Category: Writing life (page 1 of 5)

Down Time

 

We’ve had a long weekend where I live so I took some time for rest and recreation. These photos will show just how restful the days were.

 

 

Then it was time to plant the garden. Not so restful but full of re-creation.

Not exactly an artist’s date as defined by Julia Cameron but still a weekend of filling the well.

To all who celebrated Victoria Day this weekend, I hope you came back to work renewed.  To those who will mark Memorial Day next weekend, I wish the same for you.

Civic Privilege

I’m writing this blog while on duty for the provincial election. Our church is a polling station and a member of the congregation must be present at all times.  It’s a small duty.  I need to show people where the washrooms are and where we keep the coffee cups.  In an extreme case, I can shut off the water and electricity.  I’m playing a very small role in public life and I’m glad to do it.  High school social studies courses talk about “civic duty,” but I’m inclined to call it “civic privilege.”  I’m blessed to live in a land with a free vote, a free press and freedom of assembly, among other things.  I’m honoured to contribute to that society.

Another example of civic privilege occurred in our city this weekend with the Times-Colonist book sale.  For the past twenty years our local newspaper has organized a gigantic used book sale.  Members of the public are encouraged to clear out their unwanted books and donate them to the sale.  An army of volunteers unpacks them, sorts them, lays them out on tables and returns forgotten photos or stashes of money found between the covers.  The proceeds of the sale go to literacy programs in area schools.

It all began as a one-off idea by a concerned citizen, worried about cuts in the education budget.  The newspaper editor agreed.  Expecting only a few boxes, he offered to store them in his office until sale day.  It wasn’t long until he realized his mistake.  When the paper published a request for used books they were overwhelmed by the response.  Tens of thousands of volumes appeared on their doorstep.  That first sale raised $20,500.00.  Over it’s life-time the sale has raised $5,000,000.00 for local schools and reading programs. 

Not only do schools receive a generous cheque, the day after the sale teachers are invited to come in and scoop up the leftovers for free.  (Books sell for $1.00, $2.00 and $3.00)  After the teachers, local charity stores stock up their shelves.  This year the city police department came in and made off with a few bundles of free reading for prisoners in the cells.  What can’t be sold is sent to an international charity that donates books around the world.  My old coffee table book may end up in a mission school in Africa.

The one-off idea failed.  The book sale is now a feature of our community life.  The local curling club has become the sorting/selling hub of the enterprise.  An army of volunteers plans their vacations around the book sale.  New friendships are forged, old acquaintances renewed, and books get into the hands of readers.  It’s a win/win/win for everyone.  It couldn’t happen without good citizens, people who step up to fill a need, people who get behind a great idea, people who make a difference.

So, as I donate a little time to ensure my civic privileges, I’m proud to be part of such a caring, sharing, and responsible community.  Happy voting, everyone.

Libel or Slander

Canadian tort law states: The common law protects every person from harm to their reputation by false and derogatory remarks about their person, known as defamation. In addition, all Canadian provinces have libel/ slander legislation (defamation includes slander and libel, where slander is verbal defamation and libel is printed defamation).

 I looked up this information because I’d listened to a sports broadcast where athletes read derogatory messages that had been sent to them, usually on Twitter. The comments were appalling, hurtful attacks based on the players’ physical appearance, name, or gender. They had nothing to do with the skill or sportsmanship of the athletes involved. The broadcaster featured the comments in a “joke” section of the airing. Believe me, puerile, vulgar and slanderous comments are never a joke.

 I’ve no objection to vigorous debate.  A healthy democracy demands it.  But that debate should be about ideas and solutions, about a better future for the world.  The vile, brainless, profanity-ridden bluster of the ignorant that shows up on the internet is not debate.  It is verbal garbage.  It seems anyone with a public profile is grist for the mills of the haters but politicians are especially subject to these brainless tirades. Female politicians fare even worse. Do we really live in a society where a woman with an opposing point of view deserves to be raped? Will vicious, personal attacks prevent war, feed the hungry or even fix the pothole on your street? The answer is no, but they have and will drive dedicated, caring people out of public life, making all of society poorer.

