Copy This – Our work is not free

Copy This – Our work is not free

Ruth E. Walker

At a recent panel discussion at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, an inevitable topic came up: money. A question from the floor about payment for work triggered an emphatic response that writers, like all other artists, need to remember to ask for—and expect—payment for our work.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

But not unreasonably, we also need to recognize that income for writers comes from a range of activities, not just putting words to the page. For me, that includes designing and delivering practical writing workshops, and providing a range of coaching and editing services for other writers.

Write for money?

Few authors can live exclusively off our royalties from book sales and big money movie rights. Frankly, if people wrote just for the money, I suspect there’d be many empty spaces on bookshelves. But again, that’s the reality for most artists. It’s a passion that drives us. A dream of creation. A love for the rush of putting the best possible words in the best possible order. A compelling desire to create a connection with readers.

Whatever it is that puts our butts in the chair and fingers on the keyboard, it’s also why some of us don’t stand up and demand reasonable compensation for our work.

(Un)fair deals

In 2012, the Copyright Modernization Act, Bill C-11, created a new set of exceptions for “fair dealing” for “educational purposes.” The Writers’ Union of Canada published an article by lawyer Jeananne Kathol Kirwin in Write magazine that explores those exceptions and the impacts.

Our posts from 2018 and 2019 offer some general background on the legal fight to restore compensation for writers and the negative effect those new exceptions set in motion.

In short, writers’ incomes dropped significantly from an already subsistence-level reality. And it became open season for institutions to copy Canadian writers’ work for free.

Image by Tasy Hong from Pixabay

On December 6, the Copyright Board of Canada issued a ruling that reinstates per-student fees for colleges and universities. It’s an amazing development and it changes everything.

As Access Copyright‘s President and CEO, Roanie Levy said: “The Copyright Board decision serves as the foundation for renewal of the symbiotic relationship that exists between creators and education after almost a decade of uncertainty. Access Copyright looks forward to working with our partners in education to ensure that students continue to have easy and affordable access to content.”

The decision from the Copyright Board of Canada gave postsecondary institutions a deadline of March 9, 2020 to pay the outstanding royalties. Access Copyright would be able to distribute royalty payments to registered authors by the end of 2020. If the institutions fail to meet the March 9th deadline, Access Copyright will have to take further action to ensure they comply.

Open season is closed

So thank you to Access Copyright and The Writers’ Union of Canada for their tireless and consistent work on postsecondary institutions skewed interpretation of what “fair dealing” meant. In short, for institutions it meant educators copying our work, distributing it to students and not paying for it. Payment for education purposes used to mean the institution paid annual fees to Access Copyright. In turn, Access Copyright paid out annual compensation to authors.  

As an author registered with Access Copyright, I receive a cheque each year. It isn’t a lot of money but it is payment for the use of my work in classrooms or businesses that choose to excerpt my writing for their purposes. That cheque dropped significantly once colleges and universities walked away from licensing agreements with Access Copyright.

A future built on the past

Over the years, I’ve let a lot of financial opportunity pass me by. I’m one of those insecure writers, with that negative voice in the back of my brain. The one that whispers that one day I’ll learn that I’m not truly meant to be a writer. That I’ve just been lucky. That any success has nothing to do with talent or vision. That I’m fooling myself. So the annual cheque from Access Copyright has always been a validation that counters my insecurities.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

If my publisher hadn’t pushed me to register with Access Copyright, I may not have done it. I’ve watched how Access Copyright fought hard to bring truth to “fair dealing” for all creatives. And my membership in The Writers’ Union of Canada has meant I’ve had a front row seat to the amazing advocacy of Executive Director John Degan, who, along with the Writers’ Union board and dedicated members, helped to bring us to this stage.

The copyright fight is not over. To quote the Writers’ Union press release: “We have rates to work with,” said TWUC Executive Director John Degen, “so that’s good; and we remain confident pending court decisions will clarify that claims of fair dealing have been grossly exaggerated.”

The Copyright Board of Canada’s ruling is a significant step in the right direction. And that small voice in the back of my head is a whole lot quieter.

