books

Making time for the benefits of doing nothing

This will sound strange to anyone who is currently raising children but when I reflect back on my childhood, in spite of being surrounded by adults, very few of those people consistently intersected in my daily reality in a way that felt as instructive or as memorable in the same positive way as the kids I interacted with back then.

Now that might be directly related to my own personal experience or it might actually be related to all children’s degree of freedom back in the 1960s.

Because of my birth order, later than the rest of my siblings, by more than a decade, what I recall most about my childhood has to do with my own time: how I spent that time, the time I spent with other kids and especially the time I spent with my best friend then. We were like a world unto ourselves, the most important humans in each others lives. That realization surprises me as I write it down and I question myself. Is my memory accurate? I think a little harder about important people: my parents, my twin brother, my older sisters, and yes, I think my memory is painting the hierarchy of their priority accurately.  

I remember having a lot of time to myself, especially in the summer, to do whatever I wanted. We made our own decisions when to come and go, when to play tennis across the street or go to the playground at the other end of the park, or to peer into our empty classroom windows across the park. We would go to Woodward’s a few blocks away, to the library a few blocks over, to the vacant lot where big kids would tease us about the mythical spotting of Big Foot. Our circumference of exploring in a city the size of New Westminster was relatively small but still allowed for ample freedom.

Other than eating meals with my family, the occasional special outing, and camping in Osoyoos for a few weeks in August, I was a free agent. I could and was expected to amuse myself. To read. To play the piano away from the rest of the family in our basement “rumpus room.” It felt in some way like there was an understanding that adults were not to be bothered because they were too busy with their own lives and had no time to waste, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child.

As a result, I seemed, like all kids then, to spend a lot of time in my own company or the company of other kids.  We’d explore their basements. We’d climb backyard willow trees. We’d play tag with all the neighborhood kids spreading out like the enemy across yards. We often played board games or sat and did nothing on the couch, to daydream, to negotiate what to do next, to think of ways to amuse ourselves in those endless stretches of summer days.

When we took off from the house in the morning there was no consideration of adult interventions due to cellphones or any of the compelling feelings of urgency we now have around checking e-mail. Technology’s advancement had been paused in our lives and was stuck then at the good old rotary dial phone or the Walkie Talkies we got for Christmas that only really worked between very short distances.

I’ve been reading this book, Solitude, In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris. The author refers to UBC researcher, Kalina Christoff, Ph.D., who studies spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

“Given enough solitude and enough time, the mind shifts into default mode and begins to pan through connections that at first seem wholly random,” she says, adding that the “randomness is crucial.” “The power lies in the fact that in this state the brain censors nothing. And it then makes connections that it would never otherwise make. Mind wandering is managing much more than personal memories and a sense of self. The wandering mind is also solving problems in the real world.”

Think of how little time, if any, most of now spend just sitting and staring out the window or being without our cell phones in hand or very nearby. We have no time in our day for mind wandering as a health conscious, creativity-boosting decision.

And certainly, it seems that most children have almost no down time. Every minute is filled with video games, scheduled activities, organized playdates, parents checking in on their whereabouts or directly by their sides.

When I compare my childhood experience to that new reality, it brings me such feelings of absolute claustrophobia on behalf of today’s children. Luckily, they don’t know what they’re missing.

On my recent trip to Quebec, I sat on the plane, a seat apart from a little girl from Salt Spring Island who was traveling on her own. Her relatives would be waiting for her in Toronto.

She was such a self-assured child. Calm. Confident. Able to meet a stranger and engage. Able to use her time and remain okay. In chatting with her, I learned she is a young student at a special school on Salt Spring called Wolfkids an outdoor education school. At her young age, she said she’d even participated in an overnight in the woods, as part of the school’s experiential learning.

I wondered if that is what made the difference in her maturity levels and independence or if it was just related to her own family? I was sure she had spent time daydreaming for extended periods of time even though she was mostly glued to her IPad during the flight.

