Sunday, October 7, 2018

Wood Gathering

I've been splitting and piling wood as the days cool and shorten. The smell of fresh pitch and sawdust, the "sprong" as a tough chunk of fir splits, the satisfying clunk as it all piles into place -- it's a delicious way to spend a morning, even though it leaves me aching in hands,
back and arms.  I am grateful for the long work gloves given to me by my friend, Kevin, as a farewell gift when I left the city for the island.  Without them, my arms would be sticky with pitch and prickling with wood splinters.  There's nothing quite like the joy of watching the pile grow, knowing that, as my Dad often remarked, it will warm me in many ways--cutting, moving, stacking, unstacking, moving again, building the fire and finally, sitting in front of it. He also used to quote Albert Einstein, who said, "People love chopping wood.  In this activity one immediately sees results."  If Albert Einstein liked it, my father implied, so could he.

My sister is a real woods woman (she quickly embraced being a "woman with a chainsaw" after an unexpected Christmas gift from her husband) and while she visited this fall we tackled the wood. We tossed and piled, chopped and calculated how to fit everything in.  Meanwhile, with the rhythm of wood stacking moving us in a united direction, we talked about everything -- families, friends, getting older, the future, what really mattered in life.  As we saw results of our labour grow, we also rebuilt our own connections.

Of course, it's not without discomfort.  My finger turned purple after being caught between two big chunks of fir.  My clothing has been shedding sawdust for days, even after washing.  But it's worth the labour to stack the wood in the fireplace and set it alight, curling up on the carpet in front of it on a pillow, book in hand.  The crackle of the flames takes me to another world and warms me through in many ways.

There are times when I am writing that I wish I could just stack the words one on top of another, pile the sentences wherever there was a gap and wear protective gear to save me from the flowing sap and detritus that dribbles out of a paragraph, sticks to my skin and gets into my hair.  I have days when I don't see results, when the pile looks the same -- or worse -- than it did when I started in the morning.  Those are the days when I wonder why I'm doing this, the days when I want to throw in the writing towel and get outside to chop kindling.  Some days that's what I do.  But other days I decide I will write like that, stack words and sentences and paragraphs wherever they will fit, start a new pile when the previous one teeters, and, painful though it may be at times, the page begins to fill.  And, like Thomas Edison, I will appreciate those results, too, that I know several thousand things that don't work.  Writing is not without bruises.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bikes in the forest

Since coming to the island I have started to cycle the forest trails with a group of women on Sunday mornings.  For a rider accustomed to the flat, paved cycling lanes of Richmond, an island city in the Fraser River delta system, it has been a shock to the system (and to my bicycle!). 

The trails are full of dips and curves, roots and rocks.  Sometimes the hills are so steep that standing up makes my back wheel spin out from under me and I have to sit down to keep moving through loose gravel or bark (I really need to trade in my city street rain tires for knobby off-road tires!).  Sometimes the salal grows so close on each side that the trail disappears and I have to keep my eyes ahead and forge on through, trusting that my tires will find purchase and that my forward momentum will get me through.  I have at times seen an upcoming root or rock and thought, "No way can I navigate through this," but I'm going fast enough and the riders ahead of me have done it so I launch myself through it.  Sometimes I even make it without crashing.

A few weeks ago I was feeling more off-balance than usual, seeing that the trail curved tightly between two small trees but unable to pour my bicycle through the gap without sailing off into blackberry brambles.  I hauled my bike back on the trail by the handlebars, brushed the leaves off my shirt and climbed back on.  Within minutes, I was concentrating on avoiding a rock when I missed another turn and landed (more softly) in the salal. By this time my fingers ached from my tight grip and I forced myself to concentrate on the trail. We plunged on through the bushes, vines reaching out to grab my handlebars, branches scraping my legs.  We climbed, panting, up another hill, and I felt my back tire skid.  I looked down at the rounded rocks of the trail and felt myself careen off into the bush again.

The woman behind me was patient and tactful.  She stopped, waited until I was ready to start off again and said mildly, "I was told that if you look where you want to go instead of where you are, you will find your way through. It's a way of trusting yourself and your bike."
Cycling crew

"Huh," I answered, too breathless and frustrated to say more. I would try it.  Look ahead, I thought, not down.  Trust myself, trust my bike.

