Sunday, December 26, 2010

Going too far

“Be bold, be bold and everywhere Be bold…”

I’m tempted to inscribe this over my office door, as it was written over a portal in The Faerie Queen. Many of my favourite sayings (and I’m a sucker for a pithy quote) have to do with treating fear like the pariah I wish it were:
“Fear, the thief of dreams” said a T-shirt on a young man at an airshow 15 years ago.
“Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house,” said John Cheever.
To abolish fear from my life is one of my great dreams – and I am making progress.
I’m less afraid of phoning strangers, which is very helpful in my career since I routinely have to call people I don’t know and convince them to tell me things that I can then write down and publish for all the world to see.
I have no trouble speaking to a group now.
Sometimes I can even expose my foibles publicly, as I’m doing here, and feel barely a twinge of anxiety. Of course, I also convince myself that nobody is going to read my ramblings…
My wish for all of us in the coming year is to banish fear – to give it the cold shoulder, shove it aside, or climb over it until it’s so far behind that it gives up.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go,” wrote TS Eliot.
Let’s see how far we can go during the next year, shall we?
I’m game if you are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Holidays versus A Vacation

“I hope your Christmas plans and preps are proceeding apace,” I wrote to a friend recently, “and you can relax and enjoy the ‘holidays’ as if they really are a holiday.”

As you can tell from my snarky ‘holidays,’ I’m a little jaded about this festive time of year. The potential for exhaustion has me opting out of many of the normal – expected, in fact – activities.

I go to few parties and host even fewer. I bake just enough for the potlucks I do attend. I buy presents for one pre-teen, two teenagers, and an adult child…and only if I have a brilliant idea (I had two this year!) do I purchase gifts for any other grown-ups.

This is not because I’m cheap (although I am pretty frugal) or lazy (well…). It’s because all of the planning, shopping, cooking, decorating, wrapping, delivering, baking, shopping, cleaning and shopping pile on top of everyday life which for me, as for most of us, is quite full enough, thank you.

We still have to organize family schedules, put in the hours at the day job, pack lunches, cook dinners and launder clothes…and on top of all that we’re supposed to iron tablecloths, polish candlesticks, and make room in the freezer for twenty-two pounds of plucked turkey?

And for what? I’m not a capital-C Christian, so for me it’s not about the man himself, although I’m on board with a lot of his principles. But because this started out as a holy celebration, I’m miffed that it’s morphed into a shopping extravaganza. In fact, I bet if I were crazy enough to go to my local mall right now, I could probably find a 14-karat gold-plated statue of a calf…. But I digress.

To me, this festive season has lost its charm because it’s no longer a holiday in either the original sense or its more modern meaning of vaca…

Hold on a sec. Perhaps I’ve been looking at this the wrong way around.

A vacation is an emptying of normal life, leisure.

A holiday, on the other hand, is a celebration.

Cards and letters from friends far away; family around the dinner table, eating food planned, purchased and prepared with love; reminiscing about some awful camping trip or teasing Dad about his mis-spent youth; laughing.

I stand corrected; that sounds sacred enough for me, after all.

I wish you all a holiday season filled with whatever makes you happy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

He – or she – is back!

The owl – Spotted, Barred, or possibly (though I doubt it, Barb) Screech – is once again sitting in the oak tree outside my kitchen window.
I hope this becomes a habit – or should I say habitat?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The more things change…

I love other people’s conversations – they are one of the many reasons I’m grateful my friends are so interesting (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).
For example, when I arrived to visit my writing buddy Ken the other day, he was deep in discussion with a woman who introduced herself as Ann. I dragged over a chair and propped my chin on my hands to listen in.
“What was his name?” Ann mused. “Weismuller?”
My ears pricked up. I knew that name! He was Tarzan in the old black and white movies, right?
But Ken shook his head slightly and Ann agreed that she had it wrong and went on to talk about other people – composers and musicians apparently – with Germanic-sounding names that were way off my radar screen. Until they got to Mendelssohn.
“I recognize that one!” I’m afraid I said it aloud.
Ann beamed at me and began to talk about what a gentleman he was, even though his compositions made every musician in the ensemble work all the time.
“He added notes everywhere, just for the sheer beauty of them.” Her hands illustrated the point with little butterfly movements on a phantom sheet of paper in the air. “Very baroque.”
Felix Mendelssohn also helped rekindle the popularity of JS Bach’s music, which even I know is still deservedly going strong. Ann also pointed out that Bach had quite a sense of humour.
“He wrote a ‘coffee cantata’” she said, “that is hilarious and could well be put on today with the same sentiments. We humans have always loved our stimulants!”
With gratitude to Ann (who it turns out is a member of the Lafayette String Quartet) for the education (and the chuckle) and to Ken for introducing us, here’s a little of Francis Browne’s translation of the Kaffeekantate.

The narrator begins by hushing the audience so they can eavesdrop on a father who is trying to rein in his daughter’s excesses:

Dad: You bad child, you wild girl!
Oh! If only I could have my way and get rid of coffee!

Daughter: Father, don’t be so hard! If three times a day I can’t
drink my little cup of coffee,
then I would become so upset
that I would be like dried up piece of roast goat.

Dad threatens his daughter – no more walks or new clothes or ribbons for her bonnet – but the only thing that makes her budge on her addiction is sex. She’ll give up coffee, she promises, if he finds her a husband. (A word from a fellow addict: She’s lying.)

