Peggy: It’s a well-established pattern. Every year at this time, I have the same conversation. People ask me about my writing, and I say “Well, a lot of my commitments are coming to an end now, so I’ll be doing a lot of writing over the summer.”
Then school lets out, my children swarm home, and I say to myself “What was I THINKING?”. And every fall, I sheepishly have to admit to myself and others that I fell far short of my writing goals.
The worst part is, I really can’t even blame the kids. They are certainly old enough to entertain themselves for hours on end. As with so many things in writing, it all comes down to MY mental attitude.
Self-discipline is a hard skill to muster at the best of times; when your home is suddenly the hub for children, friends, and visitors, you have the added difficulty of removing yourself from ‘the pack’ in order to carve out any writing time. This can result in two problems: feeling guilty for not being ever-present for your loved ones (whether they want you or not!) and what my cousin Christie calls FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out. What witty banter, what heartwarming moments, what entertaining R&R will pass you by as you sit chained to your chair?
I really want this summer to be different. I have a manuscript project that I intend to tackle, but I’m a frequent traveller on that ‘road to hell’ that’s paved with you-know-what.
My SFU Writer’s Studio classes and workshop groups will be taking a break, so I need to create my own literary life to keep me motivated amidst all the summer carousers. Here are some of the props I’ll be using to keep my Writer Self nourished:
- immersion in fine articles that make me want to create my own. My subscriptions for The New Yorker and literary magazines such as Douglas College’s Event journal have just started to kick in – what better beach reading?
- a portable writing environment. I always have pen and notebook (and sometimes netbook) with me, and if the sunny weather ever comes and stays, I’ll make sure I have a camping chair in my car at all times. There’s nothing like being able to pull over by a park or river and set up your own mini writer’s retreat.
- deadlines. I’ve been meeting contest deadlines all spring, so why shouldn’t I make and meet my own deadlines? I’ll try mounting a summer calendar on the wall and mark out what needs to be accomplished by when (and for what reward, of course).
- writing buddies. This is where they once again show they’re worth their weight in gold. While everyone else is livin’ la vida loca (darn them), I need other pensmiths to keep me on track and encouraged, so my critique group is going to coordinate calendars and try to meet up a few times or even book our own writing retreat for a couple of days.
Tudor, do you have any thoughts for summer scribblers?
Tudor: To be honest, for me the summer has never been much different than the rest of the year simply because, ever since I’ve been a “writer” (that is in a professional sense; not in a philosophical sense) I’ve had children to look after. My oldest just turned eight so for eight years all the work I’ve done has been done around and about the schedules of my family.
This has been the same summer, winter, spring and fall – the main difference has been whether I’m struggling with snowsuits or sunscreen – but my work schedule and habits have stayed the same.
Now, with September comes a different story. Because in September my youngest starts grade one. In other words; all day school. How strange. There are two things I know for sure and they are (a) I’ll miss him and (b) it’s going to take a while to get used to my new schedule. How will it shake out? I’m not sure. I could guess but I’ll probably be wrong. I don’t think I’ll really know how I’ll feel about having both kids in school for six hours until it happens and, similarly, I won’t now how my time really shakes out until then.
So, where does that leave things for this summer? Well, I’m trying to declutter. To worry about the bare minimum of things and to try to make sure the things I am worrying about are important.
I’m trying to say no to extra commitments; I’m adopting a KISS (keep it simple you-know-who) attitude. I want to do fewer things better and that includes both writing time and the time I spend with my kids.
If I can manage to adopt this philosophy I think it will help me out as I head into my transition in September. And how that works out is a whole other story for the fall…Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, On Life, Organizing our Writing Lives, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path | Comment (0)
Tudor: Honest truth, I have no idea what to write about this week. I have lots on my mind but nothing that seems fit for a blog post. So, instead of giving advice or talking about my own thoughts or my own writing, I thought I’d celebrate somebody else’s writing. In this case, my six-year-old son’s.
He recently spent a few days writing summaries of all the Star Wars movie plots. Other than answering questions like “how to you spell ‘become’?” I didn’t have any involvement in this project whatsoever. I didn’t know what he was writing until he showed me the finished product.
And I was impressed. Here’s his summary of “A New Hope”:
The clone wars have ended. Luke has grown up. The dark side has become more powerful. New ships have entered the war. Anakin has turned to the dark side and has become Darth Vader. The clones have become the storm trooper army. The good guys have become the Rebel Alliance.