 Words are powerful. They have the ability to demean, frighten and silence. As writers we know that. Why else does an author write, edit, re-write and rework her words in order to give them potency? As readers, we respond to words that touch our hearts, lift our spirits and encourage us to dream. We memorize poetry, not bigotry.

 Recently facebook has announced it will increase its efforts to flag and take down fake news, but the problem goes beyond fake news. What about those who commit violent crimes and post a video of their heinous actions? The material is all too real, but it undermines the very fabric of civilization, tearing moral standards to shreds, and reducing human beings to “objects,” to be used and exploited by evil internet trolls.

I hope platforms like facebook and Twitter can regulate users on their networks, but I long for a world where that isn’t necessary. Mayberry never existed, but I’d rather strive for a world as kind and gentle as that fictional place, then encourage the destruction of all acceptable standards of civility.

That’s why I write about heroic characters, even with their flaws and failings, they try to do the right thing, to help their neighbours and to honour their God. I hope that’s your choice too.

Morning Pages – My Take

 Following on from last week’s thoughts on meditation, this week’s blog features another way of clearing static from the mind, morning pages.

Julia Cameron, in her seminal book for writers, The Artist’s Way, insists that morning pages –three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — are essential to the creative process.  Her theory is that we purge ourselves of mind static by writing it all down on the morning pages and are then free to get on with our work of creativity.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, instructs her students to start with childhood memories in their quest to “tell the truth” in stories.

I try to combine these two pieces of advice in my writing exercises.  Yes, I do writing exercises.  Just like a pianist practices scales, every artist/performer must keep her tools in good working order.  In other words, practice.  Many of my writer friends consider morning pages a waste of time.  The thirty minutes spent spewing drivel — their words, not mine — could be better spent on the current work.  That may be true for some, but I find doing some exercises before getting into the real work of the day, makes that real work more enjoyable, more poetic and more “true.”  However, I do choose which exercise to practice.

If my vocabulary seems to have shrunk to the same ten verbs repeated over and over, I do a “beautiful words” exercise.  Some words resonate with me, perhaps not with you, but the morning pages are for the writer not the reader.  So, I’ll fill a page with words like lilacs, lady, lavender, lollygag, lamp, luggage, lily, lollapalooza . . .  It doesn’t really matter what the words are, I’m just opening my mind to the beauty of language and calling some of those buried syllables to the forefront.  When I’ve finished, I go to my WIP and the words, that have been laboured and blocked,  now flow joyfully.

Often I’ll use my morning pages to create emotion.  Here’s where the instruction to start with childhood memories is invaluable.  As adults we’ve learned to be civilized, to bite down on harsh words, to take a balanced approach.  As adults, we’ve learned to flat-line our emotions.  As children, we had no such constraints.  If we were happy, we were ecstatic, if we were angry, we were in a red-hot fury, if we were hurt our very souls wept with the pain.  If the scene in my story demands that my heroine be angry, I’ll do a writing exercise recalling a moment in childhood or the teenage years when I shook my fist in the face of my tormentor and shouted out my righteous rage.

To make these exercises effective for the story teller, they must go into detail.  Remember the room you were in when the event took place.  Describe it in every tiny detail.  Try to recall if there was music or bird song or the hum of a furnace.  What did it smell like?  What were you wearing?  In the morning pages, you want to go deep into your memory.  As well as putting you in the appropriate emotional state, the writing will put you into deep point-of-view as well.  The scene you write after this writing practice will be more “true” than any you made up out of your conscious mind.  Don’t worry about running out of material.  Flannery O’Connor   said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

Morning pages can take the form of character interviews or a diary entry.  Here is where I explore my character, sound out her childhood memories, let her dream without constraint of money or time or circumstance.  When I put that character into the story, most of what I wrote in the morning pages will never make the published page, but the essence of what I wrote, forms the character and the more “true” that character is, the better the story.

Make up your own writing exercises.  Practice them.  See if it doesn’t make your writing – or painting, or sewing, or teaching or gardening – more satisfying.

If you haven’t read “he Artist’s Way, or Bird by Bird I highly recommend them.

