Acorns

Acorns

Two-time Governor General Award winner, author of 7 books and our delightful guest author at our 2015 fall retreat, Caroline Pignat shares an epiphany on her creative process. As anyone who was at that retreat can tell you, Caroline was pure inspiration and what she has to say as our guest blogger continues to inspire:

A few years ago, I started collecting acorns on my morning walks. It became a thing to find that perfect seed: that cute little nut capped in its tiny beret. As a kid, I always loved acorns: the look of them, the weight of them, the wonder of holding the promise of an oak in my palm.

Acorns, to me, were like ideas, so full of possibility. I fancied myself some kind of modern mystic (read:  hoarding squirrel) as I collected them in the jar on my desk. They were the perfect metaphor for my creative potential. Still, like most ideas found and treasured as I walked, these little seeds were soon forgotten in the busyness of my days.

Until the maggots

Yes, maggots.

“Umm…why do you have a jar of maggots on your desk?” my young niece asked, in a mix of wonder and disgust. Sure enough, she was right. My poetic potential had become infiltrated with a mass of wriggling, white worms.

Worms!

On my desk!

The horror! I wish I could have given her some inspired response. It’s a science experiment? Novel research? Pets? A snack? Any one of those answers would have been better, I suppose, than admitting that all this time, I did not see what was wriggling before my eyes.

With great dismay and even greater heebie-jeebies, I tossed the lot into the woods behind our house. So much for my profound metaphor.

But now that I think of it, my little acorns taught me another truth. Ideas, like seeds, are not meant to be hoarded. Sure, there is something comforting in filling files and notebooks with ‘what ifs’, plots, and projects. I sure feel productive squirrelling ideas between the covers of my journal.

But then… what?

I have to actually do something with that seed. That creation, invention, process, product, insight, voice — that inspiration — whatever it is, I have to let it go.

Why is that so difficult?

Maybe it’s because I like feeling the weight of its potential in my pocket. I could plant it here. I could plant it there. This could be the next big thing. That sense of could-ness makes me feel all powerful. In seed form, that idea doesn’t have to face the axe of rejection or ridicule. In seed form, perfection is still possible and so I like to hold on to it just a little longer.

But as I learned, nothing good comes from hoarding ideas — and that’s the cold, wriggling truth.

Sowing that idea takes courage. The courage of letting go. The courage to be patient and to trust in hidden growth, when all I see is dirt. Anxiety and doubt threaten to choke all hope, especially during those times when it feels like all I am growing is impatient.

Planting more seeds

And here’s another thing my acorn taught me: I’m an idiot if I think by will or worry I can make it grow any faster or become what it isn’t. I’m finally coming to realize that there is a natural process, cycles and seasons to my creative self. Just as there is a natural process for every seed of an idea.

Of course, I wish each one will sprout into a mighty oak,  but the truth is many will never quite get their moment in the sun. Some will languish in the shadow of someone else’s great idea. And more than I’d like to admit, are just duds destined to rot away.

But, you know what? I’m finally okay with that. I’m starting to realize that even the duds serve a purpose. Often they make the fertile ground for a new premise to flourish.

So to you, maggots, who wriggled your way into my writer’s block and opened my horrified eyes — thank you, I think. Thanks for helping me learn to seek, sow, and let it go knowing there are always more acorns waiting on the path ahead.

About our guest blogger:

Caroline Pignat is a teacher, a two-time Governor General’s Award winner, and a best-selling author of seven novels, including Egghead and Shooter. Known for her lyrical style and varied forms, Pignat explores the cycles and seasons of life through acrostic poems in her latest release and first picture book, Poetree. 

She has written teachers guides for many books including her own novels, EggheadGreener Grass, and The Gospel Truth.  In her upcoming Poetree Activity Guide, Pignat offers resources for nature journalling and poetry with students. Links to these free downloads at  www.carolinepignat.com

Writescape was delighted to host Caroline as our guest author at Turning Leaves 2015. She brought her excellent workshop skills and generous spirit to the writers on retreat with us. This year’s retreat is November 2- 4; there are still a few spots left to join guest author Andrew Pyper and Writescape for another inspiring writers’ weekend.

Photo: Angela Flemming

Back to School: Kids Play?

Back to School: Kids Play?

