Cleaned any cupboards recently?

For the past few weeks my life has slipped away in tiny increments. The decision to sell and move was sudden and immediate so what has to be done, has to be done quickly. I’ve spent many hours sorting through cupboards, closets, and filing cabinets. The tape gun has become an extra appendage. I’ve lost count of the number of boxes I’ve assembled and filled.

Word count: 446                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Hours spent in manual labour are one of my favourite times to think about plot and characters. As an additional bonus, I’ve discovered that moving is actually very much like writing:

  • Just when I thought I’d found a place for everything, it was time to sort through it and toss all the excess. Stephen King aims to tighten ten percent out of his first drafts. The amount of stuff we’ve given to the thrift store, friends and neighbours surely must account for ten percent of our house. Editing my life, like editing my fiction, is a cathartic process.
  • Once I’m on a roll with packing, it can be hard to stop. Sometimes, around midnight, I think something ridiculous like I’ll just edit one more chapter. In moving it’s: just one more box.
  • Both writing and packing can lead to physical exhaustion if I don’t pace myself.
  • Both benefit from input of talented outsiders. Just like my writing improves with feedback from my critique partners, a skillful stager is helping us get the house looking its best.
  • Every step of the way dozens of decisions raise their troubling heads. Some solutions are easy and obvious. Sometimes easy is the wrong choice.
  • I have to resist the impulse to look too far ahead. When I’m packing, it’s disheartening to try to imagine the new home and how things will fit. That’s another job for another day, just like the clear ending of my novel may not be visible from the first chapters. I have to rein in my impatience to know exactly how everything is going to be resolved.

Soon enough we’ll be moved. Oh yeah there are all those small adventures ahead of us, like selling this place, working on the new one, and shifting everything from one home to another. Soon enough my current novel will be finished in spite of its current dishevelled state. It just needs me to pick up my tape gun, open the next chapter, and get on with the job.

When did you last do a deep clean of your writing, tossing out all the stuff you hang on to simply because you can? Should we all ‘move house’ on a regular basis just to keep our lives tidy?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: house being moved from Colton & N Boylston Streets for construction of Hollywood Freeway, Calif. 1948

Lost in the words?

A marine inversion layer covered Vancouver in a blanket of fog for much of October. When I rode the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Waterfront Station last week I couldn’t see six feet beyond the windows. That felt a bit like writing a novel:

  • I couldn’t see where I was going. 
  • I couldn’t be certain of reaching my hoped-for destination
  • There was a sense of being suspended in time and space with a cast of unknown characters  
  • The short commuter ride into the gloom was both frightening and exhilarating.

Word count: 433                                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Over the years I’ve collected some tools and practises that help me navigate past the obstacles that threaten the direction of my work:

  • Free writing. Ten minutes minimum. Don’t lift the pen from the page. Just keep going. Great prompts for free writing exercises can be found here, Sarah Selecky and here, Writers Write Daily Writing Prompt.
  • Copy type. I pull out work by a respected author and let his or her words flow through me. Ten minutes minimum.
  • Don’t worry about the big picture: look at what is in front of the bow. Write that one small scene. The next day, write another one.
  • Get on a bus. Go to a coffee shop. Listen, smell, taste, and feel. Give the brain a holiday from the screen.
  • Turn off the ruthless self-editor. Accept permission to write something truly dreadful. After that, there is no way but up.
  • Read a good craft book. There are tried and proven ways to improve writing; skills can be sharpened, new techniques can be tried.  
  • Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Do something to wake the body up.
  • Share the work. On Questions Tuesday recently John Green said Curiosity is not the most important human trait. The urge to collaborate is. A second or third set of eyes are often the ones that find a critical weak spot and help a story shine.
  • Read the work aloud. From Neil Gaiman’s acknowledgments at the end of his book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane: As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day’s work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I’d written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I’ve done.  

What methods do you have for finding light in the darkness? How do you keep your bearings when the path ahead is unknown?

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 Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burrard Street Bridge & Fog, DougVancouver

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

All of me, why not use all of me

Word count: 491                   Reading time: 2 minutes   

If you watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games, you might have noticed the fabulous woman percussionist who led the 1,000 drummers. When Dame Evelyn Glennie talks about music as she did in a TED lecture in February 2003, she talks about the physicality of making and listening to music. She is an expert on that subject: in spite of being profoundly deaf by the age of 12, she was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music. She urges us to listen to music, but not just with our ears. She says we should use our bodies as the resonating chamber to experience it. To make better music, musicians must likewise open their bodies to find the music that isn’t on the page. They must interpret and translate that which others cannot see.

After watching that talk, I wondered how writers might use their bodies to be resonating chambers for a more physical experience of writing. Is there a way to break out of the narrow space between our fingers and the screen? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Write with pen and paper. (How many times have you heard this? Still, Natalie Goldberg and the dozens of others who recommend it are right. It does give a closer, more intimate connection with the art).
  • Stand up to write occasionally. Being a chair warrior is an inevitable part of writing but standing opens the body and in doing so, it opens the mind and imagination.
  • Write in bare feet, to stay connected with the ground.
  • Cut a picture out of a magazine or download one from the internet that looks like one of your characters or backdrops. Stick it on a pin board and stare at it.
  • Pick up a pencil, crayon or paint brush and illustrate a small aspect of your story. Draw a map of the town or neighbourhood where events are situated.
  • Listen to music while you write. Get up and dance occasionally (no one’s watching) and let the paralysis of sitting slide away.
  • Go outside and crush a handful of leaves and feel the texture as they break away.
  • Set a cup of tea or coffee beside you on the work desk. Inhale deeply as you sip. Roll the liquid around your mouth before you swallow. How would that taste to your protagonist?
  • Read your work aloud because that’s where you’ll hear if your cadence is good and your dialogue natural.
  • Go for walks and let the ideas settle over you like autumn leaves or spring blossoms.

Whatever we see, hear, feel, or touch, there is always a story behind it. It may be part of our narrative, trying to get through to us.

How do open your body so your story will resonate through you? Can you remember any particular moment when a story or resolution came to you doing something entirely unrelated to the act of putting words on paper?

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Photo by: Silvijo Selman

Let's get physical

Word Count: 253                   Reading time: 1-2 mins. 

In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg asserts Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. She advocates the importance of writing with pen and paper, an approach supported by Patrick E. McLean in his light-hearted essay A Defense of Writing Longhand. Both these thinkers agree that writers need to play with the physical, keyboard-free aspect of writing.

Among other things, Goldberg suggests writing on a big drawing pad because she says our tools affect the way we form our thoughts. What is a bigger, more essential tool in writing than our body and brain? In Writing is not Healthy A.J. Jacobs outlines the health risks associated with being a writer. They are many. If you’re a worrier I suggest you don’t read it. His article reminded me of this quote from Herophilus:

When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless and intelligence cannot be applied.

I constantly have anywhere from 3-5 manual writing notebooks on the go. Occasionally I pick up a pencil to sketch one of my characters or scenes, so I guess I meet the use-a-different tool challenge. The instrument that needs greater care is my body. On that note I think I’ll stop typing and go for a walk.

What physical tools do you do use to dig deep into your psyche? What about that most essential piece of equipment – your body? How do you keep yourself strong and fresh for writing?

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Photo by: Dmitry Maslov