A Boy, His Words, His Way

A Boy, His Words, His Way

Ruth E. Walker.

This time last year, I wrote about my annual experience at Durham Integrated Arts Camp, an 8-day arts-infused camp for Grades 7 – 12 students. Run by my local school board, DIAC is held at a private camp fairly close to my cottage.

I love going there. I teach an elective “Creative Words” where my students are encouraged to leave behind grammar and spelling worries and just focus on writing their words, their way. I tell them, “This is school but our focus together is on being creative with words. Exploring the craft of writing. Stretching our pens into richer territory as writers. Not worrying about the three-point paragraph.”

Daily Wordplay

I had 54 students split over three periods — and each day, we played with words. Exercises, experimentation and sharing work with each other. Partnered or in small groups, they would read selected excerpts to one another. I wanted them to gain confidence in reading their work aloud and offering each other feedback.

Every day, we ended with at least one timed freefall writing exercise. Freefall, originated by the great W.O. Mitchell (Mitchell’s Messy Method), means they follow the energy, don’t stop writing, don’t fix anything and even if they can’t think of what to write, that is exactly what they write.

I can’t think of what to write. I don’t know why Ruth is making me do this. I can’t stand it when people make me do stuff like this. Just like when…

And before they know it, they’re writing about something that catches their imagination. It’s great to watch them drop deeper and deeper into the zone of writing in freefall.

The Challenge

But there was one student who caught my attention.

Day One, he came into our old workshop building and sat himself as far as possible from all the others. Arms crossed, hood up and over his head and cowl raised to cover his mouth was a clear signal to the rest of us: I am not comfortable. And I’m not at all sure about this.

I’ve met this boy before. Well, not him exactly, but others who seemed like him. As a visiting artist at an alternative high school, many students would greet me in just this way. I was hopeful that my eventual success with them would help me here.

During the first freefall, I saw that he wrote very little. So I asked him quietly if I could help. “I can’t write without paying attention to grammar and spelling. It matters to me,” he said.

Spelling and grammar matter?!? I could have kissed him right there and then. But besides getting me fired for being completely inappropriate, it would have freaked him out. So I said “Write in whatever way works for you. I say it doesn’t matter about spelling and grammar to free people up but if it matters to you, then go ahead, pay attention to it. Remember: your words, your way.”

Day Two. Hood and cowl off. Still sitting separate but not as far away. Seems to be writing more.

Day Three. He comes into class, smiling over something someone had just said to him. Sits next to another student. I thought to myself, when this boy smiles, the room lights up. Cliché, I know. But it is exactly what I thought. Because it was true.

And here’s the best part of this day. It came time for sharing. By now, a few students volunteer to read to the whole room.

And he raises his hand. “I’ll read,” he says. Stands. Speaks his truth as captured on the page by his pen. Three seconds of silence as he sits back down and the room erupts in table thumping and cheers, and so many comments, we ran overtime. And his smile? Surely the glow illuminated the whole camp.

His Art, His Way

That glorious moment. That alone would have been enough to fuel my workshopping heart for years to come. But it was at Talent Night on Day Four that I learned as strong as his voice is on the page, there is another art that will claim his soul.

Imagine. A full set of drums, glistening red sides, gleaming cymbals and so on, on an otherwise bare stage. And my grammar-and-spelling camper sits at those drums, illuminated by the single spotlight. Nearly 450 campers in the audience, along with various instructors and staff. I recall thinking to myself “Oh, he drums. Hmm. That explains the excellent rhythm in his reading…”

The background music starts up. Something jazzy, if I recall. A moment spent thinking, well, isn’t this a nice surprise — he likes music with some depth, maturity…and then his drumsticks dive into the call and answer of the music. And the music, quite frankly, ceases to matter.

Have you ever seen Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich battle it out at the drums? Were you mesmerized by the 2014 film “Whiplash”? Have you felt the magic of TorQ Percussion vibrate into your bones?

Well, you may then have an inkling of what we experienced in that auditorium. His sticks flew, so fast, so hard, so exquisitely staccato that when one splintered off, part of it cartwheeling into the air, the cheers rose to the ceiling and came back down again. He didn’t stop for a nanosecond. His joy. His passion. His complete immersion in the zone was for us to watch and marvel at. This was no Grade 8 boy taking his first tentative steps on stage. This was a musician on the path to mastery and we were his witnesses.

The spontaneous standing ovation from his peers invited another glorious smile. More than acceptance, all of us in that auditorium were connected with the artist and he knew it. Many of us know what we saw that night. Years from now, we can say we were there when…

And how does this creative writing teacher feel about a young man’s clear gift as a writer being second fiddle to his drum kit? Fantastic. Who know what other gifts he’s harbouring? I’ll be back next year to see what I can discover.

Did You Know?

So many artists didn’t start out knowing they were meant to work in a particular medium. Or they were obligated to follow family footsteps while their hearts really belonged elsewhere. And some artists have more than one career.