Christoff speaks to daydreaming as an inherently creative process because the daydreamer is then open to bizarre new thoughts and options. The book refers to some of the greatest inventors: Einstein, Isaac Newton and how retreat and solitude can and have led to intellectual advancement.

It made me wonder how such lack of downtime might be impacting the creative thinking of today’s children. Or has the advancement of technologies merely shaped it in more sophisticated ways? More importantly, how has the lack of solitude, away from the influence of adults, impacted their ability to shape a truly unique self, to create boundaries that prevent some pathological merging of parent and child to such a degree that the child might take even longer to define a unique sense of self.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to just sit and observe, to notice the scents in the air, to pay attention to your random thoughts, cumulus cloud ideas, that inevitably drift by, the occasional one stopping you in your mental tracks with that feeling of an epiphany found?

And then I wondered, would it be philosophically wrong to add such unproductive time use to a weekly To-Do list?

Where books and shoulds may never meet

I’m sure there are extremely logical and disciplined individuals who happen also to be big readers, who tackle the long list of books they want to read and cross off books once they’re done like they’re crossing off their weekly shopping list.

For some people, regardless of what’s in their bookcase at home, they are as straightforward with their reading choices as they are with the weekly menus they surely must plan.

And now, I have a horrible confession to make. In the past year, I seem to have turned into a non-reader. Don’t get me wrong. I want to read. I love reading when I’m in the middle of the kind of book that takes me on a mini vacation inside my mind and when I get to the last page, I just don’t want to get back on the reality plane.

I still have the enthusiasm for hearing about books, to listen to Shelagh Rogers and others discuss books. Lately, I just don’t seem to ever get around to reading books the way I used to. And I’m trying to figure out what has led to this worrying state.

Is it too much scrolling on Twitter and Instagram? Is it aging and being tired after a day of brain work in front of a screen which is making me vegetative and making it all too easy to turn absentmindedly to another screen when I get home, where I begin pushing the remote as if I’m pushing the button for more morphine on my deathbed?

I’ve decided recently that everything I need in terms of reading materials is right in my own living room in my old bookcase so I’ve made a pact with myself not to buy any more books and not to take any books out of the library until I read what I have. I have at least 20 books in my bookcase that I’ve purchased at some time in the past or picked up from those little community book houses or have been given as gifts that I’ve yet to read.

I’ve always found it interesting that you can buy books and when it’s the right time for you to read a particular book, you will intuitively find your way to it. It will call to you as if you are the clairvoyant and it is one of your dead relatives saying, “May I come to you?” And you will say, “Yes, of course!” and you will sit down and read, leaving this reality for a more interesting or completely foreign one.  At least that’s how it used to work for me.

Part of my problem, I think, is falling into the trap of believing that I should be reading a certain type of book. I feel that fiction is the cut above so I tell myself that I really should like to read fiction but too often, too many fiction books bore me and I can’t get through them without being distracted in the first 10 pages.

I believe the last book of fiction I read was Brother by David Chariandy and I did enjoy that book and I finished it. Yay! I also finished Chelene Knight’s memoir: Dear Current Occupant. When it came to David Chariandy, what drew me in is that I could picture him in real life having seen him up close at an SFU reading that Dionne Brand was at and so I was curious about the real person, because he has such an interesting look to him, and simultaneously while I might be daydreaming questions about him and his life, I could, let the story he created on the page flow over me.

And isn’t that what we all really love about reading? The seemingly infinite layers, the dimensions and the conversations that are going on inside our own heads while our eyes decipher the words on the page delivering them like take-out for the brain?

I read Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet mainly because I was fascinated by the real hotel in Seattle called the Panama Hotel and enjoyed relaxing there during happy hours at the end of my days last September on a short getaway.