Ruth E. Walker

Wasn’t it just the other day that all the retail signs announced: Get Ready for Summer!

I just blinked and now what do they say? Get Ready for School!

Once I got over depressing thoughts of our vanishing summer, it got me thinking. Some years back (many years, in fact) I decided it was time to return to school. A high school dropout, I’d left the workforce and a developing career in the human resource profession to stay home with my young family. Getting back into the H.R. game would be tough without a university degree; a sociology or psychology major would be best, I thought.

But I was a bit scared so decided to at least start with something I really liked. English. Books are good. And reading. And talking about books…about reading books…books…

Fast-forward a couple of dozen courses later and somewhat longer years of evening and summer classes at Trent University, Durham Region Campus, and I had my degree. And no, not sociology or psychology.

English. And darn-near a minor in Cultural Studies. Even better: I graduated on the Dean’s List.

What I Learned in School

Study what you enjoy. And be open to stepping beyond what you know you’ll enjoy.

I took an Introduction to Anthropology. In the course catalogue, it all sounded a bit “sciency” but a lot of it focused on the past, so, because I like history, I risked it and I loved it. I even considered changing my major.

During the section with a biology focus, I held a plaster cast finger bone of the famous  “Lucy”, Australopethicus afarensis. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, this hominid’s skeleton is about 3.2 million years old. It blew my mind and created a connection that inspired a thrice-published poem, Lucy’s Bones from Afar.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the next section on archaeology was great grounding for my final course before graduation on Greek and Roman Mythology. And from that course, I found my way to a series of poems and flash fiction, powerful characters and a novel that continues to simmer on the back burner.

Suffice to say that just one course outside of my English Literature comfort zone affected my muse, inspiring characters, poems, themes and plots in much of my future writing. I didn’t stop with Anthropology 101: Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Ancient History and yes, even a sociology course or two peppered my learning. By the time I graduated, I’d explored far beyond Shakespeare and sonnets.

Continuing that Education

I’m not suggesting that writers need university courses for success. That choice worked out well for me but not because I started out thinking about a career in literature. And it isn’t the only choice that had a profound impact on my writing.

Over the years, I’ve taken more than one writers’ workshop that inspired new and exciting work from me. I had mentors that gave me new perspectives. And there are many books on writing that took my craft on deep and engaging journeys.

Learning for all of us is on offer from a multitude of options: mentoring, workshops, private retreats, resource books, conferences, and so on. But not all conferences or workshops need to be about “writing.” And not all resource books should follow a familiar or safe path.

Some stretching into the unknown can help you reach new heights. It certainly did for me.

10 Great Books on Writing

10 Great Books on Writing

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

The best advice for writers is to read, and read widely. Dip your toes into styles and genres you don’t normally read and take note of how those writers crafted their work.

But you also need to read books about writing. Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be an isolated journey. Books that explore the craft and practical considerations of writing are great companions along the writer’s path. This is a list of 10 of the books that helped us at various stages of our writing expeditions.Obviously it is not an exhaustive list, just a toe-dipping exploration.

Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg. Gwynn’s first “writing book”, she’s reread it many times, as well as Goldberg’s other books in a similar vein Wild Mind and The True Secret of Writing. Writing Down the Bones helped Gwynn get her head around being a writer and trusting her muse. Nathalie’s Writing Practice method (like freefall) showed Gwynn how to go deep into her subconscious to find the good stuff.

A Passion for Narrative Jack Hodgins. It’s been around since 1991. And, sure, it’s meant for developing writers. But Ruth won’t ever let it go because it is the book that moved her from writer to WRITER. To quote her: It was like having him on my shoulder, nudging me along as I learned more deeply about the craft with every page I turned.

Bird by Bird Anne Lamott helped Gwynn hone her attitude to writing and gain the confidence she needed to really start getting words on paper. Personal anecdotes give advice on everything from writer’s block to finding your voice and the value of writing “shitty first drafts”.

On Writing Stephen King  Ruth loved this one so much she got the basic book, the CD for listening and the large-print version in case her eyes give out. More than a how-to from a master of storytelling and horror of all levels, this book is a fine companion for any writer who loses their way.