To Meditate or Not

My friend has taken up meditation. Like all new converts, she’s an enthusiastic promoter of her new practice.  She talked to me of  the benefits  of a calm mind – more focus, better time management, clearer thinking, higher productivity.  All attributes I would like to acquire, so I signed up for the ten free on-line sessions and then she gave me another thirty that she’d earned.  I regret to say, I’m a failure at meditation.  As I sit here with my feet flat on the floor, my hands resting on my thighs, my eyes closed and the soothing voice of the leader tells me to focus on my breathing and let my mind empty itself, all I can think of is the million other things I should be doing.

I try opening my eyes and I can see dust. I avert my eyes and see my notebook lying open on the desk, accusing me of wasting time.  I close my eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath.  A car door slams and I remember that I need to run to the grocery store.  The cat walks by and demands that I pick her up and pet her.  Now, a cat’s purr is very soothing but I’m working a knot out of her fur, not meditating. 

After a couple of weeks of failed meditation sessions, I’ve decided the practice is not for me.

I clear my mind by writing it down. If I can’t sleep at night, I get up and write down the matters that are keeping me awake.  Then I go back to bed and drop off immediately, knowing that the problems are noted on a piece of paper and will be waiting for me in the morning.  I don’t need to keep running them through my mind during the hours of darkness.  When I’m stuck with a story problem, I write a list of possible actions and the outcomes of each.  Then I can easily determine where the story should go from here.  When I’m preparing for a big dinner party, I write down all the little things that must be accomplished before the guests arrive.  Once an item is on paper, I can get on with the job and not keep stopping to remember.

There are many studies to show that taking notes by hand rather than by typing improves students’ performance. This is because “Generative note-taking pertains to “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,” according to Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Robert Dugoni advises writers in his workshops to put away the keyboard and make their own, hand-written notes, even though he will provide his own notes at the end of the class.

Even if you’re not a student taking notes in class, there are good reasons to “write it down.

It makes you smarter.

That’s because putting pen to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the reticular Activating System, i.e. the act of writing it down tells the brain to give more importance to the stuff you’re focusing on at the moment

It sparks your creativity.

Susan Sontag and Truman Capote and J.K. Rowling, among others, write their first drafts with a pen. Susan Wiggs not only writes her first draft longhand, but with a particular pen, and a particular ink.

It keeps your brain sharp.

The act of writing engages motor-skills, memory and more and is a good cognitive exercise for aging boomers who want to keep their minds sharp.

So, thanks, my friend for sharing your joy in meditation, but I’ll give it a pass. Pen to paper, heart to brain, is my preferred method of finding focus, attacking a problem, or clearing the clutter from my mind.  For anyone who wants to try the course she recommended, here’s the link.  headspace.  For everyone else, visit your favourite stationery store and stock up on pens and pencils, notebooks and writing pads, line them up on your desk and enjoy.

 

 

 

Point of View

As mentioned last week, my blog has been the victim of a hacker.  The site is now rebuilt and is clean.   Google still flags it as hacked, but it is now safe.  We’re in the process of getting Google to verify and take down their warning.

 

I went for a walk through the Butchart Gardens with a young relative recently.  It was a lesson in point of view.  Things I thought were significant, like the totem poles, received a ho-hum from the four year old, but a very sleepy bee warranted five minutes study.  We met another very short person and engaged in an exchange of teddy-bear touching.  There was a BIG dog, very friendly, and on a leash, but my little charge kept her fingers tightly curled into her palms when invited to meet it.  When the dog is at knee-level it’s beautiful and well-behaved.  When you’re face to face, it’s another perspective altogether.

There was a stroller in our company, so we took paths that avoided steps. Another point of view for me.  I’m apt to take the wide path that includes a long staircase into the sunken garden.  Taking the graduated route brought me to a knot garden I’d never seen before.  There were little pockets of crocus and snowdrops hiding in concealed corners of the road less travelled.  Every trip to the gardens requires that someone sit on the brass pony.  I can pretty much step over it, but the four-year old needed a boost and then her feet didn’t reach the stirrups.  Sitting on the pony became a big deal.  Even mounting a giraffe on the carousel required a lot of lifting and clambering before she was safely in the saddle.  It’s been years since I’ve ridden the carousel and I’d forgotten how fast it turns.  If I had to hang on tight, the little one needed to cling with fingers and toes and knees.  When we got off, I felt dizzy.  She had no problem and declared her intention to race me to the next tree.  I declined but congratulated her on her fleetness of foot.

