31 October 2014

Happiness and the Art of Storytelling: An Interview with Daniel McInerny

It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.
~ Patrick Rothfuss

Tomorrow marks the beginning of that madcap dash into the world of words and word counts: National Novel Writing Month – affectionately known as NaNo.  I didn’t sign up this year, but throughout the month of November, I’ll be highlighting authors, their books, and the writing process.

W
e all live in a story.

Some of us just happen to narrate our own stories.  We are sometimes called crazy.  Sometimes we are. 

We are writers.

And it is both our gift and our curse to live in the midst of a jungle of words – poetry intermingled with prose.  Some of our stories have tragic ends.  A few have happily ever afters.

But all some have moments of happiness and joy.  Moments, that if they are gathered up, would shine a light on the darkest dramas and mysteries.

Throughout the month of NaNo November, I will highlight different authors and their books.  Because you can’t become a good writer, if you aren’t a good reader.

Today marks the launch of a new blog series, The Happiness Plot by novelist, screenwriter, children's author, playwright,  Daniel McInerny.  This blog series focuses on storytelling and the quest for happiness and will be available as an ebook by the end of the month.

Join us in the La Belle library, where we’ve just sat down with a pot of Earl Grey.

Image: Google Images

Why do you write?
I write because I love to contemplate the human predicament through the means of beautiful language.

Name two mentors who influenced your writing.
My father, Ralph McInerny, and all my high school English teachers, who as a group were exceptionally gifted at teaching the fundamentals of writing. 

Name five writers you recommend (any genre).
Evelyn Waugh
P.G. Wodehouse
Flannery O’Connor
Muriel Spark
Walker Percy

What is the toughest challenge you face as a writer?
I struggle to be a more “seat-of-your-pants” writer, making up the story as I go along, line by line. This is an important struggle for me because my entrenched analytical habits (I hold a PhD in philosophy and taught in academia for many years), while immensely valuable, can also be a hindrance to creative work. Thus I am trying to learn not to plot and analyze too much ahead of the moment of actual composition.

Describe your writing process. 
I tend to get an idea for a story long before, sometimes years before, I actually begin writing a first draft. The thing often begins as a series of scraps and influences and vague possibilities that I collect in a notebook. It takes me a long time, and more than one false start, before I have a firm sense of what I’m doing, which is typically toward the end or even after the first draft.

What does your writing space look like?
Dreary.  Home office in the basement. No windows. Rickety desk with a broken leg. Horribly uncomfortable chair. Insufficient shelf space.

I can’t think of a more perfect place to write.

Your new series on storytelling, The Happiness Plot, begins today.  What inspired you to write this?  And what can writers (and readers) learn from it?
I really love James Wood’s little book, How Fiction Works, with its pithy 200-word sections.

It occurred to me that these sections were just about the length of a blog post and that Wood’s book provided a good model for a series of posts on storytelling structure. My contribution to all the “how-to” material in this area concerns the link between story structure and our human quest for happiness. I believe understanding this link allows us to tell more emotionally moving, intellectually satisfying, beautiful stories.
Daniel McInerny

The series is perfectly timed for those participating in National Novel Writing Month in November.  As soon as the series is done at the end of November, I’m going to collect the posts into an ebook, with the addition of some bonus material I’m sending out to the folks on my email list. I further plan on doing further blog series on other aspects of writing and the writing life. 

All this material is great for lovers of fiction as well.

Give 3 brief words of advice for writers.
Sit. Now. Begin

Anything new in the works?
Currently I’m writing a novel for adults as well as returning my play, The Actor, about the young Saint John Paul II’s subversive theatrical activities during the Nazi occupation of Poland, back into its original form as a musical. A producer has shown some interest in the work and right now I’m doing a revision based upon his and another friend’s notes.

Thanks for stopping by, Daniel!

To follow the storytelling adventure and to subscribe to Daniel’s email list to receive cool bonus content and a free storytelling consultation, go to  The Happiness Plot.

For more info on the Kingdom of Patria series for children, go to www.kingdomofpatria.com.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

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15 October 2014

Letting Go: Lessons from Kodiak and a Photography Party

You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don't have something better.
~ C. JoyBell C.

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.



I
am torn.

