Writing “The Good Book”

August 18th, 2011

As Tudor has already hinted, we are both planning some upcoming life changes that we’ll talk more about on Saturday.

For me, the year ahead will require a re-focussing of time and commitment; I’ll need to stop dancing from one writing project to the next and learn to commit to just one or two.

Knowing that I’ll have to put some of my writing on the back burner for the next while has me a bit anxious, but at the same time it’s helped me sort out what I really do most want to accomplish (and even how I define ‘accomplishment’).

Over the next months, I won’t be looking for fame and riches, but have decided the one daily writing practice to which I do want to adhere is writing a “One good thing” entry.

Let me explain. My son Mark brought me back a lovely Italian leather journal from a recent school trip – so lovely that of course I felt my writing couldn’t possibly live up to its aesthetic standard! So it sat there, untouched, but I felt guilty every time Mark asked me, hopefully, if I had started using it yet.

So I took some colourful, fine felt pens out of my desk drawer and sat down with the journal. I stared at the thick, creamy pages, took a breath and wrote “One good thing today is that I was charmed by the companionship of two old men I saw having coffee together in Tim Hortons.”

That started me on a daily practice of recording one good happening from the day; a quiet moment, a summertime festival, a joke from one of the kids.

Those of you who write memoir pieces know the result is sometimes prose that you’d be leery to share with any of your family members – especially your children! It’s a nice change to write a journal that I’d be happy to leave out on the coffee table, and in fact I’ve written in the front that I’d like it to be given to Mark when I eventually kick the bucket. I hope it gives him a glimpse back at the many happy memories he had a part in.

Of course, others might call this a ‘gratitude journal’, and the positive effects of keeping one are well-discussed. How easy it can be to focus on the negative – writing my ‘one good thing’ book will, I hope, help re-dress the balance.

It will also be interesting to see how expansive my interpretation of the word ‘good’ will prove to be over the year ahead. As was so well described in CBC’s Ideas in the Afternoon program today (Say No To Happiness by producer Frank Faulk), a richly-led, satisfying life isn’t one in which ‘happiness’ is the prime goal, but perhaps one in which one’s (inevitable) suffering is given meaning.

So over the months to come, I may gain the wisdom to see that the ‘one good thing’ in my day was actually the thing I would have most liked to avoid! But right now, I’m enjoying recording the perfect bloom on the delphinium, the glass of wine with Mom, and the fireworks over English Bay.

Whatever your plans for the year ahead, I hope they will include many contemplative, creative pauses of your own.


Help app put its best foot forward

June 23rd, 2011

One thing I learned at the knee of Ivan Coyote (my mentor during my time in the SFU Writer’s Studio) was to consider telling your story in ways that go beyond paper and ink.

For her, that included live storytelling, commissioning musicians to compose songs based on tales from her grandparents’ lives, slide shows behind her on stage, etc. For others, it might mean writing a digital novel with enriched audio-visual content at the click of a mouse. (For one experiment in the digi-novel that didn’t sit well with me, see here.)

For many of us, the thought of imagining new creative, multi-media combinations and collaborations is equal parts thrilling and exhausting. The creative possibilities are exciting; the learning curve and time required to get one up to speed on new technologies and market niches, sometimes daunting.

But if you’re intrigued with the thought of telling stories in new ways, here’s a market for you: Fox and Bee (a two-person creative industry run, literally, out of a cottage) has produced a $2.99 app called In Common: Bikes that pulls together bike lore, quotes, trivia, photos and nonfiction, bike-related stories from all over the world. They’ve even thrown in a bike courier delivery game that’s curiously addictive.

Fox and Bee’s goal is to give us a global sense of how a common object is used in different places and by different people. AND (here’s where you come in), they have a call out for submissions on shoes.  You have until July 1 to produce a nonfiction piece that’s between 500 and 2,000 words. Here are the rest of the submission guidelines.

Part of the proceeds from the app go to micro-financing loans through Kiva. That’s just one of the reasons I like the attitude behind this creative duo’s offering … so if you want to be part of the multi-media world (but don’t want to learn the techie part yourself), consider doing some sole-ful writing for Fox and Bee!




Tiny, tender tributes to Dad

June 16th, 2011

In honour of Father’s Day, the National Post has put out a call for six-word ‘biographies’ of fathers (a take-off of the original Six-Word Memoir project, a great read unto itself).