This is great for so many reasons. It’s a fantastic summary. I love his sentence structure (short and punchy; there’s my boy…). And, more than anything else, he did it all by himself and just because he wanted to. Which means, in my book, he’s a writer.
Both my boys have written things that not only impress me but that I can learn from. The passage above shows how effective a piece of writing can be at setting the stage with minimal (really almost no) use of adjectives.
My older son’s writing always interests me in that his personality shines through without overpowering his work. Older writers often struggle with “voice” – how much personality to show. It seems that young writers don’t worry. They just write how they think which shows their personality but they’re also very aware of the rules of writing as they’re right in the midst of learning them. It makes for a nice balance between style and structure.
Peggy, you work with young writers; what do you learn from them? Or maybe you’ve learned something from another unexpected source. Don’t even get me started on the letters my 80-year-old aunt used to send me. They kept me in stitches…
Peggy: Funny, this is the week that MY son turned to me and said “Guess what, Mom, I’m writing again! It feels so good!” He’s sixteen, and most of his leisure time goes to rugby and road hockey.
He emailed me the prologue of his new work, and I tried to read it more like a mom than an editor. (My editor hat automatically snaps on when someone gives me a piece to read, and of course, one can always identify areas that could use some tweaking.) But I knew what he needed was an uncritical mom-cheerleader; someone to heap praise upon him for sitting at his desk and following the muse. Isn’t that what we all want, especially at the beginning of a new work?
What I most admire about kids’ work, Tudor, is the sense of play they bring to it. They aren’t fretting about markets, or word counts, or libel issues, or critics. When I watch the kids in the Young Writers’ Club, or my son at his desk, their eyes are alight, they’ve got a smile on their face, their toes are practically twitching with enjoyment, and time means nothing. Imagine being able to bottle THAT to sell at writing conferences!
Kids are willing to ‘waste’ time in the most marvellous, meandering ways, while we adults often find it hard to get out of an ‘efficiency’ mindset. We’re determined to maximize our productivity, and want our desk time to result in marketable page counts. We don’t often allow ourselves to sit with our pencil and notebook and write just for fun – even if experience shows that when we do make the time to experiment with new writing prompts or off-the-cuff exercises, great nuggets of writing, and new story ideas, almost inevitably emerge.
If there’s a down side to my kids’ writing (at least from my perspective), it’s that I’m surrounded by boys who LOVE to write about wars, things blowing up, sieges, armour, battle plans, etc, etc, etc. But as the lone female in a household of four males, I guess I’d better get used to it. It sounds like you’ve got some testosterone text happening on your end as well, Tudor …. good thing we’ve got each other!Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, Language & Usage, On Life, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path | Comment (0)
Tudor: Over the years I’ve come to recognize two types of writers. There are those that are OUT THERE. Big time. Telling people about all their writing projects. Blogging about their work in progress. Tweeting, facebooking, linked-inning (and whatever other social media I can’t possibly contemplate) about their novel-in-development. Calling themselves, not just writers, but novelists or authors. Pretty much putting it out there to the world.
Then there are those who like to keep it all very hush, hush. Writing on the sly – almost as a guilty pleasure akin to watching America’s Next Top Model (not that I ever watch ANTM…). Those who you had better not ask about their latest project because they’ll cut you dead and start commenting on the weather.
The funny thing is, I don’t find actual writing “success” or publication, or however you want to define it, has anything to do with which camp people fall into.
In fact, the most vocal I-AM-NOVELIST types I know often hold down full-time jobs doing something else, may or may not work regularly on their craft and have never been published. Yet, many of these people will happily tell everyone in the world, with confidence, that they’ve submitted something somewhere and they’re pretty sure this one will be published. Publicly.
I, on the other hand, centred my entire education around writing. I’ve always had writing or books or publishing as part of my job when I worked for other people. For six years now I’ve been a freelancer with the only money I make coming from writing. And yes, I do have other projects on the side. Projects I don’t get paid for. Quiet writing projects. But I’m not talking about them here. Or anywhere very much, to be honest. I used to not talk about them at all. To anyone. Period. Then I realized that didn’t really work. So now there are a few key people in this world who know what I’m up to “on the side” and even they are updated on a strictly need-to-know basis.
