Sophfronia Scott, Author Writing, laughing, and loving

My Next Creativity Playdate

April 17, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

mount1_lgI’ve had a house on my mind. I’m writing something requiring me to conjure the environment of a grand home, a mansion. I feel the need to walk through the expansive rooms of such a place and to roam the blooming, well-tended gardens of a glorious property. When I expressed this thought to my husband he said, “Wasn’t there a writer somewhere around here with a house like that? Somebody with an E name like Eudora.” I felt like I’d been pinched awake. “You mean Edith! Edith Wharton!” I said.

How could I forget? I once clipped an article from O, the Oprah Magazine about the restoration of The Mount, the home Edith Wharton designed for herself in the early 1900s. It’s only 85 miles north of here in Lenox, Massachusetts. I wanted to shout “Road trip!”

edith-wharton-libraryBut when I went to the home’s website I learned it won’t open to the public for the season until May 3. That’s okay, I’ll go then. For now I’m contenting myself with photos of The Mount–look at her gorgeous library!–and reading the book Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson.  In light of my recent post about creativity playdates and how I was in search of my next adventure, I wanted to let you know I’ve found it. I’m eager to see the place of which Wharton wrote so lovingly in her autobiography:

“On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house, to which we gave the name of my great-grandfather’s place, The Mount…There for over ten years I lived and gardened and wrote contentedly, and should doubtless have ended my days there had not a grave change in my husband’s health made the burden of the property too heavy.

But meanwhile The Mount was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing. The Mount was my first real home…its blessed influence still lives in me.”

I’ll happily report back after my visit and let you know how it inspired me.

The Importance of Creativity Playdates

April 2, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

IMG_8686If you’re a writer and a parent (I am) you probably schedule or once scheduled many playdates for your children. When was the last time you booked one for yourself? I’m not talking about hanging out with your friends, (although you could include them in this adventure) I’m talking about a creativity playdate. This is time you set aside for yourself to do something that fills your well of inspiration. A creativity playdate can be simple and close to home—sitting in your favorite chair perusing gorgeous coffee table books. Or it could be a mini field trip that gets you out of the office and into a new environment: a trip to a museum or a public garden which would be ideal now because spring bulbs will soon bloom. It could even be a big trip: My recent Vermont College of Fine Arts study abroad residency in Puerto Rico was basically a huge creativity playdate with my fellow writing students.

Creativity playdates are just as important as the time you schedule for writing. In fact, your writing time can be difficult and fruitless without them. If you find you spend much of your writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, you’re in need of a creativity playdate. Looking for a story idea? Ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. It’s exciting.

philip-johnson-glass-houseMy other creative activities include watching the television show “Project Runway” because I like seeing a different kind of artist, in this case fashion designers, exercising his or her own brand of creativity. I also color in coloring books (my Harry Potter one is my favorite), visit museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Bruce Museum  in Greenwich, Connecticut, and tour the homes of famous artists/designers/writers. I love Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, but I recently learned part of the chateau home of the essayist Montaigne is open to the public in Dordogne Village in France. I would love to see his office/library and view the exposed beams in the tower where Montaigne engraved some of his thoughts, including his famous question “’Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?”

greenapplebedOn my latest playdate I explored the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York City. It included art installations as well as design ideas and new home appliances and products. A bed of green apples caught my eye and sparked my imagination, as did a bizarre seating bench covered in tube-like purple velvet cushions entwined again and again. Mysterious and erotic!purplecushions

I encourage you to schedule a creativity playdate at least once a month. If you can’t think of something to do, consider this—you want to excite your five senses. Try to come up with ideas addressing each one. For example:

  • Smell: Explore perfume or incense shops; check out a store where you can sniff barrels of coffee beans, visit a florist.
  • Touch: Go to high-end stores or fabric shops where you can run your hands over rich materials or beautiful furniture. Take a cue from your childhood and visit a petting zoo or an aquarium that features touch tanks of specimens to hold.
  • Sight: Feast your eyes on works of art, or go on hikes to see spectacular views.
  • Sound: Attend concerts, plays, musicals, or sit in a place with lots of people where you can pick up pieces of overheard conversation.
  • Taste: Try a new cuisine by cooking a recipe you’ve never tried before or going to a different restaurant.

Really, you could do anything you want for your creativity playdate as long as you don’t forget to have fun! Let me know what you do or would like to do for your creative adventures. I might be in the market for a new idea this month. Thanks in advance!

VCFA Puerto Rico Residency Day 7

January 9, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

Posts from my Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency.]

Here’s the thing: I can’t speak with any certainty about how the culture of Puerto Rico has influenced me. It’s just too soon. I probably won’t know until I embark on my next writing project and find myself infusing the work with the saltiness of codfish, the stickiness of thick, red rainforest mud, or the ethereal sadness of an angel’s face from the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. But I have made some important discoveries, and I can discuss those here.