While driving up to Whistler recently for a ‘me, myself and I’ writing retreat, I used the road time to compose six-word missives about my own father. As you know, words are like cooking – when you stir up something on the stove for a while and let the water evaporate, whatever remains becomes stronger and stronger! Using the minimum number of words to pack the maximum amount of punch is always a good exercise in building your writerly impact – and, in this case, it’s guaranteed to pack an emotional wallop for you, as well.

Some of my favourites on the site (a selection will be harvested and run in a print edition of the National Post) include “Lost you early, now I understand” by Richard Rajotte and “Always there before we needed you” by Sean Cameron. Reading through the entries, you can’t help but contemplate the dad you had, or wished you had, or the parent you want to be.

So, as yet another one of my suggested spring ‘cross-training exercises,’ why not pen a six-word bio of your pater? If you catch the ‘six-word memoir’ bug, you could always expand the exercise and write one for each member of your family … then write them on ribbons and tie them to a ‘family tree’ outside your door. (If you’re brave, have your kids or partner write one about YOU … it’s daunting to imagine how your life will look distilled down into six words, especially when they are written by someone else!)

My six-word tribute?

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You’re missed.



Fun in The Sun

June 9th, 2011

Back in March I wrote this post in which I waxed rhapsodic about a new literary find, The Sun magazine, which is published out of North Carolina.

This week I introduced one of its sections to my writing group. It’s called “Readers Write” and has, I believe, been a feature of the ad-free magazine since early in the publication’s almost-40-year history. Each month, readers write their true, anecdote-based reflections on a given theme and a wide-ranging selection is chosen for publication. It’s usually the first section I flip to, and I try (usually unsuccessfully!) to ration out the pieces so I can stretch out the reading pleasure until my next issue arrives. Here’s a sample of the  current issue’s “Readers Write” section (you can get a taste of the magazine’s essays, fiction and poetry, too, while you’re visiting the site).

After my writing group read through some of the selections in my back issues, we looked at the upcoming themes, and each picked one with a view to possibly submitting a piece to the magazine. We only wrote for 10 or 15 minutes, but made a great start on our stories!

The upcoming topics are Boxes, Warning Signs, Promises, The Best Feeling in the World, Whispering, and Good Advice. Deadline for ‘Boxes’ is July 1, ‘Warning Signs’ is Aug. 1, ‘Promises’ is Sept. 1, and so on. Submissions are to be ‘thoughtful and sincere,’ says the publisher; word count isn’t specified but most look around 200-600 words.
Give it a whirl – you’ll produce an interesting snippet of memoir, at the very least, and a potentially published piece if you choose to submit. Pick a theme, and see where you can take it!

Spring a good time for literary cross-training

May 19th, 2011

For those of you who may not know, Vancouver has been deluged with rain this ‘spring.’ Records have been broken, seedlings have rotted, and snow has flown later than most of us can remember.

So you can imagine how delighted we are now that the sun has made an appearance. Strangers are greeting each other cheerily on the street, dogs are gambolling with ecstasy, and the populace are taking their work outdoors whenever they can just to catch a few coveted rays while they last.

On these days, it feels like the world is rife with benevolence and opportunity. Anything is possible. (No wonder the Vancouver Sun Run times its 10K event for the springtime!)

In that spirit, now is a great time to exercise your lesser-used literary muscles. Why not shake off the winter doldrums by trying something new in your writing life – just for fun. Not for money, or fame, but just for the joy of it.

There are two challenges happening right now that might give you some inspiration. First is the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s Haiku Invitational competition, which boasts entrants from all over the world. It’s a great excuse to push back from your desk, take a walk and muse on the natural wonder of these spring blossoms in all their varieties. Have a read of some of the past winning entries to get a feel for what makes an effective haiku. (Entries are composed of three short lines, but they don’t have to conform to the strict 5-7-5 syllable count that you find in traditional Japanese haiku.)

As with any exercise that involves a very limited amount of words, you’ll really need to pick those that pack a big punch – a skill that stands you in good stead for all your other writing projects. Have fun with this, and get your entry in by May 31, 2011. Winners will see their work celebrated in all sorts of creative ways over the year ahead, a special period in which the city of Vancouver is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

Another opportunity to do something different is presented by the Mothership Stories Society, founded in 2008 by a New Westminster writers, actor and daughter. People are invited to write the story of their mother’s life in 2,000 words or less, and, if desired, post them on the My Mother’s Story website. Some past stories have been collected into anthologies and adapted into theatre presentations; all are available for public view on the site.

As a special inducement for North Vancouver writers, the local theatre company at Presentation House will be picking nine of the North Van entries to transform into a play to be performed next year. How exciting would that be! Entries for that challenge are due on May 30, 2011.

