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.