Write for 5 for those who hate writing prompts

Call it serendipity but this morning I received an e-mail from a blog I follow and it was about hating writing prompts. And what it has to say is exactly why we shouldn’t look down our noses at writing prompt exercises.

Without ruining the ending of this story, and (begrudgingly overlooking the misuse of the word loose instead of lose) this little essay explains why writing prompts can have positive outcomes.

If you’re planning on joining us for Write for 5  on Saturday from an image posted on my blog here that day, this might give you an additional reason to participate.

If you have 10 minutes, read it here off Dinty Moores’ Brevity blog.

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.

Communications in the 21st Century: You can never have too many skills

jugglingIf you work in Communications then I don’t know if you’re feeling the way I am but it seems as if the number of skills required to do the job well has exploded in the past decade as a result of social media.

In the past you might have needed to be able to think about, and execute, some marketing strategy and communicate in words through writing on the page and through oral presentations. You’d put together endless PowerPoints and work with other people, usually graphic artists, to make sure annual reports or marketing materials came together. You’d focus on branding exercises (maybe hire a consultant for that) and tag lines and work with interface designers (or whatever they call themselves now) to sort out web development stuff.

You might have interacted with the media to try and get some publicity at a time when the term “earned media” didn’t even exist to distinguish “earned media” from the interest you now generate from your social media feeds. It’s helpful to know Photoshop and Adobe InDesign to manipulate images and layout newsletters or marketing materials if you’re on a tight budget and definitely you should know some form of blogging software such as WordPress. For e-mail marketing you should know something like Mailchimp or ConstantContact and let’s not forget every app required to organize yourself and set up meetings and communicate with all those other people you need to communicate with and oh, do you know how to put together an e-book and sell it on Amazon? Don’t,  just you don’t, forget to put that bounce back message on your e-mail when you leave, thoroughly exhausted, on vacation.

It’s as if working in Communications means you better be constantly acquiring skills, which is a good thing that I’m all on board with. Everyone should be doing that as a routine part of self evolution, but honestly, there is a limit to what one person can bring to a job.

I believe that I actually do have many skills and at a high level and I still feel like I don’t have enough. If you work for a larger organization then I’m hoping you’d work with a dedicated social media strategist. But if you don’t, you’re pretty much the whole shebang. And the thing about social media (like most things) is that a little knowledge is actually a very dangerous thing because the less you know about it, the more you don’t realize how little you know about it, and therefore you’re actually clueless about just how complicated it can be to be really good at it.

Now you have to be able to write for so many different mediums. You need to review and edit and source appropriate graphics that enhance, or at least complement, your copy. You need to work with other creative people. You need to coach key people on media messaging. You better have some clue about Hootsuite and take video on your phone and oh, can you edit that on IMovie by tomorrow? You need to write strategy and set up a budget for Facebook and Twitter ads and figure out what audiences to target for sponsored ads and review Google Analytics and understand what the heck to do with the information you’re seeing on there in relation to what’s turning on your audience and whether you’re even reaching the audience you want to reach and can you create a report for that?

You need to ensure a consistent Instagram account aligning images with brand but first you need to decide what social media apps you should even be using based on your internal resources and whether you can even keep on top of those.  You need to be on top of all the most used latest technology and apps in order to keep on top of knowing exactly what you don’t know and wondering where you’ll ever find the time to learn about THAT.

Do we have a Crisis communications plan? Is there a phone tree for that? Could you whip that up by setting up a meeting and have that done in two weeks?

It would be helpful if you knew how to write to pictures so you could write script for video and coach those people who are going to be in the video who have never been in front of a video camera in their lives but they were the best you could come up with because they know what they know and needs to be communicated and Take 356. And cut!!!

Did you order the tent for that special event outside? and oh, if it rains, what then? and are you getting the harried, harried picture?

Honestly, at some point as a Communications’ person, am I going to have to be your personal chef, your hair stylist and your spiritual advisor as well?  Do I really need to be Oprah, Tony Robbins, Ekhart Tolle  Deepak Chopra, Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki wrapped into one?

I need to lie down. Is it nap time yet?

I’d like to know if other Communications people are feeling this way. I’m also wondering if the same sort of skills explosion requirement is happening in every other field.

It’s enough to make me a little depressed and hey, I should make an infographic because there’s nothing I like more (sarcasm) than the terminology that makes fairly straightforward things sound super complicated and infographic definitely fits into that category. So I signed up for a free app, and fooled around, and figured it out and here’s my first attempt.  Just in case you’re experiencing a little case of the blues racing toward a full out depressive episode, my infographic might be just what you need. Depression: Fiction vs. Fact

Happy finalist of Canadian Writers’ Union Short Prose Competition

nonfictionThis is pretty much the last place I have to plaster this news. Yeah, I know, I know. But, hey, it may be the first and last competition I ever get recognition from, so I’m running with it.

It came as a shock and a very nice surprise that I was recently shortlisted as one of 12 finalists in the Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. This year there were 253 entries of both fiction and nonfiction stories of 2500 words or less. The contest closed in March so by the time the announcement happened in mid June, I’d almost forgotten about it. Almost!

It was very exciting to hear a voice on the other end of the line relaying such a positive message about a piece of my writing that I really believe in. That tells me that it’s important to listen to myself as editor, as we all must, because inevitably, what we feel about something in a story that is or isn’t working usually ends up being accurate, especially if we’ve been doing this writing thing for quite some time.

I’d written about a childhood friendship and its impact on me with references to the Japanese internment because my friend is Japanese Canadian and her mother and family were interned in the Slocan Valley during WW II. My story’s title is “My Perfect Friend”.