 

Plot versus Character Jeff Gerke. Gwynn writes from setting, then characters, and then tries to fit it all into a plot. This book recognizes both the pantster and plotter and leads them each through processes to a well-balanced novel: memorable characters and a good plot.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction Donald Maass. After taking a workshop with agent and bestselling author, Donald Maas, Ruth was compelled to get his latest book. And it’s a doozy with examples and exercises to sharpen your emotional intelligence as a writer, dig deeper in your scenes and keep readers reading.

The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler is Gwynn’s go-to book on story structure. Evolved around the Hero’s journey concept, Vogler adds in what works in story that has come out of myths, fairy tales and movies.

An Introduction to Poetry  X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, ed. — this is one of Ruth’s go-to’s whenever she’s feeling stuck with a poem. It’s a basic college-level textbook but one that’s filled with poems and the thoughts of poets on poetry and life. These are voices of a rich cultural diversity, from ancient times to modernity, all trying to figure out the world and our place in it.

Fruitflesh Gayle Brandeis. While Gwynn also turns repeatedly to An Introduction to Poetry, she also finds this book of stories, meditations and writing exercises a constant inspiration when writing poetry. Brandeis seems to have the power to inspire, challenge and free the sensual.

The Angela Ackerman/Becca Puglisi series (Negative/Positive Trait Thesaurus, etc.) Ruth has the Negative Trait Thesaurus and Gwynn has the Positive Trait Thesaurus (we share) but we’ve spoken with enough writers to know that each book Ackerman and Puglisi puts out has become a practical resource that goes beyond suggesting appropriate body language or emotional responses. Also great for those moments when you’re stuck and need to surprise yourself with your character’s good or bad behaviour.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t make note of our own writing resource book, Inspiration Station. Published in 2010 with Piquant Press it was packed full of prompts and ideas to keep writers’ pens moving. Our first non-fiction publication proved to be a popular handbook as one way to keep the retreat feeling alive long after writers packed up and headed home. It’s been through two printings and is presently sold out, but Inspiration Station has gone back to the revision table and you can look for a new edition and format next year.

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

Out of the box poetry

Out of the box poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

One way I free up my creative mind is to box it in. Sound contradictory? It is, but it works. Forcing my brain into constraints forces it to find new ways out, to connect things that are not normally connected and to reach for ways to use available concepts or images or ideas that aren’t the easy default but something deeper.

Using constraints is not a new concept, and it applies to all creativity, not just writing. Composer Igor Stravinsky described it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”

Here are some constraints that I use to start poems. Notice, I say “to start”. Some of these tactics may produce a finished poem, but more often they simple set my mind in a new direction. After that I ignore the constraint and let the new idea lead me where it may.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect. When the initial writing is done, you can remove the phrase and just work with the images and thoughts you’ve generated.

I find it good to pick a focus, like a place, time, person or experience and use phrases like “On Saturdays…” or “My Aunt Emily…” In London…” etc., as well as general introductions like “I remember…” or “I don’t remember”, I believe…”, “I want…” or “If I could…”

Joe Brainard wrote a book length poem about his life in the 1950s called I Remember. Here is an excerpt:

I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.

I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

Lipogram

A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. Here is a short poem by Daniel J Webster that excludes the most used letter in the English alphabet: “e”.

Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It’s tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . .

Univocalism

A poem using only one vowel. Canadian poet Christian Bok is famous for his collection Eunoia, a collection of five univocal prose poems (which run into many pages each), one for each vowel.

Here is an excerpt from “A”

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.

Opposites

Take a poem you find interesting (your own or someone else’s) and write a line opposite in meaning to each line in the poem. For a bigger stretch, keep to the same form and/or rhyme scheme.

Excerpt from PETALS
by Amy Lowell

Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.

STONES
by Gwynn Scheltema

Death is earth
On which we pile
Stone by stone the cairn of our mind;
The beginning found in birth
We build up all the while,
Only to miss their sad, final end.

Imitation

Imitate a poem, even incorporating phrases from the original poem. If you use this only as an opening up exercise to find your own thoughts, make sure you eliminate the original poet’s words in your poem. If you keep any of them make sure to acknowledge the original poet.

Excerpt from “PATTERNS” by Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

Imitation exercise:

PATTERNS REPEATED
After Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden-paths,
And all the peonies
Are full and showy, like happy children
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my husband’s shadow
With painted smile and high bred manner
I too am a rare
Pattern.  As I wander down
The garden-paths.

