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.

Smart girls love multitasking, and writing prompts

One of the women that submitted a short Write for 5 piece last weekend was someone I went to high school with. Her name is Marjorie Sayer. I remember her as being super smart, possibly the smartest person who went through New Westminster Secondary School at the time, (or maybe to date), very enthusiastic, and a lover of the sax which she played in the high school concert and jazz bands.

I haven’t been in touch with her very much since that time which is why I’m even more honoured that she would take the time to join in.

I love how she explains on her blog that math and physics are wonderful preparations for creative writing.

One of the interesting things I could glean from her website is that she’s written a book for Grades 4 and up called The Girl Mechanic of WanZhou. Here’s a link to a book review off a blog called Making it Sweet.

I found this particularly interesting because when I worked at UBC Computer Science 10 + years ago now, the Department was, and still is, focused on increasing the participation of girls and women in learning and teaching about computer science, and they have done a great job of that in on-the-ground representation of female undergrads, grad students, instructors and professors.

They even have a program there called GirlSmarts. I came up with that original name which they’ve changed to GIRLSmarts4Tech. The curriculum was originally created by Professor Anne Condon and managed by Michele Ng under the inspiration of Maria Klawe, current President of Harvey Mudd College.  (I hope I’m accurate in this representation of how GIRLSmarts originated).

I thought to myself, Marjorie would be such an excellent fit for them as some sort of guest speaker. I haven’t told her that and I haven’t reached out to Michele to perhaps investigate the possibility of the pairing in some way.

Many people will be like, meh, writing prompt, been there, done that. There are a million things competing for time. I get that.

But if you feel like it, you can join in this coming weekend March 4th at 8:00 am to March 5th at 9:00 pm to challenge yourself with Write for 5.

Happy Tuesday, the day of the week that gets kind of left out. Personally, I’ve always really liked Tuesdays, and smart girls.

Debunking Fame as the only legitimacy

When I saw the callout for proposals for workshops for LitFestNewWest it was on a whim that I began to create it the very same day. It came together as if I’d been writing proposals forever. Once it was accepted, Esmeralda Cabral and I fine-tuned it and fleshed out how we might do it together prior to the actual event, and that took more time.

The initial idea was easy because the kernel for the idea was found in J.J. Lee’s book, The Measure of a Man. In 2014 I was in a workshop led by Wayde Compton, writer, author, Associate Director of The Writer’s Studio. At some point J.J. Lee’s book came up. The book was published in 2011 to acclaim and as a finalist on many nonfiction literary award lists. I was amazed that an entire book of multiple story lines could arise from the artifact of a simple suit jacket that had belonged to his father.

I couldn’t think of a single thing that I owned from my father’s life that I could imagine building an entire book around. One day I walked absentmindedly into my bedroom, stared up at the open closet’s top shelf and immediately spotted this caramel-coloured, leather camera case. I took it down, the roughness of the weathered leather felt good in my hands. Inside was my father’s 8mm Paillard – Bolex movie camera.

My father took home movies of my twin brother and I when we were babies and toddlers. I was shocked when I saw it. I had always said that I was the only photographer in the family. I’d forgotten about him, the camera, and the home movies, regular intervals of us gathered round, eager to see ourselves on the grainy screen in the living room and the laughing. Family as foreign tribe revisited.

At the time, I’d started to write a story that made reference to my father’s emotional absence from our lives and when I saw the camera, the shocking realization between my observation about his emotional absence, and yet his consistent focusing of his viewpoint onto us from behind that camera’s lenses opened up all sorts of questions about him for me. And all because of thinking about J.J. Lee’s approach to his book.

But just a minute. Who was I to give a workshop on memoir? I haven’t published a memoir! And I’m getting the distinct feeling that there is some unspoken code that one must not give writing workshops about subjects where they have not achieved publishing success. I thought about that and eventually, in a defiant manner, rejected it because it is my pet peeve that “fame” seems to have become the criteria for the legitimizing of the sharing of, well, just about everything – knowledge, bullshit, sexist, racist, homophobic blah, blah blahing. I know you get it!

