Lessons learned and takeaways from my European adventure

Over the weeks since my return and interspersed with monthly updates, I’ve been recounting my European adventure. Now, I’m finally ready to talk about the benefits I’ve gained and the things I’ve learned from the experience.

Muse-inks

Planning and preparation are important

I committed to the Writing Excuses Retreat and WorldCon in early February. It could have been January, but I was hesitant because of the expense. Ultimately, it was a confluence of events: WXR doing a Baltic cruise—they usually cruise the Caribbean, WorldCon being in Helsinki, my desire to visit the country of my ancestry, and the fact that I could do all that AND get in some quality first time tourism at the same time as I continued my professional development as a writer.

Once I committed, I was hip-deep in making the travel arrangements. WXR had their own travel agents and I was able to get a great price on a return European flight through them. All of the cruise arrangements were made through the travel agency.

They facilitated the registration for the cruise, the booking of all the tours at each of the stops, and the issuing of all electronic travel documents.

I made my own hotel booking and, with very little back and forth, I was able to secure the convention rate for my extended stay.

While I attempted to make my additional travel arrangements through the travel agents associated with the cruise, they were busy enough handling the details for the cruise. I’d noticed that the Canadian Auto Association, of which I am a member, was promoting their European travel services. I decided to make the remaining arrangements through them.

There was much more back and forth, but by staying on top of the email thread, I had my flight from Hamburg to Helsinki booked, my rental car, and my bus tour to cover the days in between the cruise and WorldCon.

I went to the airline sites and to CATSA to help me with my packing. My thought was to travel light and only have my carryon luggage and my (fairly large) purse. I reviewed my itineraries for the flights, cruise, and the schedule for the convention to plan out, in rough strokes, where I’d have to be, when.

I was as prepared as I could be by the time I left, but while planning and preparation are important, they aren’t everything.

I still suffered panic attacks in the week leading up to my trip. I still had to deal with ongoing anxiety during the flights—not because I’m afraid of flying, but because I was afraid that despite all my planning, that something catastrophic in terms of making my connections, delays, or other uncontrollable elements (weather) that attend travel would render my planning useless.

Fortunately, none of that happened.

Travelling alone is empowering

Because so much is out of your control when you travel alone, you quickly realize you just have to put on your big girl (or big boy) pant(ie)s and git ‘er done.

Anxiety serves no purpose in these situations and, frankly, can’t be indulged. Yes. I wrote that. Anxiety, in some situations, is an indulgence. It’s an indulgence of imbalanced or malfunctioning neurotransmitters, and not easily managed, but it’s still an indulgence.

I have a friend who lives with obsessive compulsive disorder and its attendant anxiety. I invited her up for a short visit that, because of its brevity, was highly structured (I guess planning’s a thing with me). In the ensuing whirlwind, she didn’t have the time to perform her particular rituals.

Months (it might have been years) later, she told me how that visit had changed her. It was concrete evidence that even if she couldn’t indulge her OCD, that the things she feared would happen, didn’t. It was a breakthrough for her.

I travel alone all the time. I drive down to Ottawa, to Toronto, or to other cities in southern Ontario to train for my day job. I attend writing conferences, conventions, and workshops alone. Some of these have been across the country, or in the States. But I’d never been outside of continental North America before. In a very real way, I had never been more alone.

After the pre-departure panic attacks, though, I progressed straight to a semi-fugue state during travel. I was completely in the moment. I had to continually check my itinerary to make sure I was making progress to the next queue, or boarding, or whatever, because it was too tempting to slip into a place in which I wouldn’t care if I got anywhere at all.

Though I spent my waiting and flight time reading or watching movies to keep myself distracted, I wasn’t really forming solid memories of these things. I felt like a deer in the headlights most of the time. It was a test of endurance more than anything else, but I didn’t have a panic attack for the duration of my trip.