 Riffing off a concept

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in which each stanza is a mini-poem, but all of them refer to a blackbird in some way, to unite the whole. This is a great way to start writing a poem. Think of 13 (or 14 or 16 ) ways of looking at anything: sunsets; lovers; baking apple pie; train journeys…..

 

First and Last

Here, take two lines at random from any text. Make it truly random by getting someone else to pick them. One line becomes the first and one the last line of your poem. When you’re done, remove the borrowed lines.

Poet John Hewitt recommends this tactic because “…it gives you something to start from. If you know what your last line has to be, you start to think of ways that you can get there. If you know that you have to write a poem about the constellation Orion, you go out and stare at the stars. You are no longer dealing with a blank page. You know that at least one of those words is going to be “Orion”. That’s a place you can start from.”

And one more thing

It is important to realize a constraint is a tool. It helps bring focus to a poem. You won’t always want restraints, but when you are stuck, a constraint is a good way to get the words flowing again.

Last word

Gilbert Sorrentino, poet, novelist, critic and professor says “Generative Devices are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”

 

 

 

Celebrating Poetry during NPM

Celebrating Poetry during NPM

Gwynn Scheltema

I love April. It’s a month of budding trees, long-asleep bulbs poking through the earth, warm sun on my back and the promise of summer to come. And April is National Poetry Month (NPM)—a chance to read, write, share and support poetry on a national scale. I love it!

I also love the story that started it all: Back in 1996, members and staff of the Academy of American Poets headed to the steps of a post office in New York City where individuals waited in line to mail their tax returns. The story goes, that they handed out copies of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, which begins, “April is the cruellest month….”

In 1998 Canada followed their lead and today, NPM brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country. This year, 2018 will celebrate the 20th anniversary of NPM in Canada!

Reading poetry

If you don’t have poetry on your bookshelves, there is plenty out there to sample. You might want to start with the Poetry Foundation website where you can search poems by poet or poem title or explore their collections by topic. You can listen to audio clips of poetry read aloud and browse their magazine Poetry, the oldest monthly poetry magazine in the English-speaking world.

Another great website for classic poetry and prose is Project Gutenberg. This volunteer-based site offers over 56,000 free eBooks mostly of older works for which copyright has expired. Here is a great spot to sample poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Robert Frost.

Or consider having a poem delivered to your inbox each day. Sign up at Academy of American’s Poets.org to receive original new poems during the week and classics on weekends. Poetry Foundation also offers a poem a day by email or via an app on your phone. If you’d rather begin small, try Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week published in The Guardian.

Writing poetry

Just like the reading version of a poem a day, Writer’s Digest runs a Poem-A-Day challenge each year curated by Robert Lee Brewer, author of the blog Poetic Asides. Each day during April, Robert posts a prompt and invites poets from around the world to write and post their poems and comments on the postings. He also chooses a daily winner and an overall winner for the month. Writescape’s Ruth E. walker won one of the daily challenges with a poem she wrote at our Spring Thaw retreat that year.

If you are new to poetry, perhaps consider taking an online course to get you started and inspired. MOOC (Massive open online courses) offers a wide variety for studying poets or writing poetry like this one from California Institute of the Arts.

Sharing poetry

During poetry month, poets and lovers of poetry encourage activities to celebrate poetry. In my region, Poetry in Cobourg Spaces (PICS), along with convenor James Pickersgill, worked with Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate, to create a poetry event on Earth Day.

The public plus local schools were invited to submit to a poetry contest. The poems had to be on topics directly related to Earth Day, like the environment, our planet, ecology, nature, organic gardening and/or farming, evolving human awareness of other living organisms, climate change, greenhouse effect, and pollution. The poems were to be 24 lines or less and the winners read their poems at ceremonies at Cobourg’s Ecology Garden on April 22, Earth Day at dawn!

Also in my area, a group of poets, equipped with vintage typewriters brought people’s stories to life through poetry in a unique public art installation.

At the Shelter Valley Folk Festival five Green Wood poets talked with people and created poetry, non-stop, for over three hours. Beginning with the question “what brought you here to this moment?” the poet and person talked for 15 minutes before leaving the poet to capture the essence of the conversation. It was all pecked out on a typewriter in public view. Identified with a number for anonymity, the poem hung on a clothesline, both as a public art installation and a personal gift for the person to take away.

