It was our 20th wedding anniversary yesterday. In keeping with tradition, we forgot...
Wishing you all the merriest of Christmases, whether you find yourselves in Burgundy, or Africa, or Northern Canada. I hope you are surrounded by loved ones and joy. Here is an excerpt I wrote about a past Christmas in Burgundy (including plenty of food & wine porn) when we were knee deep in renovations at La Maison des Chaumes...Joyeux Noël!
One of the things I love most about our slower days in France is the routine of opening up the shutters at La Maison des Chaumes in the morning and shutting them again in the evening...
Our French vacation rentals began with our simple, typically Burgundian village house in Magny-les-Villers - La Maison des Deux Clochers. It happened to date back to the same year the Revolutionaries in Paris stormed the Bastille, but it waited for us until 1998.
We were in no position to buy a house in France, especially not one built in 1789 that undoubtedly held a bouquet of surpises for us along the lines of ancient plumbing and a leaking roof (and nesting snakes in the cellar, as it turned out)...
Many of our friends and family in Burgundy are involved in the wine trade in one way or another. Burgundy is famous for its big wine houses, of course, the ones that most people have heard of like Patriarche, Champy, Louis Latour and so on.
In my opinion though the true lifeblood of wine production In the Côte D'Or is the small family-held Domaines...
Right now I don't just mildly dislike my current WIP, I loathe it with every fibre of my being. I'm about two-thirds through the second (big) round of edits on My Grape Wedding. Every word I have written sounds trite. The dialogue is lifeless. The scenes are pointless. The description (even my beloved food porn) is repetitive. Why did I ever think I could write a book?
My inner critic tells me a million times a day that I should save myself and my readers the agony and just bin the entire project. I have so many other things I want to write besides this tired old WIP. I hear their siren's song...More brilliant things. Easier things. Effortless things.
My writing ship has run aground the Isle of Loathing.
I've been here before. In fact, in the past three and a half years I've been here THREE TIMES before. When I begin a new writing project I always think I can avoid this place, but in fact I had to do my penance here with every book I wrote and published.
I can almost set my watch by it now. I always end up here between half and two thirds of my way through the second edit.
For a decade before I published my first book I never explored what was on or beyond the Isle of Loathing. In those ten years I began eight manuscripts and shortly after being shipwrecked on this ghastly place, I would always alight to a new, shiny story idea, only to be surprised and dismayed when I hit I inevitably hit the Isle of Loathing once again. As a result, despite a regular writing practice I didn't finish or publish anything for ten long years.
Being a finisher, as it turns out, means getting out and exploring the Island and figuring out how to get off.
Surviving and escaping the Isle of Loathing isn't complicated. It is comprised of two steps:
- Embracing the Suck
- Finishing your current project
Embracing the Suck means that you accept the Isle of Loathing as part of your writing journey, and almost learn to relish its fetid air and polluted beaches. This is the point in your writing when you get up close and personal with one of a writer's most valuable assets - grit. You will have to dig deep, but you will also begin to take a perverse pleasure in knowing that you can dig deep. The Isle of Loathing is going to suck, but it is not going to stop you from writing. No sir.
Finishing your current project is also pretty simple. It means you continue writing, but do not jump ship to another project until you have completely finished (for me this means hitting that "publish" button) your current WIP.
If you just keep doing this every day you will find eventually a kind tide will wash in and free your boat. You will escape (at least until your next WIP). Then, you'll begin to find some bits in your MS that make you laugh out loud. You'll discover that you actually handled a scene quite effectively. Readers will thank you for writing your book.
All of that will make your temporary purgatory on the Isle of Loathing worth it. Feel the loathing, but finish anyway.
One of the main reasons I began writing my Grape books was because there were stories I wanted my daughters to know and I didn't know if I would be around to tell them.
Many of you know how the morning after I was diagnosed with PSC I began writing My Grape Escape and didn't finish until I self-published it about nine months later. A simple Google search (FYI: NEVER a good idea with health stuff) will tell you that PSC kills off its victims in a myriad of inventive and heartless ways. Early on, a specialist in Vancouver said to me, "You have to accept that you have a life-threatening disease. You could die of sepsis tomorrow, or be diagnosed with liver or bile duct cancer next week. That is your reality now."
Blunt, to be sure, yet effective.