As we took off again, I tried to take her advice.  I was so accustomed to watching the obstacles just in front of me that it was a conscious effort to look beyond them.  I forced my eyes to see ahead to the open trail, through the curve and between two close trees that resembled a needle to be threaded by me and my bike.  But this time my hands were looser on my grips, my stance on my bike more relaxed.  And without quite knowing what had happened, I was through, gliding along the wide pathway, lifting my eyes to look ahead.

We stopped for a water break, and I marvelled to the group what a difference it made.  They nodded.  Tensing up and looking down, they agreed, was a sure way to end up where you don't want to be.

Tiny cottage and bike
That afternoon I sat down at my desk and looked over my new writing project.  I corrected little typos and wordy phrasing, moved some details to the other end of a sentence. I started a new paragraph, my hands tensing over the keyboard, my words stumbling on each other.  What was this sentence adding to the narrative momentum, I thought, and erased it.  The cursor blinked.  Come on, come on, get the sentence down.  My phone whistled and I turned to it in relief.  Texted pictures from this morning's ride.  I thought about what I'd learned from my cycling group.  Look where you want to be, not where you are.

My fingers relaxed and the words stuttered and then began to flow.  I knew where I was going -- writing was just a trail to get there.  Full of knots and roots and rocks, of course, but if I kept my eyes on my destination, trusted myself and my story, I would stay on the path.  My fingers began to fly and soon I was blasting downhill to a chapter end.  Euphoria twice in one day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Cover Story

It's an adrenaline-fueled moment when I see the subject line in the email:  "Possible cover image for...".  To see how a designer imagines my story, works it into images, massages metaphors into the symbols, colours and font design makes the publishing process real.  I won't share until it's confirmed and released, but I'm happy with it.  I have students who obligingly tell me they won't judge a book by its cover, but as a librarian I know it happens all the time.  I do it too -- there's an emotional quotient to a cover that affects readers before they read the title page, and designers who get it right know how to strike that fine balance between the content of the story and the audience appeal. 

The cover of Fishtailing gave me a jolt.  It was strange to think of someone putting hard images to the characters who had taken such deep root in my imagination.  I saw where they came from, and the click of shared understanding made the somewhat frightening process of publishing my book a little easier.  It was out there in the world, on its own trajectory, not just a piece of myself.

I appreciate the emotional connection with the cover designer of my second novel, Baggage, and I look forward to the connection with readers as well.

Smoke and mirrors

The Gulf Islands have been relatively free of the forest fire smoke blanketing the rest of the province this summer.  But this week, it rolled in, blocking the sun, turning the nearby islands into foggy shapes, catching at the back of my throat.  Our walking group was cancelled today, and the radio recommends avoiding all outdoor exertion.  In the evening the strange orange light casts an apocalyptic haze over the world.

It's frightening to hear news pundits predict that these last two smoky summers in British Columbia will become the "new normal" as climate change takes hold and inches the thermometers higher until the forests are tinder dry and the summer skies are filled with choking smoke for weeks on end.

But the smoke does provide new imaginings.  From last blog entry's writing opener I take a line, "I am a part of all that I have met, yet all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams that untravelled world that fades forever and forever."  The worlds begin to rise.

  • a boy from the city is trapped in an inflatable boat with a girl he doesn't like, with a broken motor, dangerous currents and smoke that destroys their sense of direction; 
  • far in the future, a subsistence farmer scrabbles an isolated living from the former tundra boglands, the smoky Southlands uninhabitable, the air unbreathable.  He's been alone since his brother died a year before.  One night, he hears a knock on the door; 
  • after fleeing a fire that destroyed her home, her school and much of her town, a girl returns with her family to start over in the charred landscape of what once was a sheltered suburb.
The smoke is a mirror, and if I look deeply into it, the stories swirl around, bubble like steaming broth.  I can't see the blue sky behind the smoke, can't go walking through the forest or cycling on the trails, and the visibility makes kayaking a bad idea.  So I go down the stairs to my writing room, power up my computer and look in the mirror for the untravelled world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Writing opener

As a teacher of writing classes and someone who occasionally needs a nudge in the right direction from my inner voices, I like to use what I call "openers."  These are little exercises to get me to leap into the spaces I haven't filled, to trust the urge to experiment and play with words.

