Week 3: Write for 5 right now

photo by gayle mavor

photo from Creative Commons CC0-public domain

If it’s Saturday morning, it must be time to Write for 5. Or not! This is Week 3 of doing this and I’ve so enjoyed reading the writing of those writers who have taken the time out of their hectic schedules to sit themselves down and courageously face the blank page and screen.

If you’ve participated before, you know the routine.  If not, here are the guidelines:

·         I post a photo (or two) here at 8am on Saturday morning.

·         You look at the photo(s) above this blog post.

·         You take as much time as you need up to Sunday at 9pm

·         When you’re ready to write, set the timer for five minutes.

·         When you’re done, you post your results in the comments.

·         Do I ever look at what I’ve written and change a few words, and fix it slightly? Of course. I wouldn’t want you to put up what you don’t feel comfortable sharing. But perfection is not the goal. Heck, it’s not even possible. Five minutes. That goes FAST. But that’s the challenge and for me, that’s the fun.

·         Form is open: poetry, CNF, Flash fiction. You decide.

·         After it’s over, on the following Monday, I’ll let you know whose writing touched me in that moment in some way. Usually, it’s in a way that I’m not always able to define as to why. Then, I choose a book for that writer from one of my books and mail it to them. It’s an awesome way to cull my books, and to give someone a nice surprise.

Good luck. Give it a try!

PS: I probably won’t be posting my own response until Sunday morning. No time this Saturday. Very thankful for the scheduling feature in WordPress.

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?

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.

Using Imagery as Writing Muse

Rummaging through some papers, I found this image from a magazine stapled to something I had written on July 18, 1998.

I was in a writing group then that met monthly – or tried to –  and re-reading it brought me right back into the small living room in the house where we’d meet. It was an old house, up rickety stairs, rooms all chopped up.

I was thinking how much fun it used to be to sit in that group, a bunch of magazine pages ripped out haphazardly, each of us taking turns choosing which image to pick so that we could scribble away during a timed writing exercise, letting whatever words come to us as they came. It was a form of writing meditation.  I think 5 minutes was what we settled on back then.

I was thinking how much fun it would be to let other writers look at a photo on the blog and see what they could come up with. It’s kind of a nice idea, a way to share. And then, you could post what you’d written after your own timed five minutes at home. No cheating!

If you feel inclined to try and time yourself and write to the above image, and then add what you ended up writing into the comments, it would make things a million time more interesting around here. I could then add a new image every week with whatever I’d managed to come up with in my own timed 5 minutes.

Here’s what I wrote back then although I will admit, I changed a few things after sitting down to type it out before posting it here. I changed her name. I decided this woman was Turkish and so Isabella didn’t seem like the right name.

Gülçin, a name bestowed eighty-nine years earlier, reveled in the spicy warmth of the nicotine as it streamed through the shriveled opening of her throat, lingered for just a few seconds, and was then expunged, pushing its way against the afternoon’s hot wind like an apparition.

She was safe in her chair, her favorite place. That same chair that had balanced her when the roundness of her thighs had not crept round the wooden corners of the frame but had fit snugly, like foam, atop the smooth wooden cup of the seat.

Her cane, carved by her grandfather over a few months the summer she turned eight, had been her most constant companion in the last few years. She had remembered him sitting near the red rocks, and bits of grass at the cliff edge near their home, the sparkling sea like a rug as far as the eye could see to the horizon.

She’d sit on her porch, perched above the dusty street in that town she’d lived in since she’d married more than 70 years ago now, and she’d watch the youth pass by in the way a factory foreman might watch assembly line workers. She never barked out orders or even greetings. 

When a neighbor or familiar face passed, she’d remove the cigarette and blow the smoke between the space where her two front teeth used to be and in that subtle shift, they’d know they’d been acknowledged, they’d been seen. And it was enough.

Most of the time she would not even notice the strays barking, the wrestling of small boys whose bare feet raised the dust to feather their ankles, or the bustle of women, beautiful full girls, and slap-dashed-together mothers hurrying back from the market in preparation for another day of the cooking, washing, feeding, cleaning cycle. She was there and she wasn’t. She was with all of them and she was with the images of her past that greeted her just as real as company, adding excitement and grief, love and energy to what would turn out to be just another 12 hours, like the 12 hours before that, wrapped in heat and routine.