I would never, ever be able to tell the world in general about every single submission I make and tell people at barbeques that I’m “about to be published”. But some people can and do and it doesn’t seem to bother them that the thing they were talking about last time didn’t end up getting published. Because, of course, they have something new in hand that’s just about to be published.
I keep thinking if and when I ever land that ever-elusive publishing contract I’ll be sure to tell the world. But the truth is, I probably won’t. I’ll put it off and wait and not want to make a fuss. And, of course, I’ll likely be working on something new I won’t really want to talk about.
So, what do you think about this Peggy? Why do some people share so much and others not at all? Where do you fall on the spectrum and has going back to school changed this for you?
Peggy: I think the decision to ‘tell or not-tell’ is largely an ego-based one, for good or ill. I know some people who hold off on saying much because they’ll be embarrassed if their hopes don’t come to fruition, and others who talk a lot about their submissions and hot leads because they are trying to bolster their image in their own or others’ eyes. Both are ego-protecting choices.
Then there are those who refrain from discussing their potential successes because they don’t want to discourage the other, less-connected writer(s) they may be speaking to, or they are very open about their ups and downs because, generously, they want others to be encouraged by the fact that it is a hit-and-miss game and to know we all have to persevere through the good times and bad. Those are ego-protecting choices as well, though in this case it’s the listener whose ego is being considered.
People being what they are, writers probably don’t fall neatly into one category or the other all the time, but perhaps make their typical home somewhere along the continuum.
Where am I in that mix? I try to be open about my rejections and dead ends, because they are reality for a writer, and we wordsmiths can learn as much or more from each other’s failures as we can from our successes. But it’s not always easy to be an ‘open book’ – especially because I am a writing workshop leader, which carries its own baggage. Some people might expect that I have a huge leg up, talent or ‘success’-wise, than someone who isn’t in a teaching position, but that, absolutely, is not necessarily the case. It just means I enjoy taking whatever skills I do have and putting them to use building community and helping other writers along the path we both share.
If I do remain quiet about my projects, it’s often because I find them so hard to articulate, especially in a 20-second sound bite. Most of the writing I’m doing now is memoir and reflection that doesn’t have a racy plot at its core. So I run the risk of sounding pretty boring – “I’m working on a piece about how I like to be alone” – or I try to explain the metaphors I’ll be using, or the lyric structure, and then I just sound tongue-tied and incomprehensible, even (or especially!) to myself.
What I do talk about more this year, now that I’m at school, is the excitement of mixing with other people whose passions lie in the same direction. I’m part of a group of wonderfully supportive creative non-fiction types, and we talk about each other’s writing as much as our own. And maybe that’s the key – finding the balance between celebrating your own work, and opening yourself up to the richness you can absorb from others’.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, On Life, Organizing our Writing Lives, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path, Writing as Career | Comments (2)
Peggy: Until my year in the SFU Writer’s Studio, it had never occurred to me to read my work at a literary event. That seemed, somehow, to be for ‘other people ‘ – I was content to chug away at my desk, creating work that would perhaps someday be seen in print.
Now I realize that stepping forward and sharing your work in a more personal, immediate way, is in many respects just as important. Public readings create a sense of community for writers who are inspired by and learn from each other’s work, and they are a place at which family and friends can have a window into what it is you’re doing when you’re squirreled away in front of your computer. And they certainly motivate writers to polish up their words until they are at their very best, which is never a wasted exercise.
When you’re reading a piece to an audience, you have the chance to gauge whether or not it ‘works’ – is the pacing right, does your humour hit the right note, is there a symbol or a theme running through it that you may not have even noticed, but a listener hears?
Doing the occasional reading helps writers bring a new sense of confidence to their work, I think, and the supportive reception provided by almost every audience does wonders to fuel your fire for more hours at the desk.
If the thought of reading your poems or story at an open mic event makes you sweat, work up to it by just attending a few readings first. For a Vancouver listing, watch the events page in the newspaper, or visit Pandora’s Collective (scroll down to find the open mic events that are held monthly).
It’s hard to keep your creative mind fresh if you never leave your comfort zone, and performing at a reading might just be the ticket if you’re feeling a bit stale. A thoughtful discussion of sharing your work with others – whether it is with person, or thousands – can be found in Bonni Goldberg’s book Beyond the Words: The Three Untapped Sources of Creative Fulfillment for Writers.
