How do you solve your problems?

konik.jpg

Since the 1990’s, Britain has introduced Konik ponies to many of its wetland areas. Relocated from their natural habitat of marshy woodlands in Poland, as the animals graze they restore and sustain once-threatened ecosystems. They chomp their way through dense grass and reeds and create habitat for ground nesting birds and well as winter feeding grounds for wading birds.

Word count: 277                                                                       Reading time: about 1 minute

I wish those ponies would come and chew through some of my recent writing. It feels like I need a good habitat for new ideas and fresh expressions. Maybe what I really need is inspiration.  

You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club, according to Jack London. Where should a person look for it?

Obvious places are:

  • Books
  • Movies
  • TV
  • Eavesdropping
  • Blogs
  • Plays
  • Writing groups

The Konik ponies grazing habits had only an indirect relationship with the recovery of England’s degraded fens. Similarly, the sources of inspiration for writing often have an indirect relationship with writing itself. That means the writer should look past the obvious to:

  • Music
  • Physical labour
  • An afternoon at an amusement park
  • A walk in the forest
  • A game of chess
  • A bike ride
  • A run on a beach
  • A car race
  • Doing something new, out of a person’s comfort zone

Sometimes the fastest route to the prize isn’t a straight line. We have to walk around the problem, look over the horizon and see what’s there. Then we have to find those Konik ponies and create new habitat for our dormant ideas.

Where does your inspiration come from? Do you look across borders to find a special little pony to solve the problem of your deteriorating wetlands?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Konik mare and foal trotting by Roy van Wijk

What is staring you in the face?

Bright sunshine beckoned the other day and I tied on my runners and trotted outside. With my headset plugged into my iPhone, I hit the music button, ready for a brisk walk. Instead of Emeli Sandé, I got thundering silence. The bounce went out of my step and I stared at my phone dumfounded.

Word count: 334    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I punched buttons as if simple determination would make the songs magically reappear. When I pulled out the ear buds and stood there, I heard nothing more than the autumn leaves that rasped along the pavement. I resigned myself to a technology-free hour and moved on.

Without the cocoon of music to separate me from ambient buzz, I walked. Although it would be glorious to report that I heard something so significant that it inspired a brilliant short story or chapter, that didn’t happen. But I caught conversations from people’s yards. Jays scolded in a cedar tree. When a car drove past, the doughy sounds of its tires on the warm road reached me. A normal Sunday morning on the edge of Mt. Fromme.

My sharpened hearing changed to more focused looking and I saw, for the first time, the way the Steller jays’ wings appeared translucent against the sun. I breathed deep the rich humus smell rising from the earth. I touched the springy young needles on a hemlock tree.

Susan Sontag said, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” When I plug into my tunes, I deny myself a chance to do just that.

When the latest iPhone 4 upgrade deleted my entire iTunes library it may have given me an inadvertent gift: I discovered that music piped directly to my brain doesn’t turn off only my ability to hear, it also dulls my senses of sight, touch, and smell. Maybe it sweeps me into what Jason Perlow calls the Sea of Stupid.

Do you have a habit, particularly one that is technology-dependent, one that diminishes your powers of observation? How do you overcome it?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Leaves in autumn, Tapis de feuilles en automne by hamon jp

Is your filter on?

Next week I’m going to a BBQ with a Western theme. The invitation arrived weeks ago and since then I’ve tramped through thrift stores and flea markets from North Vancouver to Packwood, Washington. I’ve assembled enough pieces to pass muster: a pale blue cowboy hat, a darker blue fringed jacket and a pair of black cowboy boots. In design, leatherwork and condition, my boots are very similar to this picture. Turn them upside down and they tell a different story: they have been re-soled and re-heeled many times.

Word count: 440                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve started wearing the boots around the house to get used to the feel of them. When I pull them on, a strange thing happens: I walk differently. I channel their former owner. I feel the way the arch of her foot shaped the vamp of the boot. I close my eyes and press down on the ball of the sole and see dusty paddocks, smell the sage-scent of horses, and feel the burn of the desert sun. My own filter turns off; I start taking photographs of her life.