20140109-232457.jpgThis is Raphe. He’s a poet and we will graduate together next summer, but we never met before at our previous residencies in Montpelier. In this photo he’s sleeping near my chair on Luquillo Beach. It may sound odd, but Raphe sleeping in my presence, usually while I’m writing in the common room of our shared villa, is the foundation of our new friendship. We appreciate the peaceful nature of each other’s personalities. I’ll come back to Raphe in a bit.

20140109-234057.jpgOur last full day in Puerto Rico began with a simple generative workshop using as writing prompts the concerns we voiced at the beginning of the residency. We had to choose one and use it as the first line of a poem or prose piece. The one I picked wasn’t my personal concern, but I thought it was interesting: “I’m scared of the rainforest.” Many of us worked on our pieces even as we awaited the time to load the vans for our journey to Luquillo Beach. Yes, this was the glorious day I’ve been waiting for–beach day!
20140109-234752.jpgFive of our group went on a boating/snorkeling excursion, but I was done with adventure activities. I wanted to rent a beach chair and umbrella and sit and stare at the water, which is exactly what I did all day. Well, not quite– I went for a lovely walk on the beach with Richard McCann, Mary Ruefle, and fellow student Maggie Kast.
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I spent some time soaking in the ocean. Saltwater draws out negative energies–yes, I do believe in such things! Then we walked down to the kioskos, little vendor storefronts in a long concrete structure, and found delicious food: oatmeal frappes (topped with whipped cream, 2 Oreo cookies and a vanilla wafer!), salted codfish, and plantains split down the middle and stuffed with spiced ground beef. Mary also found a kioskos that sold candy, but I had no room left in my stomach! 20140109-235926.jpg

Our time on the beach was deeply satisfying because it was more time spent simply talking–about compassion, parenting, developing your own voice in a narrative, and where a person might be meant to live in the world. We could have stayed there well into the evening, but Luquillo Beach closed at 5pm–much too soon for me. The day melted away so fast. 20140110-003850.jpg

When we returned we held our celebratory dinner where we thanked Pam Taylor for being an awesome coordinator, and Carmen who cooked our amazing meals at Casa Cubuy. We also went around the room and responded to two questions: What did the trip teach us that was new? What did the trip remind us of that we already knew, but had lost or forgotten? 20140110-000824.jpg
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Here are my two responses:

My “new” thing I learned was that I could write daily about a current travel experience. I’ve never been able to do that before–in fact I’ve taken blank journals on trips for the purpose of chronicling my adventure only to return home with the book empty. While I may not be able to immediately process Puerto Rico’s influence on me, I suspect what I’ve written this week will help me recognize the seeds this culture has planted within me when they begin to sprout.

And my reminder? That brings me back to Raphe. I remembered I am a peaceful person, and that peace can be a comfort to myself and others. I forget this sometimes because, though I regularly sit in prayer and meditation, I don’t always get to see the effects of my practice. If one exercises, you can see and feel the results in your increased stamina and muscle tone. It’s harder to understand the results of a contemplative practice which, I suppose, is why it’s so easy to let it go for periods of time. But Raphe’s unexpected and delightful friendship is a really nice affirmation and it helps me say this: I’ll keep praying and meditating. I’ll keep seeking. I will appreciate this aspect of myself more and not take it for granted as I return to my home and family tomorrow. Thank you, Raphe.

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And thank you to our faculty, Richard McCann and Mary Ruefle. They were the best teachers, even more than I could have hoped for on this journey.

Thanks too to the rest of my fellow travelers/students: Daniel McGinn, Josephine Hughes, Partridge Boswell, Lillian Kwok, Brittany Rathbone, Shanalee Smith, Maggie Kast, Carolyn Walker, and Judith Ford.

Thank you for reading this, and journeying with me on this marvelous adventure. Take care and be well,

Sophfronia
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VCFA Puerto Rico Residency Day 6

January 8, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

Posts from my Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency.

20140108-211908.jpgToday we hiked into the rain forest in two groups-one for people with physical issues who would go on a less strenuous walk; the other for people able to make the challenging climb up to a huge waterfall. I joined the waterfall group and it was indeed challenging. We ended up scrambling over rocks and up through a kind of caged metal ladder–see the photo and you’ll know what I mean! We chewed on native plants such as tiny begonia flowers and little blueberries. We also examined the seed pods of orchids. Here are more photos. Truly a beautiful experience!

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Okay, yes, that’s me. Swinging on a vine. I highly recommend the activity.