Tudor, have you ever performed any of your work? Or do you have different ways you like to share it?
Tudor: I know you asked about sharing work Peggy, but what hits me about your enjoyment of reading your work aloud is the opportunity it provides to polish your work.
As I’ve tackled much more ambitious projects in recent years, polishing has become more important to me than ever before. Don’t get me wrong; I always polished my work – whether it was a 200-word blurb or a 2,500-word feature, but now, working on loooong projects, polishing has become a very important symbolic step.
To me polishing signifies the official demarcation point of a draft. Given that revision can be an endless task – there’s always a word that can be swapped or a comma added or removed – how is it possible to know when a draft is officially “completed”? Well, for me, it’s when it’s polished. Yes, it may be will be ripped apart again, but for now it exists as Draft One (or Two or Seven).
There are different ways people make ready or polish their work. For some it’s as simple as making it all pretty on the screen.
For me it has to be printed out. Usually I print a copy first for myself (with my text set to 50 per cent greyscale to save ink) which I read over before printing out a better copy for somebody else Peggy to read over.
However, some people take it a step further than this. In one of her (many) great pieces of advice for writers, Mary Kole recommends reading your draft out loud or, better yet, roping some unsuspecting (and patient) soul in to read your work back to you. This is a great way to spot awkwardness, ambiguity and see if your dialogue really works.
I think Peggy’s newfound enjoyment of reading out loud to other people is a further extension of polishing your work and bringing it up to par. I promise you this; if you’re brave enough to read what you’ve written out loud in public you definitely get to count that version as an official draft – another milestone on your journey to a many-times-polished-until-finally-“complete” piece of writing.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Organizing our Writing Lives, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path, Writing as Career | Comment (0)
Peggy: I’ve always been somewhat solitary by nature. According to my mother, classmates would come knocking with an invitation to play; I’d open the door a crack, politely decline, and return to my book. The one friend I did deign to hang out with would regularly ream me out because I’d go to her house and proceed to sit silently and read her impressive Archie comic collection, ignoring her altogether.
Of course, being perfectly happy with my own company is not a bad trait for a writer to have. I’m not adverse to holing up for days to get a piece out, and love taking myself on solo writing retreats to recharge my creative batteries.
But in the past few years, I am discovering the great benefits of collaboration. The Young Writers’ Club I started five years ago with partner Laura Hoffman would have long ago wasted away if it hadn’t been for the many practical and administrative skills that Laura brought to our partnership. She has the patience to learn things that I simply don’t, and is detail-oriented in areas where I would throw in the towel.
We are in the midst of planning our role in the first annual North Shore Spring Arts Fest, which is taking place this weekend. Some of the kids and adults in my workshops have written poems in the “I Am From” tradition, and we have partnered up with the two leaders of the North Shore Celtic Ensemble to provide a musical backdrop to our reading of five of the poems.
Last night we rehearsed for the first time, and – let me tell you – you’ve never heard your words in their full glory until you’ve heard them spoken to the sweet sounds of an acoustic guitar and fiddle player. It was absolutely lovely, and I’m glad I’m not one of the readers Saturday or I would embarrass us all by bawling on stage. The musicians also enjoyed the experience and now we have visions of a music and storytelling ‘kitchen party’ in the fall.
As another example of collaboration, I was approached by downtown street artist a week ago, a man hoping to get enough cash from selling his hummingbird pencil drawing to pay for a cheap meal. I was happy to purchase the artwork (being a horrible draw-er myself) and hunted him down a few days later to see if he might be interested in illustrating an upcoming essay I’ll be working on. He’ll bring a different vibe to the project that will definitely help me take the writing to a more interesting place than I could find on my own.
When you pool your energy with the right people in the right situation, I’m discovering, the whole can definitely be greater than the sum of its parts. Tudor, does collaboration ever play a role in your artistic life?
Tudor: You’re actually catching me in a very solitary moment – unusually so for me. I have about 24 hours to myself and am trying to get all sorts of things done just powering ahead on my own.
However, these times are few and far between and most of the rest of the time writing is, indeed about collaboration.
I’m thinking of collaboration in a very practical way. This kind of collaboration also involves quite a bit of negotiation. It’s a back-and-forth between me and a client or an editor. It’s a conversation that goes something like this:
“Would you be interested in this work?”