Ever since I returned from Harvester Island, I have felt pulled in two opposing directions:

Move clear across the country and live with a view of mountains.

Move further out to the country, but stay within driving distance of friends and family.

My week in Alaska was a gift, a break from the stress and emotional drain of living with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.  It was therapeutic as well ~ I haven’t cried that much in a long time (except maybe in my therapist’s office).  The unconditional acceptance and yes, love that I experienced from my fellow writers was surprising and healing.

And the views.  You know I’m going to mention the views.
 

But in addition to the peace and tranquility, my time cuddled in Kodiak’s majestic embrace also gave rise to some tough, potentially life-changing questions: 

Have I become too complacent?
Do I need to make a change geographically?
Do I want to move away from all I've known for a good reason? Or as an escape?
If I do move, do I have the strength to be a wayfarer for a little while?

All of these questions involve letting go: of old defense mechanisms, of old ways of thinking. Letting go of guilt - both real and imagined and that was placed on me by others.  Of old fears and self-imposed obstacles that kept my heart stagnate and locked behind a fortress so old and impenetrable, even my rusty key didn’t work anymore.

And then the winds of Uyak Bay blew around and through me, clearing my head of all those mental and emotional dust bunnies.  The Alaskan sun danced off the water and burned away the soot of fear and the broken bits of my past.  The beauty of the mountains and the ocean and the wildlife grabbed me by the heart and shook all those old locks and bars until they crumbled at my feet. 

It was both exhilarating and scary as hell.

I don’t like change.  I don’t know anyone who does (well, except one of my sisters ~ she seems to move every quarter).  Change for change’s sake is not always a wise thing.  But change because it is time and nothing, absolutely nothing, can truly remain static ~ that kind of change is an impetus for growth. 

That kind of change also means that I will have to let go of something good in order to embrace something better.  I don’t have any answers to those questions yet.  So my meditation and self-reflection for the next 5½ months is that no matter where the road takes me, I will be able to accept it with peace and humility.

And the strength to remain present to the journey.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

This post was inspired by the Abbey of the Arts Photography Party.  If you would like to join us on this visual meditation, post your photo at the link above, or join the Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks on Facebook.

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09 October 2014

Kodiak Alaska: Highway to My Comfort Zone

Coming out of your comfort zone is tough in the beginning, chaotic in the middle, and awesome in the end...because in the end, it shows you a whole new world!!
~ Manoj Arora

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.



O
ne of the bibliophile-esque pages I follow on Facebook posted a Venn diagram of a bookworm’s comfort zone.  It was a hoot and I could identify with many of the items or actions listed.

So of course I shared it.

Before long, one of the friends I made while on Harvester Island commented, “Wonder how the HI attendees’ comfort zones would compare pre and post our adventure!”  I loved that idea.

So of course I made a pre and post diagram and shared it.  Now I share it with you.

 
My Comfort Zone - Pre Harvester Island

My Comfort Zone - Post Harvester Island


Oh, what a difference a week on a remote island in the bush paradise of Alaska makes.  And I cannot wait to do it again! 

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What is in your comfort zone and what would it take to push you out of it?

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01 October 2014

The Birth of Autumn

Fall has always been my favorite season.
The time when everything bursts with its last beauty,
as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.
~ Lauren DeStefano, Wither

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.



H
appy New Year!  L’Shana Tovah!

Autumn is often seen as a time of death and decay ~ leaves falling, ground hardening, summer’s harvest withering.  And, yes ~ all that is happening.

But if we stop there, we’ve only read Autumn’s flap copy.*

Our societal myopia of focusing almost exclusively on the surface, the first impression image, extends to our perception of the seasons.  Signs of negative change ~ the brown grass, the fading sun, the gradually colder weather ~ become all we see while we forget that all that decay on top seeps underground and feeds the seeds and beneficial bugs for next Spring’s buds and blooms.

Autumn Leaves and Apples
© Igor Yaruta
Maybe I am in a privileged minority, but I have always thought that the new year should begin in Autumn, and the images the word conjures are as far from death and decay as fresh apple cider is from hard cider.