Now that I also know that Bach (and his two wives) had almost two dozen children, I wonder whether he wrote this musical (as my husband would call it) from personal experience and whether it was one of his daughters who was the caffeine junkie, or whether JS himself needed a steady stream of java to keep his energy level up.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On books

I was first smitten by the art of the book in the early 1980s when I viewed the Book of Kells at Dublin’s Trinity College. I bought a little booklet about illuminated manuscripts, and over the past 30 years have pored over the images of apostles, of creatures mythical and (maybe) real and sighed at the talent, skill and perseverance of the monks who turned written stories into works of art.

Gutenberg did a wonderful thing when he developed movable type; for one thing, it made books easier and less expensive to produce so more of us could hold, own and read them.

Over the centuries, though, the art of the book has been slid aside in the interests of getting more books to more people.

While I have done my share (and then some) of buying, borrowing and reading inexpensive tomes, I still love seeing beautiful things that I will never touch or own.

Last week, I was delighted to visit a display of rampant twenty-first century creativity at an exhibit supplied and curated by members of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild.

There are volumes with the art incorporated into the goatskin binding. There’s embroidery, marbling, calligraphy and paint. Whimsical pop-ups, colourful cutouts and handmade paper. There are boxes and scrolls, leaves and accordion files.

I’m thrilled that people are still making beautiful, brilliant books that do much more than contain stories. They are stories.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spotted: Owl

On a snowy day last week, an owl arrived and spent the who-who-whole day sheltering in the ivy draping my neighbour's Garry oak.

The description in my bird book suggested that this might be a Spotted Owl except that, according to Audubon, SOs are crow-sized. This was way bigger than that – 18 inches, I guessed.
Further research (ie reading the rest of the description) unearthed the info that Audubon thinks crows are 17 1/2 inches tall.
I'd like to know what Audubon feeds its crows.
On second thought, maybe I don't.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Patience pays off

Years ago I belonged to a gym where several of Canada’s national rowing teams worked out. One afternoon one of the rowers was lifting a barbell with a lot of cast-iron weights stacked at each end. At the end of every lift, he had to set the barbell down and, contrary to standard gym etiquette, he was dropping them the last few inches. This made the weights clang together which is really noisy and unpleasant when it happens twelve times in a row, but what made my trapezius muscles climb right up my neck was that I knew it was going to start up again for his second set of twelve repetitions and again for his third.

So I asked one of the gym staff to “suggest” that he not drop his weights any more. She threw back her shoulders, raised her chin, marched over and made the request.

From the top of his six-foot four frame, he looked down at her five-foot one.

In the patient tone we reserve for children and idiots, he explained, “But it’s really heavy.”

I didn’t say anything because I was taught that patience is a virtue and nice girls don’t make scenes in public, but it just about killed me because for once I actually had a good comeback.

If it’s too heavy for you, I thought, maybe you shouldn’t be lifting it.

Fast forward to last week. Different gym. A middle-aged guy in the freeweight area was lifting a barbell with a lot of weights stacked on each end and then dropping them. Every. Single. Time.

I was up on the mezzanine and the noise of crashing metal ricocheted off the metal walls and pierced my eardrums like a skewer. Every. Single. Time.

After he finished a set, I opened my eyes and unclenched my shoulders, but I knew it was going to start again in a couple of minutes. This time there was no staff on duty to run interference for me, so I either had to go home or act like a big girl and ask him to stop.

I trotted down the stairs and crossed the floor.

As soon as I could make him notice me standing beside him, I said, “Excuse me. When you drop your weights, the noise reverberates through the whole gym and really hurts my ears.”

“Too bad,” he said, then as he turned to walk away, he tossed over his shoulder, “That’s the way it is.”

I don’t think my jaw hung open for more than a second or two before my brain delivered.

“Maybe you shouldn’t try to lift it,” I called to his mossy back, “if it’s too heavy for you.”

I think I blew a bunch of karma points, but it sure felt good.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I don't know anything about art but…

When I was in high school, the Social Studies teacher offered a course called Civilisation. It followed the British TV series and used the companion textbook. We got a smattering of Vikings, Dark Ages, Renaissance…and I loved it.

When I made my solo jaunt to Europe a few years later in 1981, I visited Stone-Age sites, Iron-Age monuments, the British Museum…and discovered prehistory. I was fascinated.

Twenty-eight years after that, the eminent French archaeologist Jean Clottes gave a series of lectures in my hometown. I wrote about them briefly on this blog last September when I was still overwhelmed by the trove of information he’d shared.

Two weeks ago, I was once again overwhelmed. In fact (don’t spread this around) I cried. Nobody noticed, because it was dark, and also because they were all looking at the end of the beam of light from the guide’s lamp, which was shining on two mammoths someone had carved into the walls of Rouffignac Cave 17,000 years ago.

Freaking mammoths. God, they’re beautiful.

They’re also important.

The thing about prehistory is that, as far as we knew, people had no recorded language (although recent work by University of Victoria grad student Genevieve von Petzinger is challenging that). But still, we have to piece together the stories one clue at a time.

People created images such as those mammoths at Rouffignac and the aurochs at nearby Lascaux and the experts apply their knowledge, such as it is, and then extrapolate. There’s lots of room for assumption, cultural projection, personal agendas and egos.

When I visited the British Museum back in 1981, I bought a book called The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser in which Dr. Hauser states: “In [the prehistoric] age of purely practical life everything obviously still turned around the bare earning of a livelihood and there is nothing to justify us in assuming that art served any other purpose than a means to procuring food.”