“Sure, what did you have in mind?”
“Do you like this?”
“Can we change this?”
“What about trying this?”
And so on and so forth until we both agree that, yes, the writing is serving its intended purpose and we’re done.
Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s tough but it’s essential to be able to do it and it’s great when that back-and-forth results in something stronger than either one of us could have created alone.
On a more general note there is also the collaboration where one person makes life easy for another because it’s an easy thing to do. An example that comes to mind is when I was assigned a story which I immediately imagined broken down into clearly defined sections and wrote accordingly.
In addition to the usual editorial discussions described above the editor made a comment I’ll always remember. She said the magazine designer loved working with my story because the way it was written it fit perfectly into his columns and allotted space. “Did you do that on purpose?” she asked.
And, I guess the answer was yes because long ago in journalism school I had to take my turn on the layout desk and so even if it’s not completely conscious, that memory is always in the back of my mind. It’s just another way of collaborating; making someone else’s job easy for them.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path | Comment (0)
Tudor: I thought I’d put a bit of a different spin on things this week. Instead of talking about what I do write, I thought it would be useful to talk about what I don’t – or, more accurately won’t – write.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, the first two won’t really surprise you:
(1) I won’t write anything that violates somebody else’s privacy. To me this is a quick and dirty way to get noticed as a writer and I’d rather be off the radar than be on it because I told something about somebody else that wasn’t mine to tell. The sad fact is, there are people I’m aware of who write about other people’s lives (often passing judgment in the process) and I’m careful to steer a wide berth around them lest I become their unwitting subject matter. Which only serves to remind me; if I don’t want it done to me I must never do it to anybody else.
(2) I won’t write about something I got for free but my readers have to pay for. To do so is problematic on many levels and since it’s dealt with at length here, I won’t subject you to that argument again.
(3) I will strive and try and hope and sincerely attempt to avoid the three “Ss” (snark, snobbery, superiority) which seem to have crept into certain publications these days in an effort to be – I actually don’t even know what – maybe clever? Possibly sophisticated? I’m not sure because to me much of this writing just seems small and mean.
Example number one: Once, long ago, I was the assistant editor of a magazine striving (too hard) to be cool, hip, edgy and all-that. Trying to show it was important and everyone else was boring. First I stopped being assistant editor of that magazine, second I stopped freelancing for it, third I cancelled my (free) subscription because I could no longer take the tone. I simply didn’t want it coming into my house anymore.
Example number two: Is a clipping I keep on my bulletin board to remind myself WHAT / HOW NOT TO WRITE. The clipping is disguised as a travel piece about Wolfe Island but, in reality it is one (too) long diatribe making fun of, belittling, deriding and generally looking down on the entire place for not being entertaining, not offering fine dining and not being stylish and / or fashionable.
Even if I didn’t love Wolfe Island as I do, I would despise the tone and content of the piece, but knowing the natural beauty and intense and lovely quiet of the place, I can only conclude the Very Important Journalist who wrote the piece didn’t like that the island was mostly unimpressed by him and had to take out his disappointment accordingly.
This, so far, is my list of ways I’ve vowed not to write. How about you Peggy? Much as you love writing is there writing you have no desire to do?
Peggy: More and more, I’m trying to make sure that any writing I do plays a role in moving me forward to one of my goals. My focus at the moment is boosting my ability and my output in the area of literary non-fiction, so if I see jobs that might earn me a bit of money, but hinder me from going in the creative direction I want, I steer clear.
Of course, earning money is a good goal, too, so if it’s a job I think I’m qualified for and it is offering tempting financial compensation, that gets me off my creative high horse and has me standing in line with the rest of the hopeful freelancers.
Mostly these days, though, I wrestle with what to include in my memoir pieces. It’s a tough call; I was at a Vancouver reading last month, and read a piece that briefly referred to my teenage son’s “stubbled chin and spotty cheeks” (since I have three sons, I’ve left his name off here in a belated attempt at discretion!)
It’s such a tiny detail in the story, but in his life? He might well be horrified to read such a descriptor. And yet if we go through our work with a fine-toothed comb to remove any references that just might give offence, we’ll likely end up with a very bland story.
It’s always a judgment call; I tend to put my editor on the back shelf and write first what the story needs – the details that bring the characters and situations alive – and then later look for any areas that might cause problems for those people mentioned.
