Gardening with words

Gardening with words

Gwynn Scheltema

I was out on a walk and practicing the art of noticing, when I was drawn to a garden and stopped to look at it a little more closely. It was functional: a small patio under a huge maple, a swing for the kids hanging from an overhanging branch, herbs growing in an old wheelbarrow, flowers, veg and a patch of lawn.

Given that it’s autumn, the fallen leaves, frosted hostas and general state of waning made it messy and a little sad. But it wasn’t the kind of yard that looked as if it had been delivered from the local big box store: linear and precise, shallow and predictable – in other words: no message, no heart. This garden had soul.

I’m addicted

Whenever I travel, I visit gardens; I seek them out in concrete-jungle cities and have a vast one of my own. My mother and grandmother taught me to create landscapes that worked with nature, not against it. They taught me how to create a green space with soul. And I realized as I looked at this tiny urban gem on my walk, that creating a garden that has a heart is very much like writing.

Let it speak

To create a garden that lives and breathes, a gardener must understand that fine line between control and releasing what is already there. This example on my walk was not about control or even taming the wild. It was about using what was already there, unearthing it and allowing it to blossom. To speak. That maple tree killed the grass but welcomed a small shaded patio sitting area. The overhanging branch was perfect for a swing.

Like writing – don’t control and delineate as you write. Allow your characters to speak as they want to, to do things you could never dream up. Allow the story to unfold. Let the subconscious through.

 Work with what you have

We all have big writing dreams: maybe the next best seller, perhaps an award or earning enough to live on. But on any given day, don’t worry about what seems unattainable. Work with what you have.

This garden made the most of limited space. If you only have limited writing time, write bits that are already in your head, finish something you started, or plan or research or edit. If a novel seems overwhelming, begin with a single scene, or a short story.

If the dialogue you are producing seems flat, or you don’t really know how to punctuate it, write it anyway. You can always read up or take a course on dialogue later. And you can come back to your piece and edit it when your skills improve. But if you are always waiting for the perfect time or the perfect ability or the perfect story, you’ll be waiting a long time. And as Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

And keep things manageable. Better to finish small projects or one large one than to have twenty projects that never see the light of day. There’s nothing like being able to write “The End” to motivate you to write some more.

Don’t throw good bits away

Not everything we write is worth keeping, but often you write a really good scene or stanza that just doesn’t fit with the piece or poem you’re working on. It might even be one of your proverbial “darlings.” Keep it. It may well be the start of another piece or fit into another project. Or it may serve as inspiration and impetus for a new piece that—like the wheelbarrow used as an herb garden—is very different from its original intention.

Give to get

I belong to online gardening swap sites, picking up free rhubarb plants and giving away hostas. I scour the roadside ditches for day lilies and black-eyed Susans and give them new homes. As a writer, you need to have a writing community—maybe just a writing buddy, maybe a critique group or membership in several writing organizations, or perhaps all of them.

But you’ll find that you get more out of your writing community when you contribute: give of your time, your expertise and your encouragement and support. We all have high and low times as writers and whether you need someone to help you with a practical plot problem, to celebrate a success or just give you a kick in the pants to submit or get writing, your writing tribe are the best people to do it. But, offer the same to other writers. I know that over the years, I’ve learned more about the craft by talking to fellow writers and giving feedback to others than from any book.

Tend and nurture

Without planning and fertilizing, weeding and maintaining, gardens wither or become something else you have no use for. Your writing, like any art form, is the same. You wouldn’t expect to play the piano well without practising regularly. Writing is no different. Write, write and write some more. Plan writing time into your schedule. Fertilize your craft with workshops, reading and communing with fellow writers. Weed out all your negative attitudes about not being good enough. And fill your creative well often.

Dare to be different

The garden on my walk was different from all the others on that street. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. The gardener (maybe a young mother?) created what was personally important and meaningful to her, created what was within her creative and maintenance capabilities at the time, what was pleasant and functional for her family’s lifestyle. I’m sure she also hoped that others would like it, but I doubt she created it based on what others wanted. She followed her creative path, made a garden that spoke with her voice and embodied her heart and soul.  Let your writing do the same.

DID YOU KNOW

My garden at Glentula reflects my heart and has served as inspiration to many writers. Custom “Just Write” retreats and one-day escapes are offered every summer. Gather your group, pick your date and contact Writescape to put together what you need to get writing and stay writing.

