Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life: Stories

Sandra Martin is the chief obituary writer for the Globe and Mail newspaper and right now is also a visiting journalism lecturer at the University of Victoria, where she gave a public talk on Thursday night.

I invited a bunch of people to go with me to “From Last Rites to the Blog of Death” and each of them said, “I’ll pass.”

I thought, Well, of course you will. Everyone does.

So the evening wasn’t a dead loss for those who didn’t attend, here are a few tidbits I picked up:

Obituaries encompass all the other newspaper beats: crime, politics, fashion…. Depending on what the subject did with her life, what circles he moved in, any of these and more can form the context of a posthumous profile.

Unlike other kinds of journalism, when you write obituaries you never repeat yourself. (My thought: It’s a good thing that you don’t have to interview Paul Gross, yet again, about his latest movie?)

The immediacy and finality of the task of writing an obituary are terrifying. (I can totally see this, but my take on it is that, much as writers deny it, some part of us secretly loves this kind of pressure: having mere hours to create, craft and polish the story of someone’s life. It’s an easier adrenaline rush than, say, kayaking Hell’s Gate, and certainly safer – for the writer, anyway.)

My facetiousness aside, Sandra Martin was articulate and funny and made very good points about the value of a good last word for everyone involved.

In fact, I’ve used The Economist obits as examples of great storytelling in my magazine-writing course and here’s a bonus for you dear readers who stayed with me through this post: Sandra also taught me that the venerable English magazine has published a whole book of its favourites!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Over and over and over again

Lani Diane Rich’s Discovery course started this week and my homework is to listen to music. Lots and lots of it, if necessary. The goal is to find songs that relate to the character who’s been tapping her Louboutined toes on the back of my mind for months now, waiting for me to finish the current book so I can start on her story.

A soundtrack isn’t a completely new concept for me: three of the four novels I’ve written have had theme songs, although I didn’t go looking for them. They showed up and basically ran on a hamster wheel in my cerebellar vermis for a year or two until the book was finished.

They are good songs; I liked them.

But enough to hear them over and over and over…? Luckily for me, yes. But it’s risky.

I do the same thing in real life. When I was hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail a couple of summers ago, the only song I could remember the words to was Patsy Cline’s Crazy, which is just about where I drove my hiking buddy because I sang it constantly when we were in wild-animal territory, which was pretty much all the time.

Talk about a dilemma: should I keep singing to warn off the berrying bears? Or stop it so the cougars (or my friend) wouldn’t kill me just to shut me up?

You can see why I’m looking forward to collecting a whole playlist.

My hiking buddy is going to be all kinds of relieved, too.

Now what I’m curious about is this: does your life have a soundtrack? Do you choose it or does it lodge, uninvited, in your skull?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cheered by a moss

I was visiting a friend the other day and noticed a big Oregon grape shrub in full flower, its clusters of small, brilliant yellow blooms brightening the shady north side of his house, so when the sun tempted me to my own yard yesterday, I went hunting.

A couple of exotics are putting on brave faces – the delicate yellow winter jasmine and pink viburnum show up like a scatter of confetti – but that’s it for flowers. 

Even the Oregon grape that gets all the sunshine is keeping its buds tightly furled. 

But I was cheered to see that some mosses are already sending up their banners for spring!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sculpting Stories

Yesterday, the dynamic Kate Austin presented her fast-paced The ABCs of Revising to the Vancouver Island Chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

Here’s a sampling of what I learned:

Kate and I have similar tastes in books about writing. Among her favourites are Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which are also at the top of my To Be Reread Often list.

Scuttlebutt in the writing community is that you write 500,000 words before you write a publishable book. Holy smokin’ thesaurus, that’s a lot of words! However, it’s pretty much in line with Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusion in his book Outliers that people who are very very good at something have put in 10,000 hours of practice. Doing something well just takes that much work.

Revision is as much an art as writing is. Because I’m in the throes of revising a novel, I was comforted to hear this. It does feel to me like I’m shaping something, forming it like clay: moulding this bit, taking that piece off and moving it somewhere else, smoothing this curve, giving that surface more texture.

And now I interrupt my sculpting to calculate how close I’m getting to that 500,000-word mark.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Protozoan Park

I visited a beautiful little island last fall and I want to go back, but even though it’s not far from my home as the bluebird flies, getting there involves crossing a stretch of water that is too wide for me either to swim or paddle my venerable canoe.

During my voice lesson this week, I approached a different kind of gap between where I am and where I want to be, with much the same results. There is, my teacher explained, a passage between the notes a soprano sings comfortably and those a lyric soprano can reach. I stretched a tentative vocal cord toward the edge of this passaggio, like a swimmer warily extending a toe toward the water and, just like the swimmer, jerked back again. Cautiously, I edged bit by bit out of my comfort zone and into the realm of wavy notes and reedy tones, fully aware that what’s holding me back, more than anything else, is fear. Fear that I won’t sound good.

And that’s exactly what happened, because Fear is so powerful that it’s self-perpetuating. Like amoeba.

Writers face these terrible protozoans every time we want to grow into a new phase of our lives as storytellers. I imagine drivers do, too, when they decide to leave the street and try the fast lane of the track, and engineers who want to build a better bridge. Artists, athletes and innovators of all kinds, in fact. And, as far as I can tell, everyone who wants to expand an old role or grow beyond it.

What we address is the stretch of open water between where we are and where we want to be: that amoeba-infested passaggio.

However, microorganisms are, by definition, small. I am not. I can use brute force, sweep them away with strong winds flowing over my vocal cords…oh wait. That means practicing, right?

Okay then. 

And this summer when I’ve also learned how to sail and I cut a wake across Amoeba Channel to that island, I’ll sing a little song – way up high.