Handwriting – Guest Post by Lucille


Many years ago I worked in a Forensic Psychiatric Unit in a hospital. Our primary function was to assess the mental stability of people charged with criminal offenses. They were sent to us at some point during their voyage through the legal system by an officer of the court, a judge or a lawyer, to determine their fitness to stand trial or their dangerousness or their sanity. We saw every possible combination of mad and bad. For example some of them who had been charged with very violent crimes were sane as rain. Others, charged with public mischief, were utter lunatics and of course the place where these two groups intersected was where you really had to watch your back (side) especially if you were alone in a room with them.

-cuckoos-nes groupt
Now there were lots of us doing this work but we were not all members of the same club. There were nurses, social workers, psychologists, psychiatric assistants, correctional officers, and psychiatrists. The latter group teetered dangerously at the top of this menacing totem pole in terms of their salaries and their power in the joint . This included their power over the clientele.
When we were not seeing patients or in meetings, we wrote and wrote and wrote. Every time any one of us saw somebody, we had to file a report somewhere. These were usually handwritten and sometimes they got typed and all went into the patient’s file. The final report, a supposed amalgamation of all the prior reports was the one that accompanied the accused back into the court system and it was almost always written by a psychiatrist who was often called into court to testify.

Perhaps the most dangerous men and women we assessed suffered from major mental illnesses such as paranoid schizophrenia and acted out their delusions particularly when they were not on medication. Most were- but not everyone and not always. If you were a nurse or psychiatric assistant or correctional officer you would be pulling eight hour shifts on the unit and there was a good chance you would be present during someone’s emotional escalation or altercation with another. There was a pretty good chance that they might take a swing at you or something more original. I remember one extremely paranoid young woman, charged with murder, who became very agitated and in the process of being physically restrained by six staff members bit a rather unpopular male head nurse in the left buttock. He did have a rather firm smallish rear end somewhat resembling two apples which was shown to great advantage by tight pants.

Those not on the front line: social workers psychiatrists, psychologists, had the luxury of brief intermittent contact. Even the most agitated character, could keep it together for half an hour . That being said it didn’t stop them from taking the occasional swing at one of us even though it was not in their best interests. In my mind clinical skill was inversely proportional to the number of times you were successfully assaulted. If you were good at your job you could usually tell when your guy or gal was getting hot under the collar either because they were tired of stupid questions or ink blots or because the ghost of jack the ripper has begun to nudge them in the ribs- time to cut the interview short- “We’ll have to continue this next Thursday!”

cuckoos-nest nurse
The other skill was not looking too weird. Paranoids are very fond of seeing evil portents. Year after year there was a psychiatrist that I will call Hamish who topped the list for most pummeled. He was not a bad fellow and although not the most sensitive he was knowledgeable of his field. He was also extremely eager to have murderers on his case load. Unfortunately his mode of dress and demeanor did not underscore his authority or power . He was careless with his glasses which were often broken so he taped them together and sometimes wore a folded up kleenex between his glasses and his ear. I never knew why. His pants rarely reached his ankles and unwittingly he wore the same prison issue running shoes with his polyester dress pants as those whose fates were in his hands. Perhaps his most unfortunate choice of adornment was ink. He wrote on his hands. He wrote phone numbers, names, addresses , grocery lists or other reminders. Once he wrote something on his body I’m sure he became oblivious to it till he needed the information.

Most people tend to be vigilant when they are being evaluated by someone who has power over them . If you happen to be incarcerated and suffer from a paranoid thought disorder this vigilance intensifies – greatly. My guess is that Hamish’s hands became a set of instructions possibly a call to arms. Perhaps the words Schwartz, Milk and Dry Cleaning became a code to some troubled mind that Hamish was a covert assassin and must be stopped before he could kill again. Perhaps the writing on his hands was unrelated to the violence visited upon him. Maybe patients were simply annoyed at the Kleenex over his ear. I’ll never know for sure.
But ever since I worked there, I never write on skin.


The Accidental Organizer or: The Longhand Blues

Sorry about the interregnum . I’ve been chicken-sitting the last few days and not posting in a dutiful manner.

chicken sit 2

I’ve also been sitting on 4 posts for the past week because I haven’t been able to find the right way to collate, or organize all the pieces. And when I have most of the pieces, I find myself in a place with no computer or, if with laptop, no internet connection. I’m not into the phone culture (yet), so I’m not going to do a blog post the way young Japanese kids are now writing and publishing and reading novels.

 cell phone novel

On the days that I have my laptop with me, about the only thing I’d need internet access for is to find an image or link, or for a bit of research. The content is pretty much done in longhand, from a day-timer, a Moleskine journal, a big spiral notebook, and the odd scrap of memo paper. I haven’t resorted to my hands or running shoes.

Usually, I can gather the longhand stuff together on a table or footstool, arm of a chair, or today, on a back deck, watching chickens. Then, I can start typing it into the app of my choice on my laptop.

