“My Favourite Medium That I Hardly Ever Do”

 

I was surprised and delighted to hear Neil Gaiman Gaiman 1 the other day on the Guardian Books Podcast from the Edinburgh Book Festival. He was being interviewed mostly about the 10th Anniversary Edition of his book “American Gods”, but at one point in the question and answer part of the podcast, someone asked him if there was one medium he actually preferred to write for. The answer was the above title of this post. This is when I got surprised and delighted.

Delighted, because I always like to hear Gaiman talk, and surprised because he declared his favourite medium for his writing to be the radio play. I must admit that his reasons for enjoying spoken word on radio are completely in sync with mine. And because I made radio plays, comedy shows, and music programs for 20-odd years. I do mean “odd”, literally.

Gaiman alluded to the listener’s imagination being required to participate actively with the words, sounds, and voices in a radio play. The thing is that this can be quite demanding in a time when attention spans are more suited to text messages and the 144 character Tweet. Who now is out there who will listen uninterrupted to a half-hour audio production without pictures and commercials?

I think it’s been about a decade now since radio plays were common fare on this country’s national broadcaster. Of course, that’s when there was “broadcasting”. Original works of spoken work were one of the first genres of radio to be stripped out of the CBC’s schedule in favour of talking about things rather than making them.

I can understand that writers, performers, and studio time, is expensive compared to a host, a free guest and a record library. But that’s what private radio was all about. All this is history and I don’t see the radio play coming back soon. And perhaps that’s why Gaiman, and a lot of people I used to work with, can say “this is my favourite medium that I hardly ever do”.

I like to think that the audience itself never went away. We had great audiences. Not huge in numbers like a TV show, but huge in appreciation. Judging from the letters we used to get, our audiences were well-educated, literate, attentive, and extremely diverse. I expect a lot of them are saying about radio: “the radio play was my favourite media genre that I hardly ever hear.”

Undermilkwood ARGO big  

When I consider that the BBC production of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood” (with Richard Burton as the narrator) was one of the single biggest influences that made me want to get into radio, I get really sad that this form of entertain, this form of interaction between a writer’s imagination and a listener’s, may be gone forever.

Maybe all us old guys and gals will have to start making our own radio productions and put them on iTunes.

So, thanks, Neil, for the validation of one of the great genres of broadcasting and those of us worked so hard making good radio.

Today’s Listening:

1. The Point (part 1) – Harry Nilsson
2. I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys from “Pet Sounds”
3. Once Upon A Summertime – Eden Atwood (check out Blossom Dearie’s version if you can find it)

Blogging at Jane and Finch

 

Last weekend I volunteered to teach a blogging workshop. The workshop was just one activity at Family Symposium Day put on by the Father’s Across Cultures project headed up by Reverend Sky Starr.

Rev Sky Family Day

Rev. Sky Starr

Rev Sky Family Day 2

A little background:

Every city has what are termed “neglected”, “disenfranchised”, “troubled”, or “problem” neighbourhoods. My city, Toronto, is one of the most prime examples of this. It evolved as a scattering of neighbourhoods, little villages really. As the city grew, most of these communities merged with the others while preserving at their core (often just a simple intersection now) their original personality. We have the Beaches, Cabbagetown, Kensington Market, Rosedale, Forest Hill, Yorkville, Parkdale, several Chinatowns, Little India, Little Italy … mostly residential and market areas – gravitational fields where people once had common ethnic origins. Then there came the commercial and “branded” areas – The Fashion and Financial Districts, the Distillery District, the list goes on. Most of these areas have something to celebrate (or better yet, market!) and their street signs have little raised surfaces proclaiming just what neighbourhood or district they lay claim and fame to.

There are neighbourhoods that do not have such signs. Whether from shame or neglect, it’s as though they are not worthy of an advertised identity. One such area is the Jane-Finch Corridor. Up in the North West quadrant of the city, Jane-Finch is viewed by many citizens as a “trouble” spot. i.e.: home to shootings, drugs, poverty, ugliness, and hopelessness.

I don’t want to single Jane-Finch out, there are other parts of town I could just as easily be talking about – some suburbs, too, for that matter. None of this is new: everyone knows about places where “that’s just the way it is”.

But let me tell you about the uplifting experience I had last Saturday.

I drove up to the Jane-Finch area and realized I knew nothing about it. I’ve only passed it on the highway or accidentally driven through it on my way to somewhere else. I wanted to see as much of the infamous Jane Street as I can, so I started on it as close as I could from my house and went all the way up.

There’s no Starbucks around here, no big fancy chain stores. No newly renovated cute boutiques. Instead, what I see is a lot more interesting. I see literally miles of patched up storefronts with the most fun names I’ve seen in a long time. The signs are improvised, original, creative, colourful – they are in-your-face business announcements. How could there be so many of them?

The people on the sidewalks are doing exactly what people downtown are doing: walking dogs, strolling with children, hanging out talking in front of stores. Any and every kind of international food is here, often several of the same kind in a single block, in the form of restaurant or grocery store.

There isn’t a lot of marketing theory going on here. Every business just comes out and says what it is, jazzing up their names whenever possible. I love it. How refreshing. There is a down to earth vitality happening here and you might as well forget about being status-conscious or worrying about what your shopping bag says on it.

Further north, closer to  my destination, spaces widen and there are blocks of older apartment buildings, malls, more lanes to the street. By the time I get right at the intersection of Jane St and Finch Ave, I’m in parts unknown. A couple of blocks away is the school I’m going to be in for the rest of the day.

Msgr Fraser Msgr Fraser back lot

The place I’m going to is a high school, now called an Alternative school. Why alternative? It’s because it’s a school where kids can go when  they don’t or can’t fit in to a regular secondary educational facility, with all-day classes and the regular “streaming” schemes. These are kids who will say that they are at school “all the time” if they attend 2 or 3 days a week.

I’m not a teacher and I don’t know enough to give you the whole story about the kids and this school – only what I experienced for myself on one day.