Women Killing It

Women Killing It

Gwynn Scheltema

When I read Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way, she introduced me to the concept of a writer’s date: a block of time set aside to nurture your creative inner artist.

The idea behind this concept is that as we create, we run the risk of emptying our creative well, so we need to constantly refill that creative well by consciously experiencing new things, taking time to observe, taking time to breathe and reflect.

The Artist’s Date

There are many things you can do on your artist’s date. Because our creative brain is a sensory brain, anything that stimulates the senses or fires up the imagination will work: a walk in the park, making soup, lying on your back and watching clouds, going to a food or music festival. It doesn’t matter as long as you do it mindfully.

This coming Labour Day weekend, my artist’s date will take me to a new writing festival being held in Picton, Prince Edward County. It has the fun title of “Women Killing It.”

In the morning, I’ll be taking a workshop titled “So You want to Write a Mystery?” with author Mary Jane Maffini. In the afternoon I’ll join four writers of mystery and suspense for “Murder at the Vicarage”, an afternoon of readings, discussion and sumptuous Victorian high tea at Macaulay House.

Women Killing it

This Crime Writers Festival showcases nine Canadian women authors of crime and mystery. On Friday evening at “The Mysterious Affair,” a table-hopping event introduces each of the authors in turn: Mary Jane Maffini, Susanna Kearsley, Nazeen Sheikh, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Melodie Campbell, R.J. Harlick, Barbara Fradkin, Maureen Jennings and Robin Timmerman.

Saturday features the workshop and event at Macaulay house I mentioned earlier, and the day finishes with an evening event, “Appointment with Death (and Dessert).” Here, authors writing on the darker side will discuss murder, motives and MOs.

Why have this festival?

The festival was the brain child of mystery author Janet Kellough and Vicki Delany, also a crime writer and then Chair of the Crime Writers of Canada. They felt that Canada’s talented pool of women crime writers needed to have more exposure. I’m glad they did. What a treat! All this talent in one place, right in my backyard.

Perhaps you’ll take yourself on an artist’s date to “Women Killing It.” Find out details online or on Facebook.

You might also like to listen to two recent interviews with the organizers Janet Kellough and Vicki Delany on Word on the Hills radio program hosted by Felicity Sidnell Reid and me. These two prolific writers talk about the festival and their latest books.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Co-organizer of Women Killing It, Vicki Delany, will be our guest author at this fall’s Turning Leaves 2017 Retreat. Vicki is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers. Her newest cozy series is the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery Series. The first volume Elementary She Read was published in March 2017, and the next in the series, Body on Baker Street will hit the shelves on September 12.

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.

 

Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.

 

Opposites

Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”

Lists

Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for the next couple of weeks. So we’re bringing back a couple of our favourite Top Drawer topics to share with new readers and to nudge long-time followers. This week is Ruth’s May 2016 post on finding inspiration. So get out there this summer and give your muse a change of scenery too.

Ruth E. Walker

I recently delivered a workshop at a writers’ conference: From Inspiration to Publication. In 2.5 hours, I was supposed to shine a light on the path almost every writer dreams about: being published. Frankly, this path can never be illuminated in such a short time. In fact, I could plug in a dozen klieg lamps and have an infinite amount of workshop time, and I’d still leave the bulk of that path in shadows.

No two writers have identical pathstunnel-237656_640

shrine-1031662_640That’s because for each writer, the path to publication is individual and endless. And it is filled with missed opportunities, wrong turns and dead ends. But for successful writers “publication” is not a single event. It is a series of acceptances, right turns and new paths that keep them inspired through all the rejections and disappointments.

Successful writers keep shining their headlights down that path because they know two things:

  1. getting published should not be a one-time goal, and
  2. they only need to shine their light forward to keep going

signs-416444_640For even the best writers, it is a frustrating journey.

It’s beyond discouraging to repeatedly receive rejections. So how to keep your muse motivated? Finding and then holding on to your inspiration can be key to keeping your light shining down the writer’s path.

So let’s get started.