And certainly, there are many stories I wouldn’t tell, period, if they are too intrusive of another person’s privacy – and I try to remember that my definition of ‘too intrusive’ might not match someone else’s.
If you are ever faced with these dilemmas, there are a few things ideas that might help:
- Treat each character respectfully, including shades and nuances that bring positive as well as negative aspects of their character to light (or at least make their negative aspects more understandable).
- Ask yourself if the potentially hurtful details are truly necessary to the story, or are they there because you are just being lazy, or venting, or scoring a cheap shot.
- Ask the real-life characters in your piece if you have permission to reveal certain information. Often people are quite pleased to be written about, and as long as you are writing fairly, will allow more than you might expect. And, once you’re talking with them, you’ll probably learn things you didn’t know before!
- Give yourself greater creative freedom by using names and details that shield the identity of the person you’re writing about.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, Sunday Special, Writing as Career | Comment (0)
Peggy: As I write this (Thursday, April 29), people in the U.S. and hopefully here in Canada, too, are celebrating Poem in Your Pocket Day. This is a day on which we are invited to carry a favourite poem in our pocket to share with friends, colleagues and strangers alike.
It’s a grand way of capping off Poetry Month, which is marked every year in April in both our fair lands. And it’s a way to remind us that poetry isn’t the preserve of a certain ‘type’ of creative writer or reader; poetry, is in fact, all around us – in song lyrics, in a beautifully expressed turn of phrase, in in contemplative prose snippets, in prayers and speeches and greeting cards.
Robert Frost said that “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” True enough, but where it ends up is anyone’s business. A poem can be expressed in a formal poetic structure or as prose, in elevated language or in street talk, can offer interpretive challenges or be as accessible as a phone call from a neighbour.
Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins embarked on an ambitious project to bring poetry off dusty high school shelves and into the hearts and minds of students when he launched Poetry 180, a program that offers up a poem to be read on the school loudspeaker on each day school is in session. All of the poems are listed on the website, and are a splendid place to begin exploring what modern verse can offer.
Up here in Canada, I enjoyed attending a reading/salon with poet Billeh Nickerson, whose book McPoems has just been published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Talk about poetry for the masses: it consists of short prose poems inspired by his stint working as a manager in a famed fast-food franchise. Knowing how deeply fast food has encroached into our diet, Billeh couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been addressed in our nation’s poetic works. Well, now it has, and you can read excerpts on the Arsenal website linked above.
I’m trying to remind myself to keep poetry alive in my life all year through, not just in April. I’m writing a poem right now, which is a wonderfully fun thing to do when you don’t have any aspirations to be a capital-P ‘Poet’. I’m enjoyed Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen, a friendly and helpful guide to reading and writing poetry (much of which applies to all creative writing). And for Mother’s Day, I’m asking my three strapping, gizmo-loving, Subway-guzzling sons to make me tea and then read aloud their favourite poem.
Tudor, like me, you don’t consider yourself a ‘poet.’ What role does poetry play in your reading and writing life?
Tudor: Peggy, you didn’t have to be nice and say I don’t consider myself a poet; you could have just come out with the truth that I’m not a poet. Full stop.
For whatever reason, I’ve spent a lot of my life surrounded by commerce grads (my dad), MBAs (most of my friends at university) and engineers (the rest of my friends at university, my husband and too many of our friends to count). Not surprisingly, many of them think of me as “artsy”. They probably think I looove poetry. They probably think I get it. They would mostly be wrong.
However, just because being a writer doesn’t automatically make me a creator or regular consumer of poetry, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate (some) of it. Here are the ways poetry fits into my life these days:
(1) Through my kids. I’ve recently started posting a new one of Kenn Nesbitt’s poems on the bulletin board in our kitchen every week. My boys really, really like reading them. The poems are easy to read and they’re extremely silly which greatly appeals to kids (and adults too).
(2) Through music. Good lyrics can be touching, inviting, interesting, storytelling and – yup; that’s right – poetic.
(3) In my prose writing. Every now and then I write a sentence, or even a paragraph and I think “wow, that is fantastic, that flows; that is (wait for it) poetic.” It feels good for a while until I also realize it probably needs to go because, as Mary Kole so aptly points out in her great “When to cut something out of your manuscript” post, if you think it’s that clever it should probably go. Sigh…
Finally, of course, there is some poetry I like just for the sake of it being poetry. While I admire their mastery, I’m not so much into the romantic poets (although I studied the heck out of them at Queen’s). I have to give a nod to Shakespeare – the things that man could do with iambic pentameter – but, apart from that the poetry I like tends to be more recent and more Canadian.