I thought back to Mona Fertig’s project that arose from her late father’s life-long work as an artist who received little, if any, recognition.  In 2008, when I’d moved to Salt Spring, I interviewed Mona and wrote a feature on her as she was embarking on her Unheralded Artists trade book project, a focus that many others said she was crazy to embark upon. Still she did it with many books now published under her MotherTongue Publishing.

And I began to think that we all need to find a way to fight the idea that we are only qualified to share our knowledge if we become “famous”. Because that is not how most of the world learned throughout history. They learned from elders, though storytelling. From trial and error. Through persistence. Via sharing in small groups, from a teacher challenging them from the front of the classroom.

And it is that kind of quiet sharing, one person to another — a grandmother teaching her grandchildren to knit, a fisherman showing them how to tie lures inside a wobbly boat on a lake with an Aurora Borealis of greens and browns highlighted on the lake’s surface by the sun’s first rays in the early morning.

And it is this form of sharing that is the way of The SFU Writer’s Studio which was started by Betsy Warland. It’s a commitment to relate as equals, mentor-students, one not more important than the other, that makes the SFU Writer’s Studio community a bonded one, person to person and then via social media for those who choose to stay connected after they move on.

So, as a bit of a stretch, I consider putting on our workshop, Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing, to be a very small political act specifically because I haven’t published a memoir. And yet, I do have something to share with others (as Esmeralda does) who may be farther back on the path than I am when it comes to writing overall.

Maybe you could assess your strengths and decide whether you have some level of knowledge and or passion, regardless of whether you’ve received notoriety from it or not, that you could share. Consider it a circumvention. That’s surely the attitude that self-publishing arose from.

And in that sharing, you might just help someone else think differently about something that they’re wrestling with personally, and maybe that’s enough. At the very least, it’s a start. It’s what J.J. Lee’s book did for me.

Writing desk as home

mydeskThis is my desk.

A lot of famous writers or published authors have taken to showing where they work. I’m positive they clean it up and manipulate it. I didn’t even bother to dust.  I wanted to give you the authentic experience. Oh the glory!

Of course, I’m neither famous nor published (at least not in book form), but as a tip of my hat to all writers who spend hour upon hour alone with their thoughts, music or not playing on a DVD, and engrossed in a story they want to tell, I pay tribute to you, my friends. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re published or not. I have a small sense of what’s in your hearts and how much of yourselves go into what you’re creating out of nothing but your memories and your imaginations. You are the experience. The experience is you.

I have a relationship with this space that’s as every bit as real to me as those I have with people in the flesh. Even though in the past four years, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent way too much time here in this five foot rectangle. I’m not denying that being out in the world, interacting with people, seeing places near and far is a good way to live and explore. It’s the best! But there is a world so rich and so deep inside that Dr. Seuss got it right even when he didn’t mean for the expression to encompass what I’m talking about: Oh the places you’ll go! The people you’ll meet! Even inside your own head. ha ha.

Like most people, the things I’ve chosen to have around me hold meaning.

Clay mask

I have this weird mask that I bought in a small art gallery called Marigold Arts on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was made by Allan R. Bass. I spent more money on it than I’ve ever spent on a piece of art. The pamphlet that came with the piece says he “developed a style of firing that combines Raku and Pit-firing techniques to achieve an Ancient yet contemporary expression.” He lives in a Kiva-styled pit house in rural New Mexico. In other words, he’s my kind of guy! But I bought the mask because it was just so different than anything I’d seen.claymaskArbutus Tree

I took this photo of an Arbutus tree on Salt Spring, of course, on a visit in 2007 with my friend Lisa Wolfe. She was recovering from an operation and still chose to come camping with me. I was being interviewed for a job at the Driftwood which I didn’t get. Gotta love rugged women! I just loved the patterns and the green bark. This tree is in a special place in Ruckle Park that I go to where few people ever are, and it takes me back to so many times of happiness and peace. The first time I ever saw it was with Will Gerlach whom I am eternally grateful to for introducing me to Salt Spring.