Fifty years after Hauser’s work, the archaeological world has changed its tune a little. Decades of study of many more sites using both old and new technologies have led Dr Clottes and others to conclude that the carvings and paintings so deep in the limestone caverns at Rouffignac, Lascaux, Chauvet and elsewhere were indeed a spiritual act.

Why else go so far underground, climbing rock chimneys and crawling through passages to reach sites where no-one else could see their work?

According to Clottes, the artists from these hunter-gatherer societies thought the caves were the world of the spirits and the deeper they went, the more they could access the supernatural.

As I moved into the caverns myself, it was easy to imagine people 15- and 40,000 years ago inching along the tunnels that fold and wind like the vessels that carry blood through our muscles, air to our lungs, children into the world.

How different that is from the mindset of the agricultural age, when men built upward, toward the sun. Notre-Dame Cathedral, Sacre-Coeur all white on its hill, the glass curtains of Sainte-Chapelle, all push toward the sky to thank or praise or plead to a god.

Either way, whether they’re painting a horse a kilometer underground or carving a chunk of stone for the façade of a church they’ll never see complete, people bring their best to art.

For that, I thank them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How I Spent My Autumn Vacation

For two weeks in late October, I reveled in the sensual delights of one of my very favourite countries – France.

The first week, in Paris, I rented an apartment on the Left Bank

strolled through the Jardin des Plantes, the Promenade Plantée, the Tuileries Gardens,
Ile St-Louis, and along the Seine

listened to Bach at Ste-Chapelle, Puccini at the Opéra Bastille,
and Gregorian chant at Notre-Dame

strolled through the Louvre, the Orangerie, and my favourite: the Rodin museum

Then I headed south for a completely different and equally wonderful week in the
Dordogne Valley

where I rented a medieval farmhouse

strolled along country lanes

visited ancient caves and medieval towns

shopped in local markets

and then enjoyed my purchases.

While there are a lot of stories (some of them amusing, mostly at my father's expense) for now I'll let the pictures do the talking and I'll just add
Á la prochaine!
Until next time.
All photos by the charming and talented Spence Partlo

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fiction III: Physiology of Phun

"Writing is fun sometimes," Felix assured Pearl as they trudged across the wet parking lot toward Has Beans.

Pearl glared at him. She had become a bottom-dweller in writing's black hole, a hack. Everything she produced was crap and she'd rather clean her bathroom fan vent than sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper.

"Name once," Pearl challenged him. "One time that you grinned at your computer screen and meant it."

She pulled open the café's heavy glass door, letting go of the handle as she plodded through.

"I do it all the time," Felix said as he scooted in behind her.

Mike was already inside, at the end of the order line-up. When they joined him he asked, "Do what all the time?"

Twenty pairs of ears swiveled in their direction. Thanks to Mike's foghorn voice, all the café’s Sunday-morning regulars already knew many things about their little group, including that one reason Barb didn't have time to write was because she and her husband had sex every day. Now the patrons waited for more steamy details.
"I have fun," Felix said.

"Barb already used that excuse," Mike said. He and Pearl had confessed to envy; their reasons weren't nearly as creative. Or as enjoyable.

The line shuffled forward a foot as a blast of cool, damp air hit Pearl from behind. She checked over her shoulder.

"What are you talking about?" Barb shook her umbrella as she came through the door.

"I have fun writing," Felix said.

"That's impossible." Barb smacked the end of her umbrella and it collapsed obediently.

"You want to come to my house and watch me?"

Pearl thought about the four of them crouching in Felix's tiny apartment, the smell of mildew seeping under the door from the hallway and his upstairs neighbour Bud charging around, slamming doors and demanding to know where the fuck were his smokes.

"Prove it here," Pearl said. "Grab us a spot and we'll get your coffee."

Felix shambled off to loom companionably over a couple at a window table.

They quickly picked up their keys and mobile phones and left. They were probably finished anyway.

Mike ordered the coffees and went to collect them while Barb and Pearl selected the food that would fuel the good times ahead.

"Talk about Mission: Impossible," Pearl said as she paid.

Barb picked up two of the plates. "If we could get Johnny Depp to come along it might be fun."

Pearl was stilling grinning as she carried the other plates to the table.

"See?” Felix beamed at her when they arrived. “I told you it's fun."

"We haven't even got to the writing," Pearl pointed out, wondering why Mike was setting up his laptop in front of Felix.

Felix dismissed her grumpiness. "It's all part of the total experience."

"Where do you get that ‘total experience’ crap?" Barb dropped a slice of lemon loaf in front of him and when he started to answer, she said, "Never mind. Get to the fun."

Mike sat down, sliding the mug away from Felix’s wrist as he tapped at the keyboard.

“I just found this the other day and it’s totally sweet.” Felix reached for his cup and cradled it in both hands, making Mike twitch, as he read off the screen.

The medial forebrain bundle of nerves, which lies deep in the brain, is known as the reward centre, Felix explained. Doing something pleasurable activates it and makes people want to repeat the action.

"Writing does not stimulate my medial forebrain bundle." Pearl bit into her chocolate-dipped peanut butter cookie.

The trick, Felix explained, is to make yourself have fun.

"That sounds like one of my mom's old threats," Pearl said. "'If you don't stop that snivelling, I'll give you something to cry about!'"

"Exactly!" Felix beamed at her. He looked at the screen again.