 She’d think back to her best friend as a child and the hours they’d spent playing in the back alleyways, listening to adults they knew only by the first names their mothers used to refer to them as they gossiped. Mostly they watched. Anything to escape the one room they each shared with three generations who had perfected the familial folk dance, weaving around each other, ducking anger, ignoring bodily functions and even the tears everyone would have preferred to have kept hidden if they’d had the luxury of privacy.

Usually around midday, she would sometimes feel the phantom lips of her deceased husband as if they were grazing her forehead. A tear-dropped wet bead of sweat would seep from beneath her white headscarf and slip over the band of folded skin that decorated her chest like a handmade necklace.

She had loved the memory of his lips. Not just because they had become as familiar as her own but because they embodied everything they had shared together; framing the rite of two-as-one even though he’d been gone for decades.

Memoir: Nobody wants to hear your half truths

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Photo by Duncan Hull off Creative Commons

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair–for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.Dani Shapiro

I often think about how much writing a memoir is like therapy.

Nobody wants to hear your half truths. That’s the polite word. Now I’ll say it the way I would offline: Your therapist doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. Your readers don’t either.

But more often than not, we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves, do we? And that’s always where the work begins.

I think that’s the most interesting part about trying to write our own stories and trying to figure out what it is exactly about the story we want to tell that might hold any relevance, hold the kind of universal truths that great writing often unearths, in a show AND tell kind of way. How can we truly get to the truth, the ugly, vulnerable, messy truth that’s at the core of what can make writing so challenging and inevitably sets it apart.

It is the exploration and the analyzing that reaches into the pithiness of your most sublime or challenging moments. It’s the wrestling with what it all might mean through an introspective process that becomes explicit on a page.

You’re aiming to translate those times when you’re (ironically) rendered speechless, forced to stop what you’re doing because the ache of wistfulness mixes with glory and rises up like a crescendo of awareness into a hyper awareness.  At that moment, you realize that one fleeting moment will never come again, not quite like it did that first time and you feel overwhelmed in a happy/sad way. This is the stuff and the understanding, I think, of the kind of memoirs that we’re all wishing we could write (and read), if we have any inclination to write (or read) a memoir at all.

It’s this type of treatment of a subject that can quell the concerns about why others would have any interest in our little lives. Because you’re not writing about your whole life. You’re crafting the experiences of your life, or an experience, into a story as unique as a work of fiction by examining the realities as you experienced them. It’s a feeling that comes from a keyhole inside your heart that gets unlocked because you are able to access the emotion that was present when you were touched in a way that almost never happens or you “get” something like you’ve never got it before.

Being able to transform the ordinary into wonder is the work of poetry, through words, written as prose that germinates from the muck that is ever evolving self-awareness. And with any luck, that self awareness leads to honest revelation and your unique journey from A to B that happened as a result which you’ve miraculously (and I consider every published memoir a miracle) deposited onto a page.

At least that’s one aspect. A start. My current understanding. For me. Yours is likely different.

Esmeralda Cabral and I, are offering a workshop as part of LitFest New West called Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 pm at Douglas College, Room 4247.

Never Trash the Potential Treasure that is a Piece of In-Progress Writing

One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure.  That’s as true for a piece of creative writing as it is for all that stuff stored away in a spare room. What may have, at first, seemed like a useless, trivial bit of in-progress thinking on the page, may, into the future, be the kernel  that ignites the spirit for a new piece of writing that will eventually find its voice and sing. It’s not possible to predict how many years might pass in between. It’s not possible to predict which pieces will work their way to the surface again.
Rucklebarn

Here’s one example.  Some time in the mid to late 1990’s, I went away for a three-day weekend to Ruckle Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island.  When I arrived at the walk-in campsite later that afternoon, I noticed a sign that said there would be a slideshow and talk in the old Ruckle Barn. The talk would be given by Gwen Ruckle, a descendant of the original homesteader Henry Ruckle. It would be a fantastic  opportunity to listen to someone who grew up on this historic piece of property, the oldest farmstead in BC. I was eager to hear this woman’s firsthand account of what it was like growing up on this favourite patch of land on this favourite island of mine.

When it was time, I took the path from the walk-in campsite, the one that leads past Grandma’s Beach off Grandma’s Bay and carried on past the Arbutus and the Garry Oak trees, the rocky outcroppings, the moss on the trees and past the fence of the original Ruckle homestead. I made my way across the field past the creamery and the turkey sheds until I was standing straight in front of the old barn.