It was a dark and stormy night

It was a dark and stormy night

Gwynn Scheltema

Famously, “It was a dark and stormy night” is one of the worst ways to start a scene. Many writers take that to mean that you should never start with the weather, or indeed setting or description in any form. I disagree. I write from setting all the time.

A powerful workhorse

Setting can:

  • anchor the story in time, both historical time and time of day
  • define geographic place – in general (urban/rural) or specific (a particular building or room) 
  • set mood or atmosphere
  • employ seasonal symbolism (spring = rebirth, new things; winter = aging, death, etc.)
  • give a clue to character by what the character notices and reacts to in the surroundings.
  • use all five senses and more (colour, quality of light; temperature; texture) to create verisimilitude and increase reader engagement.
  • affect pacing: visceral senses of smell and touch increase tension; word choice for a description guides emotion (pierces vs chirps)

Walk with me

Come on. Bring along a notebook. We are going to allow setting to guide the start of a scene.

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I turn back down the dirt track once the school bus has passed, jiggling its crumpled group of toque-topped children. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s a country kid. Used to rising before dawn.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The eastern sky struggles to draw back the fog blanket that hovers above the tree line, as reluctant as I am to face the day.  

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

The last of the autumn leaves nip at my ankles. 

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell pierces the quiet morning. It’s Conrad. Shit. I let it ring. Fourteen rings. He doesn’t give up easy.

  • Now a wide angle again, include another sense (touch/ texture) and continue to develop character or advance plot. Consider pacing here. Speed up or slow down with sentence structure and word choice.

The clapboard farmhouse crouches on the hill, as if ready to pounce. “Been in my family for six generations,” Tom always boasts. Like that scraggly-beard had any part in it. Bastard!

  • Step into a direct action that launches the story. Stay away from the sense of sight. Use a more visceral sense to lend weight to this moment (touch).

When I reach the porch, my lungs burn from running, my mouth so dry I can hardly form the words I croak into my phone, “Chrissy? It’s Annie. Please, I need you to pick Jimmy up from school today and keep him overnight. Something’s come up. I’ll call tomorrow to explain.”

Not a formula

That scene is not a formula, just a sample. It’s sinister, moody and hints at danger. But it could have just as easily been more upbeat:

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I watch the school bus lumber down the dirt road, jiggling its crumpled group of kids and backpacks and baseball bats and water bottles. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s cool. A country kid. Used to rising early.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The sun is already high in the eastern sky, warm on my shoulders. Today will be a good day. I know it.

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

I scoop up a posy of feathery Queen Anne’s lace and field poppies from the roadside bank.

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell chirps like a pocketed bird. It’s Conrad. He remembered. I take a deep breath and fumble to answer before he rings off.

Your turn

Go on. Your turn. Take setting on your writing journey today.

10 Silent Energy Zappers

10 Silent Energy Zappers

Your story may be dynamite, but stylistically these energy zappers could be undermining it. They’re subtle but can do damage nonetheless. Avoid them to add energy, or use them to dampen when you want to.

  • Negative constructions 

“Is not” and “do not” sap energy, because readers prefer to hear about what something is or what someone does. Often negative construction is paired with weak verb choices too.

Ralph did not like the way Bill treated Liza. 
Better: Bill’s treatment of Liza disturbed/disgusted/horrified Ralph.
  • Wishy-washy constructions

Be confident about what you write. Is your character walking or not? Is the baby crying or not? Did Jimmy understand or not? Using started to/began to/seemed to constructions weaken the action.

Tom started to get up and close the door.
Better: Tom jumped up and closed the door.
  • Unnecessary tags in internal dialogue

When we are “in the character’s thoughts” seeing, feeling and hearing what the character sees, feels and hears, using “I see”or “I hear” or “I feel” is unnecessary, and distances the reader and lowers energy.

I hear a phone ring in the telephone booth.
Better: A phone rings in the telephone booth.
  • Nominalization

Avoid turning an action word into the subject of the sentence i.e.  using the noun equivalent of a verb. To up the energy, re-order the sentence to let the verb do the work.