According to neuroscientist George Stefano, he continued as the caffeine jockeys at nearby tables tipped their heads toward him, pleasure is the brain's way of subconsciously ranking what is most important to us. And physiologist Michel Cabanac believes pleasure is the transient result of closing a gap between what we feel and what we want to feel.

He raised his eyes and gazed brightly from Pearl to Barb to Mike. "So all we have to do is make writing more pleasurable than the alternative!"

"Thumbscrews, for example," Barb said.

The eavesdroppers leaned slightly away.

Pearl broke off another chunk of cookie and asked Felix, "So what do you rank writing against?"

"You know Bud?" Felix sipped his cappuccino.

They all nodded.

"He's very sociable. If he finds out I'm not writing, he comes to visit."

Pearl thought about it: thumbscrews, Bud, cleaning the bathroom fan vent. She licked chocolate off her fingers and picked up her pen. "All right. Stimulate my medial forebrain bundle."

Around the room, twenty pairs of wide eyes snapped in their direction.

Felix got this idea from Bonni Goldberg's Room to Write (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1996). He figured that since everybody loves a holiday, they were bound to enjoy this exercise.

The federal government, Goldberg says, has granted you one day to declare as a holiday. What will you name it? What is being honored? How is this holiday celebrated? Which businesses stay open and which close? What doesn't happen on this day? Be whimsical, cynical, humorous, serious, or outrageous.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fiction II: Critiquing without bloodshed

"He was a bank robber, wasn't he?" Felix set the pastries on the table and pushed one toward each of his fellow writers.

"He was an addict." Barb shoved pens and notebooks out of the way.

One thing they all agreed on, Pearl realized, was that when there was a choice between eating or stimulating their creativity, brain function took second place.

Pearl quickly slid a plate toward herself. "You didn't have to do this."

"I like to," Felix said. "It's part of my hospitable nature."

Mike rolled his eyes.

"Are you a chronic pleaser?" Barb’s question was a little muffled by her mouthful of éclair.

Felix seemed not to hear her. Instead he went back to her earlier statement. "Stephen Reid was a junkie?"

"Not when I met him," Pearl said. "At least, not that I noticed."

"You didn't notice that guy passed out in front of the door when we got here." Mike forked up a chunk of walnut loaf.

The manager looked over nervously as Mike's booming voice carried to every customer in the place.

"I still say he was just tired,"
Pearl protested.

Mike's shoulders twitched.

"Anyway, that's not the point," Pearl continued before Mike got more wound up.

"What is the point?" Barb wanted to know.

"He had a good critiquing system," Pearl said.

"Stephen Reid the convicted felon?" Barb did not give up.

"Stephen Reid the writer," Pearl said. "He filled in for his wife in this creative writing course I took years ago, and when the time came to share our efforts, he suggested we use this critiquing thing."

"Was it brutal?" Felix looked worried.

Pearl assured him it was very balanced. "Sometimes it's not even criticism.”

Barb rolled the hand not holding the remains of her éclair. "Tell us already."

So Pearl explained the most useful thing she’d learned in Susan Musgrave's creative writing class – from Stephen Reid.

“First he told us to choose a particularly good sentence or phrase or maybe a bit of dialogue and quote
it back to the writer. Like, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.' You could repeat that to Jane Austen as a nice bit of satire that made you laugh out loud.

“Then find something you can honestly compliment. 'EB,' you might say, 'your character work on Charlotte and Wilbur is brilliant.'

“Next, ask a question. This one makes the reader think. You can ask, 'What's Bridget Jones's motivation for sleeping with Daniel Cleaver?' or 'What's the symbolism behind John Coffey's name in The Green Mile?' You can ask about anything that puzzles you or about something that you believe the writer needs to think about some more.

“And finally you make a recommendation. 'Flush it' is not acceptable. 'Play with the similes and see if you can make them fit with your hockey theme,' would be better.”

Pearl looked around the table to gauge the reactions. Mike looked doubtful, Felix’s forehead had smoothed, and Barb’s lips were slightly pursed and her eyes narrowed. Pearl hoped she was considering the idea and not lining up a sharp comment.

"Let's give it a try," Pearl suggested. "Who wants to read first?" 

"No!" Mike bellowed.

The manager looked nervous again.

Pearl turned to Felix, but he was at the counter ordering more treats. Pearl raised her eyebrows at Barb, who said, "All right."

"Lab dog," Mike said.

Barb glared at him.

"Compliment.” He quickly raised his hands. “I admire your guts, letting us experiment on you."

Pearl interrupted Barb's response to shove dirty dishes out of the way because Felix was on his way back with four cinnamon twists. With one hand Barb delicately brushed éclair crumbs off the front of her blouse as she took a plate from Felix with the other.

"Go ahead," Pearl told her. 

Barb read her short story about a woman who tries to paint but her two young kids think her paints are 1) tubes of icing, which they squirt onto bread before she can stop them, 2) face paint, which she has to scrape off their skin with a trowel, and 3) a sign that Mom is bored so they decide to entertain her. It was very funny and touching.

"That's not fiction," Mike said.

Quote, compliment, question, recommendation, Pearl reminded him.

"Okay," he said. "That's not fiction, is it?"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fiction I: Muse Yourself

As Pearl sipped her non-fat mocha, she looked over her mug at Felix and Barb and Mike. She’d met them a couple of weeks ago when she started taking a class to increase her creativity and they’d shown up too. The course was going pretty well and they all wanted to up the ante on their writing so they’d decided to meet once a week at the local coffee shop, Has Beans, to work on it.

