Month: May 2023

If You Could Do It Over

In its simplest terms, the premise of Matt Haig’s  The Midnight Library is the do-over. In the moment between death and eternity, our protagonist, and some others, have a chance to relive their lives, making different choices. They can undo their mistakes, to atone for harm they caused, see the world as a different person, be a different person. 

It’s an intriguing idea but I’m not inclined to spend much time applying it to my own life. Robert Frost wrote of “the road less travelled by” and the notion has teased the human imagination for years. But, in real life, we don’t get to back up and make another choice. In real life, we move forward, mistakes and all. Regret is a natural emotion, but wallowing in  past sorrows is a recipe for discontent in the present and despair for the future. 

But, while I reject the idea as a real person, as an author it fires my imagination. Every time I put pen to paper, (or fingers to keyboard) in my story, I’m making a choice for the characters–and for everything else, for that matter. 

If I set my story in a small town, I’ve given up the possibility of writing glitz and glamour.  If I set it on a ranch, I’d better be prepared to write about horses and cows and maybe sheep. If the heroine comes from a large family, the hero will have to win their approval. If she is an only child, or an orphan, she’ll be carrying that baggage and the love story will have to reflect that background.

But the real choices for an author come in the actions of my character. If she accepts a job in a foreign country, she will have a different story than if she takes one in the next town. When I decide which action she takes, I’m locking her into that life, even if it is fictional. There is no do-over for the book unless I toss what I’ve written and take a different course.

Authors like to play “what if.” For example, what if Scarlett O’Hara had loved Rhett Butler more than Tara? If she had had a chance for a do-over would she have acted differently? What would that have done to the story? Would you read it? 

In my own book, Her One True Love, the heroine has a choice between two men. That choice will determine the rest of her life. Does she choose to marry the Mountie?  She’ll have a life of adventure. She’ll have to follow him to postings all over the country. She’ll live with the knowledge that he is often in danger. She may become a bit of a sleuth herself helping him with his unsolved cases. Is that the life she wants?

Or, she can marry the preacher. She’ll have a settled life, near her sister. She’ll be the cynosure of the gossips for the rest of her life. She’ll play a major role in her husband’s ministry. She’ll be expected to teach Sunday School, and pour tea, and keep an immaculate house. Is that the life she wants?

As the main character of The Midnight Library discovers, no life is perfect.

But as readers or authors, we get to try out as many as our imaginations can conceive.

What about you, dear reader? Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you’d taken a different road?

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Filling the Well

Julia Cameron lists the “artist’s date” as a building block to nurturing the creative side of oneself. The idea is to “fill the well” or your artist’s soul by going on an excursion by yourself and taking in all the details of the moment. What do you see? What do your hear? What do you smell? What do you remember? All these minutia “fill the well,” supplying a rich source of inspiration for the writer. 

As an introverted-extrovert, or maybe an extroverted-introvert, I relate to the concept of the artist’s date. I thrive on company. I love chatting and learning from others. I also crave quiet and solitude to repair my mind and heart from information overload. 

Ms Cameron says these dates should be taken alone, but on this date, my husband went with me. I needed a driver!  I’d been given a book on “Pioneer Churches” in my area and decided Sunday was a good time to go and explore some of them. As usual, I was more drawn to the graveyards than the church buildings.   

One of the places we visited was a military chapel and graveyard. Some of the gravestones at this site pre-date Canada as a nation. We walked silently among these stones, hushed and reverend as we trod on “holy ground.” There were other visitors, equally respectful. A few had laid flowers–it was Mother’s Day. 

We visited three sites. I soaked up the balm and beauty of these places. The babble and strife of the day-to-day world receded.  I felt the well filling, imagination stirring. I came home with my mind at peace.

On Monday I read an article at Writer Unboxed that filled me with dismay. The writer, David Corbett, explored good intentions and The Road to Hell, a serious discussion of the culture wars happening in society in general and in publishing in particular. The topic is huge and amorphous and thorny and slippery. Thankfully, the comments were mostly thoughtful, with a minimum of snark — a rare event on social media. Still, I felt my peace slipping away. 

Then I read the next article on the same website, a report on the memorial service for Hilary Mantel at Sourthwark Cathedral. The author, Porter Anderson, spoke of how the architecture and the music eased him away from the hurly-burly of the London Book Fair. His words brought to mind my sojourn among the tombstones on a Sunday afternoon. My mind filled with images of bluebells growing wild, a rabbit nibbling on some grass, a family’s love for a departed parent. My anxiety eased.

The David Corbett article is important. The topic is life-changing for authors and readers. I don’t recommend avoiding the hard topics or hiding away from the issues of our day. There are forest fires raging in my country, there are bombs exploding in Europe and Africa. There are millions of hungry people around the globe. There are families in my home town resorting to food banks. These things are real, and writers need to write about them. It is our job to reflect the world we live in, to try to make sense of it and to point to hope.

The young seaman who died after falling from the rigging of a sailing ship in the 1850’s lived in a completely different world than mine, yet his shipmates erected a stone in his memory. The cared about him. They missed him. They honoured him. 

Love, compassion, connections–these are the stuff of humanity, regardless of the ages. They are also the seeds of story. 

As a writer, I’m glad I took time out to fill the well. That makes me a better writer, and a better contributor to my community. I am grateful to Julia Cameron for giving me “permission” to nurture my own self without feeling guilty or selfish.  I encourage others to do the same.

I admit to an affinity for graveyards, but I doubt many share that quirk. Where do you go to fill your well? What inspires your imagination? What brings peace to your soul?

 

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Mentors

romance writers summer picnic

Last week I lost one of my mentors. Vanessa Grant, who wrote for Harlequin in the days when they were the only game in town, passed away. When I first joined the romance writers group in my area, she was a star, a kind and generous star. She gave workshops, shared her wisdom, read and encouraged beginning writers, including me, and welcomed us into the company of authors.

In these days of self-publishing and managing your own career/writing business, it can be easy to feel alone. To think of our writing careers as “self- made.” Perhaps, for some, that is true. But for the majority of us, we have benefited from the advice and encouragement of others. RWA (Romance Writers of America) was born from that desire to share, encourage and engage with romance writers everywhere.  The organization is not the force it was when I joined in the last century but the spirit of camaraderie still pervades the community of romance writers.

In most businesses, other entrepreneurs are seen as rivals. CEO’s seek to get an edge over the competition. But writers in general, and romance writers in particular, invest huge amounts of time and wisdom in helping other writers. The success of one is cheered by all. 

When I first found my local chapter of RWA and met people like Vanessa, I was astonished. They actually spoke to lowly, little, old me. They vowed that “you can do it.” I came home from my first meeting buoyed by their enthusiasm, my head swimming with new knowledge.

Mentors cannot and should not write your book for you, any more than editors do. But kind and generous supporters, like Vanessa, make an enormous difference in the lives they touch. I’m glad I knew her. I strive to be as encouraging. 

Farewell my friend. Your legacy lives on in so many of us.

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