  1. Leave your comfort zone behind: a change of place, space or pace can allow inspiration to sneak up and surprise you; if you can’t change your environment (travel or try out writing in a coffee shop, for example) give freefall writing a try (timed writing with no editing, no stopping, no internal editor allowed.) You’ll be amazed with what happens when you let yourself go to follow the energy.
  2. Visit a used bookstore and browse: old book titles, names of authors, a line from a book and even the smell of old paper can trigger ideas.
  3. Find contests with deadlines: a contest theme can trigger plenty of writing or, even better, remind you that you have a story on file to fit that theme!
  4. People watch with a notepad: keep to reportage (just the facts) to record the behaviour, clothing, dialogue that passes by. Pull it out and flip to a random page when you need to nudge your muse.
  5. Visit graveyards and museums: imagine the stories behind all those dates and names (old gravestones and small local museums can be especially intriguing.)
  6. Read outside your interests: essay collections, science journals, biographies, and so on will let you tap into a rich vein of interesting topics.
  7. Get out into nature and leave technology behind. If the landscape doesn’t trigger your muse, being in the open air with only scenery to distract you just might be the space your creativity needs to surface.

Inspiration for writing can come from so many places that I could keep writing this post for weeks. But what these tips all have in common is encouragement to explore. Writers are the adventurers on the open seas of life: we travel in our imaginations and write all about it. If you keep your light pointed into the distance then you should always be ready to find your stories.

About Freefall Writingtourism-776587_640

Freefall writing was first coined as “Mitchell’s Messy Method” by W.O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind) when he taught creative writing at university. It became “freefall” over time. There are variations used by many creative writing teachers, but when Gwynn or I lead a freefall, these are our main points:

  • Be present (meditation before you start is helpful) and follow the energy
  • Write what comes up
  • Use the senses — taste, touch, smell, sound and sight
  • Be specific — not “the car” but “the fire engine red two-door convertible”
  • Keep writing even if all you can start to write is: I can’t write. This is dumb. Why am I doing this? –eventually, the tension will trigger new energy for you to follow
  • Resist the editor — don’t stop to “fix” things
  • Go Fearward — W.O. Mitchell’s best advice ever

Freefall prompt and exercise: Set your timer for 20 minutes. Close your eyes and allow yourself to be quiet and still. Count backwards slowly to zero from fifteen. When you get to zero, start your freefall writing with this opening sentence:

The door opened and I stepped inside.

 

 

Smile Poetry 101

Smile Poetry 101

Gwynn Scheltema

In last week’s post based on Irene Livingston’s humorous poem, “I Cannot tell a Lilac”, I spoke primarily about light verse and nonsense rhyme, but along the way, mentioned a few other poetic forms connected with humorous poetry. Here’s a quick explanation again of the general forms, light verse and nonsense rhyme, followed by an alphabetical primer on 5 other specific humour forms.

Light Verse

Poetry on light-hearted or playful themes written primarily to amuse and entertain. Although the genre often uses elements of nonsense verse, like made up words and grammatical play, it is technically competent and possesses a sophisticated level of wit.

Image result for oh the places you'll goDr Suess is a master at light verse. Sales seminars use the Green Eggs & Ham story to illustrate the 5 most important selling techniques. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is a popular adult graduation gift.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

 Nonsense Rhyme

Poetry that subverts language conventions and logical reasoning. Humour comes from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or a punchline. Uses elements like rhythm and rhyme and is whimsical and humorous in tone. Although these poems are also known for the use of made-up words, these words are still used with recognizable grammar and syntax, and each nonsense word is a clear part of speech.

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyEdward Lear and Lewis Carroll popularized the form in the late 1800s, but more contemporary examples can be found in the “Vogon” poetry found in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in this sample from John Lennon’s “The Faulty Bagnose”:

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Bouts-rimés 

Bouts-rimés (French: “rhymed ends”) originated from a literary game invented in the early 1600s. They are verses created when the poet receives a list of rhyming words from another person and uses them in a given order to produce a result that makes at least partial sense.

John Keats produced “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (1816) in a bouts-rimés competition with his friend Leigh Hunt. Here’s an excerpt:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.

Clerihew

A Clerihew is a comic biographical verse invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley in 1905. Clerihews are written as four-line verses of two rhyming couplets, the first line almost invariably ending with the name of a person. A form of roasting, the humour comes from putting the listener’s sense of rhythm on edge with its purposeful varied line length and awkward rhyme as well as its off-the-mark treatment of the named subject. Here is an example by Edmund Bentley called “Cervantes”:

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

Epigram

Epigrams in poetry (they appear also in prose formats) were originally meant as an inscriptions suitable for a monument, but now the term refers to any short, pithy verse especially if it is sharp and moralistic.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834 produced an epigram that neatly sums up the form:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Limericks

These days, limericks are probably the best known form of humorous poetry. Limericks first appeared in medieval times, but were popularized in 1846 by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense  We all recognize the distinctive form and “punch-line” ending. They are often bawdy too.