We looked at maps every now and again and my companion sussed out the ice cream bar on the first perusal. The previous week it had been closed so I cheerfully promised an ice cream cone if the stand was open.  It was!  I paid up and had one for myself as well.

We went through the greenhouse because I thought she’d like the flowers. Wrong.  She did however, enjoy the gold fish.

We talk a lot in writing circles about point-of-view, getting inside your character’s head, writing only what the character can experience. It’s good advice.  My adventure with a chattering four year old was a perfect example.

I’ve just finished a book by a well-known contemporary author that was written entirely in the omniscient view point, surprising, since that style is now considered old-fashioned and remote. The writer is skilled at her craft, so I was engaged with the characters and their story, but all the while I kept thinking I was reading a set-up and that the real story would begin after the characters were introduced.  Didn’t happen.

Another lesson in point-of-view. The technique has the advantage of letting the author tell the reader about things the character’s cannot know but which are important to the story, but it distances the reader from the characters.  Instead of being inside the story, I felt like a hovering presence looking down on a stage. I was an observer rather than a participant in the drama.

I love going to workshops and learning about the craft of writing, but nothing takes the place of real-life experiences. I’ll never again walk in the Butchart Gardens without being aware that my point-of-view is not universal.  I might try getting down on my knees to see what the world looks like from there.

Yay VIRA

Another snow day! Frankly, I’ve had enough.  The first one or two are fun, an unexpected holiday, hunker down by the fire, write, write, write.  But being housebound is getting old!  In this part of the world, we should be out in the garden.  In fact, I pruned fruit trees on the weekend, but Monday saw more snow.

I’m feeling a little cranky just now, but I am grateful that snow was no where in the forecast when VIRA held its annual Valentine’s lunch. February, Valentine’s, romance – seems a perfect combination.

For years this event was mandated by our association with Romance Writers of America® and included lots of awards for writing and volunteering. We had a keynote speaker, usually someone with a first sale – that was in the days when traditional publishing was the only way to go.

Life, and particularly writing life have changed since those early days in my career. Our group is no longer associated with RWA® but we still want to celebrate our craft and each other so, Valentine’s continues to be a highlight of our year.  We’ve cut down considerably on the formality of the occasion although we still celebrate successes and milestones.  This year we had a few more speeches than last.  I enjoyed them.  They reminded me of what it means to be a romance writer, encouraged me to embrace the new business model in  publishing and to set goals for myself for the coming year.  But mostly I enjoyed hanging out with other authors, exchanging war stories, comparing writing routines, hearing the latest from conferences others had attended.

I’d been feeling a bit isolated in my writing. I have an on-line partner whom I treasure, but nothing beats face to face.  As though to underline my feelings, I just read a blog this morning proclaiming just that notion.  “No writer succeeds alone,” and “Everyone needs support” were two of the section headings.  Yes, thought I.  Perhaps it’s because here in North America we’re in the depths of winter that there is a longing for friendly company, perhaps it’s just the fact of being a writer spending long hours alone with my thoughts, but February is definitely a time when I’m glad I have writer friends to share the journey.  We may not write the same kind of books, we may not read the same kind of books, we may be traditionally published or e-published, we may spend hours on social media or we may find social media the greatest time-suck going.  What we share is the struggle and passion of putting words to paper, of creating a story from nothing but our own imaginations, of having that euphoric moment when we write “the end.”

Merci, mes amis.  You make the journey fun.

Good-bye Stuart McLean

An iconic voice for Canada fell silent last week.  Stuart McLean, storyteller and host of CBC’s Vinyl Café lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday, Feb. 15.  He was 68.

I’ve never met Stuart McLean in person, but he has been a welcome guest in my home most Saturday’s for the past many years. His stories of Dave and Morley, their family and friends made me laugh, brought a tear to my eye, and connected me to hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, all tuned to the same radio show.

Mr. McLean told not only tales of his own creation, but those of others.  His “Vinyl Café Story Exchange” invited listeners to share their own stories.  “They had to be short, they had to be true, after that they could be anything at all.”  And share we did.  Stories of practical jokes, stories of reunions, days at the lake, small town happenings, poignant good-byes and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth when she was still Princess Elizabeth, and in uniform.

