Monday, September 23, 2019

Change It Up

What do other writers do to make it work?
Routines are a curse and a blessing.  I have a shelf full of books about writing -- how to write, other writers' habits, writing systems, writing style books.  When I wonder why I haven't made regular progress on my latest work, I seek inspiration in the habits of other writers.  What do they do to get going?  How do they discipline themselves to put pen to paper (or fingertip to keyboard)?

I bury myself in my study and obsess over other writers' routines.  Yes, I think, that will work for me!  Then I look at  "inspiring quotes by writers" online.  Some of them seem so smart, so assured, so certain of what works.

How to do it?  Just start.
Routines keep me slogging through the times when I really don't want to do the supper dishes before going to bed, when I'd really rather not take the dog for a walk or answer the list of emails still flagged for attention. My father used to quote Benjamin Disraeli:  "The secret of success is constancy of purpose."  I rail at myself for being inconstant, for not following the schedule I set for myself.  A routine, I know, can get me sitting down to write even when I don't feel like doing it, when I'm still tussling with a plot twist that is too knotted up or is fraying at the edges.  It's hard, and I want to avoid it.  Rituals are soothing. Even if the problem isn't solved, at least this much is true, that it happens every weekday.

But if the ritual becomes stale I'm in trouble.  I stare out the window thinking how dark the sky, how sodden the rainy ground, how easy it is to forget about writing and fold laundry just because it's Monday.  Then I need to change things up, even in small ways.  I need to walk a new trail, paint a wall, write a poem today instead of a plot diagram.

Stepping back to step forward
I get inspiration from reading about what others do, and sometimes they can give me a fresh approach, a new way of looking, new eyes.  Sometimes I have to step back from it all in order to step forward.  Sometimes I have to rip up my To Do list and take a deep breath of rain-fresh air, contemplate my next words to the rhythm of my hiking boots on the trail, and tackle the thorny problem late at night rather than early in the morning.  Writing can be torture; it can also be a thrilling ride.  I will read about others' rituals, make my own, and change it up when I need to.  We need to surprise ourselves to keep the thrill alive.

“If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn't expecting it.”― H.G. Wells

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Risky Business

 Recently, we visited a neighbouring island to check on a cabin.  My husband loaded the inflatable with all our gear and I slid in the kayak.  
In the kayak before the waves built
  “Sure you’re okay?” he called and I waved him on.  Of course I was. I was in familiar water and I knew what I was doing. It was a brisk day with a wind chop and I was alone. I had all my safety gear on, but as the chop got a little higher and the water got a little closer to my cockpit with every wave, my imagination began to anticipate what might happen if I dumped into the cold spring sea and had to swim to the nearest shore.  I edged closer to the shore, just in case, and the currents pushed me back into eddies. Nope.  I had to trust my boat and surf the open water of the connecting passage. 
            As the waves swept under me and my kayak rocked and splashed, my heart began to race. I ignored the voice in the back of my head telling me I was stupidly overconfident and dug my paddle into the foam at the top of each wave.  Eventually I crossed the open water and made it into the relative shelter of the next island.  By the time I worked my way up the island and glided into the calm bay, I was elated.  I’d gone into an adrenaline-charged state that strengthened my arms and my will and left me with a rush of joy.

It reminded me of an outing last summer, when I climbed with family members to a high lookout and repeater station above Shuswap Lake in the interior of BC.  The viewpoint was a small section carved out of the side of the mountain, and my stomach lurched as my son and his girlfriend inched closer to the precipice. But the view and the threat of a terrifying drop sent another rush of fire through my heart.
On the precipice over Shuswap Lake

            Moving to Gabriola Island has made life easier in many ways.  I no longer commute by ferry and float plane from Vancouver on weekends. I no longer fight bridge traffic on my way to work. I no longer engage in bureaucratic battles at work to fight for change.  It’s been a time of doing what suits me, saying “No” to what doesn’t, and not worrying about making the easier choices.  But this new life is not all about pulling the lever on the La-Z-Boy.  I find myself needing to take a few risks, to get the blood and adrenaline flowing. 
            Without the daily aggravation of professional city life, I need to challenge myself in other ways.  I’ve joined a theatre group and climbed, heart thumping, on stage. 
 I’ve joined a walking group that pushes my endurance and reminds me that older doesn’t necessarily mean slower.  As you know if you’ve read previous posts, I’ve begun cycling off-road trails that challenge my courage and my leg muscles.