This was their first session outside of class, and they’d agreed to bring a couple of pages to read aloud and discuss, but Pearl hadn't done the work. She was a communications specialist with a big outdoor-equipment company and once she’d churned out press releases, monthly reports, the internal newsletter and cheery updates for the website, she didn’t have much energy at the end of the day to put more words on paper. Hence the class to stimulate her creativity.

"I have a confession." Felix met their eyes in turn.

Pearl, Barb and Mike lowered their cups and leaned forward.

"I didn't have time to do any writing this week."

They slumped back.

"Me either,” Barb said. “The store's been crazy with half my staff off sick and then my son had a hockey tournament all weekend."

She looked at Mike and Pearl, who wondered if she should confess.

To what? Laziness? Dearth of inspiration? Before she could come up with a good excuse, Mike spoke.

"Haven't finished my room yet."

In class, he’d said that he had to have a proper writing room, painted stimulating colours and furnished with the perfect chair and desk and God knows what else.

Barb shook her head; Pearl knew she was lucky to scrape a clear spot on the kitchen table or pry a kid away from the computer for half an hour a week.

"Haven't found quite the right Aubusson carpet?" Barb asked.

"You're snide now," Mike’s baritone overwhelmed both the espresso machine and the stereo. "But you'll see."

"Maybe I need a different chair." Felix looked thoughtful. "If I'm more comfortable, I'll be able to write better."

"That's bull," Barb said. "Do you think Jane Austen was comfortable sitting in those damn eighteenth-century dresses in her family's parlour? And Stephen King, balancing a typewriter on his knees in the laundry room?"

"What I need," Pearl decided, "is a muse."

Mike the engineer sat up straighter, an acquisitive glow lighting his brown eyes. Felix nodded slowly and Barb rested her elbows on the table and raised her eyebrows at Pearl enquiringly.

Originally there were nine Muses, Pearl explained, women who were half memory, half divine.

“Sounds like a mom,” Barb said.

Even Mike cracked a smile.

They sang or danced, wrote lyric poetry or tragedy, discoursed on rhetoric or astronomy, Pearl continued. They made some people write, although not everyone did it well. One poor guy said that some of his neighbours considered him a poet but that compared to real writers he was just a goose honking among swans. But that was Virgil for you.

Virginia Woolf took a practical approach to inspiration. A room of one's own and £500 a year made a darn good muse in her opinion.

“I told you,” Mike said.

“There’s more to it,” Barb snapped. “You have to read beyond the title of the essay.”

Mike’s ears turned red but before he bellowed back, Pearl interrupted.

“My theory is that a muse is like Jeannie in the old TV show – or okay, the djinn in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves for you literary types.” She grinned at Barb. “Except instead of rubbing a bottle–

"You'd be better off drinking the Scotch," Barb said.

“–the Muse responds to the friction between a bottom and a chair.”

"You might be onto something." Felix’s face brightened. "I go to all the workshops and conferences and I've got every how-to book ever published and this is ringing a bell."

"Well, we're here and our butts are in chairs," Barb said. "Let's see if it works."

Rats, Pearl thought. The truth is, it wasn't the lack of a muse that kept her from creative writing. Nor was it a shortage of energy or even bad feng shui. It was fear: What if she couldn’t do it?

Felix pulled a paperback from his courier bag.

"I have this cool book," he said, letting it flop open on the table. "It's got the best writing exercises."

Pearl harrumphed. In the great Texas Hold-'Em game of life, the Muses had just called her bluff.

Well isn’t that just great, she grumbled to herself.

And, to her surprise, it was.

Felix's exercise, from Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998):
Being Gorgeous: Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect ­ any kind of sound effect, but not rhyme or meter.
Have fun with this, Le Guin urges. Don't aim for perfection, just put the words down as they occur to you. Then, if you like, read your piece aloud, either to yourself or to your writing buddies.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Road of Life or The More Things Change

One sunny day in 1985 when I was cycling in the Scottish Highlands, I was faced with a long climb along the side of a glen. The road was probably an old drove route for livestock so it wasn’t terribly steep but my quads didn’t care: all they knew was my relentless nagging to keep pedaling. They retaliated by starting to burn.

I forced them (and my bellowing lungs) to go on, and on, and on because I had looked at the map before I’d begun the ride and I knew what they did not: at the far end of the valley, at the top of the climb, was a place called Rest and Be Thankful.

As there was in every other village in England, Wales and Scotland, there would be a café where I would sit with a heavy china cup of strong hot tea the colour of chestnuts and pour in a swirl of cream. I’d split a scone (or two) and spread it with butter and strawberry jam and savour every rich mouthful because I had earned it, riding up that hill.

Meanwhile, I shifted down and ever downward, forcing my pedals around one revolution at a time, looking ahead at the slope that now seemed less like a gentle grade and more like a mountaineering route. But that might have been my quads talking.

I kept that tea and those scones (which had multiplied to three) firmly in mind and finally – finally! – I came to what had to be the last push. Surely there couldn’t be another hill beyond this curve.

And there was not. I had reached the top of the glen. As I sucked in huge gulps of clear air that rushed into my blood like shots of bubbles, I looked down at the silvery thread of a stream in the valley far below. I gazed at a loch at the base of the mountains ahead of me.

All that was missing was the village.

I checked the map. It was still there – and not marked “Rest and Be Thankful: visible every hundred years,” like some Ordnance Survey Brigadoon.