A little bit of that disconnect from reality followed me throughout my journey and reasserted itself for my days of solo travel. I was more in control once most of the uncertainty was behind me, once I’d reached the Atlantic Hotel in Kiel, for instance, or embarked on the cruise ship, or checked into the Sokkos Presidentti.

During the retreat itself, I had to be intentionally vulnerable, painfully honest, and resist attempts to make my work, accomplishments, or failures—essentially me—sound better, less devastating, or more professional than they were. It takes effort to do this when your body and brain is used to preventing you from doing these very things. It’s very liberating.

And, as my friend Kim told me, it’s also empowering. I can be authentic and the world doesn’t end. People still like me. I can be honest, and my tribe (writers) will support me.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts about this trip, the experience is still changing me. I’m a creature of habit and change is slow to come.

It was bucket-listy

When I started to attend conferences, conventions, and workshops, I started to set goals. Attend  Ad Astra. Check. I’ve now attended three. Attend the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Check. Attend When Words Collide. Check. Attend Can-Con. Check. Attend WorldCon. Check.

When I started to listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, I became aware of their writing retreats. Initially, they were held at Mary’s parent’s house. Eventually, though, they became more ambitious and the retreat took place on a cruise ship.

So I put that on my list of writerly goals. The Baltic cruise was special, though. The Writing Excuses cast will likely not be doing something similar in the near future. I could have made it even more bucket-listy by attending the German castle tour that followed the cruise, but I had to draw my financial line somewhere.

Still, to attend a writing retreat on a cruise ship, in Europe, and to be able to see some of the world in addition to developing my skill as a writer? As they say on the credit card commercial, that was priceless. It was the perfect storm of opportunity.

Travel and experience are critical parts of becoming a better writer. You have to push your limits, get out of your comfort zone, to make a breakthrough.

Ask and you shall receive

I left on my trip with a couple of personal goals in mind aside from travelling Europe and participating in the cruise.

Again, as I’ve mentioned previously, I have been having increasing difficulty with creative burnout. I wanted to see if I could get some practical advice and solid strategies for identifying and addressing the underlying reasons for this.

K. Tempest Bradford and Emma Newman were particularly helpful in this respect. The path they’ve lit the way to is one I’m still walking. I’ll have to devote another blog to this in the future, once I’ve sorted more of it out.

For now, I’m easing up on the writerly goal setting. I’m making room for other entertainment, down time, and self-care. I’m not so obsessed with heeding the siren song of production (moar!). I’m working on understanding that what I can get done is enough, that I am enough, and that reminding myself of the reasons I chose to write in the first place (love!) take precedence over external validation.

The other thing I was looking for was something that I’ve been trying for a couple of years to get in place, a mentor, editor, or some other form of support to help me get to the next level, so to speak, in my writing. I’ve tried to get a situation in place, but often personalities, interests, or skill sets have not meshed.

I’ve also been a part of many informal writing groups in real life as well as on line over the years. Again, personal goals, interests, and skill sets have not meshed. Or the methodology has been, in my opinion, flawed. Focusing on the first X pages or chapters doesn’t result in appropriate feedback, and feeding chapters, or sections, to readers over months or years isn’t necessarily productive either. Neither approach allows the reader or critique partner to get a feeling for the whole story, which I think is critical to feedback that results in improvement.

By the end of the cruise, I’d expressed interest in a full-novel critique group. Over the course of WorldCon, connections were made and things were firmed up. Starting in January of 2018, there’s a group of us that are going to give it a shot. I have hope and expectations, but not so many, nor so high, that they will be easily disappointed 🙂

One thing that I wasn’t expecting to receive was the excellent advice of Thomas Olde Heuvelt on how to develop and maintain a creative life plan. I’ve been setting writerly goals for years, but they’ve been primarily one-dimensional and focused on production.