No doctor, however, could ever tell me exactly how one goes about "accepting" such a reality. Probably because such an existential question of reconciling life and death strikes at the heart of the mystery of our human journey - a mystery that people have been grappling with ever since they made handprints of their own hands on the wall of a cave in Chauvet, France 32,000 years ago.
I wrote feverishly, telling the stories of how I decided to leave behind an Oxford degree and prestigious career legal career path to throw myself into the unknown, how I struggled with panic attacks and anxiety, how it slowly dawned on me that life didn't need to be perfect to be wonderful, how it was wiser to collect les petits bonheurs than to harbour unrealistic expectations of life, how sometimes it was impossible to make yourself happy and to make others happy too...
These were things my three girls needed to know. I had no desire for them to read my books immediately - once they were published my stories would be there when they needed them. That is the magic of art, and writing, and books. They give us a sliver of immortality in a finite world.
However, an unexpected thing happened on the path of telling my stories. It was only when I was about half way through my latest book, My Grape Year, that I realized how creating - in my case writing - was the best course of therapy I had ever embarked upon.
Immediately after I was diagnosed with PSC I called in the cavalry. I set up appointments with acupuncturists, spiritual healers, RMTs, therapists, as well as bought a juicer and eliminated sugar, grains, dairy products, and caffeine from my diet. My whole life became about curing myself from this bizarre, rare, and unpredictable disease.
It didn't work. Not only did eliminating every pleasurable form of sustenance and living off juiced kale started to make death seem like a not entirely unappealing option, but my days were so full of appointments that my battle to stay alive left me no time to actually live.
I am generally a big fan of therapy, but in this case once we had talked for a few sessions about my health situation, the therapist (and there were a few) and me would inevitably end up staring at each other with nothing more to say. The whole PSC situation was certainly not the worst thing in the world, but sucketh, it did. It was one of those types of burdens that cannot be eliminated. It had to be carried, and nobody could tell me how. I had to figure it out for myself.
So blindly, compulsively, I kept writing. I wrote my Grape books out of order. At first this made no sense to me, but one day it finally dawned on me that, on the contrary, it made perfect sense.
My Grape Escape is all about faith, huge life changes, and trying to build a whole-hearted, authentic life even when things are far from perfect. I wrote it during that first year post diagnosis when my life had been turned on its head and I needed to find a new way of living with and in the face of my PSC.
My Grape Village is about the challenges of adapting to a new life with a family - finding community, balancing your needs with those of the people you love the most, finding happiness via les petit bonheur du jour despite the challenges life throws at one's head, and the humbling realization that life never stops providing us lessons, especially at those very moments when we believe we know it all.
My Grape Year was written at a time when my PSC had started to become extremely symptomatic, forcing me to embark on uncharted territory. I was terrified and needed to find courage. I found it in my bold 17 year old self - that girl with her head full of romance and dreams who left Canada and flew almost half way around the world to seek out love and a different way of living. I cannot tell you how many times I woke up during my writing of My Grape Year, either in the hospital or home, paralyzed by visceral terror. My body was slowly, irrevocably getting sicker, I was learning how the transplant system in Canada was both political and ineffective, especially for us PSCers, and my disease was stripping away every part of me that made me me. It was only going back to the manuscript of My Grape Year that made me remember that I was strong and that I was bold and that I had done scary things before and that doing those scary things had transformed my life.
I wept over my keyboard countless times. I laughed over it too. Initially when people asked me why I was writing my Grape Books out of order I would just laugh and say that my mind wasn't linear. This is completely true, but now I look back on the order and it makes perfect sense. The story I wrote always dealt with issues that I needed to work through the most at that time.
Right now I am finishing up edits on My Grape Wedding and I am realizing that this books deals with a time of crisis in my life too, when my panic attacks were probably at their debilitating. Paradoxically, it also deals with one of the most joyful times in my life - the summer when Franck and I got married in Burgundy, France. This rite of passage not only marked a new beginning, but a time when I was surrounded and lifted up by the love and support of friends and family from all over the world.
Could it be a metaphor for my approaching transplant? I certainly hope so.
I haven't actually received that many entries into my Noel Grape Giveaway - running a giveaway in December when everyone is so insanely busy with the Holidays probably wasn't that strategic on my part. As most of you know, my marketing "plan" tends to go something like this: me becoming overcome by the spirit of generosity and the need to thank my readers for their amazingness and consequently putting one of our vacation rentals up for grabs. Yep. That's about all the forethought that goes into marketing decisions for me. Ready. Aim. Fire.
