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?

 ***

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

If not now - when?

The sun bloomed glorious and hot last Saturday, giving Vancouver the first sweet kiss of summer. Because the heavy drapes in the hotel conference room were slightly cracked, I saw some of that enticing sunlight. I would have preferred to be hking a forest trail or by the sea but I’d signed up for the SCBWI conference weeks before. I was committed.

Word count: 488                                                                        Reading time: approx. 2 mins.

To me, conferences and writing groups can be a bit of a gamble. At least one conference I went to was a complete waste of time. I’ve been to a writers’ group that was a thinly-disguised tea party. I continue to sign up anyway and remind myself that the doors aren't locked at these things. An early exit is always the fallback plan.

Last Saturday? It paid off:

  • Margriet Ruurs, a committed advocate for literacy, who has travelled around the world promoting this cause, talked about the Write Life. A picture book author, she discussed how the human journey was originally depicted through drawings (25,000 years ago) and how stories are the backbone of human life. She exhorted people to write with passion and with care.
  • Alison Acheson urged her audience to Build Your Own Box. Start with the dilemma of choices and work on the conflicts that arise with constraint. Then compress the story and eliminate the details that don’t work or aren’t important.
  • There was a First Page panel where people submitted the first page of their books and four writer/editors gave feedback.
  • In the session Truth, Lies and Standing on Chairs, Richard Scrimger reminded us there are no rules in writing. Start with a grain of truth. Then use lies to polish that truth and make it sing. The power of a story is in its internal truth.
  • Joan Marie Galat talked about The Business of Getting Published and what happens once the contract is signed.
  • There were portfolio/manuscript consultations, illustrator workshops and pitch sessions.

If I could redo the early years of my writing life, I would start going to these in-person events much sooner. Why didn’t I? I thought I wasn't a real writer because I didn’t have a vast portfolio of work or a commercial publishing contract. What I didn't realize, until I'd been to a few of them, is yes, conferences, book launches, writers' talks and groups do take away from the actual hours available for writing. At the same time, they energize, hone skills, and provide the chance to meet fellow travellers on an often difficult road.

I know now that it is never too soon (or too late) to sign up for the first in-person writers’ conference or group. If you can’t afford the registration fee, some conferences need volunteers to help with their functions. In return, volunteers may sit in on some of the sessions.

Have you been to your first conference yet? What’s holding you back?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Moonlight Castle Series Writers' Talks 2013-02-02

What's it all about?

 

I wrote my first thank you letter in either grade one or two. An aunt in England used to send me a book every Christmas, wrapped in brown paper and tied with thin cotton string. We didn’t have a lot of relatives and she was the only one who sent presents, so my gratitude was heartfelt.

Word count: 329   Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I never did meet this great aunt, this sister of someone married to someone related to my father. She was a stranger in a faraway land and I studied her neat handwriting and wondered at the magic that connected us. The annual event of her gift spurred a tradition that became a lifelong habit of letter writing.

This habit peaked when I moved to Australia in 1987. In those pre e-mail days in Melbourne and Sydney, I wrote 8 to 10 letters a week. Which leads me to wonder, why did I write so profusely? I’ll let Anne Lamott answer that: [I] was desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined moments come alive.  (Bird by Bird)

Long before written language evolved, people sought to record their stories, first in cave paintings and then, 10,000 years later, in petroglyphs.

Laying down our stories has been a part of human psyche for a long time. Maybe we do this because of the reasons articulated by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, “[…] the secret ego truth is I want to live eternally and I want my people to live forever. I hurt at our impermanence, at the passing of time. […] I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.”

What are your memories of your earliest writing? What drives you to keep writing now? Do you know young people and what do you do to encourage their literacy?

***

Painting of a bison in the cave of Altamira photo by: Ramessos

A horse of another colour

Word count: 424             Reading time: 1-2 minutes  

Early last month I went to borrow a cup of milk and came back with a cow.

By a cup of milk I mean I went in search of an answer to a simple question: where, locally, might a young writer hone her skills and get some encouragement?

Bad news: I couldn’t find such a place. Good news: I found the Lynn Valley Literary Society (LVLS) who, for five years, ran the highly-productive Young Writers’ Club (YWC). When other commitments began to conflict with the dedicated efforts of Peggy Trendell-Jensen and Laura Hoffman, the club went into hiatus. They asked if I’d like to revive it. For months I’d been thinking of ways to give something back to my community, the writing community in particular. I said yes. A nervous yes, but yes all the same.

Of course, before I could do anything, I needed a criminal background check. That was both free (LVLS is a registered non-profit organization) and fast through the local RCMP office. First hurdle cleared.

Then I read some of the work of the YWC members from prior years. Their poetry and stories showed a love of writing, skilful use of language, and good imagination. In other words: real talent.