Thomas’s advice to let the over-the-top, blue-sky, dreamy goals inform your overall writing goals and to include holistic life goals, like health—physical and mental—and financial, in the plan helped me to realize how much wellbeing I’ve been leaving out of my goals in recent years. He also recommended having a five year plan in place, subject to change (life does have a habit of intervening).

My European adventure was truly a life-changing experience, in many ways.

I’ll have to let you know how everything works out, but as many of my takeaways were things I’m going to be implementing over time, the results may be a while in coming.

Next week, I’ll be devoting some time to Kim’s launch of Some Other Sky and my presentation for the Sudbury Writers’ Guild on Fantasy (yes, the topic is wide open—it’s going to be fun). After that, I’m going to be participating in NaNoWriMo and taking a month-long blogging break, except for the Thoughty Thursday coming out on November 2nd.

I’ll catch everyone up in December with another bonanza October/November next chapter update. There are also going to be some writerly events coming up in November, including WordStock Sudbury and a possible Gail Anderson-Dargatz workshop with the Sudbury Writers’ Guild.

There will be more writerly goodness coming up.

Until next I blog, be kind, be well, and stay strong, my friends. The world needs your stories.

The Writing Excuses Retreat, part 4

Part four of the Writing Excuses Retreat (WXR) begins on the morning of Thursday, August 4, 2017, day six of the cruise.

This was our day in St. Petersburg, Russia, and our third port day in a row. In every other port, the tours ranged from three to five hours and there was always the option to take a taxi and wander around on our own if we wished. In St. Petersburg, the tour was all day. In fact, it was two tours with a brief break in between.

The rules were fairly strict in Russia. Our passports would be checked on the way out and on the way in. We would be issued visitor’s visas for the day. We were not, under any circumstances, to leave the tours, as our visas only covered us for the cruise-related excursions. There would be no wandering around St. Petersburg.

It was also an early-rising day. We’d have to get up, get ready, and eat in time to report for our 8 am (ish) departure.

The morning would be spent at Catherine’s Palace. Sweet lord that place is huge, and we only got to see a relatively small part of it. The sprawling courtyard is bounded on all sides by buildings or iron gates. And all that yellow-painted detail? It will eventually be gilded, like the domes.

 

Catherine’s Palace is part of a city-wide restoration. Scaffolding was erected around several sections of the palace grounds as buildings were repaired and painted, only awaiting the gold leaf.

Inside, it was the same. Every entryway glittered. There were 14 different kinds of wood, imported from all over the world, inlaid in intricate patterns on the floors. And, of course, we had to don booties again to protect the site from plebeian tourist feet.

TheGildening

Just as in the royal reception hall in Copenhagen, each room was designed based on the style in one of the European capitals. There was the Versailles room in red, games rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, studies, art galleries, and lots of cabinets, painted in toile designs.

And there was the legendary Amber Room, which we were forbidden from photographing (though our tour guide did encourage us to take surreptitious photos at the doors, to and from the room—the babushkas were quick to discipline those who tried, though, so I refrained). Amber is one of Russia’s special resources and it’s considered an extravagance to cover an entire room in the petrified resin.

The Amber Room itself is considered a national treasure and that’s one of the reasons we weren’t to take pictures of it. They don’t want cheap replicas of the room appearing elsewhere.

TheGrounds

After the tour, we were taken out into the palace grounds and took the long way back to the tour bus past what looked like a Roman aqueduct, through the gardens and forested grounds, and one of Catherine’s personal outdoor retreats, or bowers.

On the way back to the pier, we stopped for shopping. The cruise crud I’d contracted had (literally) reached a fever pitch, and I availed myself of whatever over-the-counter remedies I could find. Of course, I bought souvenirs and gifts, as well, but coughing until my chest and gut were sore was getting tiring. Immediate comfort was my chief concern.

SpilledBlood

Forgive the intruding phone strap at the bottom. I’m a terrible photographer.

