Posts Tagged: writing

the colours of a rainy day in january

Last night Ceri and I were talking about how difficult it is to wake up in the mornings these days, and I agreed with him that’s it’s all January’s fault.  Then, this morning I find wakefulness particularly elusive and when I finally drag myself out of bed I find it’s because it’s even darker than usual, thanks to heavily overcast skies and rain outside.  My discombobulated state lingers when I find my apartment still dark as night even at 8:30 when I’m leaving for the office.  As I round into Spadina Ave. the wind whips down and tries to wrestle my umbrella from me, but I win and when I get up into the street it’s not so bad. 

I adore the colour of the atmosphere when it rains; I think that’s why I have this perpetual love for rainy days.  The colours are mystical, and they paint the world under those clouds sinking low to enclose us protectively, and the glint of wet pavement, and lights taking on an incandescent glow sparkle against that purple-blue-grey hue in a way I find both comforting and inspiring. 

Okay, generally, rainy days in January are not so charming.  But it’s +4C and feeling absolutely balmy.  Thinking about the forecasted big freeze coming our way this weekend, me and my rose – I mean purple-blue-grey – coloured glasses try to capture photos of the colours over the course of my journey while considering buying a new warm coat because it is, after all, January.

image from www.flickr.com
image from www.flickr.com
The colours of rain – beautiful thing number eighty-three.

why you should journal too

I am pretty much relentless in preaching the benefits journaling in every class I teach. Journaling is a fundamental tool for lifelong learners, writers, artists, teachers and people in general.

If you want to see things more clearly, write about the things you see in a journal. If you want to be transformed by the things you learn, reflect on what that learning has to do with you in a journal. If you want to foster the creative process, write freely in a journal. If you want to improve your writing and communication skills, write in a journal regularly. If you want to re-discover your authentic self – well, you know what to do.

Journaling makes you more aware, it causes you to focus on what’s going on within and around you and to think more critically. Journaling teaches you to write and think freely, and therefore enhances creativity and opens your mind to alternative ideas and options. If you journal, you are more likely to be aware of, and act upon, the hundreds of fleeting ideas and inspirations that thread in and out of your consciousness every day.

If you are aware of the things that inspire you, you are more likely to seek them out; you are more likely to gravitate to the things, people and situations that fulfil you.

about a writer I know

Frank Book 3
Frank sat at the edge of my class near the door, a row behind everybody else.  That wasn’t unusual; in the space of a classroom – churches and restaurants too – lots of people feel more comfortable sitting at the perimeter of the room.  And in the Continuing Education realm, people enter the class with all manner of experience with writing groups, often no experience at all, so it’s not uncommon either that some folks rear up like a deer in headlights when I provide the structure of the lessons, particularly the story circle which makes up the latter half of every class. 

The story circle, in which the writers read aloud the product of the past week’s labours, can cause fear to strike down like lightning.  It’s like having to give a speech but WORSE!  You’re being asked to share your art.  Your baby.  This thing you’re compelled to make even though you feel like a big fake and it’s all folly and if you share it with other people everyone will look upon you as the ridiculous fraud you feel you are. 

When learning of the story circle aspect of the class, Frank pretty much said, “I’m not doing that.”  His face said it first and he upheld that decision his face made for the rest of the twelve weeks. 

Of course I’m not going to force anybody to read their stories.  I know of that fear.  I know of that wanting to hold my creations close to me where I know nobody will hurt them and ridicule them and look upon me with pity and say “Look at her, sad thing, thinks she’s a WRITER.” 

But I also know what it feels like to release my art to a supportive family, and the importance of doing that in the creative process – how it builds in one the courage to try new, reveal more.  I held out hope that Frank would change his mind because it’s never failed that each class does become a family, always generous with encouragement and support. And it never fails that I see the gratitude and sense of exhilaration washing over writers when they have shared a piece.  I hear it in their sometimes shaky voices, see it in their often trembling hands as they hold their pages; I feel it lingering, palpable like heartbeats, after the last sentence has been delivered.

One day Frank thrust an envelope at me – it contained a stack of memoir stories from his childhood.  “They’re just a bunch of crap” he said, “but will you have a look?”  It was a memoir class and I think he was hoping some of them would do for the assigned writings.

