One Foot in The Otherworld

a day in my life

Writers spend a lot of time avoiding writing. I was doing that today, tinkering around on the internet (don’t get me started), tending to all these things I told myself were so important but were not important at all, no, just mindless distractions draped in gold, sugar and obduracy. And then I came across this brilliant little GIF.

I stared at it for a while, my mind blank as I tried to put it together. What’s happening here? I asked myself. Then I burst into laughter. What an utterly accurate depiction of my life! Sitting up here in the snowy woods — eight months of the year, that — doing yoga or whatever deep, damned thing I need to do, and all the wild, unseen beasties are there, going about their business with nary a lifted brow.

Let’s hear it for the internet. (And the crowd roars.)

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Ursula Le Guin Answers a Trick Question

At some point in their lives writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Some writers make thoughtful comments to put the questioner at ease (a bit like tossing someone a cupcake as a distraction); others get snarky or hide behind humor; and some, like me, try to elude the question altogether.

Admiral AckbarDon’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some very creative and convincing responses to this question. And just because I run away screaming when someone asks doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it. Oh yes, I’ve fabricated all kinds of elaborate, deep and clever answers because I figure a fantasy author should be able to do that. But that’s all it is. Fantasy. An honest answer, on the other hand, goes something like this:

“Ugh. Who knows.”

Not very imaginative, is it. That’s because “Where do you get your ideas?” is a trick question. In my own defense, I don’t concoct responses to impress others as much as to convince myself — because the whole thing is a Mystery with a capital “M”. Whenever I think about it, I find myself in deeper and deeper waters. It’s not a question one can answer definitively unless one is full of crap.

EarthseaAs a kid, one of my first and most influential flights into the fantasy genre was the Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin. I still have the 1968 mass market copies of those books, which I keep in a special place in my favorite bookcase. When I first read them, I never thought I’d write novels one day, let alone contemplate where the ideas came from. When I recently came across a collection of quotes entitled Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work, I found a good answer to the Trick Question. This was one of those life defining events that came with a brilliant flash of perspective that had been synthesizing over the years.

Here is Ms. Le Guin’s take on it, given with the grace befitting a wise soul and master of the craft:

“The more I think about the word ‘idea,’ the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of ‘idea’ to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer ‘gets’ (takes into the head) an ‘idea’ (some sort of mental object) ‘from’ somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Archmage of Roke couldn’t have said it better.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The Cat Thwarter

Oona in the Apple Tree

Oona in the Apple Tree

Ahh…cats. A writer’s best friend. Splendid traits aside, it’s always best to remember that cats are, at the end of the day, predators capable of wicked things indeed. I live in the woods; I have three cats that are prodigious hunters and one that can climb thirty feet into a tree without catching a breath. There is nothing romantic about this, even to a seasoned cat lady. I’ll spare you the horror stories.


River the Tree Climber

This spring, a robin built a nest in a beech tree by the house. It’s a beautiful thing. From the windows we can hear the chicks twittering and rustling around in the nest. As they’re being fed, they make a lovely, hopeful sound rich with the sort of high-pitched frequencies to which cats are particularly sensitive. In this picture you can see one of the chicks at the top of the nest. It was difficult to get a good shot without doing something obnoxious involving a ladder. I didn’t go there. The adult robins yelled at me from the trees as it was.

Robin's Nest

Robin’s Nest in the Beech Tree

Hemlock and the Cat Thwarter

Hah! Thwarted.

Needless to say, these little beggars were in serious danger (again, speaking from experience, here) so we had to do something. An old tomato cage and a wire cutter did the trick. I have affectionately dubbed this the “Cat Thwarter.” (Yes I made that word up but it works: something that thwarts.) Here it is, with my cat Hemlock lurking in flagrante delicto nearby.

So far so good. Cats. Wicked creatures.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

More Cat Posts…

Yoga Crasher
Hemlock and Editing
Puss in Books

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Old Mother Void

I found a little snakeskin in my woodpile yesterday. Well, what was left of it, anyway. A woodpile is a rough place—which, of course, is why the snake went there to perform its sacred ritual. Like a wild-eyed crone in a fairy tale, I gingerly gathered up the papery skin and put it in a safe place. You know, in case I need it some day.

The timing of this discovery is worth noting. In traditional animal lore, the snake is revered as a creature of transformation and rebirth, symbolized by the periodic shedding of its skin. A passage through the Dark Night, the Void, this process is part of all life, from the tiniest seed to the universe itself. In the wheel of the seasons it is honored as All Hallows Eve, when the veils to the Otherworld are thin and the living mingle with the dead. This is a time to acknowledge Old Mother Void and to make friends with creatures that tread the ‘tween paths without fear.

River Prowling, by F.T. McKinstry

The Old Mother has a tendency to cast a chill on the hearts of mortals. Hers is the prickle on one’s spine when wind whispers in the chimney; the cold, crushing tide of grief; the chasm a writer stares into while waiting for the words; or the visceral knowledge that it’s time to release something that no longer serves. And yet, while implacable, the Old Mother does have one’s best interests at heart. After all, the snake doesn’t fear as it slithers into a dark woodpile to shed its skin.

So I’ll keep my creepy little snakeskin, thank you, to remind me of that. Heh.

Ribbon Snake, by F.T. McKinstry

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.