What we were expecting

What we were expecting to do was have our blogging students each at their own computer and following along with me and two teachers. We had an overhead projector for this and printed hand-outs for instructions. We were also expecting at least 12 students in at least 3 workshops at scheduled times throughout the day.

blog workshop screen blog workshop classroom

What really happened was that we got little groups coming in at different times. Well, this was a Family Symposium Day and there was lots to do and see and we were the only ones to have any kind of time schedule to our activity.

The kids, of course, had no idea what to expect.

There was a such a range of familiarity with blogs, the internet, and computers, that there was no one approach we could use. Luckily, the groups were small enough that we were able to do one-on-one sessions with most people. And even within the groups – usually friends – there was a lot of disparity of skills, knowledge, and interest. We had to juggle workstations, hopping around from one student to another, trying to keep track of where we were with each of them. I guess this is nothing new to a teacher. And I was lucky, again, to have two of the most enthusiastic and helpful teachers with me that day:

Sylvana Anna_Maria close small 

Sylvana and Anna-Maria (great teachers)

The kids seemed to have only trust and disbelief when their blog was published and they could see it on the computer screen. Trust, because now it looked real –  it was “out there” in there in the external world and the external world is “reality”.

Disbelief, because there was such a huge gap between their inner life – thoughts and feelings – and their new published blog post that looked very much like any professional blog. Fonts, pictures, it was all there. Same with the keyboard: if it was typed on the keyboard, it was serious, real. When I suggested they could try writing things in a diary, journal, or notebook, they kind of went blank. This was too personal – people might see their innermost thoughts. I then suggested that they had control over what they wrote in a notebook and control over what they typed on a keyboard. In many cases, that gap was just too big. I took a different approach: how about, I said, there is something you’re really interested in  and you think you might find it too embarrassing to make public? Yes, they got that. Well, I know from experience that there are many “niche” blogs with pretty narrow appeal to most people. And those bloggers still get thousands of visitors. The magic of blogging happens when you find out your private special interest is actually shared by so many others. Soon, visitors are commenting on what you wrote. You go to their blogs. The world becomes a little smaller, you feel a little less alone, and wonder of wonders: a conversation begins.

For many even this approach didn’t work, blogging wasn’t for them. Ok. We still had a nice time.

If there was one thing that was common to the whole day, it was the sense of goodwill among everybody. No attitudes.

Many people might say the Jane-Finch kids are disadvantaged. Their lives are a bit tougher than other kids. But I saw one great advantage here. The school brings in all kinds of members of the community: artists, athletes, former gang members, to name a few. The teachers like to bring in anybody to talk and share their experience with the kids. In fact, that seems to be a premise for how the school can succeed. The school does not operate in isolation, there is constant exposure to the outside world. Way more than students would get in a “regular” high school. There’s a bonus to being “disadvantaged”.

People like Rev. Starr, teachers like Anna-Maria and Sylvana, Donna Blanco, and the multitude of volunteers for this event, have brought the community together for a common cause. There’s a lot of healing to do, a lot of inspiring to do, a lot of support to give. The best thing, for me, is that nobody got treated like a lost cause. It seemed like the most natural get-together in the city.

I am grateful for the experience.

3 Scandinavians Delighting in Depression

In the last week, I’ve read three Scandinavian mystery novels. One Swedish, The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell, One Norwegian, The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo, one Icelandic, Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason.

 Troubled Man The Redeemer Operation Napoleon

The Henning Mankell book is not only emotionally grey but was shocking to me by the way he concluded the adventures of his hero, Kurt Wallander. Six lines of finality and he’s done.

The rotten weather here in my part of Canada has been a perfect backdrop for these books. Rainy, cold, even snow, and a spring that won’t come.

All three books are gloomy. In fact, gloominess and depression is a way of simply being in the world for the characters in these books. Yet their jobs and lives go on. There are almost no guns and no jargon and no gratuitous technology.
We used to talk a lot about gratuitous violence, now it is gratuitous technology: the obsession with cell phones and being “connected’ anywhere, anytime.

What a relief these Northern books are! Even the  depression-prone antagonists are a relief. At least they reflect and relate to the craziness of the world. They may have found that depression is the only rational reaction of living in these times.

I have, in the past few months, read several genres of fiction and non-fiction.

Books that make the time go by fast and, in one instance, it worked. This was “The Ask” by Sam Lipsyte. His is a high-wire act of  speech – a rant against the invasion of crass, all-pervasive, marketing into our human values. No one relates to another with real sentences or real feelings. It’s stock market and text message talk. What Tony Judt called “no-speak”.
At first, I thought “The Ask” was brilliant, but could Lipsyte keep it going? At some point would  it come down to earth where the reader was looking up into the air for some plot – something to navigate by? He certainly kept the banter going to the bitter end. Actually, he’s relentless. But a story that intersected with reality – by what page would that happen? Or was this so much rhetorical aviation? Well, there’s a thin plot to follow but it’s more of a convenience to wrap things up.
What saves the book is that the main character cares about face-to-face physical encounters with other human beings and listens to their real pain. There is a sense of loss of intimacy.
The acid test is that  I’ve recommended the book to a few friends – but I’ve been selective.

Which brings me to a non-fiction book I’ve put off discussing for a few months: “Reality Hunger” by David Shields.
There are a lot of names blurbing away on the cover of this book (and a lot of them are now on my no-no list).
Shields calls his book a “manifesto”. I’m not even sure it’s a book, although it has a cover and numbered pages and chapters and all that stuff. If I had to boil it down, I’d say Shields’ main points are:

1. The novel (and plot in general) is finished.
2. The new and exciting genre is “collage” or the “DJ mix” (Shields is a DJ)

I recently heard a panel discussion in a Guardian U.K. Podcast featuring an interview with Shields followed by a panel discussion of it by British authors.
One of the panelists, Toby Litt,  said one thing that resonated (and here I paraphrase): “Shields’ book lacks ‘sensibility’”. I think he means that Shields may be in favour of the DJ mix, and may have some things to say, but that his sense or “feel” of how to put them together is missing. Got no rhythm.
I mostly agree. Despite “Reality Hunger”‘s penchant for the DJ mix/collage thing, there doesn’t seem to be much music in the man. And you know what Shakespeare said about that.

What I reacted to most strongly – was horrified in fact – was Shields’ suggestion that writers should consider the cell phone screen as their new medium. Eek!
In it’s staccato burst of paragraphs and proclamations, I expect David Shields still hungers for reality. Good luck to him.

