Month: December 2015

Merry Christmas

Butchart Gardens at Christmas

Butchart Gardens at Christmas

From my house to yours, I wish all my readers the very best of the Christmas season.  May your homes be filled with love and laughter, may peace fill your hearts and may you have enough.

I’ll be taking a break from this blog over the next week.  See you in the new year.


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Power of Symbols

Two things happened yesterday that got me thinking  about the power of symbols.  The first was a package from home.  For years, after I moved away from home and ended up half-way across the country, I felt Christmas didn’t really begin in my own house until the parcel from my mother arrived.  It was filled with little presents and silly rhymes, a piece of fruit cake and all the love my mom could pack into a box.  My parents have been gone now for years, but my dear sister-in-law continues the tradition.  When I get a box with the farm on the return address, my spirits rise and I feel like Christmas is really here.

The second thing  happened when I looked out my window at an inky blue sky — probably another storm on the way — and a pair of white swans flew by, their wings shining white in a trace of sunshine.  A pair of birds flying in close formation is a powerful symbol for me.  Once again, my heart lifted and I knew all was right in my personal world.

As writers we need to draw on the power of symbolism to strengthen our stories, or to feed the muse.  Think of the enduring stories of the ages.  Tara is a powerful symbol in Gone With the Wind.  For Scarlet, her home is worth any sacrifice, any lie, any relationship.  She draws her strength, her will and her courage from that house.  Can you see a raven without thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and death?  “Scarlet Letter” has entered our language as a symbol of shame and repression because of Hawthorne’s book.  The Titanic may have been a great ship, but now it is a symbol of looming disaster. Or how about the yellow brick road?  Don’t we all want to follow it to Emerald City?

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass says, “Symbols — which generally are physical objects but may also be phrases, gestures, animals or just about anything — pack a powerful lot of meaning into a small package.”  He goes on to suggest that the writer often has included symbols in the story without realizing it.  He urges writers to find those hidden symbols and make them shine.  Use them to add polish to your story, to plant an idea in your reader’s mind, to create a lasting image that will give your story enduring power.

In my book The Man for Her, Lottie’s yellow silk dress is a symbol, an outward expression of an internal change.  “The feel of the yellow silk beneath her rough fingers had stirred such an ache of desire, a yearning for gentleness and softness and pretty things.”   I refer to yellow silk only three  times in the book, but it means so much more than the colour of a fine fabric.  When she wears that dress she is no longer “Crazy Lottie” but a young woman ready to give her heart to a man.

Christmas time is rife with symbols, some universal, like a star or shepherds or a stable, others more personal, like a package from home or a pair of swans.   Look for those symbols in your writing and make them work harder.  Your readers will thank you.

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All About Humphrey

I’ve mentioned on my website that I write occasional Christmas plays for my junior choir at church.  Last year, I did not.  The choir had become very small, the kids involved in a plethora of after-school events and the adults exhausted by all the demands of the season.  Last year, I kept my hands off the computer keyboard and let others take the lead.   That included a beautiful cello solo by our gifted church organist — and cellist.  I thought how lovely the music sounded and my imagination took over. I could not keep from writing yet another Christmas play.  And so, “Humphrey the Lonely Cello” was born.

But this year, I vowed to be smarter. I wrote a story for narration only with members of the choir acting the parts but not speaking lines.  Fewer rehearsals, fewer bodies needed, fewer demands on all of our time.

Despite being “smart” the lead up to this year’s concert overtook all my other resolutions.  I made last minute costume accessories, baked last minute goodies for the tea, organized others to bake cookies, recruited a kitchen team, marked a script for the lighting guy, coached a teenager on her solo, moved pews, ransacked my house for desk lamps and gave my husband permission to lock me in a closet if I ever again got an idea about a Christmas play!

Show night came, all was in readiness, and the sound system at the church went on the fitz.

What’s a Christmas concert without a panic?  The minister and his son hauled out our portable sound system, the audience sang some carols and, finally, we began.

Our little play came off brilliantly.   When I first began writing for our church stage, the star of this show was two years old.  We’ve put on eight productions since then and the children — er– youth — are all pros.  They appear on stage with ease and aplomb.  They have great ideas about how to perform a scene.  They take responsibility for making the show succeed.  I am very blessed to have them in my life at all times, but especially at Christmas they add the “merry and bright” part.

My husband, lovely man that he is, painted the sets, built the “cello”, lifted the heavy stuff, narrated the story, held my hand, missed his dinner, and didn’t complain once.

Christmas has changed since I was young.  Public celebrations now focus on “The Holidays.”  To proclaim the birth of Christ in the marketplace or the workplace is to invite censure.  Towns put up lights, Santa visits and there’s a tree on every corner but the wonder, the beauty and the holiness of the season are lost beneath the wrapping paper.   Maybe that’s why I can’t help writing a Christmas play.  My Christmas is much more than too much food, too many presents and too numerous parties.   My Christmas includes Bethlehem and shepherds and wise men. Together, with my little band of actors/singers, we declare the message of Christ in the manger, the coming of peace, good will toward men.  We sing out the faith in our hearts and the hope in our souls.  We celebrate Christmas.      Gloria in excelsis Deo

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What is it about a walk down memory lane that is so appealing and so sad?  Why do we keep taking that well-worn path?   Christmas time seems to pull us relentlessly into the world of memories, whether they be happy  or not.  A Christmas tree conjures other Christmases, the ones when we received our heart’s delight and the ones when we were disappointed.   Like it or not, we travel down that road to the past, lit with the smiles of loved ones no longer with us.  A road defined by school days, old friends, our first boss, our first kiss, our first love, our first loss.  Even when we know what trap lies around the next corner, we travel on.  Nostalgia has us in its grip.

I just finished a book, They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, that does nostalgia in spades.  It is a memoir of her family and the house they grew up in.  When her mother dies, the property is to be sold.

Plum’s parents bought the place when they came home from WWII.  Her father had been in Hong Kong.  Her mother served with the Red Cross.  When they moved to a house on the shores of Lake Ontario, they came with nothing.  In the over fifty years they lived there, they disposed of nothing.  Plum must sort and catalogue and dispose of twenty three rooms stuffed with family history.   The task is overwhelming and takes the author down many rabbit holes of memory and mystery.  She discovers books and letters she’d never seen before.  She discovers bags and bags and bags of garbage — all those broken bits of china, old Christmas ornaments, forgotten school essays, grade two report cards, old hats, old shoes, old jewellery — things that hold memories, things dear to her heart, but things that have no place in her grown up life.    A whiff of perfume and the author is a child again, kneeling at the top of the stairs to watch her glamourous parents heading out for an evening of dancing.   The slam of the garden gate recalls the endless flow of waifs and strays that sheltered in the big, rambling family home.   A book on sailing conjures Saturday mornings when she and her brothers and father took out their little sailboat.  Joy, anger, guilt, love, grief, all crowd in with each opened drawer.

The task of emptying the house and selling it, was supposed to take six weeks.  It took sixteen months.

I enjoyed the book.  Many of the author’s experiences mirrored my own family life.  But, like the author, those memories dragged me into sunny meadows and rainy afternoons that filled my heart with love for the home and family that was mine — and made me ache with loss. In the end, They Left us Everything, is really a book about grief.  Read  at your own risk.

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