Posts in Category: creative work

those billboards, I mean art

I had posted a photo of an intriguing billboard on my photo journal blog (now merged with this blog) a few weeks ago.  This very morning I noted that a smaller ad board nearby had some equally intriguing photographs posted in place of ads.  I knew this stuff was an art installation of some sort, but I didn't know why it was there or where it came from. 

A fella called Serge stumbled across that post today and kindly pointed me to the source of the photos on those billboards.  It's a project by Jim Goldberg, presented at the corner of Spadina and Front Streets, as part of Scotiabank's CONTACT Photography Festival

So I stopped on my way home and took some more photos (in very bright, read: bad, light).  I love public art installations, and I love the  compassion behind this project, in which the subjects were invited to take part in telling their stories.  I'm all about that.  

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The sun was so bright, I couldn't tell what the photo below would look like until I got home.  Technically it's shit, but I like that it shows the context (condo-land) of where this art installation is located – you can see bits of the installation amidst the surroundings.  And there's me in the bottom corner, taking that blind shot. 

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ten reasons why a writer should write like a photographer shoots


This post is dedicated to my most recent Creative Non-fiction class, who I'll be saying farewell to soon.  I've always used photography as a metaphor for writing in my classes, particularly this semester, during which I have also been carrying out my 365 photo project.  Following is some of that waxing metaphorical about some very common writerly issues:

 (My apologies to professional photographers everywhere.  But you get the picture.)

1.  A photographer creates images on paper.  A writer creates images in a reader’s mind. That’s why all the writing teachers always say, show it don’t tell it.  Have faith in the reader to see the images you’re creating.

2.  The best photographs, like the best stories, don’t have unnecessary stuff in them.  Once a photography teacher I had said: “You line up your shot, and then you take everything out of it, one by one, until the picture doesn’t make sense any more.  Then you put that last thing back in and shoot.”  When you’re telling a story, you’re creating those mind images, and you want to take out the stuff that might be cluttering them because it’s cumbersome.  If something isn’t essential to the story; if it doesn’t move the story along in some way, take it out.

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3.  If the focus isn’t clear, it’s not a good picture.  Do you know what your story is about?  Are you sure?  Can you say what it's about in one sentence?  If you don’t have a clear idea as to what the point of your story is, you might end up putting a lot of that extra stuff in it and it won’t be clear in your reader’s mind either. 

4.  The simplest of photographs can have tremendous impact, just like simple language and uncomplicated sentences.  Just like taking out the extra stuff, you want to take out unnecessarily fancy words and convoluted sentences.  If you use simple language almost all of the time, that one fancy word or complicated sentence used on just the right occasion, will have much more impact. 

5.  Zoom in close; it’s all in the details.  If you resort to generalizations, clichés, worn phrases, wagonloads of adjectives and adverbs, and assuming that your reader will know exactly what you mean when you say things like “and so forth” or "this or that" or what you are implying by ellipses at the ends of sentences… you’re falling into the trap of writerly laziness.  Get in close with lots of detail, and the pictures you create will be much more interesting. 

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6.  When you’re zooming in, look for story elements that provide interest, such as colour, textures, layers, lines, perspective, movement, life, light and emotion.  A good photograph conveys multiple dimensions.  So should a story.

7.  A photographer doesn’t have to stand there and explain her picture before an audience can appreciate it.  Similarly, it’s usually best for a writer to jump straight into scene rather than explaining all the background up front.  Scenes are much more interesting than background.  There are ways to weave in necessary explaining stuff later; and sometimes it isn’t necessary at all.  A little mystery never hurt anybody and it might even make a story more enticing.

8.  A photographer carries his camera everywhere because he knows that opportunity can present itself anywhere.  A writer carries a notebook with him wherever he goes because he knows that ideas weave in and out of the consciousness all day long, and a really great idea could be gone in a moment.  A photographer acts on sudden inspiration.  So should a writer.

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9.  Just as a photographer takes hundreds of pictures in the hopes that one or two of them might be really wonderful, a writer writes a lot.  Like a photographer who plays with angles and depth of field and lighting, the writer experiments, tries new things, gets outside her comfort zone, plays with language and style.  I go on and on about journaling in my classes because the number one way to write better is to write a lot. 