But...what does my utter lack of marketing savvy mean for you? It means your chances of winning a free week stay at La Maison des Chaumes are tres, tres bien.
Also, I expanded the rules slightly beyond those written in my first post about the giveaway. You can review any or all of my three grape books, My Grape Year, My Grape Escape, and My Grape Village. For each review you post to BOTH Amazon and Goodreads you earn an entry (one for each, I mean).
So, for someone who has read all of my Grape books, they could potentially earn SIX entries by writing reviews for each book on both Amazon and Goodreads.
Also, if you are outside of the US you can earn additional entries by posting both a review on Amazon.com and then another one on your country's Amazon site (i.e. Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, etc.). It is just a matter of cutting and pasting the review...
All you have to do after that is send me a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know where you have posted reviews and I will add your entries in the draw. There is nothing I love more than helping my readers actually experience the magic of Burgundy for themselves.
I'm telling you right now that your chances are GOOD. I mean, sans blague.
Also, a huge merci to everyone who has already posted thoughtful and lovely reviews (although I appreciate ALL reviews, even the two star ones). I am a lucky, lucky writer indeed.
For most of us, December gives a whole new meaning to the expression "time crunch". Sugar cookies to decorate, kids' performances to attend, trees to decorate, menorahs to light, presents to wrap, eggnog to drink...
Yet I have a manuscript (My Grape Wedding) I want to finish rewriting by mid-January and another (my paranormal romance) than I need to completely revamp...how by all that is Holy do I get that done at this time of year?
Here are my top five tricks:
- Cozy it Up - Make writing a holiday tradition in and of itself. Set the stage. Turn on the fireplace. Flick on the fairy lights. Pour yourself a mug of something warm and delicious, choose a festive playlist on Songza, then hunker down with your manuscript. You will feel cozy and accomplished all at once!
- Barter for Time - i.e. I will wrap these presents if you take the kids figure skating. Everyone has a ton to do this month, so figure out the things that you don't mind doing and do those in exchange for blocks of uninterrupted writing time.
- Ease Up on Yourself - This is the one I always struggle with the most. Let's face it - December is probably not the month of the year when you are going to accomplish the most writing-wise. Take five minutes and consciously rewrite your writing goals and benchmarks to make them less ambitious.
- Treat Any Writing As a Win - I truly believe that ANY writing you get accomplished in December deserves a round of applause, so don't wait for anyone else - give this round of applause to yourself every time you, say, chalk up 100 new words or rewrite a page. Big projects are accomplished by hundreds of tiny steps and the important thing is that you are doing SOME writing and keeping your momentum going. Reward yourself with a candy cane.
- Enjoy The Holidays - Sometimes us writers (*ahem* me) get so wrapped up in our parallel imaginary worlds and writing goals that we forget the thing that actually fuels our writing - LIFE. Without taking time away from our manuscripts to actually enjoy our lives and time with our loved ones, our gas tanks are going to run dry pretty darn quick. Time away from our writing can benefit our writing. This means, my fellow writers, that we need to go out and get our Fa La La La La on!
I had a humdinger of a panic attack last Wednesday. Many readers ask me after reading My Grape Escape and My Grape Village whether I still get them. Short and honest answer - yes, as last Wednesday proves, I certainly do.
I no longer waste precious time and energy trying to eliminate panic attacks from my life. I have been having them, after all, at random intervals since my mid-teens. They come. They go. They are always epically unpleasant and unwelcome.
I no longer believe they happen for a reason. I have come to the conclusion that searching for triggers or reasons for my panic attacks is a colossal waste of time.
On Wednesday, I was just sitting on the couch talking to a friend on the phone when my heart started beating faster than usual. The anxious part of my brain seized on this and started going, "Why is your heart beating faster? Something must be wrong! Redalertredalertredalert!!!"
Within three minutes my hands were shaking and my mind was spinning in that hellish anxiety vortex, making note of every uncomfortable physical sensation, amplifying it by approximately a million, and creating a logical case for my imminent demise (or worse yet, being trapped in a situation I can't control aka Just Kill Me Now).
Even though I consider myself a writer, I find myself at a loss for words when I try to describe the intensity and sheer terror of a panic attack to anyone who has not experienced one before. Conversely, when I talk about panic attacks with people who have experienced them, words are not necessary. I can just tell by looking in their eyes that they get it.