So why not let the sunny weather beckon you to some new writing adventures? Be like the dogs I saw on my walk this morning – chasing a thrown stick with no idea where it will lead, only the knowledge that it will be awfully jolly finding out.

Overkill, revisited

January 26th, 2011

Last week at this time I referred to a line in Great Expectations that reminded me of the wise writing adage “one plus one equals a half.”

This week my reading gave me another gift: an example of exactly what William Stein meant by the expression.

For years I’ve seen Augusten Burroughs books on the shelf and paid them little heed. But having heard many good things about them, I bought  his memoir Dry at a library book sale. I loved the story and the exquisite details he used to tell it. So I ran out and found his first memoir, Running with Scissors.

It’s also an amazing read, but not quite as polished as Dry (though it feels cheeky to say so, given it was on the New York Times bestseller list for four consecutive years).

I didn’t approach it as a critical reader, but as someone happy to be carried away by the narrative. All the same, a paragraph on page six leapt out at me – the aforementioned “1+1= 1/2″ example.

“My mother is from Cairo, Georgia,” he writes. “This makes everything she says sound like it went through a curling iron.” Isn’t that a wonderful image? It immediately made my toes tingle.

But then he continues: “Other people sound flat to my ear; their words just hang in the air. But when my mother says something, the ends curl.”

To me, this over-exposition deflated the power of his initial statement. We get it already! I wanted to shout into the book.

You want to leave your readers with the tingly toes, not the exasperated sigh. “Leave them wanting more” doesn’t just apply to show biz, but the world between the covers as well.

In praise of the familiar essay

August 8th, 2010

Books give us the wings to be wide-ranging, enabling us to travel in spirit to places far distant from our own tiny existence. But sometimes we stumble upon associations that make the reading world seem very small – the literary equivalent of running into our hometown milkman while we are on a mountain-climbing adventure in Tibet.

I had such an experience this morning when I picked up Anne Fadman’s collection of essays, At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist. It’s been on my shelf for a while, having been brought home on impulse from the Indigo bargain bin.

Today, though, I flipped through the hardcover and settled in to read the introduction – and there discovered that the author is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman, whose name I know only because his was the first quotation  I memorized, at the age of nine or so, from my mother’s battered old copy of Bartlett’s Quotations.

“Ennui,” he said, “felt on the proper occasions, is a sign of intelligence.”  After finding out what ‘ennui’ meant, I was delighted to use this quotation to justify my tendency to glaze over or feign illness to get myself out of school.

So I settled in to read Anne Fadiman’s introduction feeling like we had already been introduced by a mutual friend. She, as was her father, is a devoted essayist, and she writes that “Conversation was at the center of my father’s life, it’s at the center of mine, and it’s at the center of the familiar essay.”

She then goes on to give her definition of the familiar essay, which may be inspiring to those of us who enjoy writing in the genre, but don’t want to fall into the traps enunciated by Fadiman:

“Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal – very personal – essays (more heart that brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).”

The familiar essay found its heyday with Charles Lamb in the early nineteenth century, she says, when “The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was so enthusiastic, that his word were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.”

She says that her character, a blend of ‘narcissism and curiosity’, lends itself well to writing the familiar essay. If that’s the case, many of us wordsmiths would do well to try penning one ourselves!

Stories that move while being moving

April 11th, 2010

Tudor: I spent March Break in Florida (sneaky hey? You didn’t even know I was gone…). At any rate, I was supposed to have a brand new e-book reader to take with me and was jumping up and down and very excited because, while I’m the person who wrote the essay in journalism school about how newspapers would never disappear, I suddenly realized that having committed to travelling as a family of four with only carry-on luggage (which we managed) how on earth was I ever going to bring enough “real” books to keep me busy?

So, of course, an e-reader was the answer to all my problems and would give me something fantastic to blog about upon my return and…it didn’t arrive before we left!

What a blow. So, instead, I was able to take one (ONE!) book and had to rely after that on Florida condo bookshelf books – you know the kind I mean – the ones somebody found interesting enough to buy but didn’t love enough to keep. Not the kind of books I wanted to read on one of my very rare holidays.

But, they did get me thinking and have provided me with blog-fodder; just not the type of fodder I was expecting.

I ended up reading three books and came to an interesting conclusion. It seemed that the better the quality of the writing (here I’m talking about language, flow, the ability to put words together in an elegant and interesting way) the less emphasis on plot, whereas the more emphasis put on plot, the worse (and I’m talking really quite bad) the quality of writing got.