I  was looking for an antidote book after this. At a friend’s place the next day, I picked up the first Sue Grafton book “A is for Alibi”, an American mystery.
I felt like putting the spurs to it. Come on, stop telling us about everything you do in your groovy little apartment or the directions around town. Spare the trees.
Ms. Grafton is  smart enough to know that her book needed plot, but for me it was like was walking through a hoarder’s house to get to the next thread of  it. This lighter reading wasn’t working for me. I had to skim to make it go faster than television.

Back to my Scandinavians.
What you  get in their world is the acceptance that there is a constant ache in the background of their characters. It isn’t edited out. This pervasive gloom confirms that although a book may be read in a few hours, real lives go on for hours, weeks, months between the events in  the story. These writers aren’t  afraid to present that. Whereas most American and English mystery writers, especially the best-selling formulaic kind, eliminate inner life to keep you jumping and distracted, my three recent Scandinavians draw this wonderful allusion that part of their stories are spanning years of a character’s life. At the same time, they don’t fool around  with awkward digressions, time travel, and God-forsaken subtitles like “3 days earlier“. !
Their books have an engaging, moving, foreground and a still, contemplative background.

Today’s Listening:

1. Daylight by Kokin-Gumi fr: Zen Garden
2. Sleepwalk by Amos Garrett fr: Home in My Shoes

Writing Productively: 5 Ways to Get Inspired & Stay Motivated – guest post by Alexis Bonari

Whether you’re writing your first blog post or you’re an acclaimed novelist, you’ve almost certainly encountered the frustrating phenomenon of writer’s block. And you’ll encounter it again in the future. Depending on your circumstances, writer’s block can ruin an entire session of potential productivity – it’s easy to let procrastination take control. When you’re not feeling inspired, nothing seems right and it’s almost impossible to put words on the page.

The good news is that there are many ways to get around the dreaded and pervasive problem of writer’s block. You probably have some of your own strategies that work for you when your creative juices seem to run dry. These are a few of my favorite ways to court the muse and start writing when I’m feeling uninspired, so I hope they enhance your repertoire and offer you more approaches to solving the problem of writer’s block.

1. The Company You Keep

I know I feel more capable of writing for an extended period of time when I’m surrounded by like-minded people with the determination to keep writing, no matter what. Join a MeetUp group of writers, get some creative friends together, or search for writing groups on Craigslist. You might be surprised at what you can do when you’re in good (and productive) company.

2. Location, Location, Location

Think about the inspiring places you’ve been and see if you can figure out a way to start writing in some of those locations. Bringing a notebook and pen with you is permissible just about anywhere you go, and many places will allow you to bring a laptop if you prefer to type. Just stay aware of your laptop’s battery life if you’re working outdoors, unless you have a solar charger.

I like to write in the following places: art museums, botanical gardens, parks, theaters, local coffee shops, and my artist friend’s studio. Each of these locations inspires me to write even when I’m struggling to come up with a simple string of coherent thoughts. Try writing in the places you turn to for rejuvenation, relaxation, and creative inspiration.

3. Dredging Up the Past

I keep a journal that occasionally offers inspiring ideas or phrases, which can then be turned into “real” writing. You can often find something in your archives that’s worth expanding, so don’t hesitate to take a few minutes and read back over your past writings. If you find a striking idea that can be developed, you’ll gain self-confidence because the idea was yours all along – and that’s a great way to tap into your creativity.

4. Music Makes the World Go ‘Round

Alexis music score

Listening to classical music helps me to stay relaxed and focused, which are two conditions that help me write well. Depending on my mood, I’ll choose something slow and soft to get myself into a creative state, or I’ll select a fast-paced instrumental number like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture to wake up and start writing. Music has the power to affect your energy, creativity, and mood, so take advantage of it to improve the conditions that surround your writing process.

I’m also a fan of folk music, both because of the style of the genre and because the lyrics often inspire me. There’s almost always a story or string of prose in a folk song that reminds me of an idea I once had and forgot about – one of those “I should write that down” moments that passed me by. For me, folk music is an effective way to recall previous times of inspiration and writing success.

5. Taking a Deep Breath

Running into writer’s block often stresses me out, triggering anxiety and negative feelings. That state of mind is never conducive to any creative pursuit, so writing after hitting a wall tends to be unproductive unless I change my attitude and decrease the level of stress I’m feeling.

I usually relax with a few minutes of circular breathing, which is a simple exercise that you can try with almost no effort. Just close your eyes, exhale all of the air in your lungs, and use the thumb and fourth finger of your dominant hand to pinch your nostrils closed. Wait a few seconds, then remove your thumb and inhale through the open nostril. Replace your thumb, closing the nostril, and hold your breath. Now, move your fourth finger away and exhale through the other nostril. Repeat this exercise as many times as you need to in order to feel refreshed and stress-free.

Bio: Alexis Bonari is currently a resident blogger at College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching electrical engineering scholarships as well as study abroad grants. Whenever this WAHM gets some free time she enjoys doing yoga, cooking with the freshest organic in-season fare, and practicing the art of coupon clipping.

Alexis paper

Must I?

 

Mad_Typewriter

The question of whether a writer “must” write has come up in a number of comments on this blog.

This question has troubled and stymied me much of my life. It comes from a time in my life, as university was ending, when I could have taken the fork in the road whose sign said “Damn the torpedoes, you are meant to write” and not the one I took which said “this way leads to “getting along in the world”.

Before I elaborate, here are some other reasons why I think some people want to write.

There are people who write themselves out of depression and there is the excellent site Storied Mind to attest to it.

There are people who like reading so much that they’d like to write some of that stuff, too. I can relate to that. From childhood, I have liked music so much that I wanted to write and play it. Try as I might, I couldn’t get with it. Blame it on the bossa nova (it’s the dance of love).

Then there is matter of lifestyle and identity. A lot of people fall in love with romantic ideas of the sensitive artist, the camaraderie of the writing “fellowship”. Think of the “moveable feast” gang in Paris in the 1920’s, the Iowa writers workshop, Greenwich village, the Bloomsbury Group, the Algonquin Hotel Round Table and many other groups that have attained cult status.

