Shop Talk: Creativity, Sanity, Deadline


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I have been quiet, working toward a looming deadline. A good friend across country is in a similar space, completing her doctoral dissertation. Earlier this week she asked how I do it over and over again, writing to a deadline and managing to keep my sense of humor and appear so relaxed and engaged with life. Hah! Maybe I missed my calling on the stage…. Another question she posed was how I work through snags in my writing. What follows is the meat of my response to her email. It’s casual, and I’m sure I could improve it, but when I reread it this morning I thought, hm, that’s it in a nutshell.

The deadline now looms so large in my mind, and dancing with that sense of urgency, how to use it but not let it overwhelm me, is my meditation practice. There’s a concept my meditation teacher talks about a lot, about noticing the space around me, around everything and all that I’m doing. This space is where I can breathe, it’s the pause between, it’s always there supporting me. So I keep bringing myself back to that space, finding ways to allow it. This is quite a challenge when the ticking clock is so loud in the room, but a powerful practice. It begins with taking three deep breaths. As Norman Fischer (another teacher, a Zen monk and  poet) says, we need to breathe anyway, so we can certainly afford the time to take those three deep breaths. Often that’s all I need. I’m back in my legs, back in my power. Sometimes I need to move–yoga, walk, dance. Even just a few minutes of movement helps. It’s that close.

And as to writing through snags, I’ve been working with that as well, and they seem to happen when–ta da–I’ve become too aware of the ticking clock and I’m rushing. Sometimes it’s just a matter of relaxing into the creative process. Two steps forward, one back, three forward, two back, stall, one step forward. Maybe that’s just the rhythm of this work. That’s often all it is. Nothing. Is. Wrong.

Or I need to ask whether this is truly a fresh idea I might consider, which would mean going back and changing a lot, or whether I’m panicking and my mind is using this to stall me–oh no, I should have done this differently, red alert, red alert, disaster approaching, impact in 3 seconds!

I know that I don’t know all that I’m thinking until I write it out, until I’ve played it out; then I ask myself what else is “in the room” (my metaphor) if I shift my gaze just a little. What thread have I dropped? That’s often when I go off for a walk, or go out into the garden and work for a while.

Questions really work for me. Have I strayed from the tonal quality I was looking for? Have I veered off point? Is that veering something helpful that I just didn’t see until I started writing? Or am I avoiding something, skirting an issue? Do I have my hands over my ears as I hum loudly so I don’t hear what I need to do–like do more research?

Sometimes just randomly writing words in a “cloud” on a blank piece of paper reveals what I’m thinking.

My pep talk: “Remember, you have loads of support all around you. Everyone wants you to succeed. You are respected. Trust yourself. Look at what you’ve achieved. Take a moment to appreciate that.”



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Out on a walk, I watched a couple with a small child approaching. Slowly, oh so 21 July office 001slowly, as the boy would take one or two tiny steps forward, then circle his progress, so he was looping down the street. As we passed, I commented on how he made me smile, and his granddad said, Seems he wants to be a garbage collector. I realized the boy was thumping the top of each garbage barrel as he passed, or the side if it was too tall—yard waste and recycling bins. But it was the circling that had caught my attention.

When I was a child, I would walk circles on the checkered linoleum in the downstairs room while spinning tales for my mother as she ironed or sewed. I often began with something that actually happened to me, then embellished until it was quite the fairy tale or adventure story. My mother would say, You’ll get in trouble someday for those stories. But then she’d ask what happened next.

Later, I skated in circles on the patio while making up stories in my head, often speaking the voices aloud. My parents worried.

Even later, I rode my big bike around in circles on the patio—challenging, the patio not that big, so I was daring myself to lean and not fall. And all the while I was thinking things through, figuring out what was going on by trying to fit incidents into stories so I could understand.

The first dance I choreographed for a class played with circular movement.

In my first house, I would stand in the window watching the boy who lived across the street ride his bike in circles, talking to himself. His little sister liked to walk in circles in the rain, under an umbrella, belting out songs—I think she thought with the umbrella up no one could hear her. This child could sing!