I hauled my bike across the road and leaned it against a bench, and before my quads could drop me onto it, I saw the sign. Rest and Be Thankful.

On the bench.

I have much the same relationship with the publishing world as I did with that road in the Highlands. Constant work, ongoing effort, digging for stamina, searching for the right gear/craft/story that will carry me to my goal: publication (oh, and money).

As part of my journey, last weekend I went to the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle and I felt like I’d finally found the granny gear. You know, the one that’s easy, that lets you ride almost comfortably into mysterious mountain ranges or home with a load of groceries.

The agent and editor panel on Friday night gave me a much better idea of the industry professionals than a website can. The workshops were informative – I learned something important in each of the eight I attended – and I usually laughed, as well.

And of course, there’s the all-important camaraderie and support of other writers. As Alyssa Day pointed out in her laugh-out-loud keynote speech (which also brought me to tears three times), the friendship of other writers is so very important.

Just as I craved afternoon tea in Scotland as a reward for my cycling effort, now I want publication as an acknowledgement of my writing effort. However, as authors tell me all the time, getting a book in stores is not the end of the road. It’s just the bench where they get to pause for a minute to enjoy the scenery and catch their breath.

In the same way I had to forego those scones in Scotland and instead appreciate the view and my own strength in getting to it, I might have to do without New York’s stamp of approval and simply enjoy the ride with my colleagues.

I'm glad they're such good company.

Big Damn Sidebar:

Here’s a smattering of what I learned at Emerald City Writers Conference, October 2010:

Ann Charles and Wendy Delaney: writers who are left-brain dominant are more likely to look at the fine detail in our own work and our critique partner’s, while right-brainers are more likely to be able to focus on the big picture of the story.

Robert Dugoni: Write a great opening sentence (that raises a question) for every scene; write a great closing sentence (that raises a question) for every scene too.

Kristina McMorris: Give agents and editors a reason to say Yes: ask if you can query them, tell them about your awards, and even get endorsement blurbs from other (known) writers before you query.

Theresa Meyers: in a query, include the same kind of information and power words that make compelling back-cover copy in order to intrigue an agent or editor even before you’ve got a deal.

Laura Navarre: Dark heroes (men or women) are often strong and compelling, although female dark heroes generally must show a caring, nurturing side in order to appeal to readers.

Deborah Schneider: Don’t just have a booksigning; have an event. It sounds like a party and people will show up.

Amber Scott: Make dialogue show the change in the person, like Jack Nicholson’s “You make me want to be a better man” in As Good as it Gets or Hugh Grant’s “I’m an idiot” in Notting Hill.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Banning books

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I wrote horror stories. My mother came across one of the more gruesome examples and while she espoused many liberal leanings, now she was faced with a barely adolescent daughter who penned pretty twisted stories. Well, one that she knew of, and that was one too many. She called me into the den to have a chat.

We perched on the sofa across from the TV set, which was set in an alcove that was also stacked with loaded bookshelves. There were more bookshelves – six or seven, I think – on each side of the window.

“The story was very disturbing,” she said.

Well, yeah. That was pretty much the point, I thought.

“Your dad and I have decided,” she continued gently, “that we’re going to have to censor–“

I flicked a horrified glance across the ranks of shelves. Carrie, The Exorcist, Marathon Man. The Curve of Time, Little Women, A Man Called Intrepid. Goldfinger, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, The Hobbit.

“–your television choices.”

Was she kidding?

I could have laughed, I was so relieved.

So when I heard that last week was Banned Books Week, I checked out the US’s 10 most challenged books of 2009. The list includes To Kill a Mockingbird and My Sister’s Keeper.

When I told my sister, who had just finished Harper Lee’s novel, she gave me a “you’re joking” look and passed the information to her teenage daughter, who had just read My Sister’s Keeper.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” was my niece’s response.

I’m so proud.

So to the people who challenge a book’s presence on library and bookstore shelves, I say, “Yeah, let’s get all those stories out of there. Let’s get them in readers’ hands and minds, where they belong.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Decisions, decisions

Recently, a friend was offered a project. She wants to work, someone presented it to her: should be a no-brainer, right?

But her gut was not on board, and when you’re as experienced as she is (and sometimes when you’re not) it makes sense to listen to those inner rumblings.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell shows that what seem like split-second decisions or hunches are actually the result of a whole equation’s worth of clues, so I suggested to my friend that she come up with three reasons to take the job.

“Money,” was her prompt response and it’s a good, valid and necessary reason.

But it’s only one. Her belly was still waffling.

We pondered a little longer.

The lump sum would indeed please her banker and keep the pantry stocked for a while, but the work itself wasn’t as clearly defined. The client hadn’t delineated the scope of the job as clearly as the amount of money available for it and that made the dollar value less certain, less appealing.

There’s a scene in a novel by James Lee Burke in which a man is throwing pieces of hamburger bun (I think) for a stray dog. But he wasn’t tossing the food to the dog, he was making the dog run for every morsel, using up more energy to get the bread than he would get from eating it. The dog was starving, though, hungry enough to do the work anyway.

Luckily my friend isn’t that desperate. She has the luxury of weighing the value of running against the value for her life. So that’s what she did.

Would this project help her reputation or career? Not really.

Would it be fun? Nope.

Would it make her healthier? Be good for the environment? Save the world? No to all three.

I’m not generally great with numbers, but it seems to me that’s a lot of noes compared to one possible benefit.