They had a discussion about .
Better: they discussed
  • Verb weakeners

Re-order the sentence to eliminate these “weakeners”: need to; should; might; could

You need to get motivated.  
Better: Motivate yourself.
  • Neutrality – non-human references.

Readers feel close to people not things. So whenever you refer to a person in a non-human way, you distance the reader.

If you're the type of individual who likes luxury, Gateway Spa is for you.  
Better: If you love luxury, Gateway Spa is for you.
  • Redundancies

So easy to do. How often do we hear about the new baby; or joining together. By default, babies are “new”; joining things results in them being “together”.  Restating the obvious sucks energy.

Sam kneeled down to examine the sword 
Better: Sam kneeled to examine the sword
  • Passive construction /Grammar expletives

No, we aren’t talking swear words here. In grammar circles, a grammar expletive is any word or phrase that does not contribute meaning. The most common culprits are: It is; there are; there is; etc.at the beginning of a sentence.

It is two hours before the sun rises.  
Better: The sun rises in two hours.
  • Meaningless intensifiers.

Really, very, so.What is the difference between a tasty dinner and a really tasty dinner? If you want a degree more of tastiness, use a stronger verb rather than an intensifier. A delicious dinner.

He knew Dana was very smart.
Better: He knew Dana was brilliant.
  • Latinate vs. Anglo-saxon words

Latinate words (those ending in -ate. -ite. -ation and other Latin bases) usually refer to areas of law, administration; government and abstraction. It’s a throw-over from the days when England was governed by Rome and later by France. Anglo Saxon words were the tongue of the governed, the workers – words to do with farming and labouring. That’s why they carry a more earthy energy.

He excavated a cavity. (Latinate)
He dug a hole. (Anglo-Saxon)
Writing the Future

Writing the Future

Gwynn on Retreat

It’s been a terrific year for Writescape. Helping writers dive deeper into their material, encouraging developing writers to gain new skills and offering inspiration and support to writers of all kinds has always been a huge part of why Writescape exists.

Over the past 12 months, it’s been our pleasure to work one-on-one with several writers as part of the coaching and editing process. And we’ve travelled to Peterborough, Cobourg, Minden, Sunderland and Newmarket to offer customized writing workshops.

Workshop at Moose Factory

Look for our masterclass workshops in March and May, offered through The Writers’ Community of Durham Region. Find and Fix is a full-day focus on editing your own work and Making a Scene will dive deep into the mechanics and benefits of creating engaging scenes.

A year of change

Growth doesn’t always mean getting bigger. Sometimes it mean adjusting what we already offer to include more options. We recognize that there are budget issues for some writers so we are offering additional ways to retreat. For instance, our spring retreat now boasts 3, 5 or 7-day options.

Glentula
Riverside

We’ve added lower-cost private retreats at each of our country properties. Retreat solo or gather your tribe and choose to customize with catering, programming and/or consultation options–you can dress it up or go minimalist as you like. Send us an email at info@writescape.ca to find out more about Gwynn’s lakeside Glentula in Northumberland County and Ruth’s Riverside on the Drag River, Haliburton County.

Escape to write at Spring Thaw 2020

Registration for Spring Thaw 2020 is now open for April 17 and under our new option program, you can join us for 3, 5 or 7 days.

This all-inclusive escape to write at Elmhirst’s Resort is in its 11th year. We’re thrilled that our retreats has helped authors like Sylv Chiang (Cross Ups series) and Heather M. O’Connor (Betting Game, Fast Friends) find characters and plot ideas.

And we, Gwynn and Ruth, chose this past year to give more attention to our own work, submitting our material, taking workshops, attending conferences — all the things we encourage you to do. After all, we’re on the same journey and, like you, we hold writerly dreams and wonderful imaginings.

One way or another, come write with us. The door’s always open.

Dream Your Writing Life

Dream Your Writing Life

Gwynn Scheltema

A new year and new dreams. It can be stifling sometimes to set goals— analyzing what coulda, shoulda, woulda. Instead…

Let’s dream a little…

What do you want your writing life to look like?