Some of my favourites are Leonard Cohen, Alden Nowlan, Gary Geddes and (ignoring the derision this will bring me) I really have quite a soft spot for Gord Downie’s Coke Machine Glow which, I fully admit, is fired by my soft spot for Gord Downie.
Oh wait, because now I’m remembering so many more. I love Yeats, especially “Adam’s Curse” and who can’t like W.H. Auden; if you’ve seen “Four Weddings and a Funeral” you’ll never forget “Funeral Blues”. And there are more.
So maybe my commerce and engineering friends would be right; maybe I like poetry more than I think…
Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, Poetry, Sunday Special
Peggy: In writing, as in life, I’ve learned the truth of the expression “Where attention goes, energy flows.” When I engage in frequent writing sessions, spend time exploring other people’s work, and take myself out to readings or other literary events, my creative imagination knows no bounds. I am reminded of when my son climbed, muddy and glowing, into the car after his first rugby practice of the season. “Wow,” he said, every word heartfelt. “Life is so much better with rugby in it.” I know how he feels.
The trick, though, is in maintaining one’s level of attention. It’s so easy for any daily practice (be it dental flossing, meditating or writing) to become a twice-weekly practice, then a weekly practice, and before you know it, you’re a overanxious non-writer with bad gums.
This year I’m in the SFU Writer’s Studio, where I am surrounded by people who are all paying close attention to their writing work. We help keep each other on track with our goals, and each person’s passion for writing adds to a communal love of the craft that keeps us all inspired. They are my rugby team and my coaches all rolled into one.
But more often than not, writing isn’t a team sport. Already I’m looking ahead to next year when I’ll be back on my own, and I’m hoping I’ll be as attentive to my writing life as I am now.
A trick I’ve learned to keep me focussed is to always be working towards my next submission. I always have some story that needs planning, outlining, drafting or revising, whether it’s for a contest deadline, a themed issue being planned by a literary journal, or a local writing anthology. It doesn’t have to be a lofty goal; it just has to provide a deadline.
So I thought I’d let you know what dates are circled in red on my calendar, in case you need some motivation for your own Writer Self. Here they are:
- April 30: I’ll be submitting a piece to the North Shore Writer’s Association’s annual contest. Winners get a hundred bucks and publication in an anthology.
- June 15: Room Magazine’s creative non-fiction contest
- June 30: Room’s deadline for their Women and Spirituality issue.
There are a few other school deadlines lurking in there as well, so that should keep me happily occupied for the rest of the spring. Tudor, what keeps you attentive to your writing goals?
Tudor: Well, my motivation to move forward with, and ultimately complete, writing projects varies greatly depending on my reason for taking them on in the first place.
Which, of course, leads to the obvious question – why do I take on projects?
There are three broad reasons:
(1) Because I’m paid to.
(2) Because I think I should.
(3) Because I’m compelled to.
The “paid to” category is pretty self-explanatory. Somebody wants writing expertise, I want money. We make a match. Great. This type of work usually comes with a built-in deadline so the client’s desires, plus my desire to be able to send out an invoice, are sufficient to keep me on track and get the job done.
The “think I should” category is probably the hardest. This includes un-paid, well-meaning things like writing for the school newsletter or website. Essentially it involves me writing something I wouldn’t choose to write on my own and not getting paid for it. That makes it sound like I resent doing this type of stuff and I don’t – not really – or I wouldn’t do it. However, it is hard to get motivated to set myself a goal for these projects so my philosophy is usually to just do it immediately. Don’t hesitate, don’t think; just get it done and send it in and Phew! that’s over.
The third category is what tells me I’m a writer. Even if I stopped being paid tomorrow. Even if I never had another byline and was guaranteed never, ever to have the great Canadian novel published, I would still write these things. The things I write because I’m compelled to are my way of processing activities, thoughts and feelings I experience in the world around me. This writing relaxes me. I constantly seek out opportunities to do this kind of writing. And, in a weird development; lately I actually enjoy doing this type of personal writing more than I enjoy sitting down and cracking a new book (those who know how I devour books will know this is serious).