Then I turn the tables and try to see my life as she would. When I boarded the Queen of Oak Bay ferry on Tuesday I imagined the previous owner of these well-worn boots clapping eyes on the huge car ferry for the first time. To me, BC Ferries are just part of the highway system: a route that connects BC’s islands to its mainland. To travellers unaccustomed to the busy-ness of the ferry terminal and the power of the ships, it’s an exciting part of the journey, fraught with joys and risks that habituated users often fail to see. Tuesday I looked the vessel with fresh eyes.

That made me realize I need to turn off my filter more often. I need to walk in other people’s boots more often. That can only help me find the excitement in everyday life that is necessary to improve as a writer. I need to be more like Edward Gorey and find the floor that opens:

I really think I write about everyday life. I don't think I'm quite as odd as others say I am. Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring.

Are you like Edward Gorey? Do you see the floor opening up underneath you, sweeping you into another world? Or is your filter on and all you see is the ferry line up and another delay between you and your destination?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Ealdgyth

Do you see what I see?

Word Count: 382                   Reading time: 1-2 minutes 

In an interview for Writers Almanac, Marge Piercy explained her recommendation that the best gifts for writers are field guides to rocks, stars, birds, amphibians, and wildflowers:

Imagery comes directly out of your own core. It comes from how you perceive the world, how carefully you look and listen, how well you remember, how your mind works. What we have to draw on is largely dependent on how much attention we've paid to what's within and outside of us. Learning to pay attention: looking at shades of green. Not all trees are green, and even those that are differ wildly. How many birds can you identify? In other words, how many times have you looked carefully at a bird? Can you tell by the weeds and wildflowers growing in a meadow if it is dry or wet, good soil or scanty, sweet or acid? How does the bark of a beech differ from the bark of an elm? The bark of a black cherry? The bark of a Scotch pine from that of a pitch pine?

As I leave Salt Spring Island after a week’s visit, I can say that I’ve observed a lot. However if I told you I could pick the difference between the trunk of a birch and that of a poplar, I’d be lying. Throw an alder in the mix and I’m more confused than ever. Still, I’m curious and this is good according to Piercy who added:

The wider your curiosity ranges, the more interesting metaphors will rise. Memory and observation can be trained to precision and retention.

In the past week I have learned that of the three species of blackberry here, only the Rubus Ursinus (Native Trailing Blackberry) belongs. The other two (Himalayan / Armenian and Cutleaf) are highly invasive. I can also name the tiny dragonfly that hovered over the lily pads as we swam in Stowell Lake (blue dasher). That’s modest progress.

Piercy encourages writers to broaden their general knowledge. So now I’m going to try to identify the gold-banded spiders that just spent twenty minutes mating outside my window (watch the video here). If I don’t surface for a day or so, please unplug my modem.

What quirk of nature has intrigued you recently? Where has that taken you with your writing?

Attention, please.

 Word count: 370            Reading time: 2-3 mins.

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang in Beautiful Boy.

Our house in Sydney, Australia perched on a ridge overlooking the Forestville Ferrets Junior Rugby League Football Club. A wide border of cliffs and eucalyptus forest separated us from the clubhouse and playing fields, one hundred feet below. We spent many evenings sitting on our deck, watching the faraway games. One Sunday morning, as we worked in the garden, cars started to arrive at the clubhouse: normal weekend activity at a sports club. Half an hour later voices, strong and melodious, rose from the valley.

Throughout the day the parking lot filled and the choirs swelled. Rich Māori voices serenaded us as we built an orchid rockery, hung out laundry, washed the dogs, ate lunch and then dinner. The haunting music drifted up to us until the next morning. Then car doors slammed, tires crunched on the gravel of the parking lot, and silence slipped over the world.

We lived in that house for fifteen years but the Māori singers gathered at Forestville Park just once. When I close my eyes, I can see the groups standing in circles on the playing field. Still I wish I’d paid more attention to the different choral exchanges, to when the singing was the strongest, to how many children were in the crowd, and to the aroma of the food wafting up from the fire pits. I wish I’d been living more and making plans less.

In an interview in the Fall 1965 edition of Paris Review, William S. Burroughs said, “Most people don't see what's going on around them. That's my principal message to writers: for God's sake, keep your eyes open.” 