In my second house, the present one, a young girl moved in across the street. She spent hours on a scooter circling, circling.

And now, in my office, I often begin my day doing walking meditation in a circle, slowly. As the day progresses I pace in circles, thinking through a scene.

From the beginning I’ve consciously circled in both directions. So have the children I’ve watched. So, it seems, do cats.

However, I knew a sweet dog who always circled in one direction.

But yesterday, the boy looping. Now that’s fresh. I think I’ll try it.

On the Reburial of King Richard III


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On the weekend, a friend gently teased me about caring where King Richard III is reburied. He said Richard was past caring. Pragmatism. Yes, of course it’s true that Richard is beyond caring. But I’m able to do what I do, bringing the late middle ages to life, because I care, I care about the people of the times as if they were my contemporaries. I cried when writing the death scene of John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, in A Vigil of Spies, a scene I had avoided writing, suggesting to my editor that Thoresby could die in between books. She disagreed, and of course she was right, the entire book led up to that scene. But this man who had begun the series as a villain had become a dear friend by the 10th book.

from the BBC, Richard III's coffin placed in new tomb, Leicester Cathedral

from the BBC, Richard III’s coffin placed in new tomb, Leicester Cathedral

I’ve written before that I believed Richard III should be buried in York. But that doesn’t dim my deep satisfaction in the respect given him by the ceremonies in Leicester. And I am glad that York is celebrating his reburial this week:

I know my friend was merely teasing me, as many do about my fascination with the late middle ages. Fifteen, going on sixteen books set in that time? When are you going to write something contemporary?  I did. A short story, “Karma”. And then I dove back into the period I enjoy exploring. It’s my passion. I write what excites me, what engages me.

At the moment I’m following on my deep research into Joan of Kent with a foray into the beginning of the 15th century, beginning in 1399, the months leading up to the deposition of her son, King Richard II, and then the uneasy reign of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who crowned himself King Henry IV. What caused Richard’s downfall? How is it that his subjects were so willing to crown his Lancastrian cousin? And what was the effect of this political upheaval on the citizens of York? If you know this history, you know that I have a wealth of material to work with, and a new archbishop, Richard Scrope. Yet another unfortunate Richard.

Shop Talk: Tweeting re My Work-in-Progress


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I am fascinated by the creative process, my own and others’. I know writers who begin with a beautiful first sentence and build a book from that, never changing that first sentence. I know others who begin with an interaction among characters, essentially a daydream that intrigues them, and start asking questions—who are they? Why are they arguing? What’s their history? I know writers who do elaborate outlines and character sketches before they ever begin to flesh out scenes. Others who just start writing and see what happens.

York Minster from the city wall

York Minster from the city wall

My process is a little of everything. Of course, with the Emma Campion books, I began with the research, with what I’d been able to glean about Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent and their circles. But the outline then evolved as the scenes brought up new questions. With mysteries my process is looser. I have the historical backdrop, some actual historical figures and the real settings, but most of the characters, the mystery, the investigation, the revelations all arise from my imagination, and all of this evolves and changes as I write.

I’ve been occasionally tweeting about my writing process on a new project. Just for fun, I collected my shop talk tweets for the past few months, and here they are. (If you want to follow me, my handle on Twitter is CandaceMRobb  )


Slightly modified morning prompt from a workshop with Peter Beagle. “What are my character’s first thoughts on waking?”
added second tweet
And how does this change by the end of the book?

Thought the scene was finished. Last night, her feelings vs what she says aloud had me scribbling. Must add!

Someone said they couldn’t work at home, too many distractions. I thought, Not once the story takes off.

Stomach’s tight with fear, heart’s pounding. Had to take a break and breathe. It’s tough inhabiting a character in danger.

My characters are taking up their roles and expanding them, guiding me. To revise outline as I go or abandon it?

So far this week, 6575 words. Yes!

Characters in charge now, leading me along, revelations so intriguing I look forward to the day. I love this part!

Saturday morning yoga class. I meet my edge and inspiration jolts me. Scenes resolve, characters clarify.