The operative word here is “you.” Never mind what others think you should be or do. Never mind about modelling someone else’s writing life. Pay no attention to any nay-sayers out there.

If you could write what you want, when you want, how you want or even not write at all, what would that writing path look like?

Go on… grab a piece of paper and just fantasize. Be bold. Be free. Don’t be hampered by skills, resources, obligations you may or may not have. This is an exercise in digging into your subconscious for what you really want. Write it; draw it; collage it. Doesn’t matter what medium you choose.

  • Why do you want to write?
  • What would you like to write?
  • Where would you like to write?
  • How often?  

So now what?

Phew! I bet that was quite the mental workout. Did you surprise yourself? Did you uncover new aspects to your possible writing journey? Did you leave out any writing you currently do? The chances are, if you were honest with yourself, you did all those things. So now what?

Once you dream it, the next step is to believe it.

Believe it

Stop! I can already hear the reasons for not achieving your dreams bubbling up….not enough time, got to pay the mortgage, I should be… It’s okay. We all know that reality has a habit of stomping on dreams, but I’ve also found in my life that defining what I want is the first step to believing it.

It is like telling my whole being to be on alert. If my conscious mind and subconscious mind are on the same page, (pardon the pun), I notice opportunities more, I take more risks, I’m stronger at dealing with blockers. And the more often I reaffirm to myself what I want, the more I believe it and the more able I am to make it happen.

Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” For me that is also a way of thinking of serendipity.

My dream

And I’ve seen it played out many times in my life. In the late 1990s, I was single, divorced, living pay cheque to pay cheque in a tiny townhouse and renting out my spare bedroom to make ends meet. I made a collage vision board of “My life in 10 years’ time”:  A large country home; forest; drifting in a canoe; me in a gardening hat with time to garden; piles of books; a figure seated at a computer typing away; a cat; an easel, grandchildren playing on a swing; words and phrases like “content”; “be a little selfish”; “watching clouds.”

Well, guess what? That is my life now. Knowing what I wanted helped me to seize the opportunity to buy the house I was renting, to have the courage to look for a better paying job, and to find a way to renovate the basement to rent out—all of which eventually allowed me to buy my present country property on the lake.

Knowing where I wanted to go helped me say yes to Ruth when we discussed pooling our writing workshops under a new umbrella, Writescape. And that opened up all sorts of writing path opportunities.

They say that you can’t run a race if you don’t know where the finish line is. I don’t like to think of it as a finish line, because my dreams change. I like to think of it as the next corner or the next bend in the path. I only need to see that far. I’ll dream again when I get there.

Season’s Greetings

Season’s Greetings

Thank you to all our subscribers and clients for your continued support of Writescape. You inspired us throughout 2019, and we hope our wee bit of holiday lyric editing puts a smile on your face and ink in your pen.

With a tip of the toque to Winter Wonderland*

The muse is calling, are you listening?  
Poems and stories; ideas glistening
So pumped we can write
We're happy tonight
Writing in our winter wonderland                                  
Gone away blocks and crying 
Here to stay fingers flying
Good wishes to all
As the words fall and fall
Writing in a your winter wonderland
May the muse be always with you,
Gwynn and Ruth

*Winter Wonderland: composed in 1934, lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith & music by Felix Bernard. The song is so popular, it has been recorded more than 200 times. Now, how’s that for inspiring?

10 Gift Ripples in the Social Media Pond

10 Gift Ripples in the Social Media Pond

Tis the season and time to think about gifts for writing friends. Last year we gave you a list of 10 Meaningful Gifts that cost little or nothing, and were environmentally friendly. This year we thought we’d dig a little deeper into one suggestion on that list:

Help promote a writer on social media.

This is a gift that can give all year long. Devoting just one hour a month to help eight writers in that hour will mean you take nearly 100 actions to help your writing friends.

So what can you do?

  • Support existing social media marketing

This is perhaps the easiest thing you can do. Like, follow and share other writers’ posts, pins and pages. Since friends often share common interests, when someone likes your page, they expose it to their friends who may expose it to their friends and on and on. And it’s likely targeted exposure because friends usually have similar preferences.