arbutustree

Buddhist Temple

In 1987 or 1988, I went to San Francisco with a friend named Pam Melnyk. She was a quintessential hippy, a few years older than me. Pam had been to San Francisco many times and was the perfect person to travel with, especially for me a newbie to the city. We stayed at a hotel in Union Square. She took me through Haight Ashbury and because she was such a music buff, I got the whole history. At the end of a most memorable few days we got bumped from the plane and got paid to stay. We were so HAPPY you would have thought we’d won Lotto max. One more day! This Buddhist temple was at the end of a fantastic walking tour of China town and it was high up in a building that overlooked the financial district. I still recall the experience of lighting those incense sticks.sanfranbuddisttempleElephant

I have a little gold elephant in front of me bought by my dear friend Colleen Eaton on her trip to India. She has a fantastical story about getting on the back of a motorcycle to go back to this shop to have these little prints framed. I love elephants and elephants with trunks up are lucky. Did you know that? Never buy an elephant print if the trunk isn’t up!

elephant

Ruckle House

Below elephant is Ruckle house. This photo taken by a very dear friend Tom James while I lived on Salt Spring. I just love the reflection through the window and the photo of original Henry Ruckle with his wife and baby. I have peered into this window so many times, a ritual whenever I visit Ruckle farm, and it never changes. It hasn’t changed in 30 years. There aren’t many places or things you can say that about and that really appeals to me.

Ruckleportrait

BC Women Artists

A poster I purchased at the Art Gallery of Victoria on a week-long trip to Victoria in 1986. I used to look at this poster and wonder about it, not really understanding the second to last shape. Now that I am that shape, I get it. Damn! I have always loved this poster. There is something profound in those five shapes representing the five phases of women which is its title. By the late Victoria artist Margaret Peterson.

MargaretPeterson

Paper weight

A paperweight with raspberry’s inside. Takes me back to a simpler time, a time in the country. I imagine this lying on a half-finished quilt in a small house with a wood stove and I just love it. A Value Village find.

paperweightIdog

Hey, it can get lonely here. Sometimes as a distraction I press the nose of my little yellow Idog and he shakes his head and barks. Often he’ll be silent and then out of the blue he’ll let out some robotic yelp and scare the hell out of me. Bad dog! Unpredictable! He wants attention but he’s so much less fuss than a real dog, if not quite as unconditionally loving. idogPhotos

A picture of Colleen and I on a trip to Salt Spring way back in 2001 to visit her sister who owns a house there in Vesuvius Bay. A particularly nice weekend.

colleenandme

A saying

Whenever there is a problem repeat over and over. “All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.” A gift from Colleen, probably at a time when I wasn’t feeling very good.

newagesaying

Another card, hidden behind the one above. A card from Catherine Bennington, a woman I shared a workspace with at UBC in the basement of the David Lam building when I worked at UBC Multimedia Studies between 1995 and 1999 and she worked for Teaching and Academic Growth. She still works there. We’re Facebook friends and I know she would probably be amazed that I still have this card. But it was perfection and she captured what really matters to me in this simple handmade card. Thank you Catherine.catherinecardThere’s also a photo of the house I grew up in on Hamilton Street at Canada Way across from Moody Park in New Westminster that was ripped down in 1980 to make way for condos after my parents sold and moved to Langley. mavorhouse

A photo taken by me inside the old barn at Burgoyne Bay.  I love the colours of the wood and the beautiful vines across the window. I used to go there on my own with my camera and the enjoyment I got from that old run down place is impossible to describe or perhaps even understand. The sound of the starlings. The aroma of the grass in summer. Those moments are embedded inside of me and this photo helps to remind me of how special my time on Salt Spring was; how much contentment. It almost makes me cry now thinking of it.DSC_0746

I could go on but this is already way too long. Suffice it to say that our things are special to us. And this tiny space, my desk, so easily dismantled, is also a reminder of how little is truly required to feel at home when the richness of life inside of us is equal to that all around in the world.

Maybe you’d like to tell me about your writing space. Or show me.