Appreciating the wisdom of my characters as I compare old and new working outlines. So much better with their input!

Shifting recent scenes around for maximum impact, improved pacing. And so she can rip into him.

Phone rings and I realize I have to blow my nose before I answer because a character’s been crying, and so have I.


You see, I do have an outline, but once I begin to write, I see the flaws in the plan and relax, permit new characters to appear, get curious, play with them. I consider how I feel about where I’m now heading—more interesting? Does it use incidental material that’s built up as I work? I note something in a room that seems innocuous, then ask, what if it were important? What could it mean? This is how I stay engaged. If I know everything’s that’s coming, why bother? I have a general idea of my direction, but I’m open to the potential inherent in the story as it unfolds. My outline becomes more of a record of the latest structure with vague suggestions for moving forward.

How about you? Are you working on a project? Are you a planner, do you just start and see where you wind up, or????

Background on A TRIPLE KNOT: Envisioning Joan


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In the beginning, I play with characters, trying them out in scenes, testing how they react to events and their fellow characters. With Joan of Kent, I’d already portrayed her several years before the death of her husband, the Black Prince, in A Vigil of Spies (Owen Archer #10), and she appeared at various points before, during, and after her marriage to Edward in The King’s Mistress. Now, for A Triple Knot, I revised Triple Knot_cvrneeded to understand her life in full.

This morning, searching for a scene I’d written and rewritten and finally discarded, in which she teaches the young Ned (Prince Edward) to dance, I found instead this experiment in first person. I did not intend to use first person for this book, because I wanted other voices at court, but to explore  her life through her eyes, looking back, I played with the elderly Joan in this piece. Her son Richard is now King Richard II, and her sons Thomas and John Holland are adults. The daughter-in-law is Anne of Bohemia.


I lay in bed all night fingering my beads, murmuring prayers.

I am accustomed to dramatic rows with my sons Thomas and John, Richard’s half-brothers. We growl and snap at one another, they shout hateful things, I favor quieter retorts, and the courtiers pretend to avert their eyes, though they hold their breath fearful lest they miss a word. Always, my sons and I come together afterward in loving contrition. This is possible because we have shunned speaking of that which must not be questioned.

Until last night, when John uttered a hateful accusation. A look of horror made a mask of my daughter-in-law’s sweet face. She, most of all, understands the danger if what he said were widely believed. Her husband’s reign rides in the balance. John’s cruel nature has robbed Anne of her innocence.

When she arrived from the court of Bohemia to wed my son, she expected the glorious court of his grandfather, a court celebrating military prowess and chivalry with frequent and extravagant festivals of tourneying and jousting. She found, instead, a more sedately elegant, cultured court barely tolerated by barons lusting for the passion of battle and especially the spoils of war.

And now she has glimpsed the even more dangerous undercurrents threatening her husband’s crown.

Edward’s was a glorious court, but it was so by design. He and Philippa had come to power on the waves of rebellion, his father’s inglorious, forced abdication, his mother’s treason, her lover’s execution. They strove to distract the barons and the commons with the trappings of the ideal royal court, and provide them with a battleground offshore.

I do not remember a time when I did not understand the price we pay for noble birth. I was not yet four when my father was beheaded for his loyalty—albeit belated—to his half-brother. My pregnant mother, my brother and I were spared—kept in Arundel Castle until the young king’s familial affections stirred him to release us.

My parents had betrayed themselves, first supporting Queen Isabella, then King Edward, Father’s half-brother, and so had been betrayed.

The tragic result has been a festering wound all their progeny carry. If it did not smack of blasphemy I would call it stigmata, for we carried it invisibly until some crisis brought it forth, and we were revealed. It was our inheritance. In all my sons it plays out most violently, Thomas and John from within, Richard from without. Two would control with violent emotions, the third with a rigid peace—which I fear will be the undoing of his reign.

* * * * *

The royal court—what a strange and splendid stage in which to be a child, exploring possible roles, testing my strengths. We were privileged players, and all life was a performance in which at any moments marvels might arise to delight us. How exciting to be continually surprised by my surroundings.