The great American poet, William Carlos Williams was, for much of his life, Chief of Pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital. Vincent van Gogh tried being a missionary, teacher and art dealer before he discovered art school at age 27; ten years later, he committed suicide but left behind a remarkable legacy of iconic art.

Some writers take time to achieve publication. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye) and ahead-of-her-time rule-breaker George Eliot  (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) both published their first books at age 40. Much beloved Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) was 33 when his first children’s book arrived on the shelves.

And some writers take a long time to find their voice. Anna Sewell was 57 years old when her first and only novel, Black Beauty was published. She died the following year but lived long enough to see the book’s initial success.

Whether you’re a teenager with a brilliant writing career mapped out or nearing retirement and thinking about that novel you always wanted to write, remember this great advice I got from an agent recently. “Age doesn’t matter very much in the publishing world. It’s the quality and marketability of the writing that matters.”

Stories of Life

Stories of Life

Gwynn Scheltema

As often happens in life, birth and death go hand in hand. Last week I wrote about the birth of my baby granddaughter, Elle, and all the wonderment and creative promise that comes with that.

But our family has also been touched these past weeks with the news of terminal cancer. Many of us in this situation feel the helplessness of not knowing what to do or what to say.

And then an email from an oral story-teller I know told me about a “storyteller-in-residence” at Baycrest Health Sciences.

Storycare

For the past three years, Dan Yashinsky has been telling and listening to stories at Baycrest as part of their “storycare” program. He explained in an article for The Toronto Star that: “Storycare means creating times and places in the hospital for people to tell, hear, imagine, and remember stories.”

His article explained that storytelling encourages imaginative responses even from dementia patients who have forgotten the names of their loved ones; that suspenseful wondertales can help patients with severe depression “regain their desire to discover what happens next — in the story, and in their own lives.”

He recalls that Yukon Elder Angela Sidney once told him, “I have no money to leave my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.” For patients in palliative care and their families, telling their life stories can be a comforting and enriching experience.

Life Stories

When I was a young woman, it seemed to me that biographies and to a lesser degree, autobiographies, were the only source of “life stories.” And to make it into book form, the subject life had to be a famous one: great achievement, great adversity, great discovery and such. Today, I have noticed that memoir stories abound. Stories still of great achievement, great adversity and great discovery, but stories from “ordinary” people. The kind of people I might know. The kind of lives I can recognize.

What I like about this trend is the underlying inference that everybody’s life matters. That we all have something to offer. And that in each life I read about I find echoes of my own. This connection through story can, at different times, inspire, comfort, educate, amuse, awe or humble me. It’s all good.

The Power of Story

An article in The New York Times says “Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives.” The article tells of a study on the positive effects of storytelling on people with high blood pressure. Dr. Thomas K. Houston, lead author of the study said, “That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behaviour and improve health.”

The International Storytelling Centre (ISC) based in Tennessee, agrees with that power of story, and not just for health, but for attaining any goal because it is the most effective way to communicate both with others and with ourselves.

ISC began a movement to revive oral story telling over forty years ago. The cornerstone of their belief is that “People crave, remember and honour stories.” They say, “We are an organization dedicated to inspiring and empowering people across the world to accomplish goals and make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their stories.”

Tell your story

Many cultures have a rich and active oral storytelling tradition, and increasingly oral storytelling groups are forming the world over. Each year, March 20 marks World Storytelling Day, a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. World Storytelling Day began in Sweden in 1991 and Canada joined the event in 2003.

On this day, people tell and listen to stories in many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. This event has been important in forging links between storytellers and in drawing attention to the art of storytelling.

Isak Dinesen said, “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” So throw off any thoughts of “my story isn’t worth telling.” It is. In writing or orally, tell your story as only you can tell it.

And when I next visit the hospital, I think I might ask, “Tell me about…”

 

Explore this topic further:

Storytellers of Canada/ Conteurs du Canada: Devoted to connecting people, reflecting culture, and inspiring discovery through the art of Storytelling.

First nations Storytelling.  Storytelling is a traditional method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life. First Nations storytelling is a foundation for holistic learning, relationship building, and experiential learning.

Oration, singing and storytelling are a source of both of delight and solace within the Maori culture.  ‘Healing Through Storytelling’ is a grief support programme created with Maori and delivered alongside Maori authors.

Healing Story Alliance explores and promotes the use of storytelling in healing. Our goal as a special interest group of the National Storytelling Network is to build a resource for the use of story in the healing arts and professions.

Paula Abood, a Community Cultural Development (CCD) worker, writer and educator, discusses the importance storytelling in developing confidence, empathy and communities.

Nicole Stewart started the live storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession with True Life Tales). She has produced 19 shows, each with a different theme and featuring regular Dallas folks reading aloud their stories

Dave Lieber is a newspaper columnist, a prize-winning author and storytelling expert. For his investigative newspaper column, Dave receives 50 pitches a week for story ideas – and takes the best two. He knows how to find and identify memorable stories that people care about.

DID YOU KNOW

Among the many workshops offered by Writescape is a corporate workshop called “Sell with Story” that explores effective marketing and promotion through storytelling.

