A horse of another colour

Word count: 424             Reading time: 1-2 minutes  

Early last month I went to borrow a cup of milk and came back with a cow.

By a cup of milk I mean I went in search of an answer to a simple question: where, locally, might a young writer hone her skills and get some encouragement?

Bad news: I couldn’t find such a place. Good news: I found the Lynn Valley Literary Society (LVLS) who, for five years, ran the highly-productive Young Writers’ Club (YWC). When other commitments began to conflict with the dedicated efforts of Peggy Trendell-Jensen and Laura Hoffman, the club went into hiatus. They asked if I’d like to revive it. For months I’d been thinking of ways to give something back to my community, the writing community in particular. I said yes. A nervous yes, but yes all the same.

Of course, before I could do anything, I needed a criminal background check. That was both free (LVLS is a registered non-profit organization) and fast through the local RCMP office. First hurdle cleared.

Then I read some of the work of the YWC members from prior years. Their poetry and stories showed a love of writing, skilful use of language, and good imagination. In other words: real talent.

Next there was the challenge of spreading the word that the YWC was starting up again and I had to decide what my version of the club would offer. I looked at the old format and decided against producing monthly newsletters. The thought of designing, editing, printing, and then trying to sell anthologies was also daunting. Similarly, I was disinclined to assemble large writing kits like the ones given out in past years. As admirable as those projects were, they clearly demanded a lot of administrative time. Too much for one person. An awful lot even for two!

Where did my experience lie? In recent years I’ve taken a number of writing classes. To me the greatest benefits came from:

  • finding a supportive environment in which to explore new ideas and techniques
  • breaking the isolation of writing
  • sharpening the skills of observation
  • working through writer’s block
  • trying creative exercises that help reach through conventional language to gain a fresh perspective on words and meanings

So, once a month, starting November 14th, the YWC will be doing some of those things. My cup of milk has morphed into a large, soft-eyed project that will keep me well-occupied for the months to come.

Have you ever run a young writers’ workshop? What hints or suggestions can you give me?


Photo by: basmeelker

The other half of writing

Word count: 320                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

This week the Vancouver Writers’ Festival is on. In Wednesday’s session called Word! with Ivan Coyote, Lemn Sissay, and C.R. Avery, I was doubled over with laughter one moment and swallowing the lump in my throat the next.

On the way out, of course I bought a couple of books and got them signed. It wasn’t an impulse purchase; I knew I’d buy Ivan Coyote’s latest. After seeing Lemn Sissay, I had to add his poetry my library. That got me thinking about reading as a writer. Some of the rules I try to follow are:

  • “Focus in on the genre you want to write, and read books in that genre.” Nicholas Sparks.
  • Read outside your genre.  Francine Prose: “A beautiful sentence transcends time and genre. […] This is just one of the many reasons it’s important to read outside of one’s own genre.”
  • Take advantage of the local library. North Vancouver has excellent libraries with knowledgeable librarians.  I know: I’m there every week.
  • Take the One Book Pledge. From Black Bond Books in Vancouver: “We are asking our customers to make one more of your book purchases at Black Bond Books, and one less from Amazon, or elsewhere. We are not asking you to buy all of your books from us, just one more at a Black Bond Books location.”  

That last one lets me support local businesses while I support the writing community. Some of my favourite people are writers. Some of my other favourite people are small business owners.

I’m going back to the Writers’ Festival on Friday and Saturday. I can’t wait to see Annabel Lyon, Chris Cleave, and Margaret Atwood, among others. I’m sure I’ll buy another book or two.

Are there any rules about reading that you follow? Do you have a favourite book store or are you more of a library person? Do you favour e-books over paper and ink?


Photo by: Lucky Business 

What I meant to say was...


Word count: 428                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve been told – and found it on the internet so it must be true – that the best way to wash a car is to do it twice. I don’t have a lot of patience with cars so mine’s lucky if it gets a single wash every couple of months. I’m like that with a lot of jobs. I’ll never create a dessert so beautiful that guests won’t want to eat it. I’ll never produce an awesome needlepoint or restore an old piece of furniture. I know. I’ve tried. These are all endeavours where the that-will-do-factor cuts in really early.

But writing? A different story: the more I do it, the greater my patience is for rewriting and the easier I accept other people’s input. So I  understand what Bernard Malamud meant when he said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

When writers forget this essential part of the writing process and rush to bring their work to the world by way of poorly-edited self-pubbed books they risk terrible remorse down the road as discussed by Suw Charman-Anderson of Forbes. They risk alienating readers who might have enjoyed their work if they had just given it a little more patience.

I'm sure there are writers whose flawless first drafts are ready for global release but John Irving’s words resonated with me: “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . . And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.”

I’d be delighted if I only had to write things three times like Malamud or was even close to Irving’s talent. But still, I do have the stamina to rewrite often, very often. And I hope, at the end of the process, whatever I offer the world shines like it’s been washed twice and well polished.

How do you feel about rewriting? Have you written your story at least three times? Does it finally say what it must?


Photos:      Junkyard Car by Melissa M. Morris

                 Old Truck by Ron Hilton

All of me, why not use all of me

Word count: 491                   Reading time: 2 minutes   

If you watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games, you might have noticed the fabulous woman percussionist who led the 1,000 drummers. When Dame Evelyn Glennie talks about music as she did in a TED lecture in February 2003, she talks about the physicality of making and listening to music. She is an expert on that subject: in spite of being profoundly deaf by the age of 12, she was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music. She urges us to listen to music, but not just with our ears. She says we should use our bodies as the resonating chamber to experience it. To make better music, musicians must likewise open their bodies to find the music that isn’t on the page. They must interpret and translate that which others cannot see.

After watching that talk, I wondered how writers might use their bodies to be resonating chambers for a more physical experience of writing. Is there a way to break out of the narrow space between our fingers and the screen? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Write with pen and paper. (How many times have you heard this? Still, Natalie Goldberg and the dozens of others who recommend it are right. It does give a closer, more intimate connection with the art).
  • Stand up to write occasionally. Being a chair warrior is an inevitable part of writing but standing opens the body and in doing so, it opens the mind and imagination.
  • Write in bare feet, to stay connected with the ground.
  • Cut a picture out of a magazine or download one from the internet that looks like one of your characters or backdrops. Stick it on a pin board and stare at it.
  • Pick up a pencil, crayon or paint brush and illustrate a small aspect of your story. Draw a map of the town or neighbourhood where events are situated.
  • Listen to music while you write. Get up and dance occasionally (no one’s watching) and let the paralysis of sitting slide away.
  • Go outside and crush a handful of leaves and feel the texture as they break away.
  • Set a cup of tea or coffee beside you on the work desk. Inhale deeply as you sip. Roll the liquid around your mouth before you swallow. How would that taste to your protagonist?
  • Read your work aloud because that’s where you’ll hear if your cadence is good and your dialogue natural.
  • Go for walks and let the ideas settle over you like autumn leaves or spring blossoms.

Whatever we see, hear, feel, or touch, there is always a story behind it. It may be part of our narrative, trying to get through to us.

How do open your body so your story will resonate through you? Can you remember any particular moment when a story or resolution came to you doing something entirely unrelated to the act of putting words on paper?


Photo by: Silvijo Selman