In terms of form, a limerick consists of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme and must have seven to ten syllables and the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines are always shorter (five to seven syllables) and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.

Here’s a fun example from Rudyard Kipling:

There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said. “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is—
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

 Macaronic

This form dates back to the a comic Latin verse form that incorporated common dialect words and gave them mock Latin endings for effect. The same technique is now applied to combinations of modern languages.

This sample from Charles G. Leland called “To a Friend Studying German” plays with English and German:

Vill’st dou learn die Deutsche Sprache?
Den set it on your card
Dat all de nouns have shenders,
Und de shenders all are hard.

Your turn

Although these forms produce verse that is light and makes us smile, I’m sure you can appreciate the work that goes into creating them. Fancy trying your hand? How about posting a limerick below about writing.

DID YOU KNOW

In addition to a bouts-rimés being a form of humorous verse, it is also a form of constraint poetry: poems written within strict conventions. Gwynn gave a workshop on “Playing with Constraints” in Ottawa for the Tree Seed Reading Series. If you would like to organize a poetry workshop for your group, check out our On-Demand Workshops options.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

The Power of Colour

The Power of Colour

Ruth E. Walker.

St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and we can expect lots of green glitter, shamrocks and dyed beer. It’s a time where just about everybody declares a connection to the Emerald Isle, real or otherwise. On March 17, we are green with envy for anyone who really is Irish. But is it easy being green? Just ask Kermit. Or any seasick passenger.

Colour associations are like gold to the knowledgeable writer and when used in subtle ways, bring added depth to text. Figurative language–using words or expressions that mean something different from the literal interpretation– is a useful skill for all writers. And colour is a power tool that works brilliantly with figurative language. But don’t splash colour willy nilly into your writing. The link between colours and ideas relies on many factors to reach your readers’ imaginations.

Get red for your readers

Think of the colour red. Basic association leads us to all things bloody. Red is life, as in lifeblood. Red is love, beating-heart, romantic love captured in a red Valentine. Red is hot, as in fire. Red is also danger: stop signs and red flags. And it is anger, as in flushed cheeks. And what about those red flushed cheeks? They can mean shame. And arousal. Or the aftermath of a brisk winter walk.

See what is happening here? Red on its own has common associations and it also has branches. Once you throw “people” into the mix, our associations get increasingly complex with lots of room for error and misdirection. So it is up to writers to set the stage for meaning.

Here’s a simple sentence of description:

He hesitated outside the room, his cheeks reddened.

Is “He” embarrassed? Turned on? Frostbitten? Angry? The reader will never know if you haven’t put into place all the right ingredients. And is it necessary to say “reddened”? Why not imply red cheeks and allow the reader to imagine or even experience the colour?

Same colour…different tones

Here are three different takes of the same scene with some tweaking for changing emotions:

Fury:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so hard he was sure he could crush it. She was hiding on the other side. He felt colour ignite the skin of his face. Good. Let his fury be the first and last thing she sees.

 

 

 

 

Arousal:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the round knob so hard he was sure it would catch fire under his touch. She was hiding on the other side. He felt heat rise over his face. Good. Let his passion be the first thing she sees.

Shame:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so tight he was sure he could break it and keep him outside forever. She was hiding on the other side. His cheeks burned. Good. Let his shame be the first thing she sees.

Remember: Preparing context  is important. And using imagery to support the emotional context helps guide your reader to understanding.

 

 

A rainbow is global but symbolism is another story

Another part to using colour in your descriptions is to remember colours hold different meanings for different cultures. Western brides would be unlikely to wear red to their wedding. But in many Eastern cultures, red symbolizes the colour of celebration, good fortune and a long life.

That’s why using colours is so dangerous to writers. You need to be clear about what you intend for the colour’s meaning, but subtle enough that you’re not hitting your reader over the head with a hammer. (As an aside, my three examples earlier are exaggerated for effect. I’m sure you could be more subtle than those attempts.)

Christina Wang explores colour in an interesting article for Shutterstock, the stock-photo company: Symbolism of Colour and Colour Meanings Around the World. And you can look further into the whole idea of imagery, symbolism and meaning. Head to the library and discover how symbolism is analyzed in psychology, art, religion and dreams.