Are We Born Creative?

Are We Born Creative?

Gwynn Scheltema

When I looked at the perfect little face of my new born granddaughter, Elle Irene, I saw my son in her blue almond eyes. I saw my daughter-in-law in her pretty bow mouth. And as I played with her extraordinarily long fingers, I wondered if the old wives tale that long fingers were portents of being a creative was true.

There are a lot of artistically creative people in my family. My son is a fine artist and graphic designer; I am a writer, dabble in visual arts and spent years as a ballet dancer; my mother is a commercial artist by profession and our house was hung with her oil, pastel, watercolour and pencils pieces. But here’s the kicker. My artist mother is in fact my step mother. My biological siblings are not noticeably artistic. So was I born artistically creative, thus passing on creative genes to my son and possibly my granddaughter, or did the artistic and imaginative environment I grew up in and tried to create for my own children nurture creativity? The old nature vs. nurture maxim.

Nature vs. Nurture

 Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Ursula LeGuin said, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”

I believe that both statements speak to the uninhibited ability of children to express themselves. The older we get the more our actions are governed by social expectation, by self-assessment, by perceived judgement by others and by personal emotional baggage. Sometimes that frees us. Sometimes it restricts us. Whatever the outcome, that aspect of being creative is a learned attitude, a product of our environment and experience. It’s “nurture” at work.

But I think those quotes are also saying that we all are born with ability to be “childishly creative.” That we are “naturally” creative. Science backs it up:

Brain hemisphere specialization

Our two brain hemispheres are joined by a bundle of fibres called the corpus callosum. A study at the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University discovered that the brains of artistically creative individuals had a smaller corpus callosum. This, according to the study, allows each side of the brain to develop its own specialization.

Enhanced hemispheric specialization “benefits the incubation of ideas that are critical for the divergent-thinking component of creativity, and it is the momentary inhibition of this hemispheric independence that accounts for the illumination that is part of the innovative stage of creativity.”

In the genes

Another study from the University of Helsinki looked at musical creativity. They found the presence of a particular gene family involved in “plasticity”: the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by breaking and forming new connections between cells.

The team also noticed increased creativity in subjects with duplicate DNA strands affecting the processing of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Elevated serotonin levels in the brain increase connectivity in the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain, an area that communicates with other brain networks, and is involved with memory retrieval.

The verdict

 So in the end, it seems we all can be creative, but we have to make sure we encourage and preserve that child’s ability to let loose without reservation and judgement. We have to nurture our natural abilities.

One of the best writing books about being creative I’ve read (and read again and again) is The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. She has worked with many creatives over the years and her book is a wonderful aid to finding your own creative self and nurturing it back to its full potential.

My creative granddaughter

 So has my granddaughter “inherited” creativity? I hope so, but I’m not going to sit back and assume so. I’ll be reading to her and telling stories, singing, doing crafts and playing music and anything else I can to help her along. I will encourage curiosity, confidence and flexible thinking and most of all, imagination.

Here are a few links with suggestions on encouraging creativity in children. Why not treat your own inner child to some fun too…

 

DID YOU KNOW

Escape to write… is one way to nurture your creative self. Registration is now open for Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2017 retreat at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching. November 3, 4 and 5, 2017.

 

A Play’s the Thing

A Play’s the Thing

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, a writing colleague asked for my help. She was excited about an upcoming playwriting opportunity. My friend is a gifted emerging writer. And she enjoys theatre productions. She knew I’d written a few plays and had some of them produced, so she asked for advice.

The following is based on some of that advice. And, of course, I offer it with the proviso that I am not a full-time playwright. It’s one of the forms I’ve explored and learned from — and will expect to continue to learn from in the years ahead. So here’s just a few points to ponder when thinking about writing a play.

Just actors talking, right?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of it’s just dialogue, right? Because it is and it isn’t.

Think “poetry” when you are writing a play. A poem is an economy of language that expresses far more that the words on the page. Less is more. White space is as loud as a sentence. Meaning builds, word by word, until the end is reached and you return to the beginning with a new understanding.

A play operates in a similar manner.

Not one word wasted. Not one word that doesn’t build on the next and combine to offer layers, possibilities, surprises. And here’s the most important word in that last sentence. Offers. An excellent play offers directors, actors and set, costume, sound and lighting designers room. Room to be creative. To interpret. To “play” with the words. To develop their own vision of what those words can create on the stage.

Consider Come From Away, the international smash hit born out of the sacrifice and kindness of remote Gander, Newfoundland in caring for planeloads of strangers during the 9/11 crisis. The dialogue in that fast-paced musical took the actual words of residents and 7,000 passengers to build a compelling human drama. Was it every word from every interview? Nope. Just a very few that left room for a minimalist stage to support a talented troupe of actors playing multiple roles.

Brilliant. I’d see it again if I could get tickets.