I have been reading Embers by the late Richard Wagamese in the morning as a meditation. During my favourite time of day, the quiet of a new morning at 6 am seems like the perfect time of day to read that book because you can imagine him writing it in those same type of quiet hours that bookend a day.

Books, in this way, are like different types of friends. A friend for the movies. A friend for entertainment. A friend to go to concerts with. A friend for advice and on and on; a reason, a season, a lifetime.

I subscribe to literary journals, The New Quarterly and the Malahat Review and I do read them but not completely. Like a finicky eater, I pick and choose, testing them out, either going the distance devouring the uniqueness of the stories and poems or turning away, unsatisfied and often confused about what’s being said, seeking something if only I could put my finger on what that something was.

So, it would seem I do have a list after all, if I could just sit down and get at it, pencil sharpened, crossing off the list except I don’t believe you should ever approach reading as a should. It’s a passion and like all passions, love and shoulds are inappropriate bedtime companions.

Here’s a list of the books in my bookshelf that I’ve purchased with enthusiasm at the time and have yet to get around to reading. Avid readers among you will review these and think to yourselves, been there, read that. In no particular order:

  • Milkman – Anna Burns
    Mammaskatch – Darrell McLeod
    Birdie – Tracey Lindberg
    For Today I am a Boy – Kim Fu
    The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore –Kim Fu
    Heart Songs – E. Annie Proulx
    The Parcel – Anosh Irani
    The Break – Katerina Vermette
    Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
    The House of All Sorts – Emily Carr
    The Vision – Tom Brown Jr.
    The Conjoined – Jen Sook fung lee
    Rudy Wiebe –Come Back
    Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being
    Small Ceremonies – Carol Shields (read it in university, want to read it again)
    Alistair McLeod – No Great Mischief
    Thomas King – Green Grass, Running Water
    Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
    My Family and other Animals – Gerald Durrell
    A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
    The Space Between Us –Thrity Umrigar
    High Clear Bell of Morning – Ann Eriksson
    Travels with Charley in Search of America – John Steinbeck
    Malibar Farm – Louis Bromfield
    Island – J. Edward Chamberlin
    Dogs at the Perimeter – Madeleine Thien
    Outline – Rachel Cusk
  • Add to these books above, books that I’ve heard about recently that I want to read: The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari, My father, fortune tellers and me, by Eufemia Fantetti, Chop Suey Nation, Vancouver Noir, Fishing with John by Edith Iglauer (who just died at 101 years of age on the Sunshine Coast) and the list goes on and on.

I wonder what’s foremost on your reading list today?

A happy introduction to Victoria’s literary community

Victoria Literary Festival at The Metro- (L-r)Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Esi Edugyan.

Last night I went to an event as part of Victoria Literary festival. I had never heard Gregory Scofield read and I have yet to read any of his books. Last night he gave a reading of his long poem, Muskrat Woman, about MMIW and it was really compelling. It’s such a great reminder that when writers can also read really well, the audience is silent and they are right there, present, in the belly of the delivery and changed in some slight way afterwards.

I was introduced to Zoe Whittall through her readings. She’s another writer who, I’m sorry to admit, I’ve never read or even heard of. I’m impressed that she can write for some of CBC’s really successful shows such as Baroness von SketchSchitt’s Creek and still have the ability to go back to her own personal writing. And of course, I’d seen/heard Patrick Lane read. The  last time was a long time ago when his book, There is a Season, came out. It was at the Sechelt Writer’s Festival. What year was that? 

I’d only seen Lorna Crozier read at the introductory Growing Room Festival last spring or whenever that was. But to see them together, and the banter between them, was pretty entertaining. I think I know who wears the pants in that family and it isn’t Patrick Lane. But I’m sure, in reality, it’s very give and take. They just seem like the kind of people you’d love to be able to linger around a dinner table with. The evening was quite wonderful.