Hunger is often enough motivation all by itself, but sometimes that hamburger bun really isn’t worth chasing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In September

In September, a teacher’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of how to get a point across. What I teach is a how-to of magazine writing, which boils down to story – what is it? how do we create it?

Most writers, I think, would love it if divine intervention played a large part but alas, for most of us that just doesn’t happen. What mostly occurs is some design and a lot of sawing and hammering.

A story idea is like an architect’s working drawings: are you making a hospital or a house, a stucco mansion or board-and-batten cottage? In other words, a novel, a poem or a magazine profile? Will it have a grand entrance or a tiny archway leading to an atrium?

Sentences are the lumber that we mill and cut to fit with other clauses and phrases. Depending on the site and the ultimate users, the wood might be spruce or bamboo or it might not be wood at all – bricks and stone work, too. Active verbs are the guns that drive events like nails into a two-by-four, connecting it to another piece of the structure.

And along with the materials and tools, there are conventions in building as there are in writing – and it’s up to each carpenter or writer to decide whether the rules are useful for her or his project.

Does this house need studs every 16 inches, like all the other houses in the neighbourhood, or would it be fun to put them every six – or 60 – inches instead? What does the house (or the carpenter) gain or lose by doing that? If a writer flouts convention by skipping the quotation marks or ending the yarn before resolving the crisis, what’s the benefit and the cost?

If the framework of a story isn’t sturdy enough, it’ll collapse sooner rather than later, just like a house. If a tale promises to be an Aztec pyramid but there’s a revolving glass entry, a reader won’t know whether to trust the writer and might move along to the next place, where the oak door at least matches the Tudor facade.

Stories enchant readers and listeners, but storytelling is not magic. It’s construction.

But every so often, the lucky writer feels a tingle and surge…

Saturday, September 11, 2010


On Saturday, my friend Deirdre and I headed to a small town west of Victoria. This is the fourth year we’ve made this expedition together, and we were excited because on the weekend after Labour Day, Sooke hosts its annual fall fair and it’s a treasure trove.

In the adult section, there are glowing dahlias and picture-perfect pies, exquisite quilts and my second-favourite category: The Most Pathetic Produce.

But that’s not where we go first.

When we arrive, a rooster crows like a metronome behind the community centre, the smell of frying onions drifts out of the kitchen, and in the basement, Deirdre and I pick up pencils and clipboards and start what is possibly the most fun job I do all year: we judge the children’s writing competition.

Every entry is a marvel. Some highlight raw talent like a lighthouse while others display intense effort. There’s haiku and a French essay for each of three age groups. There are penmanship samples and original poetry; short fiction and essays; charming or quirky stories about camping trips real or imagined; and dark, brooding, hopeful poems by teenagers wrestling with life and death both personal and global.

Without exception, the entries show immense care – for the task, for friends and family, for the world. That kids from six to eight, nine to 11, and 12 to 14 put their hopes, dreams and fears on paper is, to me, magical. The Fall Fair is a chance for the next generation to tell its stories and boy, do they ever.

And I get to read them – how lucky am I?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Uproot your darlings

Clearing weeds in front of my house the other day, I discovered a tree nursery.

You might think I’d have noticed it before because my yard isn’t very big, but there we are. The weeds were tall, the trees are small.

To be fair, I thought the weeds were really pretty – clusters of tiny white flowers about three inches across, nodding at the end of 18-inch stems with feathery foliage. It wasn’t until I was leafing through my plant book that I learned a) they’re not native and b) they’re poisonous. I headed straight out to uproot the swath of wild carrot and that’s when I found the nursery.

My first score was a very leafy six-inch Garry oak.

I also found a tiny arbutus with its soft, toothed leaves that remind me of a wary kindergartner the first week of school: tender and vulnerable but putting on a brave show of toughness.

And then I found a pine seedling, a single stem bristling with long needles and looking like the model for a Muppet.

All these future trees are in the same patch of dirt and they won’t all survive, much as I wish they could. There simply isn’t enough space for all of them, especially if that pine really takes off.

I’ve mentioned Julia Cameron’s morning pages exercise before, and Jennifer Crusie has a wonderful essay about taking out the garbage. This is my clearing-away-the-junk metaphor for writing.

Unless we rip out the weeds to let in daylight, fresh air and, heaven knows, fertilizer, the seeds that might have taken root don’t have much of a chance. And once we’ve got an assortment of idea-shoots, do we only allow one to reach the sapling stage or let them all grow and decide later which to cull and which to cultivate?

I’m almost certain that the pine is not native and while I’m not going to cut down the beautiful big Scotch pine that’s already there, I’m not inclined to encourage another one that will almost certainly shade out the native Garry oak and arbutus. So sooner or later the pine will have to go, but it’s just so charming, stretching its spindly green fingers up to the sun…. Well, you can see why my garden is full of volunteers.

In the same way, I’m seduced by a clever (or so I like to think) phrase, a delightful bit of dialogue and pretty description in my writing. Eventually, though, if I want anyone else to read the blasted thing, those little treasures might have to come out to leave the air and light for the things that truly belong in the story.

The roots tear at my heart every time I weed, but there’s always the payoff – the hope that one day I’ll have a garden of a book.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Down on the farm

In the movie Notting Hill, one of my favourite romantic comedies, Hugh Grant’s friends fix him up on a blind date with a fruitarian who eats only fruit and vegetables that have harvested themselves.

“These carrots,” she announces at dinner, “have been murdered.”