Adding an intro line when you share is even more valuable. “My friend Alice is launching her memoir this weekend. Her book is amazing.”

  • Write a review

That intro line in #1 above is a mini review. But what about doing a full review on Goodreads or Amazon or genre specific sites?

  • Subscribe to a writer’s blog

Yes, we know, we all get enough email as it is, but remember, you are in helping mode here. The number of people subscribed to a writer’s blog is a direct indication of their engaged target audience, and a great stat for query letters.  Engaged is the optimum word here. Take the time to comment and share.

  • Interview a writer on your blog

Most bloggers have a target audience and a general content niche. Brainstorm with a writer you want to help about how your goals intertwine. Perhaps you are a horror writer and your friend is a romance writer. Could your friend answer some questions or do a guest blog about basic romantic principles that cross all genres? Win-win promotion for both of you.

  • Spread the word

Before anyone can support blogs and social pages, they need to know they exist! At networking groups or writerly gatherings, talk up favourite blogs and author websites, swap URLs and encourage others to do the same. Perhaps even propose a formal online “marketing swap” through a group you belong to.

  • Attend launches

Hopefully, you’ll also buy the book, but even if you can’t always do that, show up. When the author posts pictures later, the larger crowd will say volumes.

  • Involve non-writers
Haliburton Writers

Ultimately, a writer wants to sell books. If the only people they can rely on are family and friends, the book has a short shelf life. Do your part by introducing the book to a wider audience. Suggest it to your book club. Call up several friends who read in that genre and suggest you all attend a launch together and socialize afterwards. Buy a book to donate to a silent auction for a favourite charity you support.

  • Tech support

In the decade or more that Writescape has had a website, we’ve learned a lot about the back-end workings. How to create posts, schedule blogs, maintain subscription lists etc. etc. For many writers, the technical side of things is a frightening abyss. Can you help a fellow writer learn a trick or two of the “trade”?

  • Build supporting others into your life

Busy lives. We all have them. Often we start things with a bang and they fizzle out. Better to help consistently in a small way—constant pebbles making ripples in the marketing pond. Whatever strategies you chose to help fellow writers, build them into your existing life. If scheduling works for you, set aside an hour a month. If you are a Facebook addict, make a habit of sharing a writerly post once or twice a week. If you attend a number of launches, commit to taking a non-writer friend to each one.  If you aren’t on social media, write a review.

  • Ask what help writers need

Writers are generally an introverted lot and not given readily to asking for help. Start by choosing a handful of writer friends who you would like to help and send them a message something like this:

This holiday season I’ve decided to gift some of my writing friends increased social media promotional support. I am active on (insert social media platforms you use) and am happy to (insert what you are prepared to do:  like, share, review, interview. follow blog etc). Please tell me what 3 top actions I can take to best help you.

Last Word

We, Gwynn and Ruth, would like to thank all of you for subscribing to Writescape’s blog, and commenting on and sharing the posts. Also for your interaction with our Facebook and Twitter posts. It means a lot.

  • www.writescape.ca
  • @writescape_
  • www.facebook.com/writescape

Power Foods for Writers

Power Foods for Writers

Ruth E. Walker

In a perfect world, we writers would have a service that takes care of meals while we’re busy crafting another genius piece of writing. Someone who preps, cooks and delivers our meals. Someone who understands we’re “in the zone” and not to be disturbed.

As if.

Who among us could hire our own personal chef? Keep dreaming. A relative of mine is a personal chef. He’s provided with a private onsite apartment, prepares all the meals in a fully equipped gourmet kitchen and occasionally travels with his employers when they, ahem, go abroad.

We can only imagine. (Well, yes. We can imagine because we are writers.)

But what to do when our bodies (or our families) call for fuel but we just want to stay in the zone, creating beautiful words on the page? We have to eat, folks. Our brains demand we keep them functioning well as we write. So here are some options to keep fuel stops to a minimum of effort for a maximum of writing time.