These days I’m using David Michael’s great all-round note-taker and organizer The Journal  and MS Live Writer. Sometimes I realize the import of Philip Kerr‘s 2nd tip in his “20 practical tips on Creative Writing”: Typing well is not important but good handwriting is important.”

While watching the chickens, I am reading Siri Hustvedt’s novel “What I Loved“. There is a nice line:
My vanity simply wasn’t strong enough to endure deprivation.
The main character is talking about trying to undo changes to his middle-aged body. (Although I think this can happen at any age, if your real physical body gets out of whack with the ideal you have of yourself.)
I’m also reading some non-fiction: a biography of Harold Innis 

Innis biog

and the somewhat rare “Self-Portrait” by Ross MacDonald.

Another thing I brought out to the country is a DVD with the first two episodes of the new re-make of Sherlock Holmes called “Sherlock”.

It’s from BBC Wales and will make fans of the Jeremy Brett version happy. At the very least, as a tribute. Imagine Jeremy with a smartphone and Dr. Watson just back from a tour in Afghanistan. Sharp, dark, comforting.

I’ll probably watch Sherlock when I’m sure the chickens have all gone home to their coop for the night. One of them is devious and she roosts in a top corner in the back. It took two trips out there, the last with a flashlight to find her. They all have to be locked in. The coyotes and possums have to be locked out. Then, day is done.

There is, I must say,  a chicken connection to my next planned post because the chickens blink in and out of existence. I’ll try to explain. When I got out here in the country, the chicken coop was open but I couldn’t see chickens anywhere. Now, these are the most sociable chickens in the world and normally they would run up to me from wherever they were. This day, an hour went by and no chickens. Chipmunks, hummingbirds, a blue jay, rabbits, vultures, yes. But where were the girls? I was worried about them. I sat on the back deck and read. Finally, looking up from the page, there they were! All five of them, in a cluster. 

chicken group2

They just seemed to “blink” in, like in those old video games where the bad guys would suddenly “blink” into the screen and get you.
I was relieved and went back to reading. A couple of minutes later, I looked up again and they were gone. And when the chickens blink out, a rabbit happens to blink in.

rabbit 1

My next post which is going under the working title “Approaching Zero” talks about Calculus, of all things, and the gap between the blinks.  The main thing is: I have to make up something around these sudden appearances. I knew the chickens are always around even when I can’t see them, but where? I only see them when I see them.
I need to invent the unseen points.


Today’s Listening:

1. World Sick by Broken Social Scene fr: “Forgiveness Rock Record:
2. Origin of Species by Chris Smither fr: “Leave the Light On”
3. The Moment Slipped Away by Christine Lavin fr: “Beau Woes

Just Making Conversation


You can’t do it. There is nothing to listen to on this page.

You haven’t just turned your radio on. You came to a visual space.

There will be listening soon, so hang on. Put up with me for a moment. I have some things to say about listening.  And conversation.

So much of what we say to each other is just reporting. We circulate our news. It passes for conversation.

It’s small talk that fills up time or serves as, how my old friend Tom put it, a social laxative. Often what we say to each other is really proclamation – a one-way bit of info that could be anything from a comment on the weather to a “great truth” delivered as sage advice. I’m not including great, brilliant, spontaneous outbursts like I heard last night. Last night, standing outside my favourite club, “The Moonshine Café”, some of us regulars were talking about the difficulties of getting work and getting paid for it. Out of the blue, one guy said “I just go wherever they’re serving the soup.”

You could tell from the look on his face, as he heard himself and the rest of us laugh, that it had just popped out – though there was certainly the reference to the Great Depression.

I’m talking more about the whole evenings, coffee sessions, and dinner parties where all the talk is “catching up”, a recitation of what’s already happened. Nothing new, nothing original. Sure, conversations can veer into current events or some issue that’s been in the news. Again, it’s second hand stuff.

Maybe this is a kind of re-cycling. We break down our life events into digestible bits and they go back into the word void. The Wordrogen cycle. (I think I will sell  “Wordrogen Cycle” on E-Bay). The Wordrogen Cycle could be nature’s way of cleaning up verbal by-products while you fill people in on your important life and get things off your chest at the same time.

Want to hear a real conversation?

Just go to this page: Home  Conversations with the Captain and you will hear some of the most genuine dialogue around today.

Professor Ron Glasberg and Master’s Candidate Marco Barile didn’t know their informal talk was going to be a hit on the University of Calgary’s website – they didn’t have any list of questions or focus groups. They just started talking, and listening. It’s also remarkable that these are audio downloads – no video – and visitors to the site are still hooked. Score one for audio.