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This leaf (below) belongs to the trumpet tree. On the tree this leaf is green and bigger than your whole head. But after it falls its underside turns white and it has the feel of a thick paper bag. I wonder if it glows at night like slices of moonlight on the ground. 20140108-213154.jpg20140108-213802.jpg20140108-213842.jpgIMG_87271008218_10201902751543838_88815539_o
We started the hike around 10 a.m., ate sandwiches on the trail at lunchtime, and returned around 4:30. We still had a lecture to attend! I was tired, but the talk was worth it. Mary Ruefle took us on another kind of journey, through her notebooks. It was a great demonstration of a creative mind at work–wondering, questioning, challenging the stories, pieces of information, and teaching she encounters every day, especially as she reads.

butterly-displays-640_s640x427For instance, before we left Old San Juan she asked each of us to visit The Butterfly People, an art gallery featuring butterflies, dead and pinned, and arranged in thick plexiglass boxes that can be bought (small boxes for $40 and larger boxes for hundreds, even thousands of dollars) for hanging in your home. Mary described her experience of this gallery, of being stunned by the color and beauty of the butterflies while at the same time being uncomfortable, even angry, at where the gallery was getting the specimens. Were they truly grown on farms, as the owners told me when I asked, or were they obtained in a different way, possibly putting endangered species of butterflies at risk? Mary put this thought process in her notebook.

1601208_10202396347287139_1670807115_nI feel Mary has the mind of a genius. I’m not sure people can appreciate her (but then when is genius ever really appreciated?) if they haven’t read her poems, essays, and lectures. (She read us a brilliant essay on shrunken heads earlier this week.) But can people appreciate the pieces if they never get to experience the whole? If you want to explore pieces of Mary, I recommend her book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, a compilation of her lectures.

I hope you enjoy the photos from our hike. Tomorrow–beach day!

Until then,

Sophfronia (in the hammock)
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VCFA Puerto Rico Residency Day 5

January 7, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

[Posts from my Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency]

Today seemed to be about risk, on the page and in real life.

In the morning we assembled for a generative workshop, a session where we would create new work, possibly inspired by a writing prompt. I’m not a fan of prompts, but I’ve learned to be open and patient in such workshops. I know good work can come of them– one of the essays in my creative thesis was born of a writing prompt I received at the River Pretty Writers Retreat last year. So I was prepared to be game for this workshop. 20140107-230848.jpg

We read out loud an essay by Dorothy Allison, “Survival is the Least of My Desires,” in which she states upfront: “I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.”

So…I guessed we wouldn’t be generating happy essays about coqui in the rain forest.

This brought me to the moment of choice–would I be participating fully in the writing prompt to come, which Richard McCann already said would be a prompt we could write from for the rest of our lives? Or would I simply ignore the prompt and write whatever I wanted to write? Either way I would be taking a risk. If I dove into my worst stuff would I be able to really write and share what might come? If I didn’t do the prompt I would have to account for why if called on to share what I had written. I’ll give you the prompt first and tell you what I did.

The prompt came from this part of Allison’s essay in which she speaks of urging young writers “to confront their own lives in their fiction. Not that they must write autobiography, but that they must use the whole of their lives in the making of the stories they tell; they must honor their dead, their wounded and lost…”

Richard asked us each to make a list of “your dead, your wounded, your lost.” Then we had to circle the name for which we had the most energy and start writing about it. As we wrote, Mary Ruefle would call out a word and we had to incorporate that word into what we were writing. The words eventually totaled 16 and we had to use at least half of them. If you’re curious, here’s the list of words:

Sea
Artichoke
Purple
Sign
Transfix
Carpet
Words
Frond
Snap
Central
Born
Unheard of ever
Uninspected
Beverage
Divigate

I admit I didn’t get to half. I used 4, maybe 5 of the words. Reason being I was taking the first part of the assignment seriously, writing in a way to honor the person from my list. The words eventually became a distraction. I wrote them down to consider another time. As it turned out, we didn’t have to share what we wrote and I was glad. I felt the writing was risk enough. The sharing, like the word list, would only distract me from what was still taking shape on the page. For the same reason I can’t share with you what I worked on, but know this: I sought to be honest and honorable and I hope to continue to do so as I work on this piece.

Fast forward to the afternoon, post lunch. We’ve planned a hike to see petroglyphs, images carved into rocks by the native Taino people. But our guide arrives and there’s a hitch–the rain has swollen the river in the spot where we are to cross it. We have to swim across at a point where the water is about 8 feet deep. The guide described the distance across the river as short so I change into my swimsuit. I am not a strong swimmer, but I figured I could stroke well enough to get across. I thought this could be one of those life changing experiences where you do the thing you thought you couldn’t do. I wanted to try.

20140108-203004.jpgWhen we arrived, though, I found the river wider and the current strong because it was between two waterfalls. One couldn’t swim straight across because the current could take you over the rocks. You had to swim at an angle, making the effort harder and longer. When I saw these conditions I decided to pass. It was a risk I neither wanted nor needed to take. I am grateful I know my abilities and limitations. I didn’t feel bad about sitting on the rocks in the sun, which I enjoyed, as I waited for my fellow writers to return.
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We held our last set of student readings tonight (I read my essay, “White Shirts”) which means we ‘re that much closer to the end of this residency. We still have three more days, though, so I won’t linger on that.

Big hike tomorrow!

Until then,

Sophfronia

 

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