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.

Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.

DID YOU KNOW

Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.

 

 

Courage Writer & Change the World

Courage Writer & Change the World

Ruth E. Walker

There’s all kinds of courage and lately, we’ve been witness to so many types of bravery that it seems the well of human strength could very well be bottomless. Sadly, the well of inhuman cruelty seems equally deep at times. Add to the mix: natural disasters of epic scale and all the chaos is no longer extraordinary…or surprising.

While the world can be a frightening and hope-sucking place, there are ways that writers can power through the mess.

And in the process, not only could you find a prompt for a story, it just might help you stay grounded in a troubled world.

The sanctuary of imagination

What would you do if what you thought were fireworks became bullets? Would you race away? Or stay to apply pressure on a stranger’s wound, never knowing if the next hail of gunfire would reach you? I’d like to think I would stay but there’s a small voice in the back of my head that whispers: who are you kidding?

If your neighbourhood is under military attack and you had only minutes to escape, what would you grab? Me? I’d like to think it would be our passports and survival kit but in reality, it would probably be some token, some useless item like a stone I picked up on vacation or a group family photo.

What if the water is racing up the basement stairs and the torrential rains outside show no sign of stopping? Do you move up to the second floor or head outside and hope to get to higher ground? And do you take anything with you — passport, wallet or a silly sentimental rock?

EXERCISE: Explore your characters: put them in a crisis situation and see how they handle it, watch what their hands reach for as the volcano explodes or the peaceful demonstration becomes a riot. Let the crisis arrive as if it is a film in your mind.  And it is especially interesting when you use a crisis that is not what you or your character would expect.

When you have the crisis, begin to write freefall (see About Freefall in Seven Tips for Inspiration.) This works well if you don’t “direct” the action; instead, follow the energy of the scene. Don’t stop to edit. Keep writing and see where your character will take you.

The Human Condition(s)

Every time I follow the news, I am struck by the misery so many people endure. Mass migrations. Earthquakes. Civil wars (though what is civil about any war is beyond me.) The scale is always so overwhelming that I struggle to process it.

But then we see the people who respond with kindness. With practical help. With shining a light on it all so we living-room observers can somehow hope again. Uplifting!

But then we see the people taking advantage of the turmoil. Looting. Profiting. Victim-blaming. Depressing!

But then we see the survivors who, despite everything against them, rise up and move forward. Inspiring!

We are a contradictory, unpredictable, amazing, terrifying, confusing and incredible animal, we humans. Will we ever all learn to be positive, to be present and listen to others, to find a way forward that benefits the world?

EXERCISE: Take a walk in the science fiction and fantasy sections of your local library. Look for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The two titles show how from the darkest of times, one person can change the world when they take on an extraordinary burden. It is a theme explored in many works of these genres.

Consider the various Star Trek television series or any of the films in the “Star Trek” universe. The idea of the complexity of human behaviour is explored repeatedly in science fiction and fantasy. Any Trekker will tell you: boundaries are crossed. Preconceived ideas are challenged. There is hope.

Draft a plot outline or write an opening scene for a science fiction/fantasy story that explores human behaviour in an imagined world that is socially broken. Kick the editor off your shoulder and envision another world in chaos. Will you make room for hope? Surprise yourself.

The gift of the writer

Have you ever learned something life-changing from reading a story or book? Indeed, some of the best writing has altered thinking because it caused readers to question what they thought to be true.

Charles Dickens often wrote about the appalling conditions of the poor and working class in 1800s England. Because he created characters that readers cared about, he nudged more than a few into rethinking social responsibility. Consider this scene from A Christmas Carol where the wealthy protagonist is asked to help the less fortunate:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

EXERCISE: Cold words presented from a cold and unfeeling character can help readers take a glance into the mirror. Create a contemporary scene in which a character reveals disdain or disinterest in a social issue of today. Opiod addiction. Famine in a faraway country. Indigenous rights and reconciliation. You pick from the dozens waiting for your attention and write the scene without any emotional embellishment. Just like Scrooge: cold and steely eyed.

Later on, you can opt to give your character a chance to care. But not in this scene. Not one bit.

Remember: the world may be a mess but the pen, and the hand that moves it, can craft stories to change attitudes and ideas. The redemption of Scrooge is a timeless and hopeful tale that continues to resonate more than a century after Dickens put pen to paper.

DID YOU KNOW?

There’s a way to get a daily dose of positive. Upworthy is an online media company with this stated mission: Upworthy is on a mission to tell stories that bring people together — because we’re all part of the same story.

Here’s a Hallowe’en tale from 2016 that still holds power when two best friends of different faiths discover a way to celebrate their unity. Kids could teach us all.

Upworthy is based in the U.S. but many of their stories are international. Not every story Upworthy drops into your INBOX is a happy one. But they usually bring more than 11,000,000 subscribers a smile and often, offer ideas and inspiration for artists of all kinds. Because, after all, any organization that focuses on story understands its power to persuade and influence thinking.

 

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.

7 Ways to Keep Writing Every Day

7 Ways to Keep Writing Every Day

Gwynn and Ruth are on vacation for a few 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. The last two blogs explored finding time to write and finding inspiration. This week Gwynn’s April 2016 post rounds out the message with tips for writing every day.

Gwynn Scheltema

We’ve all heard the old maxim, “Write every day.” In the bogaiman quoteok Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Whether you believe in the 10,000 hours concept, or simple BIC [Butt in Chair], there is no denying that being a writer means actually writing—real words—lots of them.

“Write every day” is the number one piece of advice given by successful writers—and they should know. But it’s often easier said than done.