As a newcomer to Victoria, I got a real sense of the strength of the writing community here just from attending that one event. And it was clear, even with Esi Edugyan facilitating the conversation, that this pair have had a hand in the careers of so many writers who have gone through the UVic Creative Writing program. It was like witnessing a family reunion or something. 

It also made me think that anyone ranting on about the history of CanLit and its white roots, should just get over themselves because these are the people who historically made things happen. Like anything, evolution is a part of that, and the transformation is happening right now as it should be. It’s because of that foundation that a Canadian literature even exists even if it isn’t yet as representative of all realties in the country as it needs to be.

As I sat waiting for the event to begin, I was eavesdropping on the conversation behind me, well, not really eavesdropping so much as not being able to avoid overhearing it. It was that somewhat excruciating navel-gazing about a personal writing process that as writers we’re all so familiar with, especially if you’ve been involved in any kind of workshopping. I feel so done with that.  I just feel the need to find the time to focus on my own writing and it’s pretty clear to me that I just need to show up for that and there’s no need to discuss anything really. I know that might sound harsh but it feels like that phase is over. Let’s not get all precious about putting some words on a page or the process. As Patrick Lane so perfectly described it. “I’ll sometimes write a sentence that I really love  and get really excited about that, until I realize, Oh fuck, I need to write an entire paragraph.” And then keep doing that over and over. Again and again.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to have just one person who I could rely on to be a reader of my stuff to give me feedback, someone whose opinion I trusted and who actually would give me feedback when they said they were going to. Someone who understood the process, especially when it comes to first drafts,  but that’s so hard to find unless you pay someone, or they’re in your life as a partner and into literary things or you just luck out. Not having that is a real lacking for me in so many ways, much more important ways, of course, than just writing feedback.

I also met a young woman who was working for a new self-assisted publishing company (I found that terminology interesting) called TellWell Talent. She is the digital media marketing person for them and we talked about how a lot of authors these days are choosing to self publish because of the control it gives them, the ability to get things done more quickly than traditional publishing and to market the book as effectively, if not more so.

In my books, that all counts as a very satisfying evening. 

A tried and true solution for retreating from the world: fiction

“Buddies” by gayle mavor

I’m sure I’m not the only person feeling overwhelmed by the ugly events in the world this week, this month, this year. It occurred to me that not since 9/11 have I felt so overwhelmed by circumstances out of my control. Today feels especially bad. I was wondering how to rid myself of these feelings of anxiety and angst and worry.

You could meditate, I told myself. I closed my eyes. Breathed in. Breathed out. Breathed in. Breathed out.  But I couldn’t stay with it. Not for more than a few times. I couldn’t stay with the breath. Not today, a day that most certainly is the kind of day that would benefit from such a practice, even though, my day, my safety, at this moment, unlike others, has not been threatened or decimated.

I opened my eyes and looked around.

I noticed a book on my coffee table. I’d checked it out of the library earlier this week. Flash Fiction International. Very Short Stories from Around the World.  I began flipping through it at random. I inhaled the one to three page stories and then I came across a story that seemed so perfect in its irony and in its sad truth that even though I shouldn’t feel better, I did. The act of reading, going somewhere else, words delivering an unexpected journey, beckoning through sentences, an escape from social media, was comforting. It reminded me that retreating into books, enduring monuments to the best of civilization, can help.

The book, Flash Fiction International, was published in 2015 and edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill., director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

The story I’m referring to above is called My Brother at the Canadian Border by Sholeh Wolpe (for Omid). On the story, the author, a woman, is identified as Iran/United States. I hope you’ll click on her website  and read this short piece of flash fiction.

I’m sleeping with Susan Musgrave, and writing advice

photo by gayle mavor of a book by Susan Musgrave

Amal Alamuddin gets to sleep with George Clooney.  Ellen DeGeneres gets to sleep with Portia de Rossi.  I get to sleep with Susan Musgrave.  Let me explain.