Next there was the challenge of spreading the word that the YWC was starting up again and I had to decide what my version of the club would offer. I looked at the old format and decided against producing monthly newsletters. The thought of designing, editing, printing, and then trying to sell anthologies was also daunting. Similarly, I was disinclined to assemble large writing kits like the ones given out in past years. As admirable as those projects were, they clearly demanded a lot of administrative time. Too much for one person. An awful lot even for two!

Where did my experience lie? In recent years I’ve taken a number of writing classes. To me the greatest benefits came from:

  • finding a supportive environment in which to explore new ideas and techniques
  • breaking the isolation of writing
  • sharpening the skills of observation
  • working through writer’s block
  • trying creative exercises that help reach through conventional language to gain a fresh perspective on words and meanings

So, once a month, starting November 14th, the YWC will be doing some of those things. My cup of milk has morphed into a large, soft-eyed project that will keep me well-occupied for the months to come.

Have you ever run a young writers’ workshop? What hints or suggestions can you give me?

***

Photo by: basmeelker

All By Myself

 Word count: 240                                     Reading time: 1 min.

“Despite all [Edith Wharton’s] privileges, despite her strenuous socializing, she remained an isolate and a misfit, which is to say, a born writer.” wrote Jonathan Franzen in his article A Rooting Interest in a recent New Yorker. By that definition, I’m a born writer too. 

You know all those writers that you see tapping on laptops or scribbling in notebooks in the local coffee shop? I’m not one of them. I need isolation – deep, dark solitude – to work well. Last November I learned of organized write-in events by NaNoWriMo participants and asked the person convening meetings at Waves Coffee House what was involved. Her answer: a bunch of people fire up their laptops, consume coffee, write, and engage in intermittent word wars.

Write in public? I thought. Won’t that silence the angels and demons who whisper when it’s just them and me in the room?

Franz Kafka said, “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” When I make this descent, it’s not a lonely place to go. It’s an essential tonic to the busy-ness and noise of life. Writing is a time to sit alone with my visions and see if the words I've scratched into my notebook will burst into life, like sea-monkeys, when transcribed to my novel.

Can you work with distractions, greeting family, friends, and passers-by? Or do you need isolation for your writing process?

***

Photo by: Ncousla

Take a deep breath

                                    

Word count: 285                             Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No man is an island entire of itself wrote John Donne. The advice-to-writers’ take on that quote is: if you want to succeed you must join a writers’ group. This advice pops up frequently and, for all the benefits group membership promises, there is a potentially disastrous downside: the destruction of your work.

I have seen a writer leave a meeting early, only to have another member of the group turn to the rest and say with a sneer, “Who’s going to want to read something like that?”

I sat speechless and wondered, “Is that how my prose will be discussed when I am out of earshot?”

Likewise I have had fiction shredded by members of an online group who felt that anyone else’s success detracted from theirs. I left that group quickly and didn’t bother to report back when the two much-criticized stories won awards.

Julia Cameron in her book The Writer’s Life says, “I have seen more good writing destroyed by bad criticism than I have ever seen bad writing helped by good criticism.”

Anyone who’s ever had the best from a writing group – support, companionship, and encouragement – may not understand the damage a bad group wreaks. Anyone who joins a group needs to proceed cautiously and remember the words of E.B. White A writer’s courage can easily fail him…I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.

I agree writing does take courage but sharing it takes even more. How do you avoid feeling stranded at the edge of the world with your work? Do you share with a group or only let a few select readers have a look?

***

Illustration by Harmsen Van der Beek

Making it alone

 Word count: 324                                Reading time: 2 mins

Until I met my husband I was unaccustomed to asking for help with anything. Ever. Years together taught me to accept his assistance with challenges that I would formerly have considered mine and mine alone.  However, Alan’s not a writer so he couldn’t help much with this compulsion once it was unleashed.

Never mind, I thought. I’ll embrace the cliché; I’ll be a writer scribbling away in a small dark room with little help from the outside world. <sigh> It always amazes me that as I get older I remain chronically naïve, clueless even, about some aspects of life. When I broke out of my self-imposed isolation and started taking courses in 2009 my writing improved in leaps and bounds.

As a recent article in the New Yorker pointed out, there will be no Maxwell Perkins to encourage today’s writers to reach for the sky. The days of publishers grooming new talent are long gone. We have to find our own mentors, usually at a real financial cost. But find them we must. Just like musicians need external ears, writers need independent eyes to excel. And, as always with writing, we must remember this is a highly subjective business. The top mentors and coaches in all disciplines have blind spots. It’s up to the mentee to listen, learn, and then choose the best path. 

Case in point: the gold medal high jumper from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. If Dick Fosbury hadn’t defied his coaches, high jumpers might still be using the Straddle technique to clear the bar. He revolutionized the sport by hanging on to his vision and developing the Fosbury Flop.

Fosbury’s achievement also illustrates an irony in all this; coaches and mentors can help us reach our potential but when we jump, we jump alone.

What are the roses and thorns of working alone? Of working with a mentor or a coach? What did you look for when you chose your coach or mentor?