The barn’s double-wide doors were open and slices of sunlight shone through its slats to highlight the shades of browns in the dirt floor. Swallows dive-bombed. A float plane may have droned past overhead.  I could see that wooden benches had been set up inside the barn.   As I was standing there, waiting for others to show up, I noticed a man who was dressed a bit like a cowboy. I vaguely recall a plaid cowboy-type shirt.  A black cowboy hat shaded his face and he even had the slightest cowboy swagger in the busyness of setting up in preparation for the audience. There was a big white screen, the kind people used to show home movies on, a little ways into the barn and when it was time for the show to begin, I took my place and the man at the front took off his black cowboy hat.

Much to my surprise, the man was a woman. She introduced herself as Gwen Ruckle and then proceeded to give an engaging talk about growing up on the farm, about working the land, about the orchards and even showed us some of her paintings. Although I’m not positive,  I think she even referred to a favourite pet pig.  She was a character. I remember being absolutely mesmerized by her stories and by her as a person. When I came back to Vancouver,  I wrote my recollections down in great detail. Mary Gwendolyn Ruckle was born November 1, 1931 and died in May 2006.

Now, 20 years later, as I’m getting to the point in the manuscript I’ve been working on related to my mid-life detour to Salt Spring, the part where I’m attempting to write about Ruckle as a person, Ruckle as a touchstone for me, and about working through why this place has come to mean so much to me, I curse myself  for throwing out that old piece of writing that I’d originally saved to a floppy disk. Remember those?

When I bought a new computer in 2007, I thought I kept all the pieces of writing that I’d saved to that little hard disk before I transferred the files to my new computer. I never copied that piece. Not in a million years could I envision then, how a description of Gwen Ruckle, from that one evening,  would have relevance to me in the future.

When it comes to writing, being a hoarder is a good thing.  When it comes to technology, transferring content from outdated  forms of storage to current ones is also a tedious necessity.  Do as I say, not as I did.

Literary Mantra as the Key to Ruin or Fame

We’ve all heard the statement: Write what you know. Okay, I think to myself, but what if that only fits into a poem, a haiku perhaps, not a full novel?

I’ve recently had a major breakthrough. I figured out what my personal mantra should be. “Write in a way that shows your readers that you have figured out who you are.”  Don’t try and be the late Christopher Hitchens if you’re actually Danielle Steele. Of course, if you’re  channelling Danielle Steele you may not even know who Christopher Hitchens was.

I was thinking about this poet in our class who has the personality and the life history and the sensibilities of a poet. Every time she reads, I have no idea what she’s talking about. It can be quite scientific and academic and that’s who she is. She’s an intellectual with a capital “I”.  I couldn’t  even fake being her. I’d have to do research for a very long time to be her or to even do some sort of Monty Python-styled skit about her. Because, let’s face it. This is my promise to you. I will never write anything that will go over your head. It might go over your head because the sentence structure is bad but it won’t be because, intellectually, I’m writing about things that could equate to the quantum physics of the literary world.

I write things that are small. Daily. Easy to understand. You might have experienced them as well. I usually write in a way that might make you laugh. I hope so. And, I realized this insight just by listening to the poet and watching her be her poetess self  in all her glory.  The poet did me this huge favour without doing anything. Forget webinars. This was learning through the observational art of extreme comparison.

Don’t try and be who you are not. Don’t do it at a dinner party. Don’t do it on a date. Don’t try and do it on your laptop. Don’t do it in your writing. You’re good enough, crazy enough, funny enough, boring enough, snobby enough, pretentious enough, cranky enough (fill in the blank) just by being you. Be you  to the extreme and that could lead you to the ultimate reward: Ruin and/or fame. Maybe like big lottery winners,  you’ll get both at the same time. It might just take ruin to get fame. Ever think of that? So, buck up and figure out who you really are. Then, write in that way, the way that epitomizes who you are and then sit back and let the accolades stream in.

Just don’t take this as the gospel truth. It’s only a theory. My theory. You, you get your own.

What’s your literary mantra? What are you trying to do on the page? Does it have something to do with who you are or are you pretending to be that other gal/guy? The one you wish you were. [Sound gong.]