I went to make my bed yesterday which entails merely throwing the duvet cover in place and I found this book. It was upside down.  My first reaction when I saw the book there was, Jesus! I’d actually slept on it. I’m  sleeping with Susan Musgrave. That made me laugh. And then the very next thought I had was, oh thank God, I can manufacture something out of nothing for tomorrow’s blog post. No offense to Susan Musgrave. I don’t know who she sleeps with, if anyone  but clearly it’s not about her.

My third thought was about how much writers, or maybe just writers who have yet to be published in book form, can’t seem to get enough of hearing about the writing process. Even though most writers eventually realize that there isn’t really any other writer or anyone else who can tell them how to write what they’re trying to write.

Only you can do it. Writing is a bit like dieting. There’s no magic bullet. You want to write. Sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. But first it helps to have something to say. And that’s the hardest part.

I can’t even explain what it is about reading about another writer’s process that is so appealing. It’s like the self-help genre for writers.  And I know I’m not alone in this.  If I was, nobody would ever show up to writing workshops, festivals or readings and there wouldn’t be an entire industry built around it.  

I think it’s akin to reading horoscopes. It’s not like you actually believe yours but there might be something in there one day that will make all the difference to your day, if not your life.

Fully aware that their process isn’t mine, and that it won’t ever be mine, that doesn’t ever stop me from devouring what published authors and the newest flavour of book that just received acclaim have to say.

I can’t even count how many talks, readings, festivals, workshops, and even a writing program or two I’ve been to. Might it be possible that I just nodded off when one of them provided the Holy Grail of writing advice and if only I hadn’t nodded off, I would have realized that they’d just slipped in the one bit of writing advice that was going to crack everything open and suddenly I’d have some story come to me like I was channelling J.K. Rowling?

No! Not going to happen. Let me rephrase that. It could happen but not because of listening to anyone else.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t educate yourself about writing, and all the elements that go into how to knock the socks off storytelling. That’s different. It’s the difference between research and research that looks as if you’re trying to rewrite, oh, I don’t know, THE BIBLE! 

Anyway, I just thought I’d admit that I’m as guilty as you are in devouring every morsel of writing advice and I’m sleeping with Susan Musgrave’s book written in 1994, Musgrave Landing, Musings on the Writing life, and with a photo to prove it.

Guilty as charged!

PS: I enjoyed the book. She’s funny!   Oh. I almost forgot. You can join in and Write for 5 with me and one or two others this weekend. What’s it going to take for me to get you in the mood?

Taking time, making space to Write for 5

Harbour House Echinacea Salt Spring Island

photo by gayle mavor

When I first heard that maybe you might want to cultivate some sort of practice for getting ready to write, I balked at that idea. Perhaps because I come from journalism training, one of the best parts of that experience for me was writing to deadline and the best part about that is that it was almost always just a day or two away from deadline so there was no time to get precious about this writing thang. Sit your ass down. Get that story done!

Creative writing however is a different process. I think it may have been Besty Warland, way back in January 2012 who taught a one-day class when our cohort was first beginning in The Writer’s Studio who described the benefits of preparing to write. To be honest, I can’t actually recall the details of what she said, and it’s not important. It’s more that I remembered something about it and when she said it the concept made a lot of sense.

She wasn’t advocating that you put on your lucky red underwear, get your rabbit’s foot in your pocket, walk around the apartment Zen monk style three times clockwise and one time counter clockwise. That’s not what she was talking about. It was mainly about creating the space, physically and psychologically, where you would be receptive to the idea that now it was time to write and you could mindfully focus on that time, and that things weren’t distracting your focus during that time.

It was a time that you took for yourself for this specific purpose on a consistent basis so that you were setting a marker not just for yourself but for others as well.  You must act like a writer because if you were writing, consistently, you were one. Publishing is a different animal.  I expect this making space and taking time is even more important if your life abounds with children and a partner.