I love it!

One of the spin-offs that came out of NPM is something called Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day. Also celebrated in April—this year on April 26—Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day encourages people to carry a poem with them, and share it with others throughout the day. This day is celebrated not just in North America, but in Europe and Australia too. Some of the activities that everyone (not just poets) are encouraged to get involved with are:

  • Start a “poems for pockets” giveaway in your school or workplace
  • Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems
  • Post pocket-sized verses in public places
  • Start a street team to pass out poems in your community
  • Distribute bookmarks with your favorite lines of poetry
  • Add a poem to your email footer
  • Post lines from your favorite poem on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr
  • Send a poem to a friend

Supporting Poetry

Of course, like writers, poets struggle to make a living from their art. So I challenge you to buy a book of poetry this April. No idea what to buy?

Visit some of Canada’s poetry publishers: Brick Books; Black Moss Press; Hidden Brook Press and Guernica Editions. Or check out these 16 collections recommended by CBC last fall. Or the 10 best of 2017 recommended by Canadian League of Poets. When in doubt, head to your nearest independent book store.

Poets also appreciate attendance at their poetry readings. A quick Google search of “poetry reading” and “Northumberland” gave me 3 readings in the next three weeks I could attend including this one at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop.  Notice boards in coffee shops often have reading flyers, and if your city boasts a university, there are bound to be readings connected with them too.

Let us know in the comments how you intend to celebrate National Poetry Month. So much poetry to explore. Only 30 days in April. Better get busy!

DID YOU KNOW

A Writescape retreat alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, recently won the 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry, This Being. This national award, sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets, places Ingrid firmly in the midst of such well-known poets as George Elliott Clarke, John Newlove, John Barton and Pearl Pirie.

And she spent her Spring Thaw retreat time focusing on her poetry. We think it was time well spent.

GPS for the subconscious

GPS for the subconscious

Gwynn Scheltema

I call it mind mapping. You might call it clustering or brainstorming. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this visual technique works to generate ideas and get subconscious thoughts down on paper before you lose them.

What is mind mapping?

Mind mapping is a my non-linear way to organizing thoughts without my internal critic getting in the way. At the same time it allows me to link and organize those ideas, so that the finished exercise is something I can work with.

Sound contradictory?

Perhaps, but it is based on some interesting studies on the way we think. Ralph Haber’s study of memory, found that we have nearly 90% success rate recalling images rather than words. Tony Buzan’s research found that those who took notes using key words learned more effectively. Mind mapping combines keywords and visual representation.

Mind map mind set

Start with an open mind and playful attitude. Mind mapping is a “brain dump.” Expect that many of the ideas you produce will not be useful. That’s not important. You can harvest the valuable nuggets later.

Your brain works best in short, intensive bursts (5 minutes or so), so once you begin, work fast and write down only key words, symbols, images, phrases … not sentences. Strive for an explosion of ideas.

Write with a pencil, your favourite pen, coloured markers, crayons or whatever helps to make you feel creative. Same goes for the paper you choose: with or without lines, coloured, big or small.

Where do you start?

Begin with one central keyword or concept in the centre of the page. Starting in the middle of the page gives the creative right brain a head start, as our non-creative left brain is used to starting in the upper left-hand corner.

You can put the keyword in a circle or a cloud shape or not enclose it at all (this is a creative process, so there are no “rules.”)

You can use an idea you want to work with or a random word picked from a book or given to you by someone else.

Then what?

I started with the word GERANIUM.

Write down/draw anything that keyword suggests to you, and then a word or symbol associated with that new thought, and so on, until you have a chain of linked ideas moving out from the central theme. Do not judge your ideas at this stage; simply write them down.

Put an idea down even if it seems unrelated – your subconscious probably knows more than you do.  DOCTORS OFFICE showed up on one of the branches. What does that have to do with geraniums? Seemingly nothing now, but when I organized the ideas afterwards, the link became clear. (I’ll explain later).

Keep your hand moving. If ideas slow down, take your hand back to the central concept and begin a new branch. Draw empty lines, and your brain will move to fill them automatically; or inject more energy with a different colour pen.

Eventually you’ll have several trains of thought, all different from each other and yet linked by the central concept. You can now organize them to fit your purposes.