This, of course, feeds into the stereotype that lyrical / literary / elegant novels don’t go anywhere or do very much storywise and that action-packed thrillers are real donkeys to read.

So, in the spirit of proving this stereotype wrong (or, at least, not always right), here are a few examples, just off the top of my head, of books that I think move story-wise while also being crafted in a way that makes them moving.

Another great example, even though not my personal favourite, is the Inspector Rebus series by Ian Rankin. While Rankin and Rebus have never fully clicked with me, they’re a great example of meaty stories mixed with rich characterization and high-quality writing. That this series has been so well-received and that both Rankin and Rebus have become near-household names just shows how strongly readers appreciate great writing piggybacked on a good story and how richly authors who manage it will be rewarded.

How about you Peggy? And everyone else out there too? What stories keep you turning pages with their blend of artistry and action?

Peggy: Well, as you know, Tudor, I’m a bit of a memoir junkie. And I’m not the only one. Statistics quoted here on a women’s memoir website show that the incidence of memoir publishing has well more than doubled in the last decade.

Much of the growth has been in the area of non-celebrity memoirs; thoughtful books penned by previously unknown people who have either lived through some extraordinary experiences, or people who have lived ordinary lives but write about them extraordinarily well.

These are the books that are gripping me now. I just finished After the Falls by Canadian author Catherine Gildiner, and loved it; she grew up in those transition years between the 1950s and 60s, a time of massive social change and an era that’s always fascinated me (probably because I just missed it!)

Personal essays and stories penned in her book Pathologies, by Susan Olding (also Canadian!)  wrapped themselves around my heart and had me reading to the wee hours, and I also enjoyed the life stories by Cynthia Kaplan in Why I’m Like This.

I was also up late at night enjoying the collected stories of B.C. writer and storyteller Ivan Coyote; though she often writes from a place in the gay community, her insights, humour and sometimes-poignant reflections about humanity and the people who comprise it will resonate with many of us.

These are a few of the personal stories I’ve enjoyed in the past couple of months, and all of them are well-paced and well-crafted pageturners. I’d welcome more memoir recommendations!

Ozzy Osbourne gets it right

February 3rd, 2010

Not being a follower, I likely won’t have Ozzy Osbourne’s new autobiography I Am Ozzy on my bedside table in the foreseeable future. But I love the widely reporter disclaimer that appears at the beginning of his book, and think all of us memoir writers should include something similar (though the faint-hearted among us might opt for less colourful language!):

“Other people’s memories of the stuff in this book might not be the same as mine. I ain’t gonna argue with ‘em. Over the past forty years I’ve been loaded on booze, coke, acid, Quaaludes, glue, cough mixture, heroin, Rohypnol, Klonopin, Vicodin, and too many other heavy-duty substances to list in this footnote. On more than a few occasions I was on all of these at the same time. I’m not the fucking Encyclopedia Britannica, put it that way. What you read here is what dribbled out of the jelly I call my brain when I asked it for my life story. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Isn’t that true of all our memoirs and autobiographies? We might not be loaded on coke or Vicodin, but our memories are skewed through different lenses: resentments, birth order, health or illness, our economic situation, you name it… as police know well from often conflicting witness reports, two people’s readings of the same situation can vary dramatically.

And on top of our immediate perception of any given event, we are now finding that our memory of it proves, over the years, to be fluid and malleable, shaped by a variety of influences and factors. (Just one small example, showing how doctored photos can shape a person’s recall of events, is here.)

Perhaps the best we can expect of our memoirs is they are utterly faithful to our lives as we perceived them. When we write something, we know when it has the ring of truth about it – and we also know when we are avoiding genuine authenticity. The latter will never truly engage your readers – even if your ‘facts’ are impeccable.

Thanks, Ozzy, for the reminder!

Privacy in publishing

January 10th, 2010

Tudor: Privacy. I feel it’s eroding everywhere in our society and I feel writers hold a huge amount of responsibility for safeguarding and respecting it.

There was a time when if you shut the door when you went to the bathroom, didn’t tell other people how much money you made and didn’t divulge your political leanings, you pretty much had every angle of the privacy issue sewn up.

Not anymore.

There was also a time when nothing could get printed / published without some considerable effort and the approval / vetting of more than one person. Those days are gone too.

These days we’re awash in privacy issues. Our information is stored everywhere. We leave a trail of digital footprints showing where we’ve gone and what we’ve done. Most of us can be Googled.