10.  A photographer is always scanning for subjects.  Her eyes are always searching for interesting shapes, nuances, forms, colours – everything is a potential shot.  Similarly, writer is always scanning for the story.  “Look at your world through the writer’s eyes” I tell every single class.  Inspiration doesn’t rain on you magically, you have to pay attention. 

art is complacence?

Today, waiting to hook up with some friends, I'm sitting near some guys having an engaged and lively conversation.  Mostly the conversation isn't much interesting; it drifts in and out of my consciousness as I abandon passages from my book to watch for my friends.  I catch a bit about Microsoft's monopoly (which, they were all agreeing, is as it should be); the virtue of the electronic tablet/phone, and how to use LinkedIn to rise up in the IT world.

Then I catch something about the shaping of western society that seeks to trap us like a mice in a maze, caught in the web of commerce via mortgage, cars and children. When we get all those things – the house, the children, the cars, we're falling in line with the plan.  The guy leading that bit says, with pride, he has no house, no car and no kids, therefore he is free, unlike most of us suckers. "Hooray for you" I think as I see my friends walk into the coffee shop. 

Then I'm hearing him say that art was supported by the leaders of captialism as an opiate, to cause us all to follow willingly into that trap.  "It was all part of the plan," he says.  "Art keeps us complacent and stops us from thinking for ourselves."

I'm perplexed, wondering if he's saying working in an office at a computer is a more honourable calling than making art.  More siginificantly, could one really believe that art makes us not think?  That goes against every grain of my understanding. 

But then as I greet my friends, I hear the words "opera" and "pop stars" and "sports heros" in the sentence supporting the art=opiate assertion, and then I understand: that guy's experience with "art" is nothing like mine.

Later as I'm walking home I'm thinking it's really sad, how it must be to not know art as something that makes you look beyond the standard, something that challenges your thinking, that causes you to look below the surface at the many layers of things (including yourself).

And I'm feeling lucky that art is all of that for me.  So lucky that I'll call it beautiful thing number 88.


we all want to help one another, human beings are like that

Charlie Chaplin, always one of my favourite actors, is timeless for a lot of reasons.  This one most striking, these days.

Please, take a few minutes.  The atmosphere is badly in need of some positive messaging. 



creative and wise

My wonderful niece posted this video on Facebook yesterday.  She says is very inspired by it.  How wise of her.

A 13 year old wise soul: beautiful thing number eighty-five.




*re-post* pinko is the new black

Re-posting.  Not because of any (tanking) mayor.  Because we're still remembering an awful night and thinking a certain critical and creative mind would be welcome today.  

War is over 
(Originally published: 8 December 2010)  

Yesterday an entertainer in a Pepto Bismol coloured suit stood up in Toronto’s city council and ranted and raged about “left wing pinkos” to show his support for our new mayor.  It seems the mayor requested that this person – a national celebrity who has been known to rant his bigoted views on what is probably the nation’s most popular television show, causing many to question the soundness of his mind and his relevance on a show watched by many, many children – be the one to introduce him and decorate him with the chain of office on the first official day of the new council.

Yesterday’s show tipped the “cringe-o-meter” for many thinking people.  Here we had an entertainer in a pink suit taking that deplorable political tool – the sound bite – to a new low in stirring up anger and divisiveness, and helping this mayor move our city from world-class to class-less.

The same night over dinner my daughters and I had a conversation about John Lennon.  I said that the pink clad entertainer would call Lennon a “left wing pinko” with great glee.  Carly and Kelsey, in their 20s, had never heard the term “pinko” before yesterday; Carly said she'd Googled it.  I thought it was funny that a great many of the people the guy in pink was trying to insult would have had to research what exactly his dusty old slur meant since it hadn't been seen in a number of decades.

My girls – both intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable young women – were saying that they feel Lennon’s murderer robbed their generation of knowing a fine critical mind and thought-provoking artist.  He died before they were both born – but it just doesn’t seem like it – thirty years on Lennon’s persona looms still.  He angered many, but he inspired many more.  And that’s because he was a man with big ideas, and he worked them out and expressed them in truly original (and sometimes groundbreaking) ways.  None of his protest art included name-calling or trite clichés or sound bites, although the media loved to take sound bites out of his statements, like the infamous “we’re bigger than Jesus…”

Sound bites water ideas down to single layered messages.  Sound bites take bits of language and turn them into a symbol.  Given that humans process symbols before they process language, it’s not surprising marketers and politicians have turned it into a remarkably effective tool for persuasion.  We see the symbol – we don’t have to bother to think – the meaning is handed to us in a neat little package.