Here's one of my favourites.  I call it "Thunder and sunshine."

Find a poem or passage filled with fragrant words -- words that hit the olfactory nerve and go straight to the brain stem.  You don't need to be able to interpret the passage or poem -- you just need to connect with the words.  Two poems that have worked well are "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and "The Second Coming" by William Yeats. 

This works best if someone else reads it out loud, but you can skim it yourself as well.

Go over the poem twice, and listen (or read) for the sound and taste of the words, not the meaning of the poem.  When a word or phrase hits your senses, scribble it down.  I like to use pencil and paper for this, because it's a tactile, sensual activity, but if your preference is a keyboard, go for it.  You should aim for about 15-20 words or short phrases.

Once you've finished the second reading, go over your list.  Choose the ten juiciest words.  Mess around with them -- put them in random order, alphabetical order, size order -- anything that mixes it up.  Gradually allow an order to come to the words and incorporate them into a poem or a paragraph of your own.

You may be surprised what emerges from your hungry heart, what slouches towards you to be born.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Wood works

Trees are a miracle.  Shade, fruit, syrup, flowers, soil stability, planks, spars, plywood -- trees provide sustenance and beauty that make our lives liveable. Wood is a thing of infinite possibilities.

One of the delights of leaving a job behind is the option of spending an afternoon with the smell of fresh cut wood in my nose and the prospect of a glowing natural surface under my hands.

My wooden kayak, built by my husband decades ago, needs refinishing.  It's a beautiful boat, light enough to heft onto my shoulder and walk down a beach, strong enough to take the grind on shell beaches.  It skitters over the surface of the ocean like a leaf, tracks through choppy ocean waves with a few twists of the paddle, and drifts silently with a current when I want to be still in the water.  I'm not a designer or builder, but I'm a whiz with paint scraper, sandpaper and varnish. The kayak is made from "tortured marine plywood" and as I sand I feel the tension and spring in the wood.  When I stroke the smooth hull, I feel its yearning to leap forward into foaming waves or glide quietly through swirling eddies.

Working with wood reminds me of what happens when I write.  Writing needs a vision, fragrant and beautiful raw materials (good words smell like fresh-cut cedar), skills to shape and assemble it, and then the patient sanding, painting, varnishing and polishing to make it gleam.  I can feel the yearning of a story, the echoes of characters, the wonder of something new. Words too are things of infinite possibilities, and it's another delight to work those into a creation that can scud across the water to another shore.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Family matters

I spent much of my early teen years yearning to differentiate myself from my family.  In a smallish town, as one of four sisters, it was hard not to be recognized as a girl with the "Phillips" look.   I got used to people stopping and doing a double take, or talking to me as if they knew me when I'd never seen them before.  "No," I'd say, "I'm not THAT sister."  At family reunions, I liked looking around at my cousins and seeing my own features mirrored. But much as I admired my parents, my sisters, my aunts and uncles and my cousins, I wanted to make my own place, my own life, my own identity.

When I took off to university in Ottawa and then to teach as a volunteer in Lesotho, Africa, no one recognized my family connections.  Success! I thought.  I was only me.  My family was a quaint background story, but I was making my own way.

They say that it's healthy for teens to search for themselves and be willing to take chances to create themselves.  That's why the frontal lobe of teen brains is underdeveloped.  (That's the part that controls impulse and risk, that sees consequences.)  If we knew what might happen, would we ever do what we do as teens?  I look back with stunned surprise at my willingness to do dumb things just for the thrill when I was 17. I'm also somewhat stunned that I survived it.

I'm glad I took some of those chances, and that I went off and found out what I could do by myself.  But now I'm also immensely grateful for being a part of something bigger.

My family gathered last weekend for a reunion at my sisters' beautiful log cabin in the forest.  We barbecued trout, we swam in the lake, we bushwhacked through the woods on walks, we rode bikes down long dirt roads. We talked about the fun and irrational things we did when we were young. And through it all I felt the draw of family.  We are close in age, and as we became adults, people have had an even harder time telling us apart.  But we are quite different in many ways.  While we share values and early experiences, we have also gone our own ways in the world, and each of my sisters has shaped the clay of our family into their own sculpture of who they are.