I don’t have too many rituals. I don’t need them. I like flowers, a small vase of flowers to gaze at absentmindedly really appeals to me. Some order in my immediate vicinity is preferable.  I have more trouble getting down to focusing on anything if my apartment reaches a level of messiness that is disturbing to me. Let me just say that the bar for that is mighty low.  If I can’t make coffee in my Bodem because yesterday’s grains and coffee are still in there and yesterday’s dishes are all over my two foot space of counter (which they often are) then those realities start nudging their way to the front of my mind and bug me. Although, I’m proud to say, I’ve gotten better at letting that go. Yay.

I’m telling you this because it’s already Thursday when it was just Monday, like 24 hours ago, wasn’t it? That means there are only two more days until the next Write for 5.

Yesterday I popped the book I chose for Elaine Guillemin, from last week’s Write for 5 into the mail. I’d rather not say which one because if she looks at this blog, I want it to be a surprise, but maybe she’ll let us know when she gets it.

I’m going to keep going with Write for 5 for a while, so if you are at all inclined to participate, it’s a very short chunk out of your weekend some time between Saturday at 8 am for morning types and 9pm on Sunday.

I feel, based on doing it for just two weeks, that even that tiny bit of writing generated from the exercise sparks interest in getting back to my more substantial writing, in a way I didn’t believe it would but has.

Get your writing space tuned up for the weekend and join in.

To fuel creativity, write from a place of curiosity

photo by gayle mavor, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

I went to this wonderful animated feature last night called Window Horses by Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming. The creativity of imagination through storytelling and drawing, poetry and music flowed across the screen in unique and refreshing ways. Perhaps, because of the degree of collaboration that went into the film, the end result was that much richer. It sounded as if the film had been percolating for a long time.

Ann Marie Fleming had drawn the character, Stick Girl, about 20 years ago and at the preview at VanCity Theatre on Mar. 2, her connections from Emily Carr (Veda Hille), a meeting from the past, a poem, all lay in wait, mingling and transitioning in a quiet process of the subconscious to come together for a wonderful project.  

And doesn’t that just describe creativity in general?

We see something. It reminds us of something else. We meet someone whose work is leading us to follow a different path in our own or to raise an awareness about a way of being that isn’t working. We bring two things together, dismiss one of them, a third comes into consciousness. Creativity is taking a journey in  real time and then leaving us with gifts of conversation, mind pictures that stay with us being dredged up to fill in a scene we never imagined would stay with us. The way the light falls on the wall in a moment that has never left us or a memory of a person from the look on their face when they said goodbye. The sounds of a kitchen while lying in bed one floor above. What was going on with us emotionally at that time and how that emotion, like a thin veil, a transparency, was a contributor to interpretation. It’s endless.

Maybe that’s why I like writing to an image. It’s the smallest way we have to examine what is not possible to know about the depth and breadth of what’s really there in the muck of our minds and our hearts in any given moment. 

Writing to an image for a short time isn’t really about writing at all, actually. That’s the least important thing about it for me. It’s about introspection and the surprise of what’s there.

Having said that, I am going to post a photo tomorrow at 8 am (PST) and I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and give it a shot. Write for 5 Don’t focus on the writing.  It’s about the amazing things that will come to you, when you stare at an image.

What do you focus on first? What next thought does that bring you to? Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, stay calm. It will. You will begin to make connections from whatever image you look at. Your mind can’t help itself.  What’s the most pleasing thing to you about the image? What questions immediately come to mind?  Do you think of people? Who might inhabit the space? What about this person in the image, if there is a person? Do they remind you of anyone?  How would you feel in that space? Would you like being there? Would you be there alone or who else would be with you? 

A demand for curiosity.

I really want you to see what comes up for you if you’re brave enough to give it a try on Saturday. Let’s have some fun.  And, this time, I’ll give a prize like last week except this time I’ll just choose someone who participates because something about their response touches me. I’ll choose it for you from books I already own and I’ll mail it to you with a note.

Have a happy Friday.