There is the romantic ideal of the mysterious observer, the one who sees (and can express!) what others miss, what others think but do not say. I can hear someone ask: “Oh God, what little joint did Bob Dylan write that song in? What did Leonard Cohen eat on that Greek Island?”

A lot of this has to do with wishing a for a“splendid isolation”: the writers wilderness cabin, the garret. This may be a longing for a place of refuge, a safe and beautiful place from which one can carry on a long-distance connection with the rest of the world by putting down thoughts gathered in the “real” social world and assembling them quietly to be sent back into the mainstream.

While some of the above may smell a bit of magical thinking, there is also something to be said for the lack of distraction, interruption, and perspective that an unspoiled landscape – a clean slate of nature – that a “Walden Pond” environment can offer.

There is also the traveler, the Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, the outdoorsman and adventurer.

There are the pub writers (Dylan Thomas), the cafe writers (J. K. Rowling) and those who write on trains (Tony Judt ). I’m not entirely sure how this works for me

I, personally, write a lot while driving around country roads at night. (Nobody has emulated me, to my knowledge).

All have their cachets. All have influenced or attracted people to want to write. To feel like these writers write.

The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve worked with, however,  have a very workman like approach to their craft, working in offices at home or in business settings (yes, some of the sharpest writers around work in “bull pens” whether they’re doing the  next episode  of “Six Feet Under” or the next commercial for OxyClean.

It’s the successful writers who write from their home offices who seem to generate all those “10 rules for writing” lists you see. I expect it’s because writing from home demands a lot of rules and boundaries, just to get the job done.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some real ass-in-the-chair journeymen and journeywomen writers who churn out book after book whom I think are terrific: Philip Kerr, Henning Mankell come to mind. Sadly, there are a lot a really bad writers, typists really, who seem to dominate world book sales.

born-to-write

Ok, enough rational thought. The question was “Must a writer write?”

I think it is often true. I think there is a lot to the line: “If a creative person doesn’t create, they get sick.”

Whether you call it drive, catharsis, purpose, gift, doesn’t matter. It’s going to come out. Like, how long can you hold your breath?

In this case, it’s not  a decision you make after weighing your career options. It’s the difference between wanting to write and having to write. It’s not a hobby or gentlemanly occupation.

How to explain the urge? How about:  when I am writing, I feel I am doing the most important thing I can be doing? Or, I get lost in it? Everything else is a waste of time? If these thoughts are going through your head, I expect you must write. You don’t even worry if you get published or not. There’s an acid test for you. Now you’ve crossed a line. You have separated writing from money.

For some, and I am thinking of someone like Raymond Carver, it can be a bumpy road to hell and back. Maybe not back. At what point does your passion take over and your life become an unsupportable fantasy? Do you need to have something to “show” for your efforts? If the answer to the question is, yes, some writers absolutely have to write, then I guess it doesn’t matter. You get some job like Carver did, as a hospital janitor, and find the time to compose.

Every day, and this goes back 30 odd years, I have wondered what would have happened if I’d had the faith in myself to take that other path when I was 20. There is some regret, but as Frank Zappa said:  “The world won’t end with a whimper, but nostalgia and paperwork.”

I realize this will be total gibberish for the personal branding set, but if you ever find yourself thinking: nothing else but my writing, (or music or art) will do, then you have answered the question for yourself. Can you bring yourself to believe it?

And how about this: does just picking up a pen make you feel that something is going to happen?

Today’s Listening:

1. “Please Call Me Baby” by Tom Waits fr: The Heart of Saturday Night
2. “Driftin’” by Dan Hicks (with Rickie Lee Jones) fr: Beatin’ The Heat
3. “Lydia” by Jonathan Richman fr: Buzz Buzz Buzz
4. “That Summer Feeling” by Jonathan Richman fr: I, Jonathan (what the heck  I’m in a Jonathan Richman mood)
5. “One of These Things First” by Nick Drake fr: Bryter Later

A “Real Writer” – guest post by Lisa Shoreland

 

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. And an actress. And a teacher. I wanted to be all the cliché things that little girls want to be before they really understand who they are or what they like. (Not that some little girls don’t eventually realize that they really do want to be veterinarians or actresses or teachers.) Sometimes, when I was asked what I wanted to be, I’d say “writer.”

For me, a writer was a mythic and shadowy figure – a genius who inhabited this otherworldly cerebral realm in which he was called upon for doses of wisdom, stunning insights, and clever anecdotes. That wasn’t me. Becoming a professional writer wasn’t something that I thought I had a chance of doing – and any chance I thought I did have involved an unforeseen transformation, a “becoming” in which I was suddenly blessed with said wisdom and insight and wit.

A Different Path

Although I hadn’t yet experienced this grand transformation to writer, I still couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing by the time I got to college. When it came time to pick a major, I chose the closest thing to “writing” I could: English. I still couldn’t manage the courage to write anything more than class papers or scribbles in my journal. But I knew I didn’t have the capacity for anything else. Doctor? Lawyer? They were even more elusive figures.

I decided to try the school newspaper, thinking that I could take care of administrative tasks or some other office work. Luckily, the paper’s advisor didn’t let me off that easy. I was soon writing articles regularly. Within a few months, I was the chief contributing writer. I was surprised by how easy it was. I thought that it must be the paper – surely, their standards were not as high as they should be.

I wasn’t writing award-winning novels, but it was a start towards “real” writing.

What’s a “Real Writer?”

It has been years since I graduated from college, and I have written extensively for multiple publications and Web sites, yet I still struggle with what it means to be a “real writer.” I still haven’t published any books. I haven’t even published a short story in a magazine. But I have seen my byline published hundreds of times. And I’ve somehow managed to make a living as a writer.

A professor in one of my creative writing classes once told me that to be a writer, you have to have an attitude. You can’t apologize for what you say. You just have to believe in what you’re writing and forget about what other people think of it. It took me awhile to realize that I was missing that attitude.