They were so not crap.  The stories were engaging and lively and full of movement and the memoir writer’s goldmine – “moments.”  They reminded me of one of my writerly heroes, Roddy Doyle who has so beautifully captured the perspective of a child.  I’d been reading them on the subway that subsequent week and met up with my sister after work one night for dinner on a patio, and handed her the stories to look at while I visited the restroom to freshen up.  She shared my enthusiasm for them and read some of the passages aloud in character as we sat there waiting for our salads.

My reaction to the stories wasn’t enough to convince Frank to read any of what he still called “crap” in class, but he did eventually concede to have one of his peers read aloud another story of his.  She was a beautiful and elegant orator, and read his story with reverence.  And even though she was so different from Frank, so far from his personal aspect, when she finished the group let go approving outbursts and applause.  That remains a seminal writing teacher moment.

Another of those seminal moments occurred recently when Frank showed up on Facebook with a professional photograph and images of his published book, Our Land is the Sky – a series of stories about a family of crows he wrote for his grandson, which I had enjoyed in their draft stages.

He sent me a copy of the book and that up there is what he wrote inside.  It represents a validation of all the reasons I work to encourage people to tell their stories, even though I have to do it outside my day job, and sometimes I complain about having to read yet one more story.  That up there is the payback.  Riches.

Keep telling the stories Frank, I know there are a lot more in there.

And if you have a little story lover in your life, why not put the stories about Jimmy Fastwing under the Christmas tree?  Click on the images below to find out where you can get a copy. You won't be disappointed.

Frank Book 1

Frank Book 1

I get that

"I don't want to analyze myself or anything, but I think, in fact I know this to be true, that I enter the world through what I write. I grew up believing, and continue to believe, that I am a screw-up, that growing up with my family and friends, I had nothing to offer in any conversation. But when I started writing, suddenly there was something that I brought to the party that was at a high-enough level."  —Aaron Sorkin

 

a treasure to look upon it

I haven’t been writing much.  If you’re one of my regular friends I’m sure you’ve noticed.  Lists of beautiful things and posts of YouTube clips are not writing.  I’ve learned to accept the dry periods and assume the “writerly collector” in me is needing this time to just collect experience.  But it’s been bothering me – posting other people’s work and videos of other people are not going to bring you back, and I can’t stand the thought of losing any one of you.

Part of it is that I’ve been immersing myself in good books over my daily commute – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.  In fact my excuse for staying with this job which is an hour’s trip from my home has always been that those two hours of travel time every day are reading time.  But the problem with immersing myself in books during this time is that I’m not paying attention to my favourite subject: that little space of world around me and the people in it.

By the end of winter I start feeling trapped by it – the darkness, the extended periods of painful temperatures, the ugliness.  Let’s face it – snow in the city is only beautiful when it first falls.  Then it becomes dirty mounds on sidewalks and on edges of parking lots and lining curbs everywhere.  I’m all about the changing seasons, I feel lucky that I live in such a climate – but by late January, I’m finished with this damned season. 

I’m sure it’s all related to a lack of sunlight.  In fact I know it – after an hour’s lunchtime walk in bright sunlight today I felt heady, almost drunk.  And the move to Daylight Time this past weekend has flipped some internal switch – I get to evening and find daylight and I’m noticeably happy.  Lots of my friends are still complaining about that lost hour of sleep – I’m practically giddy for it; I’d gladly sacrifice two hours to have Daylight Time back again.

I wish I was one to write myself through a down or difficult period.  The last few months of hunkering against the weather, coming out of the subway after work into the dark, the sequestering away from humanity and losing myself in other peoples’ stories – have all caused me to close off, and thus close off that well of stories. 

During today's lunchtime walk I stopped and looked ahead at a length of sidewalk on which there was no snow, no ice, no slush, no puddles; just a clear sidewalk under a sunny sky.  And when I stood there looking at it, I felt a sense of freedom I haven’t felt in more than a month, a welcome desire to get back outside of myself.

Sidewalk
 
That sidewalk, with the feeling of freedom the sight of it gave me, is beautiful thing number 24. 

As I walked on, one of my favourite song verses ran through my head:

You say you'll give me a highway with no-one on it
Treasure, just to look upon it
All the riches in the night

U2, from Rattle and Hum, 1988

Let’s call that little simple little verse, with its image so humble and idea so rich, beautiful thing 25, and my theme for escaping the bonds of winter.