How is your writing life going? Are you busy making plans or are you living each day fully? When you ride the bus or drive your usual route home every day, do you stare into the far point of the tunnel, to your destination? Or are your eyes wide open? Do you see what is going on around you? Are you ready to seize the day when life delivers a free Māori concert when you expected the grunt and clamor of a rugby game?

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Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM

Do you think it's sexy?

Word count: 326                               Reading time: 1-2 mins

In her blog Discover Your Inner Geisha Leslie Downer advises that the kimono should be worn low at the back, to reveal the nape of the neck. Because almost every other part of a woman’s body was concealed, the nape of the neck was held in high regard in the Japanese culture. In this portrait, Powdering the Neck, by Utamaro the poem in the upper left corner compares the graceful line of the courtesan’s neck, her hairpin and her white powdered face to snowy, moonlit landscape[1].  It’s an erotic work from a pre-eminent artist of the Ukiyo-e movement.

Years ago I scuba dived with a guy who always walked behind me as I clambered up the beach with my tonnage of gear. We dived together in spring and summer and I invariably wore clunky European sandals because they were like 4WD at the end of my legs. On our last dive together my buddy confided he had a foot fetish and I had a particularly good pair. Shortly after that we went our separate ways but the foot fetish comment stayed with me for a long time. For one thing it made me realize how varied sexual preferences can be.

Then along came E L James and her admitted mid-life crisis which she turned into the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. It’s billed as erotic romance. I’ve also heard it called bad writing with lots of excellent pornography. Maybe this fetish-based literature is just the 21st century equivalent of the nape of the neck, one of the last few taboos that remained, and has now been revealed to mainstream readers.

If your work involves characters over the age of thirteen, you probably need to know something about their sexuality. How do you know if your character has a nape-of-the- neck tastes or salivates at the sight of certain body piercings? Does he or she have a chest in their bedroom full of ropes and riding crops?

 

Print: Utamaro

 


[1] Wendy Shore, Ukiyo-E, (Shorewood Fine Art Books 1980)

Finding the Santa Within

Word count: 274                        Reading time: 1 min.

By the time I was seven years old, my mother’s interest in being a homemaker and nurturer of children was fairly exhausted. When Christmas rolled around there was only one way I would see Santa Claus and that was if I took myself. So I boarded the bus to town, rode the escalator to the fourth floor of Eaton’s and whispered my secret wishes into the ear of a complete stranger.

I left Santa’s kingdom with free candy and an enormous sense of self-reliance. That early sense of assurance has helped me in and out of many situations since, but none less than my efforts as a writer.

Successful writing demands independent thought and a significant level of self confidence. In the words of Sylvia Plath: “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

I jumped into creative writing with absolutely no training and a vague hope of entertaining family and friends. When I submitted my first short story to a competition in Australia and it received a Commended award, it inspired me to write more.

Since then I’ve tried to associate with positive-minded people. After all, as Vince Lombardi said, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” I’m on that bus to see Santa Claus and no one is going to persuade me I shouldn’t be there. I’m independent enough to believe I belong and I’m grateful to have met encouraging people along the way.

What made you get on the bus? Does your self-reliance and confidence increase the more you write?

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Photo of Santa Ross by Greg Johnson  

Curiouser and Curiouser

 Word count: 222                                     Reading time: 1 min.

For fifteen years my husband and I shared our lives with beagles. We started with a brother and sister, Casalbeau Cotter and Casalbeau Camikaze (Cami). For the last years of his life a senior dog, Dandangadale Sunrise Tim (Bud), swelled the pack. Walk three beagles and you are pulled in three different directions. Their curiosity is boundless and their noses are inexhaustible.

This breed was a good match for me because curiosity is both my strength and my weakness. When I hike through a forest I try to identify the flora and fauna around me. That makes for slow walking and a large library of reference books.

When I go to and from familiar places, I take different routes all the time. I want to know what this part of the city or country is like. How do people live here? Are there businesses I don’t know? Is there a hidden park or beach I’ve never seen?

Social situations offer enticing opportunities. I want to know more about the people I meet, their stories, their struggles. There’s a problem: some people don’t care to talk – about anything – and the hardest part about being curious, for me, is finding the off switch.

Do writers have off switches for their curiosity? Or should they be like beagles, always chasing a new scent?