If being a “real writer” doesn’t mean writing regularly, publishing regularly, and even being paid to write, then what does it mean? I may never publish a novel. I may never work from home laboring over long tomes that are finished every few years or so and are then rewarded by large paychecks that keep me going for the next several years. But I will continue to see my name in print. I will continue to get a paycheck for what I have to say – even if I do have to say it from a keyboard in an office. And whether I’m doling out words of wisdom about life lessons or telling someone the benefits of a healthy diet, I’m still influencing other people with what I have to say. If those things don’t make me a real writer, then I don’t think anything ever will.

Bio: Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go College, where recently she’s been researching applying for scholarships as well as art grants. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing, practicing martial arts, and taking weekend trips.

Once Upon a Time – guest post by Lucille

 

Twenty years ago, I made a series of radio shows on creativity in the arts. In the course of doing so, I interviewed actor and playwright Alan Williams. He was a tall lanky bloke with longish unruly red hair and piercing blue eyes who was born, raised and professionally trained in Manchester. His broad accent and absurd, self-effacing humour made him a pleasure to speak with. I became aware of his work when I attended three one-man shows that he had written and performed. The Cockroach Trilogy, as it was called, had played to packed houses all across Canada and critics and audiences agreed that this was wildly original, entertaining and extremely absorbing theater. I was keen to learn from Williams how he managed to write the way he did. He made certain observations that stayed with me and since I kept the original taped interview I am going to quote from it.   Alan Williams cockroach poster 2

“When I’m writing a play, I know I have an idea that will work if I can conceive of a situation in which conflict is bound to result which can be resolved . A good play involves people with something at stake having to make swift decisions in order to try and get what they want. Since this is the situation we are always in, we have a strong feeling of sympathy with the characters because we can see that they’re in the same stupid mess that we are – wanting something and being faced with a world that doesn’t particularly want to give it to them and having to decide on the spot how to get what they want….. At one point when I was travelling around, I went through a fairly rootless, actually homeless period !! I was trying to write plays and one of the things I would take with me wherever I went was a collection of Grimm’s fairy stories because they seemed to me to be a tremendous kind of guide to how to write. There is a sense to Grimm’s fairy stories that everything which happens is real. One of the biggest problems with writing is to try to work out when a conflict is actually real, when there is really something at stake, when something new is actually happening.”

Grimm Brothers Little Red Riding Hood

My first encounter with writing was a fairy tale. I cannot tell you which one. When my brother and I were infants, my grandmother gave us two thick volumes of fairy tales. She bought them at an auction sale and I imagine they were printed in the 1920’s if not earlier . Both were bound in cloth hard cover and had full page colour illustrations on glossy paper – each a work of art in its own right. The cover of the one containing tales of the brothers Grimm was brown and the other with the stories of Hans Christian Andersen was a burnt orange . I recall my mother reading these to me before I could read them myself. She claimed to have started reading to us well before we could walk or talk probably to put us to sleep. As a young child of 3 or 4 I can remember starting to understand what was being read to me and being much more frightened of the ‘orange’ stories as I thought of them, than the ‘brown’ ones which seemed simpler and friendlier. I also thought the former were much scarier in a grown up kind of way as if they were really stories for adults that were read to children as a special privilege like being allowed to stay up late to watch The Twilight Zone.

I can remember thinking that fairy tales were real. I believed they were actual accounts of events that had occurred at some point in the past and could happen again especially if magical and immortal beings were involved. Even if the magical beings were destroyed at the end, who could say that there were not others of their kind hanging out somewhere? This was both frightening and reassuring depending on the character. Who wouldn’t like to encounter the fairy godmother or the white rabbit in the vest?? I’m sure there are millions like me. I think part of this has to do with the fact that stories conveyed through the voice of an adult or the printed page have a certain degree of authority and credibility to the mind of a child. Before a certain age it seems that the line between what is possible and impossible has not been firmly etched. Above all I believe that children would not experience a fairy tales in this way were not the writing superb. By far the longest story in the orange book was The Snow Queen written in 1845.The_Snow_Queen

It is actually comprised of seven stories. I don’t think it was ever read to me probably because it was so long and the words were pretty difficult for my mother whose first language was not English. As a result, the story took on a sort of forbidden quality as if the content were just too grown- up for children. When I was finally old enough to be able to read it for myself, I was haunted by it because I thought it had been written about two children very similar to me and my brother . Here is how it begins.

Story the First, Which Describes a Looking-Glass and the Broken Fragments.

YOU must attend to the commencement of this story, for when we get to the end we shall know more than we do now about a very wicked hobgoblin; he was one of the very worst, for he was a real demon. clip_image001One day, when he was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever. The most lovely landscapes appeared like boiled spinach, and the people became hideous, and looked as if they stood on their heads and had no bodies. Their countenances were so distorted that no one could recognize them, and even one freckle on the face appeared to spread over the whole of the nose and mouth. ….All who went to the demon’s school—for he kept a school—talked everywhere of the wonders they had seen, and declared that people could now, for the first time, see what the world and mankind were really like. They carried the glass about everywhere, till at last there was not a land nor a people who had not been looked at through this distorted mirror. They wanted even to fly with it up to heaven to see the angels, but the higher they flew the more slippery the glass became, and they could scarcely hold it, till at last it slipped from their hands, fell to the earth, and was broken into millions of pieces. But now the looking-glass caused more unhappiness than ever, for some of the fragments were not so large as a grain of sand, and they flew about the world into every country. When one of these tiny atoms flew into a person’s eye, it stuck there unknown to him, and from that moment he saw everything through a distorted medium, or could see only the worst side of what he looked at, for even the smallest fragment retained the same power which had belonged to the whole mirror. Some few persons even got a fragment of the looking-glass in their hearts, and this was very terrible, for their hearts became cold like a lump of ice….. . There were still a number of these little fragments of glass floating about in the air, and now you shall hear what happened with one of them.