Pay attention to the classics

I still remember seeing Anton Chekhov‘s The Cherry Orchard many years ago. A “simple family drama” with light comedic twists becomes an critical examination of the classes. It is profound. It is also a lot of talk, talk and more talk. And there is repetition. Has Lopakhin, the former peasant now merchant, proposed to the now impoverished family’s adopted daughter, Varya? How can the family’s beloved estate, especially the cherry orchard, be saved?

Repetition is deadly. Except when it matters. And in this play, the repetition underscores the lack of will and clear thinking that defeats the formerly wealthy family. Along the way, it builds a tension in the audience. In our heads, we’re yelling at the fools on the stage. And powerless to do anything but watch the progress of social change.

Remember the smoking gun

Chekhov’s quote is often paraphrased in writing classes.

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

He takes this approach in his plays as well. When you read them, his scripts can appear dense with heavy monologues. But look closer. Give your imagination room to see the bigger picture that Chekhov’s developing.

The Bard in the 21st Century

Many of William Shakespeare‘s plays, on the other hand, are full of fast-paced intrigue, action and character complexities. Swordfights, battlefields and royal processions are on stage. No wonder over 420 films have explored The Bard’s greatest plays. But check out some of the intimate stage productions at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. Minimalist staging makes for modern connections.

 Durham Region-born Driftwood Theatre Group revels in non-traditional outdoor settings as they travel throughout southern Ontario. Remarkably, they can recreate Verona in a barnyard or Venice in an urban park. And show audiences that Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was centuries ago.

 From the darkest of hearts to innocent-sweet, Shakespeare’s characters talk, talk, talk. But, like Chekhov, Shakespeare gives room throughout his dialogue for contemporary directors and actors to imagine something remarkable: a way to bring classical theatre to modern audiences.

Quick Tips for modern playwrights
  • Limit your stage direction only to what is integral to the play’s meaning and plot
  • Create characters that represent your themes and fit the plot
  • A play is not a movie script — there are no camera angles or editing rooms, just the stage
  • Start in action; scene by scene, keep upping the stakes
  • Read aloud for timing
  • Challenge yourself — go for the unexpected and inspire your muse

Here are some resources you might find useful as you hone your playwrighting craft:

An article in The Guardian is ostensibly about technical aspects but there are subtle, important bits there about expectations.

Playwright/screenwriter Jonathan Dorf has some basic tips designed for kids, but truly useful for any age and they’re not just about format.

And the Playwrights Centre has great tips based on scripts they’ve had submitted. Learn how to get directors and producers interested in reading your work.

DID YOU KNOW

William Shakespeare’s birth date is presumed to be April 23, three days before his baptism on April 26, 1564. Coincidentally, that’s the same date as the day he died, April 23, 1616. He wrote 14 comedies, 11 histories, 12 tragedies and hundreds of poems. His work continues to be studied in thousands of schools, colleges and universities. His plays have been translated into many languages, including French, German, Punjabi, Welsh, Polish, Catalan, Danish, Tagalog and Latin, and are produced worldwide.

Not bad for 52 years on this planet.

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Ruth E. Walker

Discovering Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a thrill. Oh, the combination: wit, satire and science fiction comedy. As a young-ish mother of four, the escape was delicious.

And lately, I’ve enjoyed getting reacquainted with his wacky worldview in the television series Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency. But all that is an aside (which is one of things I loved about reading Douglas Adams — the incredible digressions…but then I also enjoy Monty Python.)

What I most admire about Douglas Adams is how often his words (either from his books or otherwise) remain so smart and relevant. Here’s a gem from a speech “Parrots, the universe and everything” at the University of California in May 2001. It was just days before his untimely death at age 49:

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

And here’s my favourite because it fits my writing world:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. 

Yes indeed. So today, I have no less than two writing deadlines. First, I need to finish THIS post and get it proofread and ready to launch by midnight. And second, long before midnight, I need to send the last four chapters of my novel to my critique group.

Time Management?

Look at that. My “midnight” deadline is secondary to my “long before midnight” deadline. Well, that must be because my last four chapters are ready to go.

Nope. They are “mostly” ready (Python-esque description, yes?) I’m still agonizing over plot decisions I’ve made. I’m unsure if I’ve overwritten the final few scenes, that I’ve gone for “big” when “intimate” might better serve the story.

Yes. Of course I hear you. Isn’t that what my critique group is for? To offer feedback on the writing? So what is my problem?

It’s the deadlines that are killing me and my creativity today. Add into the mix some background on another deadline, one that I’ve missed. In the past couple of years, I’ve been at a few writing conferences. At those conferences, there were optional pitch sessions with literary agents. I started with the idea that I could use those sessions as a chance to practise a real pitch for when the book is done.

So I paid attention to the questions the agents asked. I noticed what got their interest in the written query and writing sample and what put them on snooze. And I practised being comfortable sitting across from someone who might have a profound effect on my writing career. Believe me, I need that practise.

True confession

I can stand at the front of a room and deliver a workshop with passion and confidence. But offer up that compelling elevator pitch? Describe my book and its themes in 25 words or less? Open my mouth and not jam my foot directly into it?