I'm finding beauty – are you?

beautiful stuff considered on the first day

Beautiful things considered, first day of self-imposed challenge

  1. Number one: a friendship coming out the other side of a “hang-up” as communicative and warm and inspiring as it ever was before.   Magic revealing itself in a human connection – whether it’s the first or thousandth time, never gets tired, does it?
  2. A previously hung-up-on friend sharing one of your favourite poems with you.
  3. One of your favourite poems read aloud.

 

 

 

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

~William Butler Yeats, 1899

 

Exploring Beauty

explore beauty – a challenge

What is it you find beautiful?  Based on what I know of most of my faithful friends here in blogland, it’s not going to be that pretty pop star whose photo was manipulated to “perfection” for the cover of Rolling Stone.  I could look at Bob Dylan’s face and find mountains more beauty than I can in hers.  But that’s me.  My definition of beauty is formed by where I came from, my ideals, my age, my interests, my education – and my needs.  What about you?  What defines beauty in your world?

I find old train tracks beautiful.  And forgotten corners of cottage yards.  And broken down old sheds.  And my mother’s hands.  The way a little kid darts around his father repeating “Da-a-d…?” as they walk toward the Air Canada Center to the hockey game.  Or the stunning gradation of the sky as it was the other night – from breathtaking orange to the deep royal blue housing that delicate sliver of a crescent moon.  Or Santana’s rendering of Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock.  The soft traces of humming I hear coming from the woman with the beatific smile who sits on the other side of my office cubicle.  The bowl on my table filled with sweet potatoes, beets, Bosc pears, an acorn squash and some bulbs of garlic – a haul from the market last week.  Giant ropes coiled on the decks of ships.

What is beautiful to you?  I challenge you to explore it:

Find 101 examples of beauty, and show, tell, list or write them.  Photographs, songs, poems, paintings, crafts – however it is you tell your story. 

There is no timeframe, because the number target may seem high to you.  (It won’t for long – trust me.)  And modify the challenge to suit you.  Do it once a week and it could become an ongoing topic for a year.  Find a few things a day, the project could last a month.  Sit down for a few hours and you could finish a list in one go!  Maybe you’re not ready just now.  Or maybe you are stumbling across this challenge six months from now.  Any time is a good time to start. 

Feel free to grab the badge below and put in your sidebar if you like, as a reminder of where to find inspiration in an uninspired or down period.  And that, really, is the point.  Where the doldrums take over – finding beauty brings inspiration back. 

Exploring Beauty 
 
Why 101 things?  I just like odd numbers better than even ones.  It’s only a number and who knows, maybe the term “101” will just be a symbolic sort of thing, representing “my collection” or “my exploration.”  I just know that for me, it’s a topic I need to return to time and time again, and I’m hoping it will turn into something of an extended exploration here. 

If you do take part, be sure to let me know (as well as the tag or category you’ll use, if you wish) and I’ll list a link to your blog on this dedicated page. 

After all – it’s really beauty that I’m searching for in Realia every day.  I’d venture to say it’s what we’re all looking for. 

Others Exploring Beauty

The Streaming Now

Menopausal Stoners

My Missing Life (“doing a few”)

 Right Motherhood

The Querulous Squirrel

one of the turns in the road to here

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days.  Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here.  But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something  so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable.  The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back. 

Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language.  Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits. 

I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them.  Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival.  Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole.  He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson.  Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer. 

They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs.  Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day.  He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night.  Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business. 

You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys.  Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits.  They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation.  No vacation.  Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.

Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons.  Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture. 

At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories.  At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”

“Pffft” I said.

I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence.  Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad.  Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.

They were empowered.  They found pleasure in it.  And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me.  They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper.  I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest.  Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.

The best thing learned was this:  One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others.  And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them. 

I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did.  But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared.  I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.

*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.

sorry you word – it’s not you, it’s me

Today, Writers Digest tweeted this: “The word ‘penultimate.’ Kinda cool or just awful?”  I immediately thought “awful” and even felt compelled to re-tweet my opinion on the issue.

Then I got thinking about it – why on earth would I label this seemingly innocuous word as “awful?”  My friend Selma got in on it, suggesting “penultimate” sounds kind of “supervillainy” – “like something Dr. Evil would say.”  She further suggested what might have seemed obvious – that “it’s not the ultimate.”