I believed that The Snow Queen was a real story that had been recorded by Andersen as a special message to me and other little girls in my situation.. It is the story of Gerda and Kay a little girl and boy who are best friends. One day a piece of the evil mirror fell into Kay’s eye and another into his heart so that it became a lump of ice. He changed from a warm and loving friend to an arrogant cruel boy who rejected Gerda. One day while playing on his sledge with the others boys, he is captured by the Snow Queen and taken to her palace near the north pole. Of course nobody knows what has happen to him and after months pass, all believe he is dead – all except Gerda. She is able to ask flowers, birds and other animals what became of him and slowly she is led on a quest to find him travelling hundreds of miles enduring all manner of hardships such as freezing cold, hunger, various forms of evil enchantment, robbery, and kidnapping. Finally she is in the hut of the “Finland woman” who is asked by a reindeer if she cannot give Gerda something to help her battle the Snow Queen.

“I can give her no greater power than she has already,” said the woman; “ don’t you see how strong that is? How men and animals are obliged to serve her, and how well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is. She cannot receive any power from me greater than she now has, which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart.”

I was born three years after my brother and he did not appreciate this occurrence one little bit. Although I desperately wanted his love and companionship he rejected me in every way he could (and has admitted this as an adult) He was often nasty and physically violent frequently making me cry. I found great comfort when I read The Snow Queen, since it seemed to contain some kind of explanation as to why he was the way he was- that his meanness to me and many others was a result of some kind of spell he was under and that someday I would be able to reverse it and return him to the way he really was. I was also consoled by the possibility that I had the same basic innocence and purity of heart as the heroine and therefore I had the power to do so.Gerda_and_Kay

The Snow Queen was my story. If I felt bullied The Ugly Duckling was my story. I went to The Nightingale if I felt undervalued. If I felt trapped I went to Alice in Wonderland or The Twelve Dancing Princesses. When I felt greedy my story was The Fisherman and His Wife and when my family didn’t love me enough my story was Babar or Curious George. I have always had a hard time knowing what I feel and fairy tales seemed to give form to my emotions and even explain where they came from. They also offered solutions to terrible problems. I could walk through a mirror, drink a magic potion, get advice from a tiger lily, spin straw into gold or summon the good witch of the north. The extreme unlikelihood of these possibilities never seemed to detract from the comfort and hope that they gave me.

I wonder how many children are able to endure the fear, sadness and loneliness of their childhood through fairy tales. I think this is only possible because great children’s literature carries them to these depths before the pain is resolved.

In her essay, Hans Christian Andersen, Father of the modern Fairy Tale, Terry Windling observes that “what many readers remember most about Andersen’s work is its overwhelming sadness. The Little Match Girl dies; the Little Mermaid is betrayed by her prince, the Fir Tree lies discarded after Christmas, sighing over past glories. Even tales that end happily — The Snow Queen, the Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, the Wild Swans — are heart-wrenching in their depiction of anguish endured along the way.”winterduckling1

After reading all this, you might be surprised (or perhaps horrified) to learn that from time to time I work as a therapist. I have had years of conventional university training in my profession and I work with adults . People usually seek therapy when they are unhappy but often are confused about the specifics : what they do feel and why they feel it. Therapy is a tough process. It requires a great deal of courage to confront emotions that have been suppressed or buried particularly if we see them as unattractive or shameful. . Even after many sessions a client may not yet be ready to delve into certain areas but they can often take in a similar story about someone else. Sometimes a real example quickly comes to mind but more often than not a fairy tale says it better. I guess when you are exposed to something over and over again from a young age it is never that far away from your consciousness and is easy to reach for.

Of course I wouldn’t say “I knew this rabbi years ago called Rumpelstiltskin ,although that was his name before he changed it.” or “Have I ever told you about my cousin Rapunzel ?” What I might tell them is that their situation reminds me of someone and I would not be lying. What does it matter that they remind me of a mermaid or a wooden boy as long as I can convey that they possess the same degree of courage, goodness, and strength of character that is needed to overcome their adversity. Fairy tales are considered great writing because the conflicts are utterly convincing and are often resolved through the development or complete metamorphosis of character. Elves and magic rings and ruby shoes and snow queens are simply catalysts for change. A person in therapy needs to know that transformation is possible for them and when they can’t imagine it for themselves the therapist may have to imagine it for them.

Little Match Girl

If you happen to be in the business, I can recommend some reading….

A Travelogue

If I wanted to put a positive spin on it, I’d call the last month “lying fallow”.

That’s what I call it when nothing comes to me in the way of writing ideas.
And I only call it that after the fact – after the relief of getting something to write about.
Now ensconced  in the city and sitting on the back deck with my morning winter coffee (reading Lights Out in Wonderland), it came to me not to wait any longer. In fact, in the spirit  of  “gotta use words” or just spitting it out, I decided to simply put down some thoughts on the last month, covering the transition from the burbs to the big smoke.
This has been more of a psychological transition than a mere geographical move of 25 miles.
It has been an editing of my possessions, a restructuring of my routine and a daily re-writing of lifestyle.

When I say an “editing of my possessions”, I mean it was time to divest myself  of 5 years worth of accumulated objects. It truly was for practical reasons: space.
This was more of an adventure than I had counted on.
For example: the culling of dozens of books went fairly smoothly. Of course, I wanted to keep them all, but settled for ones I knew I’d keep picking up or had such personal significance that I couldn’t let them go. I surprised myself how quickly I could sort them into two categories. This box for keepers, that box for “I can live without them”.
The adventure began with finding a good home for these “unwanted” books. Libraries don’t want donations, used book stores are extremely temperamental about what they’ll take. With help in making loads of phone calls to various stores and agencies, a good place was finally found: The Handy Book Exchange. What a gem this place was. We met Andy who runs the store and is a testament to the saying “you can’t tell a book by it’s cover”.
I did not guess from his burly exterior that this man was one of the most knowledgeable people I’d ever meet about the history of publishing. How else would I ever have learned that Buffalo was one of the biggest publishing centers back when having a printing business made you a publisher. He’s also written for the Wall Street Journal.
He got seven boxes of books and I got a credit for buying books. A good home indeed.

I won’t even go into the divestment of clothes, furniture, and appliances. Thanks to the services of a number of charitable organizations, most of my “edited out” goods were picked up and distributed where they saw fit. Nothing went into landfill, but much was recycled.

It seems it is harder to get rid of stuff than it is buy it.