Fortunately, many of us still like to use our brains.  Many of us – like my daughters – stop and think about what is in, around and behind a message and work out its meaning for ourselves based on our learning and experiences.

One might say War is Over was a John Lennon sound bite.  But it was one of many layers – of contradiction, optimism, questioning the status quo, change, motivation, suggestive selling, opportunity, no, yes, maybe… Lennon’s War is Over might have made you think about a hundred things.  The point is, it was intended to make you think – not relieve you of the need to do so.

What were the layers of meaning in the “left-wing pinko” sound bite?  I don’t think more than one meaning was intended – it simply meant “the other side.”  It was easy for that guy’s fans, or the angry supporters of the angry mayor.  Who needs to think?  Yahoo – take that you Other Side!

Lots of Toronto people though – like my critical minded daughters – are wearing Left-Wing Pinko as a badge of honour today.  Especially given that it’s also the day in which many of us are thinking about one particular left-wing pinko and what might have been another thirty years of ideas and music and art – robbed, from a world that could really use them, in one violent moment.

John – I really wish my girls could have lived in the same world you did for a little while.  But your messages are not lost on them.  If you were here today, you might be as encouraged as I am that there are lots young people around who are able, like you once were, to think beyond a sound bite and imagine a world in which anything is possible.




A favourite song dedicated to the young fellas talking in my office this morning about "just a bunch of damn hippies in a useless 'non-demonstration who didn't have the sense to show up on a weekday.'"

Funny thing was, thirty minutes previous [on this Monday] I'd been waving to the second round of today's march in the "non-demonstration" from the windows of my yoga studio, a few blocks away from our office on Bay Street in Toronto's financial district.  And Saturday's "non-demonstration" was, from what I saw, part of a global "non-demonstration" against a kind of insanity no sane person could deny. 




And despite all the folks who refuse to look out their windows, peace, love and understanding are beautiful things number sixy-seven, sixty-eight and sixty-nine.


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never blog in a hurry

It's occurred to me since I wrote that last post that I broke a couple of cardinal blogger rules.  Therefore, so that I might complete what I didn't finsh last time out, that "Gal" telling us why we should find beauty in her weekly Hippie News Activism broadcast is P.E. of Menopausal Stoners who has resided in my blogroll for a long time.  Do visit her – she is mountains more than a great blog title.

And, Selma, you DO have Hippie News.  We all do; it's an online news source found at Worldwide Hippies. Choose your news, that's what I say.

And you guys, if you're getting a double trackback, forgive me.  But I doubt it, I probably forgot that too.

hippie news and a favourite beauty

How much do I LOVE this gal?  She's has to be the smartest, most insightful, ascerbic, funny and talented writer I know.  Slide the video ahead to 5:38 or so and you'll see her in all her marvellousness. 

(THEN – after you've enjoyed Tricia extolling the value of finding beauty, wind back and enjoy Hippie News. Hippie News rocks.)

Tricia and Winston and all the folks at Hippie News – beautiful thing number 60.



he walks

This is one of my favourite songs.  I don't think you'll be surprised.

When posting videos, my first inclination is to post a great video of a live performance by the artist.  My second is to post a great performance by the artist, even if the video is crap. My third is to post a great cover.  I'm posting a great cover of one of my favourite songs by one of my main men, Bruce Cockburn – the Rankin Family doing it at a Governor General's gala more than ten years ago.  Really – Cookie outdoes herself; her version has become kind of famous in itself. 

And her version covers off most of my YouTube posting criteria, whereas the only version of the original on YouTube is an amateur homemade video of compiled stills against the recording, which isn't that exciting to watch.  Don't watch. Just listen – small, sublime, beautiful thing number 46. 

Then enjoy Cookie and her sibs.  I'll bet you five dollars you won't mind hearing it twice in a row.

Bruce Cockburn



The Rankin Family