Since writing (1) comes with deadlines and writing (2) forces me to set tough deadlines, writing (3) can be harder to address. It doesn’t have the immediacy of the first two. However, because I love it, I find ways to get it done. I think about it during my runs, I carry my notebook everywhere and scribble when I can – even if only for five minutes. It doesn’t (often) end up on my calendar circled in red with a big exclamation mark after it like the other two do but it does get done, in bits and pieces sprinkled through my life and, for now, that’s working pretty well for me.Filed under Contests, Markets & Events, From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, Organizing our Writing Lives, Sunday Special, Tips and Tricks | Comment (0)
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.
- Anything written by Dick Francis up to, and including, Decider (1993).
- Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald.
- Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series.
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!Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Language & Usage, Memoir, On Books, Sunday Special | Comment (0)
Tudor: Reading Nathan Bransford’s “Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer” last week, provided me with the inspiration for this week’s post.
The tone of Bransford’s commandments reminded me of something we’ve touched on but haven’t come right out and written about yet. The idea that there is lots of time.
I’m almost waiting for a thunderbolt to hit me right now because this notion of there being lots and lots of time to do the things you want to do in life is not a very popular one these days. It’s almost un-PC to say it, yet, I think it needs to be said.
In a world full of “Top 40 Under 40” and “Top 20 Under 20” and people being celebrated for being the youngest CEO / mayor / PhD candidate / prime minister ever, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you need to do everything possible and do it right now and, to be honest, you might already have waited too long to accomplish anything meaningful in life.
Sorry, I had to say it.
Because it’s just not true.
I am now going to tell you one of my favourite I-heard-this-one-day-on-CBC-but-can’t-find-any-real-life-evidence-to-back-it-up-and-prove-I-didn’t-invent-it stories.
One day, while listening to CBC, I heard a story about Carol Shields. The way I remember it is Carol Shields was speaking to a graduating class; possibly in Winnipeg (or maybe I just think that because she lived there).
The crux of it is her main message to the students was you have lots of time. There is no rush. Life is long and you should take the time you need to live it properly.
This from a woman who was 41 when her first novel was published. Who, at that point, was already married and had children. Who said “I don’t think I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been a mother.” A woman who, even though cancer took her too early, seems to have lived every bit of her life to the fullest and all without rushing.
As I said, I can’t find any evidence of that speech anywhere. Google has not been my friend on this one. But would I ever like to read it. What a reassuring message. What a relaxing thought. Life is long and you have to live all of it so why try to pack everything into your first few decades?
Over to you Peggy – do you prefer to take your time or make haste?
Peggy: I find it ironic to be writing this reply on Good Friday, the day on which we mark the death of Jesus, who at age 33 definitely would have made the ‘Top 40 under 40′ list for his day. I know a few people whose reaction, upon hitting 33, was “ARG, by now Jesus had inspired a whole new religion – what have I done?!?”
I guess it’s human nature to keep one eye on the clock. And also human nature to gauge our accomplishments against those of others. It’s a lesson I’ve had to keep reminding myself as the kids have grown; just because they aren’t gold-level soccer players at seven, or playing in an awesome garage band by ten, or personally drilling wells in Africa by 16, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doomed to lead a third-class existence.
I remember bugging my eldest to get into his school’s peer counselling group in Grade 6. Just think, I enthused; that training would lead to a similar volunteer post in high school, which would lead to awesome opportunities in youth camps and travel exchanges, which would lead to stellar references and a plethora of wonderful job opportunities. When I was crushed to find he hadn’t gone out for the Grade 6 training sessions after all, he finally interrupted my rant and said “MOM, for heaven’s sake, you make it sound like I’m going to end up living in a cardboard box!”
I learned with all my kids that they’ll find their own passions and their own talents at their own pace, and trying to rush the process is usually not helpful. And I suppose it’s that way for all of us; most of us need some time to find our true path, time in which to try out different hats and play different roles. What did Tolkien say? Ah, yes: “Not all who wander are lost.”
But no one likes the feeling of wandering aimlessly. It’s important, I think, that each day be lived meaningfully, that we work towards goals, that we imbue our lived moments with appreciation and attentiveness. Hopefully, our creative endeavors will benefit by the wisdom garnered as a result – whatever age we are.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, On Life, Sunday Special, The Writer's Path | Comment (0)