Yet sometimes it was an unpleasant sort of excitement. People shifted roles without warning.

I remembered the darkness from which we burst out into the confusing magnificence of the court. Mother chided me, assuring me that I could not possibly remember our confinement in Arundel Castle. She swore as well that I had appropriated someone else’s memories of my father.

But I did not believe that my nightmares were borrowed.

My apprehension did not last long. My cousins Edward and Isabella soon pulled me into their circle of friends. What adventures we had! How privileged we were. I saw the other side of being royal—the fun, the extravagance.

Mother was respected by Kind Edward and Queen Philippa. I understood that we were accepted, secure. As long as the royal couple were secure.


Joan has been my companion through three books–no wonder I miss her.

I still haven’t found the dance lesson.

For a few more days (through 8 March), the ebook version of A Triple Knot is on sale for $1.99 in the US. Just so you know…!

Background on A Triple Knot: Joan and Thomas—a few deleted scenes


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Everything about the creative process intrigues me. A colleague once told me that he saves every discarded bit as he works on a book and reviews all of the material with care when he’s doing the last revisions, just to make certain he didn’t reject something because of a mood that he might now find brilliant, just the right phrase, sentence, scene. I thought it an interesting concept until he told me that what he’s discarded by then is at least five times what’s left—so… if the novel is 80k words, that would be 400k discarded words. Intimidating. I save almost everything, early drafts, scenes that I remove but want to save just in case, but I rarely go back to review them, and certainly not at such a late date. I fear the urge to start over.

But once a book is well and truly published, no chance of revising (no no no, don’t revised Triple Knot_cvrremind that with an e-book I could fiddle forever), I enjoy taking a peek. Before I came up with one of my favorite early scenes in A Triple Knot, in which Joan meets Thomas on the deck of the ship taking her to Antwerp, I had introduced Thomas, and Joan’s interest in him, with this scene. So the brief dialogue is Joan of Kent, then Thomas Holland.


“Sir Thomas! Have you caught any thieves of late?”

“Alas, you witnessed my last great moment, my lady.”

Several months earlier, another of the household guards, Sir Roland, had escorted Joan to the market in Antwerp, and as they’d watched the crowd she’d noticed a bold young thief slipping in and out among the chattering folk, growing in girth beneath his loose jerkin as he’d made his way toward a clutch of her escort’s fellows in the king’s household guard. Quietly a small dagger disappeared from one guard’s belt, but as the thief reached toward another his wrist was rendered immobile by Sir Thomas. Joan had noticed Holland before, darkly handsome with a way of smiling that spread slowly from a subtle widening of his mouth until the skin crinkled on either side of his laughing eyes, and a walk just loose enough in the hips to call attention to that part of him a woman tried not to notice. He’d pulled the boy close and spoken quietly to him, words which she could not hear, and once the lad returned the dagger to his victim Thomas had escorted him to the church just beyond, where, she later learned, he convinced the lad to donate his spoils to the church.


Not bad, but I much prefer the shipboard scene in the published version.

In an earlier draft (much longer than the final version), I made more of the similar fates of Joan’s and Thomas’s fathers. It was something they had in common, but such an emotional topic that they wound up arguing about the similarities in this abandoned scene:


Thomas kept telling himself it was the bond he felt with Lady Joan, the tragedies of their fathers, that made him feel so protective of her. Yet that bond was the one thing they had argued about.

She’d been telling him what she’d learned about the various squares through which they walked on their way to the Van Artevelde house. “Father would have enjoyed this city,” she said. “Mother said he enjoyed learning about new places, exploring them.”

She’d never mentioned her parents to him before. “Did you know your father? It is said that your mother was with child when your father was executed.”

“Murdered. He was murdered.”

Thomas wished he could take back the question. By her tone he knew he’d entered forbidden territory. But he had asked.

“Forgive me. Murdered. By the Earl of March.”

Her nod was more of an irritated snap. “It was my brother John who was born after Father’s murder.”

“So you remember your father?”