The stories were read on air, Stuart’s voice infusing the short paragraphs with a warmth and sincerity that gave significant to the commonplace. We heard stories from fellow citizens living thousands of miles away and they became our neighbour, just down the road.  Part of Stuart’s enduring legacy is that drawing together of Canadians from all parts of this vast country and connecting them with each other.  While provinces quarrel over tariffs and health funding and pipelines, Phil in Ontario and Kurt in Vancouver are having a chat about lost love and being a father.  Clare in Vancouver and Glen in Atikokan wrote of canoe trips.  Marlene in Sechelt and William in Brandon wrote of small miracles during a Christmas snowstorm,  quintessential Canadiana, as told by our friends and neighbours.  Listening to the Vinyl Café was like sitting around the kitchen table at home —  with thousands of your best buddies.

Stuart had a raspy voice that wrapped about his listeners like a comfy old sweater, a little tatty, a little worn, but still the favourite garment in your closet, and a rambling style that happily drifted off on tangents. A style that would drive an editor to distraction, Stick to the plot, Stuart, but which appealed to his listeners so much that they wrote their own stories in the same way.

In an age when entertainers want to be edgy, Stuart was kind. He made us laugh until our sides ached, but it was humane laughter, laughter that recognized the failings and foibles of human existence, that held up a mirror to ourselves, but the laughter was never cruel. His Arthur awards, named after a fictional dog, celebrated small acts of kindness or generosity or citizenship.  On “Arthur Day” he would telephone the recipients, on air, and explain to them about their prize.  One time he got a wrong number.  Instead of hanging up and getting back onto the on-air schedule, he started a conversation!  Turns out the recipient of that wrong number was having a hard time of it.  His father had been laid off, home life was bleak and the lad was sitting alone on Saturday morning.  He’d never heard of the Vinyl Café.  “Don’t worry,” said Stuart, “you’re in the majority.”  By the end of the call, our lonely teenager had perked up  and was looking forward to attending one of Stuart’s shows, with complimentary tickets, of course.  All this was on radio, we couldn’t see facial expressions, but that young lad’s voice went from bleak and dreary to excited and enthusiastic, full of anticipation.  That’s the kind of thing Stuart did.  I thought he should have received an Arthur award himself, for that phone call.

Now, Stuart is gone and with him the cast of characters, Dave, Morley, Mary Tarlington, Polly Anderson, Eugene and a host of others who peopled our imaginations and enriched our lives. We’ll miss them all.  When he announced his illness, Stuart said he didn’t want us to worry about him, he’d be back.  He also told a story where Sam, Dave’s son, was assured by a Tarot reader that if things didn’t work out in the end, then, it wasn’t the end yet.  So Stuart, cancer won and you lost, so this can’t be the end yet.

So long for now.  Thanks for everything.

The Archives

It’s time to clear out my writing office. For someone with a scant “published” list, I have an enormous number of words committed to paper.  I have several drafts of all my traditionally published books, plus the proofs, both marked and corrected versions.  I’ve filled the file cabinet, the closet, an old trunk and now have piles on the floor of new and old writing.  My personal archive.  Why am I keeping all these miles of words?

Perhaps it’s because putting words on paper is hard work. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll never find those words again.  My friend, when home computers were new, hit a button somewhere and turned her term paper into an alphabetical list of words.  Imagine her panic.  The paper represented weeks of work, it was due in a matter of hours and now all her work was a mere list of words.  Perhaps it is that distrust of technology that makes me print out draft versions of my work and keep them. Perhaps it’s just the packrat in me.

Along with the piles of manuscripts, I have boxes and boxes of old birthday cards.  Every time I pull them out, determined to glean only the special ones and recycle the rest, I get stuck in reminiscence and put nearly all of the cards back in the box.  Such is the power of words on paper.

My brother has been researching our family history but has been miserly with sharing his findings with the rest of us. The reason, he says, is because most of his work is guesses but once a guess is put down in writing, it isn’t long until that guess becomes a “fact.”  Imagine having a brother so wise!