Explosion of colour
Pumpkins
Reading by the fire
Wool blankets
Flannel shirts
Apple cider
Gingerbread
Constant Comment tea
Reciting poetry in an ancient graveyard

Autumn is a time of ripening, harvesting, cider pressing, storing up for the coming winter.  It is a season of celebration of life, not a time of sadness and mourning the end of summer.

So grab an apple, dip it in caramel, and join me amoung the worn gravestones.


To Autumn
William Blake

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

*Flap copy is the term used for the book synopsis on the inside of a dust jacket.

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22 September 2014

The Kodiaks of Katmai: Peace in a Remote Paradise

An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.  If you want to see more pictures, follow me on Facebook/mikaeladeigh.



T
ime on Harvester Island is non-existent.

After only a few hours on her shores, I lost track of what day it was.  The week stretched out to infinity and the air took on a patina of fairy-dust.

Picture for a moment the scene in LOTR when the hobbits first step into Rivendell or the Fellowship encounters of Elves of Lothlorien. 

That is a fair approximation of my experience of Harvester Island. 

It is an isolated, magical place, accessible only by bush plane and boat.  An isolation that might drive one mad eventually ~ mad with the 360° view of beauty that greets you each morning.  And the silence ~ a silence so profound, you sit on the pebble-strewn beach and hear a raven beating the crisp air with its wings.

The peace I found there I have never experienced anywhere else.  It is part of the silence and the timelessness and the overwhelming beauty of nature.

My spiritual experience extended past the island and into Katmai National Park, where another writer and I flew by float plane to see the famous Kodiak bears (aka grizzlies) fishing for salmon.

There was nothing between us and the bears.  No vehicles to hide in.  No trees to climb.  No guns.  No protection save the mace our guide from Kingfisher Aviation carried.  Just flat land, sea grass, a small river, and bears.  Ten of them all told, but only three that were close enough to be our photogenic models for the two hours we stood on the bank.

Two hours in paradise.

Overwhelming the Five Senses
Katmai is the least visited of the National Parks and for two very good reasons: 1) the remote location and 2) the number of brown bears that live there.  (Katmai is where Timothy Treadwell was attacked and killed by a grizzly.) 

Our little trio was not being foolhardy or cocky, however ~ we carried no food, kept a watchful and “bear aware” eye on our surroundings, and maintained a respectful distance.  Brown bears may look cuddly, but those sharp teeth and long claws can instantly rip you in all the important places. 

Fortunately, these bear tours are quite common and safe and the bears are focused on eating as much salmon as they can find to bulk up for the oncoming winter and hibernation.

We sloshed through about two inches of water as we walked toward the mouth of the river.  Then we rounded a corner and all five of my senses went into shock. 


Katmai National Park - Mountain Range near Geographic Bay
Image taken with Nikon D3300 DSLR

The absolutely stillness of the park, save for the rushing of the river, and the call of the seagulls and an occasional magpie.  The crisp cool taste of the air, so clean and absent of exhaust and pollution.  The mountains cradling us in their majestic arms.  The feel of the water and the sand and the sea grass as we sloshed and hiked our way towards the edge of the river.  The smell of decaying salmon heads and some unidentifiable scent that was uniquely Katmai. 

It settled in my lungs and I breathed a sigh of grateful surprise that I was finally, finally here.

There it was again ~ that sense of timelessness, peace, well-being.  I wanted to gather the park in my arms and hold it, protect it.  Which considering Mount Katmai blew itself up in 1912, is just a tad silly.  But I felt that same tightening in my chest as I gazed around the valley.

And just when I thought this trip of a lifetime couldn’t get any better, the unthinkable happened.
 
Katmai National Park - Kodiak Brown Bear
A lovely 3-400 pound female was directly across from us on the opposite shore. Although keenly aware of us, she was ultimately more interested in fishing and eating salmon.  She watched the other bears warily, sniffed the air now and then, and ignored us. 

And then she surprised us by getting up, splashing into the river, and walking towards us.  
Katmai National Park - Kodiak Brown Bear
My companion grabbed on to my arm and whispered, “Is she going to keep coming towards us?  I think I’ll just move behind you a little.”  I grinned and kept my camera up to my eye, snapping pictures madly.  Then our girl stopped, just over 5½ to six feet from where we were standing. 

It was the most glorious moment of my life.