Create a basic pantry

If you must cook (and pretty much you have to) make it is as easy on you as possible. Stock your pantry with tinned beans and legumes, a can or two of tuna and/or salmon, pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, boxed stock (beef, chicken or vegetable), onions, garlic, oil and a variety of spices.

Salmon Salad

There are plenty of pantry recipes online. From ifoodreal, I really like this salmon salad recipe. Simple. Quick. And adaptable to change up as you like. Jessica In the Kitchen offers an easy 15-minute Mediterranean chickpea salad that’s likewise quick and easy to change up ingredients.

I prefer to work from print cookbooks to avoid having to scroll through copious advertisements but online is a fast option to get you started.

Plan ahead

Try batch cooking. Pretend you have 10 people to feed and make a massive stew or lasagna or hearty soup. Portion it into containers and freeze it. Defrost when you need it. Toss a side salad and cut a slice of bread, and voila! Dinner is served.

I can recall a time when TV dinners were all the rage. Oh my. Sliced turkey brushed with thick gravy, mashed potatoes, peas and sometimes even dessert (!) in a divided tin foil pan. Simply heat in the oven and serve. They were terrible. And we all marveled at “modern living.”

Frozen meals have come a long way since rubber turkey and instant potatoes. So if you don’t have the time or inclination to batch cook, stock your freezer with a few prepared selections to give you more time to write.

You can always order in

If your budget will allow it, there are plenty of food options out there and not all of them are standard fast foods. Remember to give a nod in the direction of healthy by including salad and/or a side of veggies. And yes, cold pizza for breakfast is not out of the question when the Great Novel awaits.

A different option for ordering in: your weekly grocery shopping. Remember to put items on your list that can nourish without a lot of work: fresh fruit, simple veggies (broccoli, celery, carrots), salad fixings (or even a couple of bagged salads), and basic protein.

Several big chain grocery stores will deliver anything you can find inside their walls–from food to electronics to lawn chairs. Keep it simple with specialized delivery services that can drop off your weekly fruit and vegetable needs such as Mama Earth Organics and Durham Organics.

If you have that basic pantry set up and some basic condiments, along with eggs, cheese or protein alternatives in the fridge, you’ll have no reason to resent mealtime.

Last word

The Harvard Medical School published a summary of what foods we need to include in our diets to keep our brain function at a high level, especially as we get older. As writers, our cognition is vital so start chewing those leafy greens if you don’t already. And hooray! Tea and coffee are included in that summary.

A recent visit to the CBC website inspired me to explore this topic. In their Life section, they have 9 Wonderful Pantry Recipes — meant for anyone who thinks they have nothing to eat for dinner. For the most part, they looked pretty quick and simple. And that, for this writer, was all I needed.

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Gwynn Scheltema

Often among writers, the recurrent discussion over plotting versus pantsing ends with us acknowledging that there is no definitive “winner.” The creative mind, after all, is an elusive, complicated, temperamental entity.

So what about the question: Write by hand or keyboard?

 I’m sure you’ve heard these common arguments for or against:

  • I can’t write as fast as I think!
  • I love the tactile feel of a pen and paper.
  • It’s much easier to carry a notebook with me.
  • I can’t read my own handwriting.
  • I have to waste time typing up what I’ve written afterwards.          

It is already a proven fact that taking notes by hand improves learning, understanding and processing information, and remembering it afterwards. It’s also obvious that our writing needs to be typed up at some point and many of us are faster on the keyboard. We can also edit typed text more readily and send it out.

But, I know for myself, I feel differently when I’m holding a pen. I believe I’m more connected to the work and I feel like I write more authentically. So is there evidence that this could be true? Can our choice of writing implement affect how we create?

My Experience

I’ve been a creative writer for almost thirty years and I write both ways— but I always create in the same patterns:

I always compose poetry longhand,  I do free writing by hand, and I begin fiction pieces longhand.

I prefer to type when I’m working from an outline or extending something that’s well underway. I also find it easier to write genre fiction on the computer than memoir or literary fiction. I always type business writing directly into the computer.