So here are 7 ways to keep you writing every day:

  1. Set aside writing time

paper-606649_960_720If writing is important to you, it needs to be built into your routine in the same way that you build in any other important activity in your life. If you need to schedule writing time like dental appointments, piano lessons, or hockey practice, do it. Think of writing as your “job” and block out set times like you would if you were going to work.

And perhaps once in a while treat yourself to really dedicated time on retreat, like Writescape’s Spring Thaw or Just Write at Glentula.

  1. Get buy in

Talk to your family and friends about how important your writing time is to you. More importantly, talk to yourself about honouring that time. Are you the one who gives up your creative time to do extra chores, or make way for what someone else wants to do? Ask yourself, “Would I take a day off work to do chores?”

  1. Know yourself

The right time to write is different for everyone. You know when you are most creative. If you feel guilty taking “family time”, get up earlier, or reserve after-bedtime time for yourself.

  1. Have a dedicated writing spacewriting-828911_960_720

If you learn to play the piano, you invest in a piano. If you play hockey, you buy skates and sticks and all the rest of the hockey paraphernalia. Yet so many writers believe that perching on the end of the kitchen table and clearing up when someone else needs the space is okay. It’s not. Claim a writing space that is yours. It doesn’t have to be a whole room, but it should be a place where you can be alone when you want to, and where you can leave things in progress.

  1. Get dressed and show up

While it’s comfy to write in your jammies, getting dressed to go to write lends a validity to the activity, like getting dressed to go to work. And as Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. If you can physically get your butt in the chair, then writing that first word is that much easier.

  1. Know your writing style

Stephen King says he writes ten pages a day; Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Some writers set a fixed time—write for 3 hours. It doesn’t matter what writing goal you set for yourself, as long it is achievable, and doesn’t set you up for failure. Start small. Even 3 paragraphs done every day will get you further ahead than a full chapter not even attempted because it is too overwhelming.

  1. Use prompts, timers or ritualsteapot-574025_960_720

To make the transition from the practical world to your creative world, have a ritual: light a candle, play music, or make tea in a special pot. To get the words flowing, make use of writing prompts or timers or idea files. Anything that will get you started. Think of them as warm-up exercises.

From the picture at the top of this post, it looks like that writer channels Star Trek to get started. My writing ritual is to clear my desk, get a coffee and win three hands of solitaire. What’s yours? Share it in the comments below.

Other articles you might like to explore:

Strange Writing Rituals of Famous Authors

Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers

Sit Down, Shut Up and the Muse will Come.

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.

 

 

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.

 

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Gwynn Scheltema

I have a one-syllable name—Gwynn. It’s a fairly common Welsh name although my spelling is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have an “e” on the end. And, no, no-one was drunk on the way to the registry office, or misinformed or forgetful or anything else. The story goes that I don’t have an “e” because my brothers (who got to choose my name) couldn’t decide between Gillian and Lynn so they smooshed it together and added a “w” for easier pronunciation to make Gwynn.

Growing up, I didn’t know this story; I only found out in my twenties. However, my father’s family had emigrated from Wales in the late 1800s and the name means “bright, white, fair, pure, blessed” and I’m blonde, so it’s a good fit. I like it. I like that it’s different. I like that it can’t be shortened. I like that it fits my history.

Names affect the way we feel

How a person or character feels about his or her name can affect what they feel about themselves. I love the way this excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s short story “Hairball” sums up the idea. So much character and back story is packed into the paragraph. Sometimes it is the character’s own view of herself, and sometimes how others see her.

During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school, she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail.

What’s behind a name?

Playing with names is a useful and powerful tool to add to your writing toolkit. Names have meanings, ethnic histories, associations with myth and stories, famous people, gods and family ties. Choosing the right name is the key.

Finding out what’s behind a name can be fun (and addictive). The web is full of sites that give the etymology, history and meaning behind names—first names and last names. There are sites for choosing baby names, for seeing the popularity of names over the years and even “character analysis” based on names.

Choosing a name

Devyani Borade blogged in Writer’s Digest about a quirky method to choose character names for fantasy characters: “Eyes closed, I randomly open a dictionary. Then I run a finger down the middle of a column while mentally keeping a beat, and stop at the count of six. (Why six? Because on this occasion, my story has six characters.) “Macamba: (n) Tropical American feather palm having a swollen spiny trunk and edible nuts.” Interesting. I repeat the process and come up with “Tabes: (n) Wasting of the body during a chronic disease.” Ah, just sublime. Then I switch the last letters. Et voila! Tabea Macambs. Pretty exotic, eh?

Names and Personality

I went to Quizony and did a quiz called “What Should Your Name Be?” based on personality. Apparently, my name should be Camilla. The quiz tells me: “Camilla is the name of a legendary female warrior… can make tough decisions… never afraid of taking on responsibilities… always has new ideas and new goals.”

Actually, I like it. And it’s a pretty accurate assessment of me. So it got me thinking about a character I’m working with whose name I’ve changed several times during the writing of my novel. I did the quiz again, only this time I answered the questions as if I was my character, Emily. According to the quiz, her name should be Victoria: “… powerful and forceful… determined… people respect and look up to you.” Hmmm. It fits her. I’ll think on it.

If your character is young, you might like to try a similar site where all the questions are geared to YA.

Over to you

Do you have a character whose name you aren’t quite happy with yet? Perhaps a character that needs naming?  Spend some fun time looking up names, their meanings and histories, their connections and personality traits.  And let readers know in the comments below how you pick names for your characters.

DID YOU KNOW

The name of the Rice Lake resort where we hold our annual Spring Thaw retreat is Elmhirst. It means “the elm-wood hill”, from the Olde English pre 7th Century “elm”, with “hyrst”, wooded hill. Join us there to focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors.  Come for three days or five, April 21 to 25 for an all-inclusive escape to write.

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.