My adrenaline spiked with wonder and excitement as she drew closer and closer, and I wondered, "What will I do if she decides to charge?"  And then “Protect the camera equipment at all costs!  At least someone will enjoy these freaking awesome pictures!”

She lunged for a salmon but came up empty-handed.  I held my breath, fascinated, as she stood still, as if lost in thought, and then walked up the river a few feet away, and lunged again. This time, she turned back towards us with a prize in her large jaws.

I kept my camera on her, shooting frame after frame, living in the moment, my heart racing like I was on an insane roller coaster ride.  The sound of her ripping into the salmon, crunching on its bones, was music to my ears.  Not because I’m morbid or particularly blood-thirsty (although I might be ~ but that’s another story), but because it was so silent in the park, and we were so close to her, that we could hear it.

Too soon, she finished her quick snack and left us to wander downstream.  We soon followed, hoping to beat the low tide out to the float plane.  I lifted my face to the sun and filled my lungs with one last taste of the cool mountain air, wishing I could have stay there indefinitely.

Since returning, friends and co-workers have looked at my photographs, heard me tell my Katmai story excitedly, and shaken their heads in disbelief and censure.  And I understand.  To stand unprotected in the midst of legendary Kodiak bears is not for everyone. 

But for those two precious hours, I felt no fear, only awe at the power and beauty of God’s creation.  And that deep abiding peace and awe that coloured my entire Kodiak experience. 

And just like Frodo, I am filled with “an overwhelming longing to rest and remain” cradled in the arms of Alaska.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

Where do you find peace and feel a sense of awe and wonder?


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18 September 2014

La Belle: New Address, Same Old House

It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to.
~ W.C. Fields

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.



A
nd this blog now answers to new, easier to remember and hopefully easier to spell, url: www.mikaeladeigh.com.

When I began this blog back in 2005 (wow, we turn 10 next tenyear!), I still lived in a world of lofty romantic ideals and an attachment to Latin.  

Today, those romantic notions are sadly tattered and blowing the breeze of cynicism and disillusion. 

The old url is the Latin translation for Canticle 2:16 (or Song of Solomon):

I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.

See?  Very romantic. 

The sentiment, at least, has proven true on this count: I belong to the art of writing even more than I did in years past.  The style has changed (as it should as I read and wrote more) but the love of ink and paper and words and ideas and the worlds and emotions they create and inspire ~ that has never changed.




So, much like the house you like that sits in the neighborhood you’ve outgrown, La Belle has kept the same structure, just moved to an address that’s easier to travel to.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela


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15 September 2014

Top Ten Travel Lessons Learned

"The only way that we can live, is if we grow.
The only way that we can grow is if we change.
The only way that we can change is if we learn.
The only way we can learn is if we are exposed.
And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open.
Do it. Throw yourself."
~ C. JoyBell C.

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.



T
ime Lords with British accents who roam the universe in blue police boxes aren’t the only ones who view time as a “wibbly-wobbley timey-wimey thing.”

Before I ever set foot on Kodiak Island, I already had a growing list of Lessons Learned on an Alaskan Adventure.  Such foibles are to be expected with any endeavor we undertake, but especially so since I’m all about relationships and not logistics.  And I have a wee bit of ADD.  

So here are my Top Ten Lessons Learned that might also help you get ready for your next trip.

#1 – Three Months Does NOT Equal Ninety Days
This is part of the timey-wimey thing.  I know I can’t be alone in thinking, “I have plenty of time to prep and buy X, Y, and Z for my trip.  I don’t leave for another three months!”

Oh not so, my dear, not so.

Out of those ninety days, you have twelve Saturdays and six Fridays.  If I had remembered this fact back in June, REI, Bass Pro, and Dick’s Sporting Goods would have met a much less stressed version of me.  As it was, I was running around like the proverbial guillotined chicken, desperately searching for hip waders.

#2 – Solar Chargers: For Airplanes & Airports without Plugs
Even though I planned on being out of cell and wifi range while on Harvester (where happily, I had wifi for a few hours in the morning), I needed to keep my phone charged while waiting in airports and on planes.  