Her expression softened a little. “They tell me that as I was not yet four years old when he was taken from us I cannot really remember him. But I have a clear memory of my parents singing together, Mother’s high voice carrying the melody, Father’s supporting her from below. I remember how Mother’s head bent over her lute and Father watched her, singing to her. Mother was admired for her voice and her skill with the lute, but she has not sung since Father’s murder. I do remember both of their voices.”

Thomas could not think what to say, how to honor such a glimpse into her heart, her pain.

“And you? What do you remember of your father?” she asked.

“He was large, loud, and had a clever wit. And like your father, he was no traitor.”

She’d reacted to that with a wince only someone watching her as intently as he did, and as sensitive to the slander against his father, would have noticed.

“Like your father, mine changed his mind for the good of the realm.”

“Not the same thing.” Joan made a little face. The small gesture showed him the possibility of disliking her. Perhaps she was not so different from the other Plantagenets.

“I should have thought your experience would have made you wary of judging others,” he said.

“My father was defending his brother. He tried to save him. To do the honorable thing.” Her face had become quite flushed and her breath shallow. She was angry.

So was he. “And not mine?”

She looked away.

“What have you heard?”

“He betrayed the lord who raised him up.”

“He chose his king over the lord who wished to overthrow his sovereign.”

“A belated switch.”

Thomas could not hold his tongue. “As with your father. Until his half brother fell, the Earl of Kent supported Isabella and her damnable Mortimer.”

“He did not! How dare you!”

Her face blotched with anger, she’d been an unlovely thing.

Thomas had growled. “Why did I think I might befriend someone from your house? God’s blood I’ve been a fool.”

She’d apologized later that day, and they’d spoken of it no more. But he’d seen her pride. He should remember that when his foolish hope took hold.


white hartHm… I still enjoy that argument. In this earlier version of Joan and Thomas they remind me of Lucie Wilton and Owen Archer, from my crime series. Lucie’s prickliness when they first met.

PS: For e-book readers in the US, A Triple Knot is on sale for $1.99 from 22 Feb to 8 Mar 2015!

A Writer’s Voice


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Rainwater-dripping-on-the-windshield__37335-480x320Driving through the city in the rain, listening to Tom Waits’s Blue Valentine, I thought, that voice–no one sounds quite like him. Critic Daniel Durchholz described Tom’s singing as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Perhaps. Yet I take delight in it, and so do millions of fans. How did he know that his unusual voice would appeal? Did he? Or did he just belt it out because of his love of singing?

Rain blurring my windshield, I was grateful that Tom Waits believed in his unique voice so that I could enjoy his company as I negotiated the slick city streets. And I thought about how of late I feel more relaxed about my own “voice,” the one in which I write. It’s a tricky business, finding, then being comfortable with our own voice. So often we stall out with the unskillful, unhelpful, undermining habit of comparison. Our uniqueness is our gift, particularly in the arts. But in moments of self-doubt that very originality is what we call into question.

I read my work aloud as I go along, listening for sour notes, the wrong rhythm, a minor key when the context calls for a major, an abrupt sound in what’s otherwise soothing. Louis Menand describes this so well:  “What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time….  What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice–except that it comes out as writing.” (“Introduction: Voices.” The Best American Essays 2004. Houghton Mifflin 2004)

Three incidents inspired this little essay: listening to Tom Waits, a conversation with my husband about Margaret Atwood (I’ll return to this), and reading a poem by Luci Tapahonso, the poet laureate of the Navajo nation, particularly this verse:
“When you were born and took your first breath, different colors
and different kinds of wind entered through your fingertips
and the whorl on top of your head. Within us, as we breathe,
are the light breezes that cool a summer afternoon,
within us the tumbling winds that precede rain,
within us sheets of hard-thundering rain,
within us dust-filled layers of wind that sweep in from the mountains,
within us gentle night flutters that lull us to sleep.
To see this, blow on your hand now.
Each sound we make evokes the power of these winds
and we are, at once, gentle and powerful.”
(from “Sháá Áko Dahjiníeh: Remember They Things They Told Us,” published in Saánii Dahataal: The Women are Singing, University of Arizona Press)