And anybody can call themselves a writer just by writing something and posting it to the internet.

The first time I found out I was going to have a byline in Canadian Living I was elated. Then I was terrified. Suddenly I realized the tiny 200-word blurb I was writing gave away many things about me as its writer. From it the reader could deduce where I lived and some of my opinions. If they really wanted to they could use it to track me down. It was a strange feeling.

And the feeling has only intensified over the years, especially as I had children and started writing stories inspired by the experience of raising them. How to safeguard their privacy? How not to exploit them for the sake of a story? Even when they were toddlers I would try to imagine myself explaining to a 20-year-old version of themselves why I had felt it was acceptable to divulge a certain fact about them. If I couldn’t make that argument I didn’t write the story.

Everything I write still has to pass that privacy test. That’s why, as a reader of this blog, you don’t know my kids’ names or really any specifics about them. Peggy and I even struggled with the decision to use photos of ourselves for our avatars.

When I hold up my inner tussles to today’s reality on the web – to baby’s first steps posted on YouTube, to the family photo album archived on Flickr and to blog after blog after blog providing names, ages, photographs and intimate details of the writer’s children – well, my issues sometimes seem silly or trivial.

But to me they’re not. To me it’s essential to have a line and draw it. Writers have power and today, when we can so easily become our own publisher, we have even more power than ever before. With power comes responsibility and I’d like to see a bit more responsibility being displayed when it comes to privacy.

Otherwise, I fear there are a lot of parents out there who are going to face difficult questions when their children turn twenty.

Peggy, are you as militant as me when it comes to privacy?

Peggy: Yes and no. To me it boils down to audience and context. Coming from the traditional print media, I formerly had a grasp on who I was writing for, knew what context in which the piece was being read, and how long a lifespan the story would likely have (not a long one, typically!)

As a result, I was able to tailor the amount of personal material I divulged to suit that particular audience at that particular time – and if in writing an education article I referred to one of my own  children’s language delays or learning issues, it was a passing mention that, by the next day, would be lining the bird cage.

Now, even print stories are archived online, and as writers I agree we need to be much more thoughtful about other’s privacy rights. Those who care to can now, for instance, pull up that casual, years-ago mention of my son’s dyslexia and our magical year spent homeschooling, and though that’s no big deal for me, I don’t know that it thrills my now-teenager.

Social media is, of course, an even bigger minefield. My one brief foray onto Facebook was horrifying enough for me; I lasted all of ten minutes before deactivating my account. I found even being able to view everyone’s ‘friends’ list too revealing, illuminating as they do (accurately or not) the tangled webs of people’s lives and relationships.

Hal Niedzviecki holds the mirror up to people’s obsession with  sharing the minutiae of their lives in The Peep Diaries, the interesting first chapter of which you can read here.  Later in the book he tells us about a woman named ‘Padme,’ who lives in a Vancouver suburb and whose blog skips from domestic trivia such as planning her son’s birthday party to descriptions (complete with erotic photos) of her kinky sex games with her husband, which are heavy on spanking and riding crops. The blog has been featured in a variety of media, and she has told interviewers that she is terrified of her children learning about the graphic website. However, given her habit of divulging a plethora of details about the family’s comings and goings (and the lightly cropped photos), it is almost inconceivable that they won’t.

To most people, that would be sharing way, WAY too much. Yet Niedzviecki also points to the popularity of the memoir genre in the publishing industry as evidence that we have grown overly besotted with pulling back the curtain on our and others’ private lives. Which I found a bit of a shock, because as you know, Tudor, I am a huge fan of thoughtful memoir and had never thought to tar the genre with the same tawdry brush as that reserved for bloggers run amok.

Which brings me back to context, and audience. I am ever more convinced it is vital for us, as individuals and as a culture, to share our stories – sometimes our deepest, most intimate stories. Learning about other’s lives and struggles can give us not only a greater understanding of other’s journeys, but often a new perspective on our own. Recently, for example, I’ve been moved by Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon, the Globe and Mail writer’s account of life with his profoundly disabled son, and am currently enjoying my first foray into the short tales of Vancouver’s Ivan E. Coyote, many of which make wry reference to her experiences as a person of mixed gender.

It all boils down to honouring our stories. They are, after all, gifts we give to each other, and I hope we continue to share them. Let’s just make sure we present them to the world in a context that helps ensure they get the respectful audience they deserve – which won’t likely be the case if you Twitter your latest personal crisis to thousands of so-called ‘friends.’