Organizing and using your mind map ideas

Ways to use the ideas you’ve generated can be as varied as the ideas themselves.

Say I’m looking for an idea for a non-fiction article. Perhaps my first instinct around the word GERANIUM is to do an article on container gardening, I take a highlighter and highlight all the ideas that fit in any way with that slant. In the example, I’d highlight: POTS, RED, HANGING, TRAILING, VERANDAH, PATIO, SUMMER, SCENT. Hmmm….. boring!

But in the process, the word SCENT reminded me that geranium leaves can be used to scent and colour sugar. The mind trail on HERBS, TEAS, SPA suddenly becomes more interesting. A non-fiction article on “Using Flowers for Special Teas” now has possibilities. I might do another mind map now with the word TEA in the centre.

Use a mind map over and over

But don’t stop there. The same mind map can be used several times, at different times for different styles of writing.

The phrase DOCTORS OFFICE has me curious. I follow the branch back towards the centre, trying to work out what PINK and SUGAR have to do with it. Then it hits me… when I was a child, our doctor used to hand out tiny cylindrical candies that smelled like scented geraniums. I realize that I haven’t seen them in decades. What other sweeties from that era are no longer around? Hmmm….. Another article? A scene for my novel? A short story? Things are brewing now.

Later, it strikes me as interesting that I have two trails that contain the word VERANDAH, and I’m drawn to the references to LATIN WORD; SECRETS; SCHOOL FRIENDS; IVY; OLD BUILDINGS; ENGLAND. I think I feel a poem emerging…..

Even the trail that started out with the boring POTS; RED, ended with SQUIRREL; CRINOLINE: HIBISCUS. Now I realize, that’s a story my subconscious has unearthed about a little critter that came to my garden last year. He loved hibiscus shoots, and …

When should I do a mind map?

Use a mind map whenever you want to generate new ideas. Use it to focus in on a particular problem area. Use it to expand something you are already working on. Use it to reveal hidden subconscious perspectives on a seemingly boring topic. Or just do it for fun and see where it takes you. Quick. Easy. Worth it!

DID YOU KNOW

The perfect spot to be creative – and mind map to your heart’s content – is at Spring Thaw 2018 on beautiful Rice Lake in Keene, Ontario. Come for 3 or 5 days and escape to write with Writescape.Tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
TRUE/ACCURATE FALSE/INACCURATE
HOW BOB SEES SELF Hilarious

Fun-loving

Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations

Attention-seeking

Over-the-top

Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.

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One way I write a poem

One way I write a poem

Gwynn Scheltema

Outside my window the snow is piled layer upon layer. It’s quite beautiful, but it does seem like winter has been here FOREVER. There is a spot near the pathway where bulbs will poke through in spring, and although it is mid-winter, I still look there in the hope of seeing a crocus nudging its way to the sun. But, nope! Not today. It’s as if winter knows how I feel and is teasing me, telling me to be patient. I feel a poem coming on…..

Poems are inspired by many things, and each poet usually has a preferred way of entering into a poem. For me it is an image, often an image from landscape, an image that evokes an emotion in me, an image that begins to tell a story…

Emotion first

Painting a pretty picture with words is all well and good, but if the picture is flat and emotionless, you don’t have a poem. I believe a poem’s prime function is to connect with the human heart, to evoke a reaction in the reader, to find common ground with emotions and experiences we all know.

So I work with the emotion first. I mentally or physically jot down what emotions the scene evokes in me and what that makes me think of. Even if my thoughts don’t seem to “match” or if they “fight” with each other, I just let the random subconscious thoughts bubble and land on the page:

 hope to see a crocus – frustrated with winter already – amazed at how those squirrels survive out there in the cold – awed by the beauty of everything – awed by the determination of a tiny flower pushing through all that snow – anticipation of spring coming in just a few weeks – resignation that there is still winter to live through – teased by winter – foreverness -winter teaching me a lesson in patiencepromise….

 
Emotion in context

Then I ask myself if there other times in my life that I have felt some of these emotions? This helps me relate what I’m seeing and feeling to “universal” themes.