At Indigo on Robson
At the RPL launch of Baggage
          Then there’s writing.  I launched my second novel, Baggage, in May, and revisited the city for a presentation at the Richmond Public Library, school visits, a book signing at Indigo on Robson Street and a Writers Festival at Vancouver Public Library. A week later, there was a Gabriola Library presentation, attended by friends from my new life. The stress of getting books to the venue on time, saying the right thing at the right time, facing an audience of expectant faces, and being reminded that a writer is only as good as her last book kept me up at night.  But each event reminds me that I don’t know what I can do until I’m pushed. Taking a risk is keeping alive.
Signing books at the Gabriola Library

            I’m not advocating jumping out of a plane without a parachute, but I know that I need to climb out of my comfort zone if I want to grow.  It might be summertime and the living might be easy, but I can’t get too far back from the edge for too long.
            So I open a new document and write the first words of a new book.   And when the waves get bigger and my heart starts beating faster, then I know I’m alive. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Making it real

My early Canadian
literary landscape

When I move, or travel somewhere I've never been, one of my first steps in preparation is to find fiction or poetry set there.  Maybe it was growing up with parents who recited to me and my sisters bedtime stories about their childhood. My father told us stories about farm life, about delivering milk at the crack of dawn from his family dairy farm at the age of 15 in a rickety old truck, or the hair-raising trip of our ancestor down the Fraser River on an Overlander raft.  My mother told stories of growing up on an apple orchard in the Okanagan, building secret playhouses with apple boxes, and she retold her Girl Guides camping scary stories that transfixed us around summer campfires.  The hills and streets of my hometown weren't just themselves; they were layered with generations of stories, voices of the past echoing through the sagebrush or drifting like blossoms through the apple orchards.

Ontario reinvented
through a Cat's Eye
New perspectives, new layers
When I moved to Ottawa and started studying Canadian literature in earnest, I discovered that Ontario was layered with stories that stretched from early settler tales from Susanna Moodie to urban Toronto stories from Margaret Atwood, to First Nations perspectives from Tomson Highway.  I couldn't look at the landscape around my campus residence room without seeing through the filter of the stories that gave it depth and context.

When I lived in Lesotho at the time of apartheid in South Africa, it was Andre Brink and Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali.  In Australia I read Sonia Harnett, Melina Marchetta, John Marsden and Markus Zusak.  It was fiction that made the land real to me, just as American and British writing made me feel I know places I have never been.

Not only home, but part
of the literary landscape
Fiction makes it real
My own books, though not set in a specific school in the Lower Mainland, include elements that local readers will recognize.  The staircase from one school, the lockers from another, the Starbucks at the end of the Skytrain station -- it's all part of creating a literary as well as physical reality.  Growing up and reading books about far flung places, I always felt that "somewhere else" was the appropriate place in which to set stories. ("Yes, this is Jack Kerouac's road!") As I read more about the places I lived, I realized it wasn't the places themselves but the literary imagination that made them settings.

Add caption
After I became an island dweller, I ran across a book in a second hand shop that called out to me.  I had heard of Malcolm Lowry's last novel about a tortured relationship, October Ferry to Gabriola, but never read it.  As I followed the characters from Vancouver to Deep Cove to Gabriola, I was immersed in then as well as now. I had taken a bus up Vancouver Island.  I had ridden the October ferry to Gabriola. It's a different road and a different ferry now, but I saw it through new eyes after reading it in fiction.  This isn't just any ferry.  It's Malcolm Lowry's ferry.

I know those chickens!
Then my new Island book club chose Susan Juby's hilarious Woefield Poultry Collective, and the farmer's market in Cedar and the English pub down the road took on a literary gleam.

Gabriola draws many writers. Our local public library (Vancouver Island Regional Library) has a brochure that includes a long list of celebrated (local) writers, and the longer I am here, the more I read by local writers and the more the island becomes woven into a physical and imaginary tapestry.  Now I am on that list, and my next book will have  elements that make it real for me, and, I hope, for my readers.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

New cover!

Here it is -- the cover of my new book, Baggage (release date May 1).  Love how the designers captured both the literal and figurative meaning of the title.


It's in Coteau's spring releases catalogue (check  page 4) on The 49th Shelf, iTunes (for e-reader types) and Goodreads, and is reviewed by CM Magazine (Canadian Review of Materials) on April 5.  When you've read it, please visit these sites share your thoughts.

