The jury is out

Word count: 300                                 Reading time: 1-2 mins.

This spring, after years of avoiding it, I went to an open mike night. As I read the first poem I had written since high school, I clamped my hands together so they wouldn’t telegraph my nervousness. After that, I was invited to join Word Whips, a group led by the amazing poet Fran Bourassa. The challenge there was even greater: not only do writers read work aloud, they compose it on the spot.

“Speak only the truth even if your voice shakes,” sang The Blackout in Keep On Moving. That could easily be the motto of Word Whips as Fran’s free-writing exercises trigger deep emotional responses. Group members write powerful, often exquisite, pieces in five and ten minute sprints. In my inaugural session, both inspired and intimidated by the talent around me, I wrote a bitter poem to someone who once betrayed me. My voice quavered as I read it. When I finished, several people laughed, one even applauded. In being truthful, I had touched a universal chord.

No fear, no envy, no meanness Liam Clancy advised the young Bob Dylan in their early days in Greenwich Village[1]. There is so much to be learned from other artists, I have overcome my fear and envy and returned to Word Whips every month. When there, I remind myself it isn’t a critique group; it’s a sharing exercise, the chance to stretch artistic muscles. No fault-finding, no blame. The only thing anyone is guilty of is the desire to improve.

What are your experiences with reading your work aloud? Do you do it only in the privacy of your own home? Or have you taken the most difficult challenge and stormed through the barrier of your first public reading? Do you ever read out loud to anyone?


Photo by: Kenny1

[1] No Direction Home

Attention, please.

 Word count: 370            Reading time: 2-3 mins.

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang in Beautiful Boy.

Our house in Sydney, Australia perched on a ridge overlooking the Forestville Ferrets Junior Rugby League Football Club. A wide border of cliffs and eucalyptus forest separated us from the clubhouse and playing fields, one hundred feet below. We spent many evenings sitting on our deck, watching the faraway games. One Sunday morning, as we worked in the garden, cars started to arrive at the clubhouse: normal weekend activity at a sports club. Half an hour later voices, strong and melodious, rose from the valley.

Throughout the day the parking lot filled and the choirs swelled. Rich Māori voices serenaded us as we built an orchid rockery, hung out laundry, washed the dogs, ate lunch and then dinner. The haunting music drifted up to us until the next morning. Then car doors slammed, tires crunched on the gravel of the parking lot, and silence slipped over the world.

We lived in that house for fifteen years but the Māori singers gathered at Forestville Park just once. When I close my eyes, I can see the groups standing in circles on the playing field. Still I wish I’d paid more attention to the different choral exchanges, to when the singing was the strongest, to how many children were in the crowd, and to the aroma of the food wafting up from the fire pits. I wish I’d been living more and making plans less.

In an interview in the Fall 1965 edition of Paris Review, William S. Burroughs said, “Most people don't see what's going on around them. That's my principal message to writers: for God's sake, keep your eyes open.” 

How is your writing life going? Are you busy making plans or are you living each day fully? When you ride the bus or drive your usual route home every day, do you stare into the far point of the tunnel, to your destination? Or are your eyes wide open? Do you see what is going on around you? Are you ready to seize the day when life delivers a free Māori concert when you expected the grunt and clamor of a rugby game?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM

Let's get physical

Word Count: 253                   Reading time: 1-2 mins. 

In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg asserts Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. She advocates the importance of writing with pen and paper, an approach supported by Patrick E. McLean in his light-hearted essay A Defense of Writing Longhand. Both these thinkers agree that writers need to play with the physical, keyboard-free aspect of writing.

Among other things, Goldberg suggests writing on a big drawing pad because she says our tools affect the way we form our thoughts. What is a bigger, more essential tool in writing than our body and brain? In Writing is not Healthy A.J. Jacobs outlines the health risks associated with being a writer. They are many. If you’re a worrier I suggest you don’t read it. His article reminded me of this quote from Herophilus:

When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless and intelligence cannot be applied.

I constantly have anywhere from 3-5 manual writing notebooks on the go. Occasionally I pick up a pencil to sketch one of my characters or scenes, so I guess I meet the use-a-different tool challenge. The instrument that needs greater care is my body. On that note I think I’ll stop typing and go for a walk.

What physical tools do you do use to dig deep into your psyche? What about that most essential piece of equipment – your body? How do you keep yourself strong and fresh for writing?


Photo by: Dmitry Maslov


 Word count: 286                    Reading time: 1-2 mins.

This past week we took a brief road trip to the Shuswap and Okanagan areas of BC to visit friends. We drove there on the old roads, the roads that have since been superseded by more direct routes forged by superior engineering. On the way home we switched to the Trans-Canada Highway, Route One, that winds along the Fraser Canyon. The often harsh landscape and the wild waters of the Fraser River reminded me, once again, of the determination of early explorers as they mapped the New World. I tried to imagine the perseverance those men mustered everyday as they woke to face new challenges, be it lack of food, inclement weather, hostile environments or (rightly) suspicious indigenous people.

That got me thinking, yet again, about perseverance as a writer. How hard should it be to keep at this endeavour, even in the face of chaos in the publishing world? Randy Pausch had it right in his Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University when he said, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” (By the way if you have an hour to spare and need some inspiration, this lecture is worth watching.)

So where are you with your writing? Are you at the top of the canyon frozen with inaction as the white water churns below and the storm clouds gather above? Or are you heeding the words of Randy Pausch, determined to scale that brick wall?



Photo by: Timothy Epp