Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Paying It Forward: Writers’ Karma

Ruth E. Walker

I’m a firm believer in the truth behind the saying: Be kind to others and it comes back to you. I also subscribe to the belief if someone shows you a kindness, do the same for someone else. Pay it forward.

So I was delighted at a recent panel discussion to hear one of the panelists respond to the question: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 

Heather Tucker, author of the acclaimed novel The Clay Girl, smiled into the audience to reply, “Ruth Walker told me to ‘Get naked, girl, and let the epiphanies fall where they may.'” She went on to explain that she was reluctant to share her work, to submit it for consideration, to let others look at it. My words gave her inspiration and encouragement just when she needed it.

So why did I say that to Heather? The writer I am can be directly linked to a series of kindnesses that supported or encouraged me along the challenging writer’s journey. I can’t begin to recount all the ways in which others have selflessly offered help or support, often arriving at a time when I was ready to give up the dream of publication.

Making the difference

A professor at Trent University’s Durham Campus had a huge impact on my writing career. Adrian Michael Kelly knew my work from his creative writing class a year earlier. He invited me to come and meet respected author and editor, John Metcalf. John offered to read my manuscript at a time I was woefully discouraged about rejections for my novel. A couple of weeks later, he called me. Told me to keep submitting, that the manuscript was good, publisher-ready. And he was right. That novel I was ready to abandon went on to publication with Seraphim Editions and achieved second printing.

It was the support of others that got me there. My professor didn’t have to call me to come and meet John Metcalf. And John didn’t have to look at my manuscript, and then call me. It was all a kindness and I’ll always be grateful.

Ever since, when I hear a writer musing about giving up on a manuscript, I tell them my story. I tell them what John Metcalf told me. Submit, I say. And keep submitting. I pay forward the kindness I’ve received every chance I get.

Spread the support

There are lots of ways to pay it forward. I’ve benefitted from receiving grants and bursaries. They’ve helped me attend conferences and workshops in which I hone my craft. I’ve escaped to write at retreats that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. So I know the difference it can make in a writer’s life to get a financial boost.

The Pay it Forward philosophy is happily shared by my business partner, Gwynn Scheltema. For several years, Writescape has sponsored a scholarship grant with The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). Their scholarship program offers members a chance to apply for a range of awards, up to $500 at the top end. Gwynn and I happen to like the process where applicants don’t need to have a long list of publishing credits to apply. And there isn’t a focus on the literary form. Writers of all kinds and at all levels can apply, as long as they are a member of this 300+ group.

We’ve happily offered the Writescape scholarship each year. And we’ve been delighted to see the recipients use the grant to develop some aspect of their writing goal. This year, the Writescape scholarship went to writer and baker, Rich Helms. He planned on taking a recipe development course at George Brown College, starting in June. Recipe development is not a simple “How to write a cookbook” course. The science in the art of developing a recipe is as precise and vital as the passion needed to create tastebud-exploding foods and then write the recipe.

Rich was deeply disappointed when the June course was cancelled but he didn’t give up. He emailed us recently to announce the course was being run again and he was signed up. We never had a single doubt that Rich would use the scholarship funds to achieve his writing goals.

More than feeling “good”

For Gwynn and me, Rich’s joy in attending his course is a wonderful reminder that paying it forward is an important part of the writer’s journey. Writescape believes in paying it forward, of finding ways to encourage other writers. It can be in small ways, like chatting in networking opportunities and sharing market insights. Or larger efforts, like the WCDR scholarship that we have sponsored for a number of years.

When we “pay it forward” we remember that it was the unexpected and unasked-for time that other more experienced writers gave us that made a difference. Both Gwynn and I have been the recipient of many kindnesses — they certainly soothed the sting of the rejections and disappointments, and fuelled the energy to keep going.

We all benefit when we pay it forward — in this case, Rich’s enthusiasm is contagious. And many writers who are not writing fiction can see that there are grants and scholarships for those “other” writers — the ones who, like Rich Helms, are writing something different but no less worthy of finding a home.

Did You Know

Ways a writer can “pay it forward” are everywhere. Start a writing critique group to share ideas, feedback with other writers. And there are lots of low-cost ways to support writers.

It’s the season of giving, so how about an “unasked for” as a “gift” to fellow writers:

  • write a review
  • like/join an author page
  • comment on a writer’s blog or Facebook author page
  • subscribe to a writer’s blog,
  • ask your local library to get a copy of a book
  • even better BUY A BOOK!! (support independent bookstores too if you can)

If your royalty cheque was especially flush this year, consider donating to an organization that supports writers or give to a literacy program.

Always remember that we all are on the journey together, some further ahead of you and some just behind. Where you are today is not where you will be tomorrow and, more often than not, you moved forward with the help of others.

Places that support writers:

Literacy programs:

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.

 

 

Women Killing It

Women Killing It

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

The Artist’s Date

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

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

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

Women Killing it

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

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

Why have this festival?

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

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

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

 

DID YOU KNOW

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

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

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

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

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

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

Switch it up

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

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

 

Prime the Muse

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

Write what you know  

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

The Senses

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

Move into Metaphor

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

Be specific

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

 

Opposites

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

Lists

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

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

Give it a go

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

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

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

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

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

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

Ruth E. Walker

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

No two writers have identical pathstunnel-237656_640

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s get started.

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

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

About Freefall Writingtourism-776587_640

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

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

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

The door opened and I stepped inside.