 

waiting for Christmas as a child – anticipation of anything exciting – my mother telling me that “patience is a virtue”- watching a small child struggling with shoelaces – waiting for a lover who has gone away – bad dreams and how they are gone in the morning

Sensory details next

Then I list all the specific details I notice about the physical scene or image using all the senses and remembering extensions of the basic five senses like texture, quality of light, and temperature. And I always ask myself “What is missing?”

 

layers of snow – fluffy – heavy, bare knobbly branches – purple shadows – black squirrels – lake covered in ice that will leave soon – grey sky – cold – no warm sun- no crocus poking through – imagined honey smell of crocus – chatter of squirrels – creaking branches …

 
Metaphor

Then I ask myself what some of those images remind me of. Again, I don’t worry about it “fitting”. Just let the subconscious thoughts fall on the page

the creaking branches and knobbly branches remind me of my bony arthritic fingers – the squirrels are like busy moms dashing about making sure everyone has the things they need – layers of snow like blankets- ice is a blanket too  – crocus and saffron spice – sun like a returning lover

Finding nuggets

I read through my notes and see what jumps at me; first impressions, no overthinking:

  • hope to see a crocus- foreverness- anticipation of spring
  • waiting for a lover who has gone away
  • bare knobbly branches- ice that will leave soon
  • arthritic fingers – sun like a returning lover – saffron spice

Reading through this list I’m starting to get a feeling about spring being almost human like a lover – how that lover is gone but will return when the time is right if I can just be patient and determined like a crocus. And I really like the word “foreverness”.

First pass

Trees wave knobbly fingers

ice on the lake fades against grey sky

it bides its time

before it moves on

so my love can return

I will be a honey scented crocus

waiting under the purple shadowed snow

foreverness

waiting for spring and my love’s return

waiting for the saffron sun to warm me

once more

 

Hmmm. It’s got some decent images, but it’s too wordy and too obvious. I need to let the images speak for themselves. Style is too linear and conversational. I need to get rid of unnecessary articles and other words. Knobbly is too soft a word. Images need focus to give the contrast of cold colourless hard winter (lover gone) and softer brighter spring (person in love waiting and hoping) And as much as I love the word foreverness, I’m not sure it fits. I also need to give it a title (a well-chosen title will set up expectations and help with defining what the poem is about).

Refining

SAFFRON LOVER

Bony tree limbs wave

gnarled knuckled fingers

lake ice stretches to grey sky

bides its time

before moving on

 

as the patient honey saffron crocus

nudges to the sun

beneath purple shadowed snow

I wait for spring

and your return

 

So there it is for now. It’s got a way to go, for sure, but it’s started and on the page.  Now, I’ll let it rest a couple of days or weeks and come back to it. Distance will tell me what changes – if any –  to make next.

DID YOU KNOW

Image result for saffron crocus flower

Saffron spice is harvested from the stigmas of a crocus flower. Each saffron crocus bulb produces only one flower and each flower produces only three stigmas.  To get 1lb of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers which require about 20 hours of labour to pick. 

It reminds me of counting words!

Add to your word count this spring with 5 days away at Spring Thaw retreat. Get written feedback and a one-on-one consultation with Ruth and Gwynn.  You can tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

My Digital Idea Archive Project

My Digital Idea Archive Project

A reader left this comment on one of our recent blog posts: “Great blog! I’ll be saving this to my Digital Idea Archive.” What’s a Digital Idea Archive??? We contacted the reader, Leah Murray from BC, and asked her to explain….

Guest blogger: Leah Murray

Do you sometimes need a new idea to get creative and writing again? I do. But now I know what to do about it, thanks to my Digital Idea Archive Project.

I figured my project needed to be tackled in three parts:

  1. Find inspirational ideas I want to keep
  2. Stash ’em someplace safe for future reference
  3. Find ways to retrieve them after we’ve passed through the ancient mists of time (gulp).

Getting the archive set up was straightforward. Sure, it posed a few questions, but I found the solutions and in the end it was worth the effort.

 Find ideas I want to keep

Google’s computerized searches are well up to the work of finding inspiration. If Google could do it online, could I harness that for personal use?

Yes. There’s a handy thing called a Google Alert that will scour the web and bring back whatever it finds about your interests in the form of a daily emailed digest. It took me no time at all to set up Alerts for books, writing tips, photography, farming, small business, and other topics that interested me.