The pieces went through a first judging by a lot of volunteer readers who are writers and members of The Writer’s Union. The final jury was made up of writers Gail Bowen, Shauntay Grant and Eric Siblin.

The winner, Deepam Wadds from Sebright, Ontario won for her piece “Tender Fruit”.

The thing about being shortlisted is that it really sparks the motivation to keep going, although writing is just so much a part of my life that regardless of what’s going on externally, I’d continue to write. If that wasn’t the case, I would have given up a long time ago like a sane person. Definition of insanity. Einstein. Right. You got it.  I’m guessing, if you’re a writer, you can relate to this sentiment.

I read the short comments back from some of the readers with some very positive feedback. The comment I found most useful, however, was this one   “Engaging and visual, the story evolves smoothly and keeps the reader interested in the plot. However, midway into the story, the reader begins to look for focus – purpose for the story. The ending saves the story – provides the purpose – the comparison to the narrator’s own father. One way to improve the story would be to introduce the comparison earlier – and to develop it. Otherwise it seems an afterthought – only stated at the end. Fresh voice – with a bit of work, could be a very good story.”

I believe it’s the most insightful about what needs to be fixed. How I’m going to do that will take a bit of thought because I think it could end up changing the story quite a bit in terms of length and what needs to be written into it.  I won’t know that for sure until I get down to it.  When I feel like it. And I don’t really feel like it right now. Not that mood is ever the reason to not get into a piece of writing. Get back on that horse! That’s the correct thing to say. I often believe that way of thinking isn’t wholly accurate, however. I think mood should be listened to more often than not. But everyone’s got a different process. Follow your own. Nobody else has the right answer. I think when you figure that out, that revelation is a milestone.

And recognize that even when a story gets published, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to have wished you’d done something different. We hear about writers being beyond humiliated when they look back at some of their first storytelling attempts.

Is anything every really finished when it comes to the endless perfecting of the written telling?

Congratulations to the other 11 finalists. Might as well keep writing.

I’m not the C-word police [but I could be]

female anatomyIt’s not every day you get pulled aside by a 75-year-old woman celebrating her birthday who wants to read you a poem that she wrote and wants your opinion on whether the c-word should be left in or removed from a stanza.

“I removed it because I didn’t want to offend that older lady,” said the birthday girl nodding to the woman across the room fiddling with her hearing aid. I found that amusing since the even older woman with hearing difficulties wouldn’t have heard it anyway.

It’s weird that she should pick me to ask my opinion. Or maybe not. After all, I am sometimes referred to both affectionately and derisively by one close friend as The Presbyterian Nun.  Therefore staying true to my virtuous (uptight?) nature, I’m not about to be a big fan of the c-word even though I have read many of the arguments about how its reputation as the most shocking and taboo word in the English language derives from and represents misogyny and therefore we should, as owners of said part of anatomy, take it back. We should take back the c-word in a march or something and if we took back ownership of ourselves “down there” we’d happily be flinging out the c-word in casual conversation because we could, dammit! And with pride!

Of course, on closer examination, it’s not about us at all, or our anatomy. It’s about inequality and belief systems related to women’s sexuality and I guess we’d  known things had finally, actually changed in the world when the c-word loses all potency as the absolute worst thing to say to a woman.  It’s unlikely you or I will be alive to see that day.

For the record, I don’t like the b-word either. It’s probably my age but I’m regularly annoyed by the use of the word Bitch. Then again, I can’t say I typically throw around the word dick either but saying that to a guy certainly has less impact than the slap-across-the-face feeling that the c-word can provoke. Some guys would actually take it as a compliment.

I guess for me it’s more about feeling that such aggressive and angry language should be curbed in a world that’s elevated aggressive and angry to an art form, the Kama Sutra of anger.  If each one of us refrained from using these aggressive words, we could, to use an overused phrase that makes me feel somewhat ill, even if I wholeheartedly agree with it in principle: “Be The Change We Wish to See in the World.” PUHLEEZ!

So my vote was take it out. Nix the c-word from the poem.  In hindsight, I realized that it was actually the sentence that didn’t make sense and to C or not to C, was the secondary factor.

On a lighter note, I found this great joke off the First Presbyterian Church of Oneida New York website.

THREE NUNS WERE ATTENDING A YANKEES BASEBALL GAME.

THREE MEN WERE SITTING DIRECTLY BEHIND THEM.
BECAUSE THEIR HABITS WERE PARTIALLY BLOCKING THE VIEW,
THE MEN DECIDED TO BADGER THE NUNS,
HOPING THEY’D GET ANNOYED ENOUGH TO MOVE TO ANOTHER AREA.

IN A VERY LOUD VOICE,
THE FIRST GUY SAID,
“I THINK I’M GOING TO MOVE TO UTAH .
THERE ARE ONLY 100 NUNS LIVING THERE.”

THEN THE SECOND GUY SPOKE UP AND SAID LOUDLY,
“I WANT TO MOVE TO MONTANA .
THERE ARE ONLY 5O NUNS LIVING THERE!”

THE THIRD GUY YELLED,
“I WANT TO GO TO IDAHO .
THERE ARE ONLY 25 NUNS LIVING THERE!”

THE MOTHER SUPERIOR TURNED AROUND,
LOOKED AT THE MEN
AND IN A VERY “SWEET” AND CALM VOICE SAID,

“WHY DON’T YOU GO TO HELL…
THERE AREN’T ANY NUNS THERE.”

Oh, and for more information than you’ll ever need in this lifetime related to the C-word, check out this site by Matthew Hunt.

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.

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.