Something terrible happens to me when I’m talking about my novel to agents and editors. My brain leaves the room. So practise is necessary, in my case.

Last September, I was at a pitch session with a well-known literary agent. I didn’t even have to open my mouth before she let me know how much she enjoyed my writing sample. In seconds, I went from Nervous Nellie to author. We had a great meeting and I imagined how lovely it would be have this woman as my agent. She asked to see the full manuscript in November. “Of course,” I said. I was only a month or so from penning “The End” so that timing was a perfect fit.

I had a deadline. I had strong interest from an agent. And a manuscript so close to being done, I could taste it. What could go wrong?

The Douglas Adams effect

Whoosh. That deadline went by so fast, I barely heard it. Sure, I have a lot of reasons that the book languished, unfinished. But I suspect that a big part of the missed deadline is related to my lack of confidence in writing the darn thing. That’s not a logical reason. Feedback from agents and editors in my practice sessions, along with my excellent (and tough) critique group’s comments, confirms that the writing is strong and the story original and engaging.

But when are we logical beings? When does our passion for our craft translate into efficiency and organization? In my case, it often doesn’t. Remember those digressions I love? Squirrel! And I’m madly off in several directions, forgetting the original goal.

Nonetheless, I’ve made it to the end of this post so that is one deadline met. As long as no squirrels pass my window and the house remains relatively quiet, I should also manage to meet the next one. And as to that November 2016 so-important-I-shouldn’t-let-it-whoosh-by deadline? I can only hope that literary agent is okay working with authors for whom deadlines are sometimes counter-productive. And that she’ll like the novel well enough to sign me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Did You Know:

You’ve got lots of time before registration deadline for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. But don’t let that stop you from signing up. The first four writers who sign up get a special bonus: a suite room with a lake view. Still waiting for the deadline to creep up on you? With this year’s guest author Vicki Delany ready to share secrets on how she’s one of Canada’s top mystery writers, we expect a full house. Don’t be disappointed. November 3, 4 & 5.

The Making of a Short Story

The Making of a Short Story

Gwynn Scheltema

I wrote a short story last week that forced me to write outside my real-life comfort zone. My story was for an anthology being put together as part of the many commemorative events to celebrate Canada 150. The submission call was for an “immigrant story”.

I’m an immigrant. I came to Canada in 1982 to escape a country that had been embroiled in a civil war for more than ten years and which had recently gained independence. Unfortunately for my family, the other side won and leaving seemed the best option on many fronts. But this blog is not about that and I didn’t want my immigrant story to be about that.

The story I wanted to tell was how it’s the little details in a new life that are the hardest. Finding jobs and a place to live are huge, seemingly insurmountable problems, but they are expected hardships, things you can brace yourself for and work to overcome. But just when you think it is all going well, that you’re getting ahead, some small detail surfaces and derails you. That’s what I wanted to write about.

I’m a private person, not given to public displays of affection or emotion. I cry in private. But for this story, I wanted to zero in on an emotional moment and portray it without being melodramatic or cliché. But how to do that?

The emotional mirror

Most readers, even though they may not realize it, read to mirror their own lives. Have they felt that way before? What would they do in a similar situation? How is this situation different from their lives? A story about events of that civil war would be different from an average reader’s life, but would it connect with readers on a human, emotional level? The key to making my story work was to focus not the events the reader couldn’t relate to, but on the emotions the reader could relate to. The emotional mirror.

To resonate with the reader, I had to identify the emotion I wanted the story to illustrate and the reader to feel. In this story, I wanted to show the feeling of being out of control, disoriented and emotionally afraid when the logical mind tells you there is nothing to fear. All emotions that everyone has felt at some point in their lives.

Let it unfold…slowly

Peter Selgin, writer and professor at Antioch University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, gives his writing students an exercise: Write two pieces each about 250 words long. Piece One should rivet the reader; Piece Two should bore the reader stiff. Each student reads both pieces out loud.

“In almost every instance the result is the same,” he says, “The ‘riveting’ piece bores, while the ‘boring’ piece holds interest.”

Why? Peter explains that, “In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time; they don’t hesitate to lavish 250 words on the subject of a wall of white paint drying. And—to their consternation—the result holds our attention.”

So for this story, I chose a small incident that happened over a short period of time, but I slowed down the telling, letting it unfold moment by moment. By not hurrying, there was room for the emotion to build, for inner thought as well as outer action.

Envision it

As I wrote, I closed my eyes and imagined the scene in my mind. What could I see above, below, to the sides? What people and things were in my periphery? What could I hear, smell, touch, what was the quality of the light, temperature of the air? What emotion was I feeling at each point and what did that emotion look like in gestures, actions and reactions? Show don’t tell.

Match style to purpose

Writers have two roles in every piece they write. One to tell a story; two to craft it well. Having decided on the subject matter and how to let the story unfold, I summoned up craft I’ve learned over time.

To heighten the feeling of disorientation, of not fitting into a new world, of being out of control, I edited to make the sentence structure disjointed in places, short and fragmented in others and even syntactically out of step at times.