The afternoon tour took us into St. Petersburg and to the Spilled Blood Cathedral. The cathedral was built on the site of the murder of Emperor Alexander II as a monument to his greatness, by his son, Emperor Alexander III. It took 24 years to build, which, once you see the mosaics inside, is absolutely mind-boggling.

Every inch of the walls, arches, and domes is covered in mosaics. These few pictures will just give you a taste of its magnificence. Really, there are no words.

mosaics3

After the cathedral, we did a walking tour of St. Petersburg, during which we saw Senate Square and the Winter Palace.

Peter the Great wanted to build Russia a capital like Venice, a canal city on the Baltic. Really, Russia needed a naval port, and St. Petersburg served that purpose too, but its true purpose was to be the jewel of the Baltic.

canal

Though there are canals, St. Petersburg never achieved its architect’s dream of becoming a canal city. Every street is lined with grand houses, palaces, though, because all of the Russian nobility moved in and set up house, each family trying to outdo the others in terms of grandeur.

And there was a second shopping stop 🙂

I had time upon my return to devote some time to revision, and then take a cruise crud induced nap.

JasperFforde

That evening, Jasper Fforde delivered his talk on the last 5%, that ineffable quality that most writers lack: magic fairy dust. He promoted a lifestyle of creativity and joie de vivre so that, when we wrote, we couldn’t help but infuse that little something extra into our work. And he was hilarious.

At supper, I sat at Piper and Matthew Drake’s table. They are such an adorable couple, I couldn’t help but do an internal squee. They also had fascinating stories to tell.

Friday was our second day at sea as we sailed at top speed back to Kiel, Germany. The wind became progressively fierce throughout the day, eventually causing the water park and on-deck bar to close. All the deck chairs were stowed and the tables and chairs were crammed up against the rail and Plexiglas wall because the wind was blowing them around the deck. It was our only stormy day and even then, I barely felt the roll of the ship.

At the giant Q&A session, I sought out Thomas Olde Heuvelt, as I’d missed the early part of his presentation, and Emma Newman, because I wanted to get some help with my interminable burnout. Both were extremely helpful.

WXRecords

After lunch, we attended the on-board recording of the Writing Excuses podcasts. The first one featured one of my new friends, Mike Stop Continues.

Then, after another stint of revision, I had to crash. Cruise crud was getting the better of me.

At supper on this final night of the cruise, though I was not scheduled to sit with any of the instructors, there were enough absences, perhaps due to the cruise crud, that I got to sit at Emma and Peter Newman’s table. I think it was my second most enjoyable night (next to dining with the two Sarahs and the two Laurens).

The Newmans gave equal time to everyone at the table and it was the meal at which I learned the most about some of my fellow WXR participants.

Saturday was debarkation day, and so … yes, there was more queuing 😉

Fortunately, the process was handled as efficiently as embarkation and we were back at the Atlantic Hotel in Kiel by noon. Not all the rooms were ready for occupancy, however, and so a group of us gathered out front and His Majesty Dan Wells led us to a local laundromat.

Once everyone got their wash on, we strolled two doors down to a döner restaurant for lunch—yum! The owner had to call in extra staff to help with the crowd (!) Afterward, while we waited for our clothes to dry, Mary and Dan recorded Patreon special episode of the WR podcast. Then, we trouped back to the hotel.

Kiel

After checking in, I spent the afternoon wandering around Kiel’s mall and open market, meeting up with some of my fellow cruisers to head to supper. There was some disagreement over where to go, and we ended up splitting, some choosing a German restaurant, and my group opting for Mexican.

I must say, the German version of Mexican is … interesting.

And that is where my WXR adventure ends.

Next week, my journey to Helsinki, and how I spent my time until WorldCon began.

Until Tipsday, be kind, be well, and stay strong. The world needs your stories!

The Writing Excuses Retreat, part 3

We resume the tale of the WXR Baltic cruise on Tuesday, August 1st, day four.

I woke up at ridiculous o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I dealt with the morning’s email, social media, and blog reading, got up and dressed for the day, and went out onto the balcony with my lap top to work on my revisions.