My voice arises from my life, all that I have lived, all that has touched me. Sometimes I notice borrowed rhythms in my work. In a graduate seminar in literary stylistics I worked with Anne Sexton’s book of poems based on fairy tales, Transformations, memorizing many of the poems. Their rhythms became a part of my own rhythm, and they arise now and then in my own writing, particularly in wry asides. The cadence of the repartee between the eponymous antiheroes in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows up at times when I’m writing dialog; I have seen the play, read the play, and watched the film so many times that, this, too, has become part of my own rhythm. I know authors who say they refrain from reading anything but research when they’re working on a novel so that they don’t absorb someone else’s voice. I applaud them, but I don’t follow suit. I love reading far too much to deny myself the pleasure. I’ll take the risk.

Which brings me to the conversation about Margaret Atwood. After rereading Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake for the third time, my husband decided to move on through the two books that follow. As he was reading After the Flood he kept saying, “I can’t wait until you read this. I want to discuss it!” I love discussing books with him, so while he’s reading MaddAdam, I’ve finally begun Oryx and Crake. We can’t discuss much yet–I don’t want to know what’s coming. But we can talk about the sense we both share of Margaret Atwood’s enjoyment bubbling up from the pages. Not that these are cheerful books. But we both sense her absolute engagement in and deep enjoyment of her work. What a gift to her readers.

That’s part of a writer’s voice as well, and certainly nothing than can be taught. But oh, we know when we hear that sincerity, that authenticity, that delight, don’t we?




Why I Do What I Do


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In case you missed it, Michael Evans recently interviewed me for the Medievally Speaking blog. He caught the flavor of the exchange so well in the title, using a quote from one of my responses: “My fiction is the natural outgrowth of my fascination with the times.” So true!

You can read the entire interview here:

I’ll be exploring some of the issues that arose more fully here. Stay tuned!

And, in case you’ve forgotten who Michael Evans is, here’s a link to the Q&A he did for my blog:

Delight in Community

Looking back on 2014, I want to thank you, my wonderful readers and contributors, for such a lively and enjoyable year on A Writer’s Retreat! I didn’t expect blogging to be fun–but the sense of community you bring to it makes it so.

Toward the end of December WordPress creates an annual overview of activity on my blog. Some highlights: “A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.” Not sure about that particular comparison, but the numbers are nice! And “The busiest day of the year was December 23rd with 118 views. The most popular post that day was ‘Q&A with Paul Strohm, author of Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury.’ ” Very satisfying.

But that post was only the 4th most read post for the year. For the second year in a row,
#1 was a post from July 2010, shortly after I started the blog: Lincoln green and Robin Hood.
#2, my interview with Michael Evans, The Mythic Eleanor of Aquitaine, celebr15228ating his new book, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
#3 was The Beguines of Medieval Paris, a guest post by the author of that book, Tanya Stabler Miller.
#4 the Q&A with Paul Strohm,
and #5 was Background on The King’s Mistress, also from July 2010.
Hm, the second month of my blog was rather stellar!

The blog has been viewed by readers in 79 countries, the greatest numbers from the US, UK, and Italy.

Looking forward, I have already approached several guest bloggers, and hope to host even more than last year. My mission is to spread the word about what scholars in the fields I mine for information and inspiration are up to, primarily in womeUS trade paperbackn’s history, but not exclusively.

And what else? What you would like to read about here regarding writing,  medieval history, folklore, literature, women? My goal is to complete two crime novels this year, so I can’t promise I’ll get to everything you suggest, but I’d love to see your ideas!

Shoptalk: Use the Energy That’s Present


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Welcome to a new year on A Writer’s Retreat!

I’ll be back with a longer post later this week, but do check out my essay published in Biographile’s “Write Start” series. I was fortunate to meet a wise,  perceptive dharma teacher as I was tackling the first draft of The King’s Mistress, a project I’d been stalling over for a long while. In this essay I share her simple advice that turned fear into joyous engagement.


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