I’m a long way from being a fruitarian. Since the first arugula leaf grew big enough to spot against the dirt, I’ve been happily chowing down on the produce from my allotment garden. Radishes and beets have been uprooted to feed my appetite. Mesclun mix has been relentlessly snipped and devoured. And for the last month or so, green and yellow beans have made their way onto my plate too. Well, a lot of them end up in me before we get to the plate stage, but only because they’re irresistible.

Then a couple of weeks ago, my husband came home after a solo foray to the farm. He put his hands on my shoulders.

“It’s about the beans,” he said.

My mind raced from images of rampaging blacktail fawns to the raven that had been hanging around suspiciously, clearly up to no good.

“The sunflowers…” His voice broke.

Oh no.

I’d planted them for their cheerful blossoms and to act as scaffolds for the beans to climb up, and it had worked beautifully.

The vines twined up the sturdy stems, reaching for the sky, while the sunflowers burst into a spray of blooms like fireworks about seven feet above the earth.

Had some wild beast gone after those bright blooms and tender little beans?

“The stalks…” He hesitated again.


“They’re still growing, you know?”

I did know. They had managed to stay ahead – barely – of the steadily climbing bean vines.

He finally choked out the story. It turns out that the sunflower stems had not only grown up, but also out, and where a vine had twined as close as an obsessive lover, the expanding flower stalk had snapped the bean plant.

“It was just hanging there. Drooping.” He shook his head sadly.

There are mutterings amongst the neighbour’s peas of citing me for involuntary pruning, but they can’t charge me with murder.

I ate the evidence.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Smarter than the average bear

I woke with a start, recognizing the sound that had awakened me even as I came out of sleep. I listened but there was nothing more. No grunting, no heavy breathing, no tearing plastic.

Outside my tent the campground was dark, even the starlight filtered out by the canopy of Douglas fir and broad-leaf maples. And silent. No kids, no barking dogs, no players dealing one last hand of Crazy Eights.

Lying completely still, I continued to listen. There would be something. The bear that had snagged my food bag off the bench of the picnic table would give itself away sooner rather than later and I didn’t want to draw its attention away from the tropical-fruit trail mix and Minute Rice. My mind raced back over my bedtime preparations. Had I purged all the food from my panniers before I brought them into the tent?

Rebars. Yes. Gatorade powder. Uh-huh.

Wait! Tea bags? Yes, they were with the bouillon packets. Whew.

What else was there? I ran through the list. It was all outside.

But my toiletries…. What had I been thinking? Ivory soap, unscented deodorant, okay, those weren’t going to be big draws, but my toothpaste was right beside my head! I couldn’t smell it, in its tube in the little zippered plastic bag, but a bear probably could!

I’d been sloppy because this wasn’t a wilderness site.

This campground was populated by RVs and car campers, picnic tables with tablecloths and bottles of mustard and relish, and propane barbecues on which large men cooked burgers. It had the same kind of garbage cans I had at home – suburban wheelie-bins, not bear-proof caches.

Still, something out there had just nabbed my breakfast, lunch and dinner and it could be a matter of time until it came looking for my organic fennel toothpaste for dessert.

On the other hand, wouldn’t any self-respecting bear head for those garbage cans redolent of meat and barbecue sauce? Of course it would.

I settled into my sleeping bag again, adjusting the pillow of clean T-shirts beneath my head. As my brain slowed, so did my heart rate and I drifted off again, only to jerk awake at the sound of my food bag hitting the dirt. Again.

My heart hammered as my brain whirred. I knew that sound. I’d already heard it once that night. Why was I hearing it again? Clearly the bear had, what…picked up the bag and dropped it?

Just like the last time, there was silence once more. No chittering raccoon, no snuffling bear. No paws padding over the hardpacked pea gravel. Nothing but my own pulse scampering through my ears for a hiding place in my head.

Garbage cans, remember? I told myself. Broiled chicken is much more appealing than toothpaste, and raw camper is way too much work.

I felt for the flashlight, carefully unzipped the tent door and flicked on the bright halogen bulb. No eyes shone back from the darkness, nothing skittered away, no gleam of white showed where the bag had landed.

I turned off the light and retreated. I wasn’t imagining things. The bag was gone. Something was out there. I lay in the dark, worrying.

When I woke up, dawn washed everything in a pale grey light. I peered outside and, sure enough, my food bag was not lying on the bench on the far side of the picnic table. Nor was it on the ground beneath, or anywhere else that I could see. There weren’t any bears, either, so I scooted out of my sleeping bag and slipped into my shoes. When I straightened up outside the tent, it took a few moments for my higher perspective to do any good and I finally spotted a flash of white.

Rounding the picnic table and jumping down the two-foot bank from my campsite, I passed a cedar tree in a couple of strides and was looking at my supply of Minute Rice spilled across the dirt like two cups of tiny beige droppings. The Gatorade was untouched, as were the Rebars and tea bags, but a twist-tie clutching a frill of plastic like an Elizabethan ruff was all that remained of the trail mix.

Like a wilderness CSI agent, I examined the shredded edges of the bags. The creature that had pushed, pulled and dragged a couple of pounds of food off a bench, across seven feet of campsite, over a ledge and another four feet around a tree was not a bear. But we knew that. Not even a raccoon. Knew that too. No dog, no whiskey jack.

The beast that had awoken me – twice – and trapped me in fight-or-flight indecision in the fragile protection of my tent, was a ravening pack of mice.

Decoration by Dad