 

 

Smile Poetry 101

Smile Poetry 101

Gwynn Scheltema

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

Light Verse

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

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

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

 Nonsense Rhyme

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

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

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

Bouts-rimés 

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

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

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

Clerihew

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

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

Epigram

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

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

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

Limericks

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

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

Here’s a fun example from Rudyard Kipling:

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

 Macaronic

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

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

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

Your turn

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

DID YOU KNOW

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

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

Gwynn Scheltema

Now that the blooms are spent, I’ve been pruning my lilacs. I miss their heady scent and pendulous flowers, but each year when they are in blossom, I think of Canadian poet Irene Livingston’s poem “I Cannot Tell a Lilac.”. Ruth and I chose that poem as the first place winner in a contest for a poetry book collection called Open Window 111 (Hidden Brook Press 2002)—sadly now out of print.

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

I remember being intrigued by the playful title and hoped that the poem would not be overloaded with cliché references to the lilac blooms and scent we all know so well. But like the Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize winner that she is, Irene Livingston delivered surprise and delight!

The poem was fun, light-hearted. Livingstone played with semantics and form; she invented words. The poem danced to a happy bouncy rhythm; it had a quiet humour. The rhyme was subtle and skilled. None of it was forced. Everything from the images to the word choice was deliberate, but had the feeling of a careless, happy-go-lucky throwing together of thoughts and feelings. And at the end of it, I could smell the lilacs, see the ponderous blooms hanging low and feel the promise and warmth of spring. It remains one of my favourite poems.

Here are the first few lines of Livingston’s poem:

I’m cycling along so nicely, in brightfully
spritzing four o’clock sun-stream, when I suddenly
spy, with my little eye, a bushlet of fabulous lilacs

“Oh lilacs!” I cry to the halcyon Sunday street.
“Methinks I will toodle on up to the door,
give a light tap-tap and inquire as to
whether I might be permitted to snap off
some sprigs of vosnifferous, luminous blooms……

Is it Nonsense?

Words like “brightfully” and “vosnifferous” take me back to childhood nonsense poems that were fun to read but seemingly made no sense. Like: “”Hey diddle, diddle / The cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moon…” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

But “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” isn’t nonsense. It’s the story of a young child riding a bike through the neighbourhood and being so overcome by the lilacs that he wants to pick them… with funny results.

So if it’s not a “nonsense poem”, what is it? Nonsense rhymes and “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” are both forms of light verse, a genre that includes a myriad of “fun” verse forms from epigram and clerihew to boute-rimes and macaronics.

Encyclopædia Britannica, defines light verse as “poetry on trivial or playful themes that is written primarily to amuse and entertain and that often involves the use of nonsense and wordplay. [It’s] frequently distinguished by considerable technical competence, wit, sophistication, and elegance.”

Light Verse Grows Up

Light verse has been around since Greek and Roman times. The Greek Anthology contains many epigrams. The Roman poets Catullus and Horace used innuendo, wordplay and satire.

In Medieval times light verse took on a narrative form and was often bawdy and irreverent but with a moral undertone. The limerick also made its debut around this time as did fable stories like Pierre de Saint-Cloud’s 40,000-line Le Roman de Renart  [Reynard the Fox] written in 1174.

In the 18th century, mock-epics joined the genre, like Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, and Lord Byron’s verse novel Don Juan. Light verse was still filled with innuendo and moral judgement, but took on a sardonic and casual tone.

In 1846 Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense  popularized the limerick form:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

IImage result for captain reecen the late 1800s Lewis Carroll introduced nonsense poems, like “The Jabberwocky” I mentioned earlier. W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads introduced absurdity like in this excerpt from “Captain Reece.”

Of all the ships upon the blue,
No ship contained a better crew
Than that of worthy CAPTAIN REECE,
Commanding of THE MANTELPIECE.

A feather bed had every man,
Warm slippers and hot-water can,
Brown Windsor from the captain’s store,
A valet, too, to every four…..

IImage result for 2 little whos by e. e. cummingsn the 1900s, poetic forms introduced by Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists, and the distinctive techniques of the Beat poets and e.e. cummings confused the boundaries between light verse and serious poetry. Flippant and irreverent tones were actually seriously intended. Poetry that began in an amusing way ended sometimes in bitterness or terror. What had been playfulness with grammar and syntax became forms of their own such as this excerpt from e.e.cumming’s poem “[2 little whos]”

(far from a grown
-up i&you-
ful world of known)
who and who

(2 little ams
and over them this
aflame with dreams
incredible is)

Today, I believe the line between serious humorous poetry and light verse is firmly blurred. Wit and satire, absurdity and irreverence abound in both forms. But for me, in light verse, I still look for the elements I found originally in “I Cannot Tell a Lilac”:

  • a quiet understated humour
  • playing with semantics and form
  • inventing words
  • a happy bouncy rhythm
  • subtle, skilled rhyme
  • evoking a feeling of entertainment and delight.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Irene Livinston won her Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize in 2001 at the Orillia International Poetry Festival. But did you know that the first winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour also honoured poetry (with a satirical twist) —Paul Hiebert’s novel Sarah Binks (1947), a fake biography of “The Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan”. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes the book as “a comic creation which derives from Canadian literature while simultaneously making a contribution to it.”

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.

 

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

Writing Plan Meets Real Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most productive retreat ever

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

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

… and a good sense of fun too!

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

 

 

Homecoming

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

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

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

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

 

What’s a writer to do?

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

So, throw off those whiney pants.

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

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

Cheers!

Did You Know?

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

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

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