I made sure to use smell and texture or touch where I could as these senses tend to be more emotionally charged than sight and sound. I used setting details to echo the atmosphere of the fear that the narrator was feeling.

Whether my story was successful, I won’t know until it’s accepted and published, but I felt good about it when it was finished and that’s always a good sign.

DID YOU KNOW

Among the workshops Writescape has offered is one on writing short fiction, “Does Size Matter?” Gather your group. Pick your topic and your date. And we’ll bring Writescape’s workshops to you. Choose from our Workshop Catalogue, or contact us to provide a custom workshop to fill your needs.

 

A (Fairly) Sure End

A (Fairly) Sure End

Ruth E. Walker

How do you know when you have written it? You know, that elusive perfect ending? That Thelma and Louise, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Harry Potter finish that completes the character arcs, ties up all the loose ends and leaves you longing for more but knowing that it’s all over?

Darned if I know.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I have some ideas, most of them gleaned from novels, stories and even poems that I’ve loved over the years. I also have some words of wisdom on the subject from other writers. And maybe, between them and me, you might glean some good ideas that you can use to help with finding a satisfactory ending to your work.

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer and philosopher offered me a clue: “It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.” (The Zahir) I needed to be ready to leave my novel as if I were leaving the past of my own life: imperfect but inevitable. That led me back to my ingredient list.

Check your ingredient list

In a previous post (Write the Elusive End), I suggested that you need at least one of three essential ingredients for good endings. Either:

  • Change (either your POV character or in the reader themselves);
  • Inevitibility (sure, surprise me but that surprise MUST make sense); or,
  • Tragedy (don’t fear an unhappy ending if it seems right)

I also noted that I had written/sketched out three distinctly different endings. All three had change and inevitability and one was full of tragedy.

I liked all three. So which one is the best one?

I went back to the beginning

An overarching theme in my current WIP is duality. I fretted about the ending until I finally accepted that I am writing a duology. Not a trilogy. Instead, a two-book series.

I know that each book must stand on its own, so I still needed that “perfect” ending. However, I now must ensure that I have planted sufficient treasures in the current narrative that will leave room for readers to achieve their ah-ha moments. And hints that will logically support my plans for the second book.

Accordingly, I’ve been editing.

Surprisingly, many clues were already in my manuscript and I just had to refine here and there. And some of the connections to the second book naturally flow from the ending as I continue to work on it. I just didn’t know it until recently.

Consider your passions

I’m profoundly interested in why people do things. Motivation, yes. But what else is in place to push people into horrific actions? And is there room for forgiveness? Redemption? If so, what must be in place for that to occur?

My character has to undergo a huge arc. From mindless killing machine to a compassionate deep thinker. And I have to show that arc to my readers so that they will know, without question, that she is not the same character as the killer on page one.

My readers will not be satisfied with a neat bow or happy ending. And my narrative will fall flat if I try to be kind to the characters I’ve grown to care about. So there must be tragedy. And there must be self-sacrifice. And there must be a choice to be made with only two options, neither of them immediately happy ones.

When I accepted that, I knew what had to happen at the end. So, I’ve been busy and by the end of this month, I will be writing those two words on my manuscript. The. End.

And then back to a new manuscript while I wait for feedback from my beta readers. Because, as Frank L. Baum said in The Marvelous Land of Oz “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”  Of course, this is rather ironic given that Baum wrote 15 more Oz books after that one.

I can only hope to live so long.

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape is on the move this June when Ruth and Dorothea Helms travel to Haliburton County to offer Write to Win, their popular workshop on the art and skill of entering and winning writing contests. These two skilled presenters are writing contest judges, contest administrators and contest winners. It’s a full day of insider tips, resources, hands-on exercises and creative activities. Saturday June 17 at the Minden Library. Come prepared to write and win. Details.

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

Just a few short days ago, at Spring Thaw 2017, a group of writers tucked themselves away in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake. It’s what Writescape loves about our retreats: the creative energy that comes to writers when the natural world helps them dive deep into their words.

We also know that keeping that energy alive becomes a challenge when bags are packed and the road home is inevitable. So our retreats include built-in tools to help with the transition back to reality. A themed companion workbook offers pages of prompts and inspiration during the retreat and continues that role as needed. A wrap-up session is designed to ease the goodbyes and help with ideas, commitments and plans to “keep the words coming.”

About those plans. They can be general intentions or itemized lists and firmly set timelines. But then reality rears its own set of lists and timelines. Writescape retreat alumnus April Hoeller left Spring Thaw with firm plans that came to a halt the day after returning home. She shared what happened on her blog “What I’m thinking today,” and how she took a roadblock and turned it into a bridge back to her writing. With her permission, we reprint it here:

Guest blogger: April Hoeller
Monday Moanings – May 1, 2017

It’s raining.
It’s pouring.
This old scribe is…

Well, what is she up to on this first day of May?

Get out your smallest violins because I’ve got on a pair of whiney pants for this Monday Moaning.