The next link will give you some of the background from Ron and Marco. They really give the best description of how it got going. Here is their video: Conversations with the Captain

I could go on at some length about what is fascinating about this project but, for now, I’ll just mention one aspect that is really interesting to me. This is a project that happened in reverse. I would say that 99% of what you see and hear from any kind of media came from an agenda. Producers or media managers pick a topic, pick the speakers, pick the questions, pick the answers, pick what you get to hear and when and for how long. Honestly, that’s the way it happens most of the time, and that applies to the very best interviews you ever heard. 

In the case of “Conversations with the Captain”, the process was entirely turned around. It didn’t even start out as a project. How refreshing! How hard to edit! It was rather like mining ore from a vast quarry. If a quarry can be 30 plus hours long, that is.

There was someone else involved in this endeavour, definitely the most important person in bringing this series of conversations to the public. Maybe I can convince her to talk about it.


Today’s listening: (a bit of “kangaroo music”, sorry)

1. “Conversations with Myself” by Bill Evans (the whole album, live it up)
2.  Small Town Talk by Paul Butterfield Better Days Band fr: “It All Comes Back
3. Are You Sleeping?  by Harry Nilsson fr: “The Point

overture to outlining… tools soft 1


My first computer was the Mac Plus:


A little magic box.

It was, however, no replacement for the thing that resembled a bird bath in Jason and the Argonauts that Zeus and Hera used to spy on the humans with. What was that thing called? I’ll post a reward.

Earlier than me, by about five years, some of my writers, notably The Frantics, invested in Macs which, like early cell phones, were the size and weight of a car battery. They’d haul them down the street like briefcases.

Another writer kept on using an IBM Selectric even after buying 3 different Macs. At the urging of his fellows, he decided to “get with it” and bought his first Mac and it sat, unpacked, in his basement till it become obsolete. More urging, more Macs – all unpacked. He died young, still using an electric typewriter. Aside from his colossal talent, I will remember that his scripts always arrived in perfect shape. He would rewrite a whole page if there was a typo, (spell-checked from memory) then go to a professional photocopier for the requisite number of scripts. He also did not drive, so all this was done by streetcar, or cab if recording-time was imminent.

Some guys at work were into arcane machines like the Osborne, and the early Commodores and PCs. They would come into the local pub, bringing  foolscap pages full of code that just didn’t look like any fun. If I wanted a cryptic crossword, I would buy a paper.

The Mac was a lot friendlier but, even so, I couldn’t find anything on it.  Documents would disappear straight into computer limbo. I didn’t even know what a folder or directory was. I missed all my bits of paper. I started to sympathize with my grandfather who was slandered for having the messiest workbench in all the basements in town. “I can put my hand on anything”, he would say.

Even with the help of friends who were really fluent in computer ways, I either couldn’t retain their little training sessions or else I was simply inadequate. Not really inadequate; I was a published writer and writing was all I wanted a computer for. Back then.

Up till that time, the only organization of information I needed to worry about was making a list of music for radio shows I was doing. I’d browse the record library, grabbing a few discs that grabbed my ear. I’d begin to add more discs and audition them in a listening booth.

Inevitably, I would end up with more music than would fit into my allotted time-slot. So began the juggling of musical pieces and calculations to make it all fit the one-hour format. All I can say is: thank God I didn’t have to play Wagner!

In the listening booth, I would end up with a list that looked remarkably like this:

EC shotlist nov4 77

I would then type this up on my Olympia typewriter, using 5-part green carbonless paper. Bang bang bang. I only needed 3 copies, one each for the announcer, the technician, and me.

Sometimes, a yearning kicks in for the analogue days. I miss handling tape, cutting it with a real razor blade, rocking the reels back and forth on the editing machine,  sticking a final label on the tape, and a cue sheet inside the box, and carrying the whole thing down to master control. There was a physical rhythm that isn’t there today.

But even with all the wrangling between artistic programming and the clock, I was lucky.  Structure was imposed on me by the network schedule. As I’ve mentioned in the Tangents post, my incoming info ends up all over the place. Where I record it, and how I organize it, is a real hit and miss exercise. Somehow, things would always work out as long as I knew the 4 walls I was working within. Then I could go crazy, with confidence.

This post is called “an overture” not only because of the musical connotations, but because, in the overall picture, writers can face great challenges getting their thoughts into a structure. And no matter what form the original ideas manifest themselves – in notebooks, Post-It Notes, the backs of receipts, you name it – chances are that a computer is going to get involved. Even if you get someone else to do the word processing and send it off by e-mail to a publisher. I wanted to tell my own lead-up to how I got interested in organizing snippets of writing by way of an introduction to the topic of “soft tools”, especially “outliners” and the philosophies around outlining.

Don’t worry, there will be pictures.

Today’s listening:

1. Heat Wave by Ben Sidran fr: “On The Cool Side
2. The Underwood Typewriter by Fionn Regan fr: “The End of History
3.  Pull My Daisy by David Amram fr: “No More Walls