Saturday, March 27, 2010

Weeds or Wonders

As this year's dandelions begin to bloom, I wonder – yet again – why I struggle so hard against them.

If I let nature have its way, both my dry shady back yard and the sunny, rocky front would be masses of brilliant yellow from March to October with no effort on my part. I could pick the leaves for salads, and even make wine from the blossoms. I could let the plants go to seed and have mini meadows of ethereal silvery globes.

And I’ve just raked up a moral dilemma, too. According to Cursing the Basil, a book of garden folklore, dandelions might be fairies. All these years I’ve wielded my spade in backyard pogroms when, instead, I could have had a garden full of magic!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Timid and shy and scared am I/of things beyond my ken

I love The Sound of Music.

During my first bike trip 25 years ago, I ratcheted myself up the sides of Yorkshire dales and Highland glens singing Mother Abbess’s number when she exhorts Maria to Climb Every Mountain.

But when the movie first came out I was quite a little girl, and I had a crush on the teenage Liesl. I can still remember most of the words to her big solo.

Now, I’m not sixteen going on seventeen, nor am I innocent as a rose, but sometimes I’m still anxious about new experiences. However, it’s only by trying new things that we learn and give ourselves choices. Whether I want to do it or not, I know how to bake a loaf of bread, change a spark plug, and paint a wall. I can hem, split wood, and write a story.

But I was timid about fixing my bicycle. Oh sure, I can repair a flat and clean the chain and even, if pressed, tighten a cable or two. But after a Series of Unfortunate Events at my local bike shop last spring, I decided I really must be able to do more.

Recyclistas is a local bike cooperative that offers a three-hour Do It Yourself class on Saturdays, so yesterday I gathered my nerve and my grubbiest jeans and got into it.

The instructors were two young men with excellent teaching skills and, to my mind, quite extraordinary patience. They provided individual hands-on training for each of us four participants, all the while coping with a steady flow of cyclists who came and went with requests for advice or tools or bench space.

I – and by I I mean I – replaced brake and gear cables, adjusted the front derailleur, learned how my disk brakes work, and replaced the chain.

It took me about twelve times as long as it would have taken the mechanic/teacher, and still I feel so empowered.

No, never mind feel.

I am empowered.

So now I’m all about the Mother Abbess again.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Giveaway Game

I saw this exercise in action at The Writers’ Union of Canada symposium in Vancouver, BC on March 5, when presenter Betsy Warland got the hundred or so attendees to participate. It’s best done, I suspect, after one has done some goal setting and even a bit of navel-gazing.

So, either before a get-together or as part of a meeting, set yourself some goals: write a novel, weed the garden, vacuum the car. Make them SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, and Timed.

Now for Warland’s game: divide a sheet of paper into two columns. On the right, note what you need in order to achieve your goals. On the left, list skills, assets, and expertise that you’re willing to share. Everyone in the group is filling out their own table.

What I have (and I’m willing to give away)

What I need

Warland did this exercise with groups across the country this winter and saw some remarkable results. The Toronto participants, for example, immediately set up an online group so they could create a network to share their skills.

At the Vancouver session, I watched as someone who needed a quiet place to write connected with someone who had a vacant vacation home; a couple of others who needed help figuring out their computers met people with teaching and technology expertise. There were pleas for help with housework and offers of marketing assistance.

I was struck by how efficient this was, and how quickly it worked. It would be very simple to set up a similar framework in any organization, like a writing group, professional organization, or students in a course.

Can you think of other situations this might work well for?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mixed Farming

Yesterday I was pulling weeds in my front yard, which hadn’t got the memo that it’s supposed to be a flowerbed, not a lawn. As I ripped up grass and dandelions, I realized it could also be a kitchen garden.

The trailing blackberry is crawling all over the bearberry. The deer have snipped off some of the camas leaves, but the bulbs are safely underground. And if the blaze of blossoms is anything to go by, in a few months the red-flowering currant is going to produce a bumper crop of fruit.

The mix of plants in my front yard is much like the career of most writers. Few of us make a living just from sowing a lawn of words on the page. Instead, we teach or manage offices, shelve books in libraries or stores, and do 101 other jobs according to our skills and bills.

At The Writers’ Union of Canada symposium in Vancouver, BC on March 5, Betsy Warland called this “mixed farming.” It’s having a combination of jobs that feed and protect each other, she said.

It reminds me of early North American farmers, who planted squash that provided food and also shaded the soil around cornstalks, which provided food as well as support for climbing beans, which provided food….

So for writers, ideally each job/crop will nurture and protect the others.

For example, Warland is an author and provides one-on-one manuscript assistance to other writers and runs The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, while her fellow presenter, Ross Laird, writes, teaches and is an addictions clinical supervisor for social service agencies.

Exposure in each area of expertise creates awareness of the other areas and leads to new clients or readers – or both.

So one of the messages I took away from the day-long TWUC event is that most writers cannot count on the monoculture of writing to feed ourselves. If we want to enjoy pizza, we must come out of the silo, dig some manure into the soil, and plant tomatoes, peppers and oregano. And, of course, keep weeding.