There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were

As for me, I’ll be putting on the green this Friday. I can truly claim some Irish lineage, admittedly mixed in with English, Scottish and Norman flavours.

Nonetheless, on St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll be wishing a leprechaun or two might happen by with all the colours of the rainbow to inspire creativity and a quick pen to record it with. Because for writers, that’s a true pot of gold.

 

Did you know:

The luck of the Irish may be with you. There’s still a couple of spots left in our writers’ retreat on April 21 – 23. Join Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker at Emhirst’s Resort for feedback on your manuscript and one-on-one consultation. Enjoy dedicated time to write, the camaraderie of other like-minded folks and inspiring lakeside vistas. All-inclusive means you just need your writing project, jammies and a change of clothes. Writescape takes care of all the rest at Spring Thaw 2017.

The 13,000 Km Workshop

The 13,000 Km Workshop

Gwynn Scheltema

While caring for my post-operative mom in Zimbabwe this winter, I signed up for a creative writing class. Although it was an introductory class, I knew that coming away with just one new skill or “ah ha” moment that moves my writing forward would make the day worthwhile.  Besides, I needed to do something that would get my head (and pen) back into writing.

The facilitator was John Eppel, an award-winning poet and novelist, and newly retired English teacher. I didn’t know his work, and with no Internet connections available to me, I arrived without expectation. There were sixteen of us in the group, seated on dining room chairs gathered in a circle in his living room. We were all ages, and a good mix of men and women. I relaxed. This all felt comfortable and familiar.

In his introduction, I learned that John was primarily a poet, and had been raised in a small mining town not too far from my own home town of Bulawayo. Like me he had been through the Rhodesian civil war of the 60s and 70s, but unlike me, he had remained in Zimbabwe, teaching English at a private school and for South African Universities. He told us that the day would be spent not “learning how to write”, but learning about the power of words. Perfect! I love words. Today I would be a happy word-wallowing hippo.

And the day delivered—in spades. There were many “ah ha” moments. Here’s one about paradox:

“Philosophy gives up at paradox, but that’s where poetry begins.”

Poetry begins? A paradox is a situation, person or thing that seems to combine absurd or contradictory elements that prove to be true. I liked John’s explanation that dual meanings in words allow room for reader interpretation, and the wobble in logic makes the reader stop and think about what is written, even if only at a subconscious level.

He’s right. Take this line from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion.”

….blue is the balsam, water sounds still unfrozen, and the trail is evident…

If water “sounds still” there is no noise, but if it is “still unfrozen” is must be running and therefore making a sound. A paradox, but one for me that now suggests new sounds, perhaps the creak of ice forming, or pop of a bubble trapped in the forming ice.

Image paradox

Now stretch that concept to an image (a cluster of words to which one or more of our senses respond.)

Image paradoxes, like word paradoxes, merge opposites. In the well-loved poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” an image that has always intrigued me is in the line:

…Of easy wind and downy flake.

I realize now that image is a paradox. What is a “downy flake”? “Downy” suggests soft and warm (life), yet “flake” suggests stone-sharp and cold (death). By using opposing words together, the image attempts to evoke a simultaneous experience of living and dying—which, (not coincidentally) is the theme of the whole poem.

Symbol Paradoxes

But John Eppel took it a step further. He introduced me to symbol paradoxes. First he explained: “A symbol is an image with a more fixed connotation than other images.” We all recognize a white dove as a symbol of peace or a red rose as a symbol for romantic love. Symbolic images gain even more power when they are used in an opposing way.”

A unicorn is a symbol of purity and also, paradoxically, of lust. In the play, “The Glass Menagerie”, the glass unicorn represents fragile Laura’s lust for self-absorbed Jim and also her lack of sexual experience. The breaking of the glass unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura’s failed attempt at seduction.

 

Heady stuff for sure, but it fired up our discussion over lunch. We all agreed that it was freeing and motivating. I couldn’t take home the Zimbabwe summer sunshine, but that day exploring paradoxes on the other side of the world travelled home with me. Now, I’m inspired to drag out some of my poems that “aren’t quite there” and see if working in a few paradoxes might make them sing.

 DID YOU KNOW?

Spring Thaw, our upcoming retreat, is the perfect opportunity to play with paradoxes in your writing, and focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors. Join us for three days or five on the shores of Rice Lake for an all-inclusive escape to write.