What, pray tell, is the point of having a plan, a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based strategy for getting things done, when something as simple as a telephone call can render it so irrelevant so quickly?  Let me be clear – nobody died or was diagnosed with cancer, or lost a job. World War III has not broken out, though that has been a haunting concern of mine for a few weeks now (a whole other blog!). There is nothing tragically wrong. My world is still turning at a great clip but it’s just not doing so according to my plan.

I arrived home last Tuesday afternoon from an amazing writing retreat.

The most productive retreat ever

I found the doorway into a section of the memoir that I’ve been struggling to get a grip on for months. I not only plotted out my way through it, I also committed some 5000 words to paper, half of the chapters. Woot! Woot!

I am indebted to Ruth Walker and Gwynn Scheltema, the dynamic duo of Writescape, for their encouragement, companionship, and occasional goading.

… and a good sense of fun too!

Indispensable to the retreat is the energy and inspiration that blossoms when a group of writers gets together for a weekend. Good conversations, suggestions, laughter and affirmations abound. A big thank you to all of you!

 

 

Homecoming

I arrived home all fired up, ready to move forward at good pace. I had a plan too – always an important part of a retreat. So there I sat Wednesday at the harvest table in my kitchen with pens, paper, and mind ready, at 1 pm – right on schedule. And then the phone rang.

I ignored it, letting my guy answer it, while I put pen to paper. A whole sentence emerged. With great satisfaction, I tapped a period at the end. The next sentence was spoken by my husband.

“They want to start work on the solarium next week.”

I capped my pen and closed the book. No words have been written since. The solarium construction was not scheduled to begin until the end of June. Nowhere in my plans for the coming week, or even the coming month was there any reference to “The Solarium.” But the contractor had a cancellation and our name rose to the top.  We have been able to put them off for two weeks – because we’ve got prep work to do, none of which was on our radar – until last Wednesday.

 

What’s a writer to do?

This is not a derailment. It’s just a layby in a siding to let a construction train through.

So, throw off those whiney pants.

Make another plan to write my way between, around, over, through the interruptions.

Just think, in a few weeks I’ll have another writing space!

Cheers!

Did You Know?

You can read more of April Hoeller’s words on writing, travel and life at What I’m thinking today, her online blog.

Thanks, April, for reminding all of us that while life may happen (and it always does) we can find ways to keep close our writing goals. A writer needs to be ready to return to the page. Writing time is precious. Don’t waste it.

Writescape retreats are held spring, summer and fall, and deliver inspiration and support for writers.

 

 

Your Writer’s Voice

Your Writer’s Voice

Gwynn Scheltema

The lake inspires on this beautiful spring day. All around me words spill onto pages, fingers tap-tap on keyboards and there is an electric energy in the room. I’m among people who understand me, the writer.

photo by April Hoeller 2017

I’m here at Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2017.

On Saturday night we shared our work with each other, and as always I was blown away by the stories and the places they took me. And I was struck by the range of voices in the room, each with their own way of telling a story, of painting mood, bringing out emotion, of relaying information. Some voices were a familiar comfortable journey, some a new adventure into story.

But each voice was unique. And I’m not talking character voice here, I’m talking about that elusive quality we call the writer’s or author’s voice. The way readers recognize you as a writer. It’s partly style, partly tone and partly an undefined quality you might call your writer’s personality.

What is your style?

Style is the mechanics of how you write. Do you favour writing in short sassy sentences or long languid, contemplative ones, or something in the middle? Is your default  word choice urban or rural or academic or down to earth? Is your writing spare, with little description or do you use imagery and metaphor with gusto? Style can also be dictated by the market or genre you write in.

What is your tone?

Tone is the attitude of your writing. Do you hit readers between the eyes or are you subtle? Are you passionate, emotional, even evangelistic? Are you formal or friendly or casual? Are you obtuse or matter of fact? Do you teach or argue or merely suggest. Just like style, tone can be influenced by the market you write for.

 

What is your writing personality?

Your writing personality comes from who you are both as a writer and a human being. It’s molded by what you’ve experienced, the lenses through which you see the world, what you believe in, what inspires you, what influences you, your fears, your loves, your passions, your morals. It’s not dictated by anyone, but it is yours alone.

 

Why does it matter?

On a practical level, it helps you hone and edit your work. If you default to introspection in your telling of a story, perhaps you might need to up the energy more in places with more dramatization. If you typically create a first draft that races headlong from plot point to plot point, perhaps you need to give the reader a chance to breathe once in a while. And we all have stylistic tics: insistent words, phrases, constructions or images that bubble too often to the surface and which we no longer notice because they are part of us. I know, for instance, that I tend towards longer sentences and use the words “somewhat” and “little” a great deal in a first draft.

But it’s more than that. Recognizing that you have a voice that is uniquely yours is what helps you write authentically. Trying to write what you think you should write, or what others want you to write, often fights with the way you authentically write. We all have those moments when we feel a piece is not quite what we wanted to say. Chances are you’ve written it in something other than your own authentic voice.

