story.

Then, about three years ago, I was in a dream state in the early morning, barely awake, and the story came to me. I watched the entire novel unfold in my mind’s eye. The scene I had written was clearly a prologue, and I knew the entire narrative from that beginning. I woke up and went to my desk and wrote a brief synopsis and a chapter outline. I’ve been working on the novel ever since.

More recently, I needed to work out a problem with a new nonfiction book idea. Once again, the solution – vivid and detailed – came to me in an early morning dream state.
These moments of revelation, bursts of creative genius, happen all the time, perhaps in small ways we might not necessarily recognize as divinely inspired. But I know they are.

From the perfect word suddenly popping into one’s head, to the discovery of a title for that article or book that had remained elusive.

The muse exists. It works. But you have to let it in, be receptive, invite it to inhabit your creative space. Meditation works, so does journaling. I do both. Listening to music, walking on the beach or through the woods also is effective. Any immersion in Nature will invite your muse to visit. Thoreau went to Walden Pond. Wordsworth walked the English Lake District and gazed upon fields of daffodils.

Muses don’t like to be rushed and they don’t come on command. But with a little openness and invitation, they will come.

An Artist's Prayer

Many of you have read Julia Cameron's wonderful book on creativity, The Artist's Way. I have had my copy since 1991, and while I've read it a number of times, it is only recently that I decided to work the book - do all the tasks and exercises.


It's been an interesting and in many ways surprising journey. I've journaled most of my life, so the morning pages aren't new. What is, though, is the shift I've experienced in my creativity. My writing comes more readily, more effortlessly. And my life seems to be shifting, as well. Julia tells us that will happen, and the skeptic in me kind of snorted. But she is right.

One of the tasks is to write An Artist's Prayer. She offers one as an example in the book. I actually like mine a lot better. Have you written an artist's prayer? Feel free to use mine when you're sending entreaties heavenward.

My Artist's Prayer

O, great Creator

Guide my hand

Open my heart

Quiet my mind

Allow your inspiration to flow to and through me

Make me your instrument for creativity

Allow my words to move and touch others

To soothe, to bring awareness, to make life easier for others

To bring about justice and foment peace

May I always work in a way that brings your holy spirit and love to others

May your vast love hold me safe and keep me whole as I create and write in service to you and the world

Write Your Way to a Stronger Marriage

Many thanks to Dr. Stephen Frueh and Shannon Sanford at WTBQ New York for a fun and informative talk about marriage and writing this morning on Dr. Frueh's monthly show, "The Marriage Conversation." We had a wonderful time discussing how writing can be an effective tool for keeping lines of communication open in any kind of partnership, including marriage.

One of the tools I suggested couples can use to deepen their relationship and improve communication is to write a "Love Letter." It's an effective guide to exploring and expressing feelings and thoughts devised by Chris Pringer many years ago. Here is the template, if you'd like to try it. You can visit Chris' website here.

Journaling is another very powerful way to discover yourself and your feelings. I spend at least 15 minutes with my journal every morning. It doesn't have to be a work of art. In fact, you're more likely to discover feelings and thoughts by allowing yourself just to write without thinking. Natalie Goldberg's books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, and Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way provide instruction and prompts to get you started. Anyone can write. You just have to have a willingness to explore, and be vulnerable and open to what comes up.