The official book launch will be at the Richmond Public Library (Brighouse branch) on May 8th, followed by an evening book signing and reading at a Vancouver bookstore (location TBA).  And, of course, there will be a local celebration at the Gabriola Island branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library) on May 25th. So exciting to see my latest heading out into the world! 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Progress on the new novel, Baggage

Here's an update for the new novel.  Baggage cover copy has been worked over, the cover is almost finished, and we are working on a good place for a book launch.  The first launch will be Vancouver, where the book is set, but I'm hoping to have some celebrations in Victoria and Gabriola as well.  Exciting days ahead!

Thursday, February 14, 2019


The snow has arrived in swirling blizzards that have left towering, soft piles of white over the South Coast.  Our little island, which has blithely gone about its green business while the rest of Canada shivers in the grip of a massive Arctic outflow, is reminded that we are, indeed, part of the country.  Everything I had planned for the last two days has been cancelled.  I got my exercise clearing the driveway with a snow shovel.  As I did, two neighbours passed on their morning walk, and predicted, "Those people who have just moved here to get away from this weather will be thinking twice.  Eight days without power in December and now this heavy snow?  They'll believe we lied to them."

Our island is full of transplants.  Rarely do I run across a person who was born and brought up here.  The island has been subject to wave after wave of incoming groups -- the farmers and brickmakers, the back-to-the land hippies, the environmental activists, the artists and musicians.  The latest group has been the retirees. Those who can work from home (like writers and artists) or those who needn't work at all choose the island because it's beautiful and friendly and more affordable than the big city across the strait. The First Nations people who originally populated the island have left their ghosts in petroglyphs in the forest and the white middens that mark generations of shellfish harvests.  It's rare to find a descendent among the current citizens.

I grew up with big snowfalls in the Interior and today, as it piles up on the bamboo and pampas grass and yucca plants, I am reminded of the way it used to cover the brown grass and weigh down branches of apple and poplar trees.  But it's different here.  I'm a transplant, like the windmill palm tree next door.  The snow is foreign to us.  Even though I have lived on the coast longer than I lived in the Interior, I still feel the strange breath of salt air by the ocean, laden with moisture and blurring from one shade of grey to another.  The snow from my childhood was to be expected.  This is an exotic gift.

For many it's a struggle to make a home in a new place.  The air is different. The native plants don't smell the same.  Familiar faces have been left behind. And the harsh realities of the new don't always match the expectations of what they hoped would be a new and better world.  Making friends can be hard work, full of awkward misunderstandings and discomfort with strangers.  People come from wildly different circumstances, dreaming of a place that feels like a home but often not certain how to create one.

 Yet somehow we survive, sometimes because of a friendly hand, sometimes because we've sunk our teeth into this rocky island on the fringe of the Salish Sea and refuse to let go.

I've lived as an outsider often.  My university campus was 3,000 km from my hometown.  From there, I travelled to the high mountains of Southern Africa, where I loved the people and the culture but was constantly reminded that I was a transplant.  In Australia, I loved the friendliness and the strange flora and fauna, but there too I strained to understand colloquialisms and always felt the distance between me and them.

Sometimes I walk the forests or the beach and feel like I've come home.  But there's always an edge of "otherness" about living here.  And as a writer, I see the good in that.  If I'm to see a place, I need to see its geography not as a native born daughter, its actions not as unthinking instinct, its characters not as familiars.  I need to step back for perspective.  I need to measure all that is familiar here with all that has been familiar elsewhere.  I need to see with different eyes.  Being apart can feel lonely at times but in rare flashing moments it also feels like a gift of sight. 
I am reminded of Tennyson's "Ulysses":
I am a part of all that I have met
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world
That fades forever and forever when I move.

I may sometimes be a stranger here, but that doesn't mean I'm not home.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Alone, Together

In the 1980s I fell in love with Barbra Streisand’s anthem for that decade, “Lullaby for Myself” from her album “Superman.”  It was the time of celebration of a bleak truth that we are, at our core, discreet individuals, solitary entities, singularities.  The joy of living alone, of owing no one an answer, of not sharing “a pair of pork chops when you crave champagne and cheese” – I was sold.  My friend and I argued about the final lines – was it his interpretation: “If just one damn man could share the need/to be alone with me” a message that she wanted to be with someone else in spite of her cry for independence, or was it mine: “If just one damn man could share the need to be alone/with me,” suggesting she wanted a relationship but she also needed her alone time?  We had several loud arguments over that line ending.