There were more adjustments than I had dreamed of. After all, I had lived in the city for 30 odd years and wasn’t expecting any big surprises. I’d forgotten how different it is to “get around” in the city compared to the burbs. Here, parking is a concern that just didn’t exist before.
Before, I took for granted that I could park wherever I was going. I’d had underground parking which meant weather wasn’t an issue. Car travel to almost any kind of place  is as convenient as you could make it. But then you absolutely must have a car.
That’s the way they planned the suburbs. For cars and shopping.
Here you don’t  need a car, but it’s congested and takes a lot more time to get around in much more tricky and stressful conditions. Every time I think about driving somewhere, I think twice.

Another surprise about moving away from my suburban town was all the people I’d got to know.

My little pick-up audience.

Most of the people I’d met and got friendly with I initially met through retail transactions.
When I first moved there, it didn’t take too long to settle on a few favourite stores and soon I was on a more than passing acquaintance with those who worked and served at these places.
I didn’t have a social network in this town and these folks soon became my familiar faces. Over a period of months, “have a good night” became “how is the work going? How is your family?”

One of my treasured memories is of  meeting with a couple of great guys every Sunday night at the local all-night Metro grocery store.

fotibrian oct 4 09

Keep in mind that I was pretty much living a nocturnal life – see my previous post of Night Drives – and I was getting introduced to a whole strata of society that is alive and working all through the dark hours.
Even if there was no particular structure during my week, I could count on meeting Foti and Bryan at the Metro on Sunday nights. I’d either go out around 11 p.m. and drive up to the mall where the store was, or I’d be coming back from a drive in the country, writing and listening to audiobooks in the car. Either way, I’d usually meet up with the guys about 11:30 and they’d make coffee and take a break – just to talk with me.
Foti is Greek and a great scholar of ancient mythology and all things Hellenic. Bryan is a retired university administrator and hockey veteran, with a great affinity for Marshall McLuhan. His rec room is furnished with chairs and paraphernalia from the old Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. I got to see it all when he invited me to a barbeque at his house.
Then Foti and his wife entertained me (with Bryan and his wife) at his place and now we had a regular social relationship. I have been to his place many times now, I’ve helped him with his computer, I know his kids, and we will  keep this going. He’s a friend.

And then there was Music Girl. (I never knew her name).On my way out for my night driving, I would usually stop in at the local Starbucks. They play music in the background at Starbucks and often, if it seems “appropriate”, I will comment on it to the counter people.
One such person was a young 20ish woman who dressed a bit different, commented herself on the background music, and who was quick with a come-back line. It was fun, and a bit of a running quiz, to banter on about the big faves in her music listening. She would test me on my knowledge of bands like Japan, Television, Sparks, and many others whose albums I’d been around to buy the original vinyl of. A neat way to bridge a 30 plus year age gulf. I got a lot of free coffees and she would give me a hard time if I hadn’t dropped in for a few days. She would never acknowledge that she herself had taken some days off when I had been there and missed her. 20 year old brat.

A last example: the man whose name I never learned, who worked the cash at the local Esso station. Always overnight. He had been a lawyer back in Pakistan and often had a radio tuned to a local Pakistani radio station. He wasn’t just listening. He’d sometimes hold up a hand to me indicating “just a moment” and pick up the phone and call the station to take part in a live discussion. All in Urdu, so I didn’t get anything from it. Once, he suggested that I go outside and sit in my car and listen to him on the radio there – he was going to be on the air for a while and didn’t want me to have to stand in line at his counter too long. I did it. He also told me the best places to get Middle Eastern food.

Do I have to mention the strange ways we meet people? Do I have to mention the hidden stores of shared interests and feelings I’d found with people I’d normally not really notice? How everyone has their “stuff”?

This may sound obvious and ordinary but, really, my thought was that I was leaving behind a world and a “phase” of my life.
Kind of like I’d done my time in the wilderness.
Tibetan Lamas do  a silent, solitary retreat of 3 years, 3 months, 3 days (approx) and then they go back to the monastery. Most people might think you go to a monastery for  just those very reasons of solitude, isolation and refuge. For these initiate monks, going back into the monastery after 3 plus years of being alone and speechless, is  more like my return to the city.
Once, on a trip to the beaches of South Carolina, I met a couple who had come from the mountainous interior of that state to cool down by the sea shore. We had gone there for the warmth. Same place, opposite attraction.
And I’ve had to travel back to the burbs at least once a week since moving. The first few times it felt like home territory. Once I’d cross a certain line – a certain exit on the expressway – everything would get re-oriented (I’d get a new compass). This was  more real  than my new place was.
But not for a couple of  weeks now.  I still know how to get around like second nature, all the right turns to make and what lanes get me there fastest.  But more than ever, it’s where other people live. I’m still not a fish in water in the city, but the place lived in for 5 years has become  a series of photographs over the horizon.

oakville purple

In keeping with the theme of this blog (can we come up with a better word? It’s starting to annoy me as much as “significant other” used to, and as much as the comment “nice!”, the conditional “that being said” and the misused and clichéd “iconic” do now) … in keeping with this blog theme, the last month has seen the end of one narrative and then nothing at all – except wondering if I was going to slip into my old narrative or wondering what a new narrative might be. Was I going to try to recapture something or jump from the cliff and see what happens.  Well, inertia always wins with me and I bided my time.
Not that I did absolutely nothing. I poked around my favourite haunts, started shopping at the old markets again, cooking real food, reading a lot.
But the place wasn’t coming into focus. It was like every time I looked out the window either from my place or even from a car window, I would see places, people, scenes, through the lens  of memory.

toronto_2005_00021_1_resize

There is a young women who lives across the street and she comes out onto her porch for a smoke several times during the day. She did this 5 years ago  when I lived in this house then. She’d been doing it for a number of years before then, starting soon after she’d left adolescence.
But when I look at her now, it’s like I’m going back in time. I’m not seeing her in the here and now, more like I’m playing back an old tape. It’s still her, the same porch, the same general view out the same window.  Time doesn’t not seem to have moved on.

toronto_old ford

It’s like this for me, too, when I drive downtown on old familiar streets and see glass and steel condos where  two-story shops used to be. I do a translation in my mind where I see the old shops first, then transpose the new buildings over them. It’s like I have to see the original picture and then do an update to see the new, real, streetscape. “Oh yeah, there’s where that favourite restaurant is. Used to be. There’s this new ugly condo.” That’s the process. It’s like I’m using old film.

toronto_yorkville

I expect this will change. I’m maybe just stubborn and refuse to see these undesired changes. It will take some doing to get used to a lot of old familiar funky spots being replaced by those shiny condos. There is a lot more looking up than looking in.
And a lot of just plain old wrecks of stores around town have been “cuted”- up”  – you can smell the renovation bill.
Some places have defied gentrification: the downtown Chinatown and Kensington Market, where every  ethnic group has started out.