And now I love these photos where we look the same.  Family matters.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

False Narrows

False Narrows, Gabriola Island
I live on the edge of a Salish Sea passage called False Narrows, a sometimes treacherous channel between two islands.  When the tide is high, it looks inviting, a promise of deep blue water  between two open sections of ocean.  But lurking beneath the surface are the broad, oyster- and clam-rich sandbars that will catch an unwary boater.  When the tide is low, the sand islands bare themselves to the sky and to rubber-booted tide-pool explorers.  A deep, marked channel  guides the careful boater through to the open water on the other side, but even following the markings, paddlers and sailboards will struggle against the current, and motorboats will find their props clogged with trailing kelp. Last summer a sailboater tacked too close to the shallows and got caught by the dropping tide.  He and his passengers had to wait hours for the tide to lift them off the sand.

Sometimes I sip my coffee, sit back and watch. I admire the beauty of the changing landscape, count the herons, smile at the otters, marvel at the wingspan of the eagles. Other days the metaphor takes over.  Don't we all see the surface rather than the hazards hidden below?  Those with experience and careful preparation know the harmless way through to the other side.  And sometimes, a hapless blunderer will roar through the shallows, blithely unaware that he or she is centimetres from disaster. False narrows, false promises, blind luck.

Some say, when they hear I've moved to a Gulf Island, people tell me, "that will be so relaxing."  I'm definitely more in tune with natural rhythms, but the ebb and flow creates no shortage of daily drama.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Second novel release date!

Baggage, my second novel, will be published in April 2019.

It's a very exciting time in a writer's life to send a book out into the world.  As a parent, I know how important yet how difficult it is to launch a child, then stand back and let the world descend.  It's similar as a writer, letting my book out, a boat on the current, pulling away from shore.

I'm looking forward to seeing the new cover, writing an updated author biography, having new photos taken, bracing for a book launch.  But I understand afresh what Fitzgerald meant when he wrote how Gatsby must have suddenly seen "how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass."  Reality can be a hard place.

In my years of disillusionment, I used to write down and re-read quotes from that book. Years later, I see all around me that we all have baggage we must deal with, realities we must face and still carry on. And as someone once told me, it's what you do next that counts.

My library hosted Tom Ryan (Nova Scotia author) last May.  A student asked him, "What's your favourite book?" and he answered, "The one I'm working on.  I always have to look ahead."  He's younger than I am, but I'm taking his advice.

I'll let you know what's up with the next book when it's less "scarcely created."

Monday, June 18, 2018

Fishtailing history

You may know me by my first novel, Fishtailing, which won the Governor General's award in 2010.  It's a novel in verse for young adult readers, from the points of view of four students in a high school on the West Coast.

Trisha is searching for her identity in a mixed-race family; Kyle is torn between a life of music performance and the certainty of a mechanic's trade; Miguel and Natalie suffer from trauma -- Miguel has survived a civil war that has killed his parents and left him with fragements of family; Natalie is a survivor of neglect and sexual abuse who seeks to inflict her suffering on all those around her.  On the fringes are Ms Nishi, a well-meaning counsellor, and Mrs. Farr, a remote English teacher who assigns several of the poems that reveal the chaos of the young people's inner lives.  They fishtail out of control when a party brings the crises to a breaking point.

The book has won some significant awards, including the GG literary award for Children's Text (2010),
the Moonbeam Award for innovative writing, the shortlist for the Forest of Reading White Pine Award (2011) and the White Raven award (2012).  It's a quick but intense read, and I've had some strong feedback from readers about how strongly they felt about the characters and the story.

Here are a few links to reviews and stories about the book:

The Winnipeg Review
Kirkus Reviews
Canadian Review of Materials (CM)

Fishtailing Book trailer (created by Coteau)

New writing life begins!

I'm excited to announce my new life, beginning in just two weeks.  I am leaving the satisfying and demanding career of teaching and librarianship for the pleasures of full time writing on Gabriola Island.

My second novel, Baggage (working title!) is being published next year by Coteau, the wonderful publishers and promoters who put my first novel, Fishtailing, into the path of awards committees, reviewers and kids across the country.

We are done with the editing process (though as a writer, you are never truly "done") and are now into the long process of creating a real, hands-on book, with a cover, a blurb, a marketing plan and all those other things that go into what ends up on bookstore shelves.

Release date is April, 2019.  Keep watching for progress reports.