We were approaching Stockholm, having sailed all night, and I was struck by the landscape. It looked just like northern Ontario. I could have been on Georgian Bay or in the Nipissing Narrows. So, of course, I took some pictures 🙂

JustLikeHome

It was the second of four consecutive port tour days and the early rising was a good thing as I had to get ready for my day in Stockholm.

StGeorgeandtheDragon

Our tour took us into the old town (every major city in Europe has one, apparently) for a walking tour. We saw the parliament and a couple of old churches, had the opportunity to get some souvenirs, and then we were off to Skansen.

DragonWaterspoutCoolDoor

Skansen is basically a Viking pioneer village. We toured some of the old farms there, saw a windmill, church, and old pillory (the pole they chained miscreants to for public punishment—like stocks). While we didn’t have time to see them, they had heritage craftspeople, and reindeer, which a group ran off to see—and were almost too late to catch the bus to our next destination (!)

Skansen

We then went to the Vasa museum. The Vasa was an enormous war ship, commissioned by the then king of Sweden. Against the advice and better judgement of his shipbuilders, he ordered a third deck of gun ports. This severely overbalanced the ship and the gun ports were too close to water level.

VASA

The Vasa’s maiden voyage lasted 15 minutes and she sank in the silty harbour where she sat for 300 years until salvage crews were able to raise her. The ship was remarkably preserved by the silt and the Vasa museum has been built around the salvaged ship to tell the tragic tale of one king’s hubris.

We got back to the Fantasia a little late and, after dropping my goodies off at my stateroom, I ran down to catch most of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s presentation on maintaining a writer’s life. It was about setting and tracking writerly goals, not word count goals, but career goals.

First, he said to blue sky a goal. His included a house on the French Riviera 🙂 Then, you scale down to five years, then one, and finally break your year up into monthly goals. The important thing is to assess your progress.

At the end of each day, review what you accomplished, and what you didn’t, without judgement. Adjust your goals accordingly. Unexpected things are always going to happen. The point is to adjust course in a way that will facilitate success. Always take the positive view.

Thomas’s presentation appealed to an organized, goal-oriented person like me. I didn’t dive in and create a plan immediately, but I think I’m going to work on one for next year, taking account for how my experiments of the past couple of years have gone.

At dinner that night, I sat at Dan Wells’ table, and again, I enjoyed getting to know one of our hosts, more of my fellow participants, and the conversations we had about our work and goals.

After dinner, I went to the upper deck to take a picture of the sunset as we travelled to Estonia.

SunsetDay4

The next day was our tour of Tallinn, which I think was one of the port cities I enjoyed the most. We started with the amphitheatre where the annual song festival takes place. Apparently choirs from all over the world perform there, as well as many popular music bands.

We drove around the harbour to walk on the shore, saw a war memorial, and an old abbey which was being restored.

The centrepiece of the tour was the old city. In the case of Tallinn, the old city is completely surrounded by a wall, which still stands. It’s a place you have to walk through to appreciate. All the old buildings, the narrow, winding, and ascending laneways, the churches, the old merchant houses, the excavated headstones of Estonian notables.

And the market square. After the walking tour of the old town was complete, we were given thirty minutes to wander and shop. I bought most of the gifts I brought back for family and friends there and a few things for myself.

TallinnWall1TallinnWall3

Back on the ship, I attended Ken Liu’s presentation on how to work with your translator.

That night’s dinner was dubbed the elegant night. I sat with a table of other participants, most of whom I hadn’t yet met, and had another enjoyable night of camaraderie and conversation.

Once more, I took a picture of the sunset.

SunsetDay5

The next day was our day in St. Petersburg, Russia … which I’ll save for my fourth and final instalment of my WXR cruise adventure 🙂

I hope everyone in Florida is safe, tonight.

Until next time, be kind, be well, and stay strong. The world needs your stories!