Even though I hate them I have come to a place of acceptance that they stem from a glitch in the way my brain is wired. I think we ALL have glitches in how our brain is wired. Some people have the depression glitch, some people have the jealousy glitch, some people have the fear-of-intimacy glitch...as for my brain, I suspect my panic attack glitch is the same or closely related to the part of my brain that allows me to imagine and write.
I am no longer ashamed of my anxiety. Indeed I think the stigma around mental health is one of the most corrosive forces in existence. However, I certainly don't want to feed my anxiety by treating it like the most exotic, fascinating animal in my own personal zoo either. I think my creativity, love for Star Wars, and humour are all vastly more interesting than my anxiety. Still, panic attacks are part of my emotional hard-wiring and chances are I will most likely have to co-exist with them for the rest of my life.
Something interesting, though, has been happening in the midst of my panic attacks since I began taking my writing and creativity seriously. In the middle of my Wednesday anxiety roller coaster ride, in the midst of my shaking hands and my pounding heart and my spinning head full of thoughts of certain and imminent doom, another little voice popped up. I like to think of this particular voice as the voice of my creative self.
"Remember Tillly?" it whispered to me (Tilly is the protagonist in my paranormal romance - she doesn't suffer from anxiety disorder but she does experience plenty of well-warranted fear). "You have to remember how you are feeling right now. How exactly is your heart pounding? What muscles are contracting in your chest so it feels like you cannot take a full breath? What is making you so viscerally uncomfortable right now? You have to make note and remember so that you can depict Tilly's fear more effectively."
One of the things that I am trying to learn through my mediation practice is to create some distance between myself and my thoughts and physical sensations that are always, even though they never feel like it at the time, transitory. Meditation encourages us to be curious about our thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Creativity does the same thing. By looking at my panic attack-y feelings and thoughts as a potential writer hoping to harvest them for future use, I create some much-needed space between myself and the deeply uncomfortable sensations my crocodile brain is creating for me.
The sensations are still wretched, but having curiosity about them brings a glimmer of transcendence. And then, when I actually use the material, which I always do sooner or later, the circle is complete. I have used my own misery to do a better job of writing and to hopefully make others who have felt profound visceral fear (and who hasn't?) feel less alone.
In other words, for people who have managed to carve out a creative outlet for themselves, even the really, really bad stuff is useful. Through our creativity we make even the unwanted and the uninvited serve a purpose. As I have said before, IT'S ALL MATERIAL.
I am not a subscriber to the belief that bad things happen for a reason, but I DO believe that we can choose to give even the yuckiest things meaning. This ability, in fact, is one of the things that makes us uniquely human.
Creativity won't make my panic attacks disappear for good (godammit), but it does make them slightly easier to cope with, and remains one of the most best ways for me to render useful something that is inherently useless.
How did we find ourselves in December already?
No matter. December is the month for giving things away and I LOVE giving things away to my readers. I especially love giving them the opportunity to travel to Burgundy and experience for themselves its special magic that I try to convey in my Grape books.
So, my Noel Grape Books Giveaway will have the prize of a free week at La Maison des Chaumes - our home in Villers-la-Faye, Burgundy, France. This three bedroom house with a huge deck and garden is located in the same village where Franck's family live, where he grew up, and where we fell in love, as I write about in My Grape Year.
My Grape Year has hit #1 on the Amazon "France" bestseller list several times since I self-published it in late September. I have all of you to thank for that and I am so grateful to have such an amazing community of Francophiles and book loving people who support my writing.
Without further ado, here are the rules & regs:
- the week at La Maison des Chaumes can be redeemed whenever, subject only to availability, and can also be gifted to another person if you wish
- all you need to do to enter is write a review for My Grape Year on either Amazon.com (or any of its affiliate websites (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, etc.) or Goodreads and then email me at email@example.com to let me know where the review has been posted (I need this because I often can't contact people via their Amazon or Goodreads screen names). If you post on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Goodreads, for example, you'll receive three entries.
- if you have already written one or more review(s) for My Grape Year just let me know via email as above - that counts too (and MERCI for posting a review so promptly)
- it doesn't matter if your review is one star or five stars - they all count and I am grateful for them all. The only thing is that you do have to have read the book in order to write a valid review - just common sense and good ethics
- entries will be accepted until midnight on December 25th and the draw will happen and the winner will be announced the day after Boxing Day (December 27th)
Bonne chance to tout le monde! I hope you all have a merry, sparkling, and joyous December filled with lost of delicious cheese.