Given that the written word is so powerful, it behoves all of us, especially writers, to chose those words carefully, to consider their impact not only in the moment, but in days or years to come. Are our words kind, do they inspire, are they true, are they of benefit to the reader?  In troubled times it is easy to dismiss fiction, especially romantic fiction, as fluff, a waste of time and money, an escape from reality.  In part, those pejoratives may be true, but romantic fiction at its best reminds the world that love is powerful, that relationships give meaning to life, that justice will out.  And there is really nothing wrong with a little escapism.  Why else did Bob Hope visit war zones?  People in conflict and danger, stress and fear, need relief.  They need laughter.  They need a world where the good guys win, where the guy gets and girl and they all live happily ever after.

Words on paper can free or they can imprison.  Today I will reduce the amount of paper in my office, but I’ll continue to hoard beautiful words.

Gems in the Files

As part of my January clear-out, I sorted through the drawers of my desk. No matter how often I cull, they always fill up again so now it’s part of my New Year’s ritual.  Anyway, amid the old receipts and cards, I came across my file of workshop notes.  What at treat!  I soon gave up my housekeeping and immersed myself in the file.  I have notes on “emotional intensity,” “blogging,” “revisions,” “plotting – by character, by structure, by GMC . . .”  I have notes on building character based on a flaw, on strengths, on birth sign/order, on secrets.”  There are several workshops around editing, the writer’s journey, the hero’s journey and the romance heroine’s journey.  In short, I have several textbooks worth of notes.

I always enjoy the workshops I attend.  I love the vibe of sitting with other writers, cheering each other’s accomplishments, weeping with each other’s disappointments.  The teachers I’ve encountered have all been sincere, learned, and enthusiastic.  At the end of the workshop I’m fired up, sure that a tweak here and a tweak there will have my latest ms ready for an editor.  Dreams of “best-selling” labels waft through my mind.  I come home, renewed, restored, and refreshed.  Within a week, I’ve chucked the workshop notes into a drawer and am slogging away at the writing in my usual fashion.

That pattern used to depress me. Why did I spend the time and money on a workshop if I wasn’t going to use the lessons learned?  Why did I keep on in my old way, when there was this brand new way just begging to be used?  Worse still, why couldn’t I make my ms fit the template given by the wise one leading the workshop?  Through many trials and many tears, I’ve learned something.  My work is my work.

No matter how brilliant my writer friend is, her process is not mine. No matter how much I envy the author who can produce a book a month, she’s not me.  I have wasted many hours trying to make my story, my process, conform to someone else’s pattern, and it has been a waste of time.  Just as our stories are individual, so is our method of getting to “the end.”  Having finally come to terms with that fact, I now enjoy the workshops for the camaraderie, the insights and the day out.  I no longer obsess over the lessons.

That’s not to say I disregard the lessons, I just incorporate the bits that work for me into my system. Looking over this pile of notes I find some common themes, themes that play in the back of my mind as I wrestle with the words in my story.  One presenter used “why?” as the basis for plotting.  Why did a character do something? i.e.  Jane went to the store.  “Why?” To get away from her mother-in-law. “Why?” Because her MIL scared her.  “Why?” Because if her MIL prevailed, Jane would have to tell John her secret.  Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere, all by asking “why?”

Similarly, another presenter says “so what?” So what if Jane tells John her secret?  She may lose him.  “So what?”  John means everything to Jane.  She can’t live without him.  “So what?”  If Jane can’t cope on her own, she’ll lose her job.  “So what?”  If she loses her job, she’ll lose custody of her daughter.  See how a simple question, why or so what, can drive a story?  We haven’t even talked about character yet.

Over time I’ve learned that I do better with these types of question/guides than I do with charts. In my workshop file are some beautiful charts for creating characters, creating scenes, developing plot, and organizing structure.  But charts are too hard-edged for me.  I never know which box to put an item in because scenes bleed over into characterization and characterization bleeds into plot, and plot bleeds into goal and . . .

Still, I keep the workshop notes. When I need a boost, I’ll read over a few.  Somewhere in there, a phrase, a question, a marginal note will start my brain clicking away and I’m happily back into the wip.  So, thanks to all the workshop presenters I’ve enjoyed, and thanks to all my fellow writers for building a community that embraces me and my process.

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