Alaska Airlines became my favorite airline because they are super polite, friendly, funny, and have plugs on the backs of the seats.  This was a gift from on high on the flight from DCA to LAX as my Kindle app drains my battery like Vlad the Impaler.

#3 – Rent a Bad Ass Camera & Back Up Your Photos ASAP
This is something I actually did and would definitely do again.  I rented my Nikon D3300 with an 18-300mm lens and camera bag from Borrow Lenses.  It was simple and affordable.  Without that sweet set up, I wouldn’t have been able to get the close ups of the Kodiak brown bears (aka grizzlies) in Katmai National Park or the snow-capped Alaskan Range.
 
Bear Tour with Kingfisher Aviation
Totally worth the money to get these close ups!
This was part of a lesson learned from my last trip to the West Coast.  I bought a Canon point and shoot (not terribly expensive, but still) and two days later, it took a swim in the Pacific. 

Related lesson #2? “Don’t drink several cocktails and then walk along the beach in the dark while taunting the waves.”  But that’s another story.

Related lesson #3?  “Back up your data as soon as you get home.”  Because I didn’t and I lost all 1,000 pictures except for a few I uploaded to my Facebook album.  I have someone trying to recover them, but if they can’t do it, those are a lot of money shots just…gone.

#4 – Saltwater and Skiffs Equal Waterproof Camera Bag/ Storm Jacket
My note to self reads: “You will want to take pictures while in the skiff.”  I used a plastic bag to protect it when I wasn’t taking pictures, but I missed a few shots because I was worrying about keeping the camera dry.  And the Storm Jacket by Vortex comes recommended by a National Geo photographer.  Sweet!

#5 – A Polar Plunge is Awesome – with a Wet Suit/Dry Suit
Call me crazy ~ I already know it ~ but I really wanted to snorkel in Uyak Bay. The water was so clear you could see all the way to the other side of the world.  It was also turn-your-skin-blue-ice cold.  Since I was returning home to 90° weather, I did manage to get my Keenes off and walk in the Buskin River for about ten seconds before I had to admit defeat.

#6 – Fly Fishing Makes Salmon Taste Even Better
Got some great shots (now erased *&^$%) of salmon jumping and struggling on a fly fishermen’s line in Buskin River and wished I could have gone out in the river and fished too.
I mean, I already have the hip waders.  And I like fresh fish.  

Just need to make sure there’s a manly man around to scale and gut it.  Tried that once ~ ick.

#7 – “The Mummy” Ride Makes Bush Planes Look Like a Merry Go Round
I owe an apology to my friend Gregers and his buddy Curt – I hate roller coasters and that roller coaster at Universal Studios on my layover at LAX was vomit-inducing horrific (although I just closed my eyes and kept my In and Out burger safely in my stomach) and I cussed them up one side and down the other for telling me it wasn’t a roller coaster.

But I was grateful once I reached Kodiak and had to ride in a bush plane and a float plane ~ both which are seriously under-rated.  They’re awesome and you get to see a side of the island/mountain you wouldn’t see otherwise. 

Plus, if you’re lucky, you get a Scots pilot.  That vortex of Scottish charm is potent in a five-seater Cessna.

#8 – Forget the Treadmill, Stairmaster Is Your New Bestie
There was a gravel path that I swear was vertical.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t really vertical.  But the gravel was loose and squishy, so I got a real workout to and from the banya and the main house.

On second thought, forget the Stairmaster.  Just put your hip waders on and walk in mud or wet sand.  Same result.

#9 – You Can Never Have Enough Travel TP and Hand Sanitizer
Packing light was essential to me, so I only took one roll of travel toilet paper and a handful of hand sanitizer wipes.  This was not a good idea, especially when going for long hikes, or in my case, long ocean skiff rides.

#10 – Make the Magic Last
Don’t be in such a hurry to get back home.  Actually, I didn’t want to go home.  Still don’t ~ I need a bumper sticker that says “I’d Rather Be in Alaska.”  So I booked a hotel in Kodiak and left a day later.  But I wish I had arranged to stay a few extra days in Anchorage.  Denali was calling my name and I couldn’t answer this time and it broke my heart. 

Yes, I’ve got it bad.  At least now I am better equipped for wherever the longing for wilderness adventure takes me.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What are your travel lessons learned?

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