The attacks in Paris happened right in the middle of a two-week long treatment for me at the local hospital. This involved going every morning to get pumped full of IV antibiotics to try to beat back the infection that has taken up permanent residence in my sick liver and bile ducts.
Every time my liver infection rears its head the physical effects are wretched, but worse still is the mental anguish of not knowing what is going on inside my body and what will happen next. Crippling uncertainty and fear become my constant companions.
Having faith that everything will be OK is one of the hardest things in the world for me, as it turns out. How do I put my faith in a power (call it God, Buddha, Allah, Fate, or the Great Manitou) that has let many of my friends with PSC die despite the fact they had unrelentingly positive outlooks and everything that I don't seem capable of maintaining throughout this journey?
In the midst of my struggles with that conundrum, the attacks in Paris happened. As the news began filtering in I spent several hours feverishly checking in with friends and family to make sure they were safe. I discovered with horror all these innocent people who had thought they were going out to a concert, or for a drink with friends, or for a casual meal, only to be gunned down or blown up in the most cowardly and brutal manner.
How was I supposed to have faith that I would be taken care of by the same power that neglected to protect the victims in Paris and of other attacks over the globe?
Paris has felt like my backyard for all of my adult life. It is a place where I feel safe and nurtured. At the end of August, Franck, myself, and the Bevy were careening around the city in the wee hours of a sultry summer night with our friend Joelle, leaping out of the car to enjoy ice cream cones and an impromptu musical performance by some street musicians on a bridge over the Seine. It was one of those glorious moments when my whole soul throbbed with the joy of being alive. I seem to experience such joie de vivre frequently in Paris.
The day after the Paris attacks Camille said to me, "Mom, is Paris going to be changed forever now? Will it never be the same?"
"No way," I said. "Paris has been through much worse. Paris is resilient. Paris will always be Paris."
I realized after I answered that I had complete faith that this was true.
The day after the attacks my friend Joelle posted on Facebook that she had gone out to a bistro and sat on the terrace for not one, but two drinks. Thousands of other Parisians did the same in the impromptu #jesuisenterrasse movement.
Parisians did not cower in their apartments. They went out and fought terror with joy and wine and fresh croissants.
The Parisian approach gave me a new insight into my struggles. Often, since I got sick, I feel as though the disease is not only destroying my body, but that it is dismantling bit by bit all the things that make me...me.
But now I will remind myself to be like Paris. When things get scary and sad I will fight back by moving ferociously towards LIFE. For me, this means spending time with my family and friends, writing, reading, eating delicious food, beachcombing, creating new things...all the things that remind me that, despite my PSC, there are still so many pleasures to be savoured - so many petits bonheurs du jour as Franck's Aunt Renee always says.
If I could get on a plane right now to join the Paris #jesuisenterrasse movement in person, I would. However, budget and liver are not cooperating so I thought I'd do the next best thing - I could help others travel to France via my Grape Books. Reading is one of my favourite (not to mention most budget-friendly) methods of travel, after all.
I have never discounted my books before because I know better than anyone the work, sweat, and effort that go into creating them for my readers. I don't believe that creatives should get in the habit of undervaluing their efforts. For Paris, though, I have made an exception.
I chose to discount My Grape Year because it recounts how I fell in love with not only France, but Paris. I want everyone to be able to remind themselves of how the French have made an art of enjoying life's small, countless pleasures (which is why, I believe so many of us feel that France is one of our spiritual homes).
Choosing life, again and again and again, is a defiant type of faith. It has allowed Paris to weather hardships over the centuries that would have toppled lesser cities.
In good times and in bad times we should all strive to be like Paris. When things get tough, we can find ourselves again by going #enterrasse.
I was busy getting in some words for the upcoming My Grape Wedding memoir-ette and before logging off the computer I checked Amazon and - le voila! - the MY GRAPE YEAR paperback is now available!
It is three dollars more than my previous books because it is *ahem* rather large (366 pages to be exact) and consequently production and shipping costs are more. However, it should provide you with a long, lovely, escapist, cozy, and romantic read. Just click here to go and check it out on Amazon.com .
Also, you should be able to share this blog post with the newly-added buttons below. If someone could test drive those for me I would be extremely appreciative!