So, what’s been keeping me occupied all this time in transition. Reading, cooking, keeping 2 cats separated, figuring out the recycling and garbage scheme. That’s what.
I’ve stayed in the house a lot more than I thought I would. Maybe  only to adjust, like a diver decompressing.

winnett_winter

Todays Listening:

1. In the Lost and Found by Elliott Smith fr: Figure 8
2. Real Emotional Girl by Randy Newman fr: Trouble in Paradise
3.  One More Town by The Kingston Trio fr: The Capitol Collector’s Series
4. A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square by Roger Kellaway fr: I Was There

The “Man (or woman if you are one) Of Letters” – guest post by Timothy Bowman

The “Man (or woman if you are one) Of Letters” *

When I was in high school, the head of the English Department, who must have once been a mover and shaker in the publishing world, staged an event at our school celebrating Canadian authors. I say he must have been influential because of the lineup of authors who made personal appearances, including Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.

For the entire day, each of the many authors in attendance held informal seminars including readings and question periods. As I moved from one author to another, it finally dawned on me why I found this all so exciting: here was a group of people who did not have jobs, people who did not draw a salary, did not report to a workplace and were not subject to managers. I was seeing, first hand, the “Man Of Letters”, someone who literally lives by his wits, who takes the product of his own mind, transfers it to paper and makes a living thereby.

Although I have always been a voracious reader, I had never before met a published author, nor did I know anyone who had. In my little backwater of a town people punched clocks and lived on their wages. So you can imagine the impression meeting these authors made on me; it is safe to say I was inspired. I started writing short stories and found a freelance job writing a weekly student news column for the local paper. I considered studying journalism.

Thirty-five years later I can report that I did not become a “Man Of Letters”. I did not even become a journalist. I did get paid to do a lot of writing in my career, but it was all by way of facilitating the private or corporate communication of others. I never did make a living by original writing. I don’t lose any sleep over this. I did interesting things, some of which were important, some of which I was even passionate about, for a time. Along the way I built a family and I take good care of them out of the proceeds of my work, and that is very fulfilling in an entirely different way.

My point (and I’m sure you will be pleased to see that I have one and am getting to it) is this; what is the difference between someone who can write (but doesn’t) and someone who must write (and does so, unceasingly)? What makes an author believe that what they have to say is worth the time and money of other readers? Why are they willing to gamble so much time and painful effort on something that, for most authors, will never be read by anyone other than the editor who rejects it? I know all about why someone who can write would choose not to stake his life on writing; what I would like to hear about is what drives those who are willing to stake their lives on it?

Timothy Bowman

* (Parenthetical portion of title courtesy of Colin Hay’s song “Beautiful World” from the album “Going Somewhere”.)

Choosing to Be a Writer – Guest Post by Maria Rainier

Choosing to Be a Writer: Ulterior Motives and Good Intentions

Like many college students, I had a hard time focusing on just one subject to study – one major to define four years of my life and provide the foundation for my career. It was a lot of pressure from professors, from family, and mostly from inexplicable reactions that happened in an unfamiliar territory that felt like my stomach suffering from indigestion. The pressure grew into uncontrolled worry, paranoia, and insomnia before I decided to end it regardless of the consequences. After settling haphazardly on Spanish and international studies, I immediately switched to piano performance and allowed the incessant demand for hard work to swallow my thoughts and energy. Three years passed before I made my last and most difficult change, deciding to study English with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric. Why?

On Writing for Life

It’s a question I often ask myself, and others who consider my behavior strange have demanded solid reasons for my apparent mismanagement of self and of others’ resources. To them, I point out that I did graduate in four years, magna cum laude. They no longer feel that I owe an explanation, but on solitary afternoons without music, I have to answer my own question. I do miss the piano and the ability to enjoy the company of other musicians who need no words to communicate. But the practical side of me that’s been unfairly paired with a strictly creative spirit is fulfilled by writing and left cold by music.

I began to approach the idea of becoming a writer when I realized that studying music would not equip me for life after college. It was a purely practical urge, one that I had ignored in order to focus on developing myself as a musician, and it had grown to a size that couldn’t be ignored. I knew that out of the slew of impractical skills and hobbies I had, writing was the most practical and had the most potential for getting me through life in the real world. What I didn’t expect from it was the opportunity to be creative.

Writing as Profession

I’m a professional writer. I use writing as a versatile tool to accomplish a variety of goals, such as successful communication, informing others, constructing marketing campaigns, publicizing, and even entertaining. I manipulate words to achieve specific effects – the ultimate practical use of writing. And although I’m not changing the world or solving its problems, my practical side is satisfied that I’m able to support myself while I plot my next move. Fortunately, that’s not where my decision to be a writer ends – I also allow myself to enjoy writing as a creative enterprise.

Writing as Creation

They say you should write every day if you want to become a serious writer. I do that as work, but it’s not what I would be writing if I had the choice – and I think that’s the important part of writing for personal development. After I’ve worked all day, writing for two different jobs, I have to find a way to rediscover writing as creation. At night, I leave the keyboard out of the equation, grab a notebook and a few pens, and leave my home office. It doesn’t matter if I just go sit in my car to write or if I go to a café, but physically leaving work for play is the only way I can access my creative writer. And without that opportunity to write as release, I wouldn’t be a writer.

The Nature of Writing

It’s an interesting entity. Writing can be every bit as artistic as painting, performing music, acting, or dancing, but it’s also a tool that can be used for efficient communication – a tool that’s indispensable in today’s corporate and social world. I like to think that I’ve chosen both practicality and creativity, and it’s a great feeling.

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, where recently she’s been researching different online bsw degrees and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

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