Embrace your writer’s voice

Don’t fight the writer within. Your best, most authentic stories come from that place deep in you and will resonate with readers when you allow the distilled essence of your life, your experience, your passions and your attitudes come through.

The more you write, the more distinct and consistent your voice will become. Don’t worry about “finding your voice”. Just write what you are driven to write, in the way you think it is best expressed and send your writing out into the world. Your voice will be there.

DID YOU KNOW

Spring Thaw is just one of the retreats that Writescape offers each year. You can escape for a day of inspiration or settle in for a weekend or more of focused writing. Learn about what you can expect at at Writescape retreat.

Recipe for a Writing Grant

Recipe for a Writing Grant

Ruth E. Walker

Gwynn and I know firsthand what a thrill it is when someone validates us as writers. When you are told that you’ve won an award, a scholarship or a grant for your creative work, it’s not just about the money. Don’t get me wrong. For almost all of us, the “starving artist” is not a metaphor. It’s a hard reality.

Winning an award or grant is more than an income boost, however. It shows the world that others place worth on your craft. And it validates you as a working writer, one who is submitting their work for evaluation. That you are willing to risk the opinion of strangers.

So it gives us great pleasure to participate in an annual scholarship program with The Writers’ Community of Durham Region. WCDR is a 300+-member networking organization for writers of all types and levels. Heather O’Connor and I have been members for years and Gwynn was there at their very first meeting in the 90s. We all know that education is a prime focus for this non-profit group.

2017 Essay Prompt

When we were approached a few years ago to be part of their annual WCDR scholarship program we said Yes! Writescape funds a $150 scholarship.

Applicants must be members of WCDR, they must complete an online form to outline their background and budget details on their writing project/plans and, most importantly, craft a compelling essay inspired by a writing prompt. All applications are judged on their practical, logical content as well as how their passion is conveyed in responding to the prompt.

Our $150 support is not tied to taking any of our workshops or retreats. Writescape has no part in the adjudication process. We aren’t on any of the judging panels, we see none of the applications or essays, and only learn the name of the recipient a day or so before the award is announced.

A prize-winning event

It’s always been wonderful to attend the award breakfast and to hand out the prize. But this year was especially delightful for me. I’ve known the winner for twenty years. I also know he was the originator of the WCDR scholarship program and willingly volunteers his business acumen and well-honed technology skills to support the group and individual members.

In short, Rich Helms a good guy.

Rich Helms is not, however, a poet. Nor does he write mysteries or thrillers or historical romance novels. His excellent resource book Book Trailer 101 coaches writers on making their own book trailers. And if you want to understand Amazon SimpleDB, Rich co-wrote a guidebook on that as well. So I was curious and asked Rich if I could see his application and essay. What technological advance was Rich taking on this time? He willingly shared his application. Turns out, Rich reaches back to the early days of civilization for his latest topic.

Rich is baking bread. And he’s writing about it.

In his background notes, Rich shows his logical side. “…40 years in computer research and development, where I took complex ideas and turned them into marketable products.” and lays out his plan “The next thing I want to tackle is how to write a recipe – an area in which I have no expertise.”

But baking bread is his passion. Does his essay reveal any passion?

“When I retired from the company I once owned, I spent a month living by the ocean. Every day, my dog, Margaret, and I would walk the shore, then stop and fish. My all-consuming thought was, what now?

I’m a computer nerd who bakes bread and writes about it, and I’m not afraid to describe bread baking as a sensuous experience. I revel in the feeling of kneading dough into a boule of smooth, elastic food that is alive and growing. I breathe deeply the smell of the flour and yeast fermenting, breaking down the starches as well as the tantalizing aromas of caramelizing sugars…”

“…Thinking back to my walks by the ocean with Margaret …when I returned each day, our footprints were gone. Only pictures on my phone proved that we had walked the shore. The sand looked clean, and all traces of the day before were removed. What remained was a clean slate beckoning us to start the walk again.

This all makes me think about my journey with breadbaking. The traces of the journey disappear; time washes them away. But what survives are the writing, the stories, the recipes and what I learn along the way. As I move forward, I am excited to knead a deeper element of writing into the mix.”

Yup. I’d say the passion is there. And a wonderful depth and elegance to Rich’s writing that I’d not seen before.

A worthwhile gift to writers

We know that every writer who has received the Writescape scholarship has appreciated the support and used the money to deepen their craft or expand their skills into new areas. This time, it’s especially nice for us to know the recipient. And I can add that I have tasted Rich’s breads: a superb cheese loaf and dinner rolls that engaged the senses and deliciously filled the belly.

This ancient craft is even older than written language. I’ll be looking for Rich’s recipe book but in the meantime, I’ll settle for an occasional taste from the hearth. Yum!

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape offers Get That Grant, a fabulous one-day workshop on the art and skill of applying for writing grants and scholarships. Participants have a pretty good track record, and we can happily boast that Rich Helms is only the latest success story from taking the workshop this past February. Heather O’Connor offers her workshop yearly in Durham Region as well as “on demand” for groups and organizations that express interest. Email info@writescape.ca for details.