My study
I have always enjoyed time alone.  There’s something delicious about being able to act or speak without being watched.  Maybe that’s what appeals to me about writing, for the act of writing is, for me, a deeply solitary endeavor.  If I’m not physically alone (Virginia Woolf famously said that what a woman writer needed was “money and a room of her own.”) I must somehow shut out all the sound and fury of the world outside me, and disappear into my own isolation in order to hear an inner voice.

Direction sign in an island park
When I go back to the city for a visit, surrounded by traffic and crowds, I wonder how I ever lived there.  I long to return to the deserted winter beaches and forest trails of my island. I love to curl up with my book in a quiet house in front of the fire. I relish my study, where I can close my door and vanish into my imagination.  The trail to nowhere beckons me.  

Walking group
Yet, when I have drunk my fill of being alone, when the sound of my own voice begins to bounce irritatingly around in my head, I have to reach out.  I join the weekly walking group and tramp the trails with 30 plus people instead of alone. I go farther and faster, and I talk non-stop when I’m with them.  I go to rehearsal for the play I’m part of, work on scenes, drink tea and stack chairs and share lives.  I go online and read and respond to posts from my communities.  I invite neighbours and friends for dinner and cook all day in anticipation. Our little island has a thousand ways of being alone together.

Winter Beach
Sometimes I take a ferry to the city, where I walk through downtown streets, craning my neck at the tops of the towers, nodding to strangers on the seaside walking trail, enjoying the buzz on the crowded Skytrain, drop in on old friends and soak up their company.  I’m not sure why, when I embrace solitude, but I recognize that being with others feeds my soul. I return to my solitude overflowing with stirred-up ideas, new ways of seeing, new voices, and the knowledge that the teeming world out there is full of sparks, of sound and fury, of light and delight.

And sometimes, my lullaby for myself sounds better sung in harmony.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Ways of looking -- Opener #2

Time for another writing opener.  I got this exercise from a writing workshop years ago.  It helps me break open my ordinary ways of looking at the world, always a good start to writing.

1. Begin by reading aloud the startling poem by Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."  Click on the title to go to the Poetry Foundation webpage version.  For convenience, I've reproduced it below:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
By Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he  mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be  flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

2. Next, choose a concrete object that prompts different emotional responses for you.  Write an imitation to “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” using your own item.  Try changing perspective with each section.  Number each one.

3.  Here's an example of one I started when I looked out the window a while ago.  Try it yourself to get your eyes seeing through a different lens.

Thirteen ways of looking at a cloud
 by Wendy Phillips (with apologies to Wallace Stevens)

Cheerful puff of friendliness
Cloud against the blue sky.

In the dark of night the cloud hides the full moon
Light pulses within
I think
I hear rumbling.

As the jetliner climbs through the rainclouds
Into the thin sunshine
We cry in rapture
At the sight of God.

O Joni Mitchell
Clouds, love, life
It’s all so

Only 9 more stanzas to go!  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Devil in the Details

Sometimes when I walk in the forest, I keep my eyes on the trail ahead, the climb up the steep hill, the splendid view when I get to the top.  But the other day I decided not to focus on the goal or the panorama that awaited me, and to stop and focus on details.  I noticed the drops of water on the bramble, the gleam on the blackberry, the colours of mushrooms.  Suddenly the world was filled with small miracles.

After my walk I was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, marveling at the way I could be transported into the bizarre underworld, feel the character’s pain.  Neil Gaiman’s focus on carefully selected details was what created that sensation for me.  He didn’t include every detail – that would be a tedious reading experience – but he focused our attention on details that brought the world alive.

When I was younger, I loved writing descriptive paragraphs, amazed at my own ability to notice little things and put them into strange and (to me) wonderful contexts and metaphors and similes that no one else might have thought about.  I filled my paragraphs with everything, and if I thought of something new,  I would rewrite to pack it in. 

Soon, though, I noticed the story began to bog down.  When I described every detail in a setting or a character’s clothing or physical sensations, I lost momentum, and couldn’t keep the narrative going.  That’s when I discovered the importance of selection.  Every detail had to contribute to the overall effect I wanted to create.  Would I describe eyebrows or nose?  Would I focus on the painting on the wall or the crack in the leg of the coffee table?  Which one would push my story forward?  Now the challenge is not so much the noticing of details – after all, that’s the thing that nourishes the sense of miracles, the seed that bursts into bloom when I fit them in where they belong – but the selection of which details are the best of the best. 

Reading theory suggests that the act of reading is a series of intuitive leaps.  I like to think it is also a series of sensory leaps, from one image to the next, a sensual feast of mushrooms and blackberries and water droplets.