I liked that one, for a few seconds, then it occurred to me that I don’t like “ultimate” either.  “Ultimate” seems like one of those too-easy adjectives, weakened in its meaning by its overuse.  “Ultimate” has been turned into a lame superlative by advertisers and teenagers. 

Maybe it’s me wearing my writing teacher hat too tight.  Maybe the slashing and circling and centering out of adjectives on student stories is something I need to get a grip on.  Really though – if something is or was “ultimate,” surely it would be really interesting if it was described in detail…. But I digress.  And anyway, “awful” is an adjective and I don’t mind it at all. In fact there some adjectives I adore – like “luscious” and “stormy” and “lusty.” 

Ultimate’s poor little brother, Penultimate.  Second to last.  Not quite there.  If you get to considering the tragedy about a thing that will never quite be the ultimate – then that’s interesting – way more interesting than one lonely word that looks much more potent than it really is.  Kind of like a one-hit-wonder pop star. 

I think what irks me most about the word is its specificity.  I’ve never cared much for specifics – never learned much by rote.  The teacher who attempted to teach me all the grammar and spelling rules back in grade three, the one who reduced me to tears with all of the “I before E except after C – usually…” would be shocked to learn that I would fall in love with good language and that I would actually teach grammar and crazy English spelling to ESL learners one day.  I still don’t know how I understand all the mechanics of grammar – I think it’s just because growing up I read a lot.  But I sure didn’t learn them by memorizing any damn rules.

Other teachers at my elementary school, my mother’s colleagues, would tell her about how my eyes would glaze over upon hearing terms like “multiplication tables.”  Some people get a real pleasure out of discovering THE ANSWER – in knowing there is only one possible solution to that mathematic problem and that they figured it out.  When my mistakes were pointed out in math quizzes, my feeling was “Meh – it’s close enough, isn’t it?”

I was more interested in the non-finite answers to things – the “here’s my take on it and here’s why” kind of answer.  “Penultimate” says ONE thing.  I’d be much more interested in all the things leading to and around that label:  Why is it second to last?  How does it feel about being there?  What colour is that thing?  Are you sure it’s second to last?  What is third-last?  What is the symbolic meaning of next-to-last? 

If that thing is penultimate, then that’s that.  Ho hum.  Kind of like 4 is merely the sum of 2 plus 2.  It’s a tiny, finite solution, and in my world, nothing interesting is tiny and finite. 

Maybe I just made a play for careful use of describing words, but I’m not exactly sure.  One thing is for sure – I didn’t have enough to do at work today.

not real good at small talk, me

Last month I signed up for a blog challenge to post something every day.  I should have known better.  My creative self doesn’t manage real well with rules.  It was good for the first little bit – it gave me the impetus to stay in the moment, because in the moment is where I find things to write about.  But it was also December, and for me, December is a month of parties and shopping and preparing and friends and events – it’s a month of distractions.  And this particular December was particularly distracting.

I do approach this blog with the intention of writing every day.  Everyone who engages in this process knows that if you write every day, your readership is more likely to grow.  I enjoy the growing numbers as much as anybody – creating something, and sharing it is a source of enormous personal satisfaction.  I am exceedingly grateful for you, that you show up to read what I have to say, and that you may have shown up to find I haven't written, again, is the primary reason I chastise myself for missing days. 

But I got a little jaded, I suppose, as I explored the many bloggers also participating in this and other challenges, because so many would fill up space with nothing just to get a post up.  Some of the posts would even say “I don’t have anything to say today, but here I am.”  In one respect that’s GREAT – a cardinal rule for any writer or artist is to show up.  Sit down and if all you have to write is “I have nothing to say” write it anyway because it may turn into something else.  At least you’ve kept your office hours, and if a writer didn’t have any discipline, then nothing would ever get written.  But in other respects, you write because you want people to read you, and a sure way to get someone to run the other way fast is to say “I have nothing to say, but listen…”

That kind of stuff belongs in my journal, not on my public space.  My space is about ideas, not clicks; style, not volume.  Experimenting yes, but striving to maintain a standard more so.  I’m certainly not above light and silly – I’m sure you’d dump me quick if I was always long and serious.  But if a post isn’t interesting to me, it sure won’t be interesting to you, and you are here because something I said once resonated with you enough to bring you back. 

And for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.  So this year's posts will be dedicated to you.  I couldn't think of a better reason to try a little harder and dig a little deeper, could you?