Emailed items turned out to be another piece to the puzzle:  if I can see the original text or image that triggered my idea, I can recreate my train of thought in a flash.  Getting ideas emailed to me or emailing myself and then archiving those emails appropriately seemed a good way to start. My Google Alerts became  part of that

My written work is often triggered by images, so Pinterest was the next stop. There I set up “boards” for books I wanted to read, writing craft, punnies, inspirational artwork/photos, places I want to go, and my perennial interest in self-help/DIY things. Like Google Alerts, Pinterest also sends me a weekly email based on my preferences.

My newest venture is Instagram, a mobile app a lot like Pinterest, but which I find good for sourcing and organizing videos and the people who produce them, like this video on what Instagram can do.

Idea archive part one, check.

Stash ’em someplace safe

I live in a tiny granny suite in the southwestern corner of BC, where space is at a premium. I can no longer keep physical archives, and I didn’t have enough empty file storage space on my existing computer. My archive still had to exist in a form that was

  • accessible with minimal effort,
  • human browsable, for when I’m leisurely searching files for a fresh idea or slant on a perennial topic, and
  • computer searchable, for when I’m working on a broad topic with lots of disparate notes from different times.

A quick poke through Staples and London Drugs websites unearthed the perfect solution: a hefty 2 terabyte Passport drive that plugs in to a USB port on my computer, and holds LOTS of files. All I needed was a sale and less than $100 to end my space challenge.

Most mail programs allow you to print your emails to pdf and put them in disk folders, but I’m lazy-fingered and find that inconvenient. Gmail for example: Right-click on any white space in the email you’re looking at, choose Print, and then use the Change button under Destination to select “Save as PDF”. Most recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have this built in – if yours doesn’t, an Adobe Reader download – – will install it for you.

But my emails get sorted into archive folders under my in-box: I just drag and drop them from inbox to mail folder as I’m checking email each morning. I then use Office 365’s Outlook archiving features to put folder structure and emails onto my Passport drive.

All social media platforms have been known to lose links to information, so things I want to keep, I save to my own archive. In Pinterest I just click on the image, then the “Read It” button at the bottom right hand corner of the image, and copy-paste the article into a Word document and store it in an appropriate folder on my computer. LinkedIn lets me copy and paste entire conversations the same way.

Consistent folder names across the various storage, email, and social media platforms make retrieval much easier. Folder structures work best for me if they are named in the ways that I think, so I created my own. A couple of hours saw my folders labelled and matched on every platform.

I write a LOT about photography and digital imaging, and write poetry, essays, and fiction, so here’s how I organized things.

Occasionally I create a desktop or browser shortcut, aka a bookmark, if I think a topic is a passing fad rather than a long term trend. Bookmarks are easy to create both in Mac and Windows.

For stuff I’ll work on in the next month or two, I save browser bookmarks in folders (yes, you can make – and search – your own folders there too)! ( Chrome does it this way; Firefox this way, )

Idea archive part two, check.

 Retrieve ’em when you need ’em.

Getting things back from storage, of course, is key.

Emails (in individual folders OR across the entire inbox and all sub-folders) are searchable by subject line, content, keyword, date and sender and by some or all of the above in every mail program out there. You just have to learn how. Every email program is slightly different, and not everyone uses my beloved Outlook. For Gmail, I read the search instructions first, learned about search operators next, followed up with a couple of questions in the support chat forum, and I was away to the races.

I then started to learn how to use my File Manager search function to retrieve things. I was astonished to find that my computer has a collection of lovely internal searching systems tucked away in its version of “plain view” – here’s a Windows tutorial on how to find and use those effectively. Macs aren’t wildly different: you use Finder there instead of File Manager, but the principles are identical.

Et voila: one big idea archive, for zero physical space, a few dollars, and a bit of head-scratching.

Digital Idea Archive Challenge conquered!

Meet our guest blogger – Leah Murray

Leah Murray operates byteSMART Strategies from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

Following a career in the Canadian Forces, Leah opened her first technology support business in Oshawa, Ontario.  She closed that business in order to work with scientists in the Research & Development division of an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Toronto. Several years in rural Ontario developed her passion for small businesses, artisanal, agricultural and otherwise, and today she devotes her energy to helping these enterprises plan, transition and manage their technology.

Today, her raison d’etre is the bringing of technology into the service of the arts, and she writes about it!