So pulling back and analyzing this, it seems that I choose longhand for projects where I must delve deeply into my creative well and find ideas and get the juices flowing.  I also use it to access memory and emotion. Once I have the ideas in my head, I revert to the keyboard to get the work done. And as business writing for me is largely formulaic, it’s always a case of “getting the work done”.

Could my choices be based in science?

Emotion

We’ve all heard about writing being cathartic, relieving stress and helping diminish trauma. This is one of the great benefits of journalling. And there’s evidence that handwriting may be better for this form of therapy than typing:

Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington concluded from her studies: “When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component-stroke by component-stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.”

Another 2005 study by Chris R Brewin and Hayley Lennard in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that writing about a stressful life experience by hand, instead of typing it, led to higher levels of self-disclosure and a greater variety of words used to describe the experience.

Perhaps the emotional component in my poetry. freefall writing and non-genre writing is the reason I prefer to write them longhand?

Motor activity and focus

When we write, we are finding, formulating and externally processing our thoughts, all at the same time.

In the words of neuroscientists, writing is a complicated combination of perception, motor commands and kinesthetic feedback. Writing by hand is a two-way street, an inter-dependency, with the visual focus at the point of the pen.

Typing, by contrast, is a physically disembodied action, we’re focussing only on the screen. There’s no physical two-way communication.

“The primary advantage of longhand is that it slows people down,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

That makes sense for my process: The beginning stages of telling my story need to be handwritten. Slowing down gives me more opportunity to access thought and formulate it before communicating it. The kinesthetic process lets me feel more connected. I’m also free to scribble notes, make diagrams, shove in arrows or circle important matter. I’m dealing with an unformed creation and have the freedom to let it speak through me, before it is locked into formal text.

Once the ideas are formed, then typing can take over: faster, more convenient and easily manipulated.

So, handwriting or typing?

As I said at the start, there is no one answer. It’s all up to you. But perhaps knowing a smidgen of the science behind it, you can tailor your own choices.

Or perhaps technology will solve the problem for us with the new wave of e-writers: write by hand and convert to text.

Last word (or video?)

Jake Weidmann is one of only 12 people in the world who holds the title of Master Penman. He sees handwriting as a creative art form in itself and a direct link to his creative mind.

Waiting Room

Waiting Room

Ruth E. Walker

As I write this, I’m at a local hospital playing the Waiting Game. My husband is undergoing surgery, a relatively routine repair of a long-standing issue. And I’m going to sit in this less-than-comfortable chair in a busy waiting room until he’s out of the OR, through recovery and on his way to a bed upstairs or, better yet, home.

So what’s a writer to do when the minute hand ticks by with the speed of a dripping faucet. A very slow dripping faucet.

I could write

There’s lots of ambient noise and I read recently that white noise was an important factor for many writers. My friend Rabindranath Maharaj worked on several of his novels in coffee shops. A Globe & Mail article cites a 2012 paper by researchers at the University of British Columbia describing the creative benefits of working in certain noisy settings. They found that in the buzz of low-level noises, our brains can easily shift into broader thinking, a useful tool for developing concepts or brainstorming.

So, I should be writing. Let all this hubbub and Paging Nurse White and Code Blue 3rd Floor murmur in the background as I map out the Next Great Novel. I should be writing. But I can’t because I worked in a hospital years ago and I know what those announcements mean. Too distracting despite being a useful tool and all that.

I could read

The second-best thing for a writer to do–if you can’t write, well then, you should read. I have a book with me, Louise Penny‘s Still Life. Even though last night I reluctantly put it down to turn out the light, here, in this waiting room, I’ve read the same page three times. Even great writing can’t hold me.

There’s a few well-worn magazines over in the corner. I could put my gloves back on (germs, don’t you know) and pick up a gossip publication and distract myself with movie news about who’s getting divorced, married, a film deal, and so on. But as I said. I’ve worked in a hospital. I know what those announcements mean. I’d just get to the interesting part about how some little-known actor finally gets the part she’s been waiting for and…Code Blue.

I also know what the look on that surgical nurse’s face means, too. She’s delivering difficult news to the couple across from me. It’s not the worst news–they don’t do that in the waiting room, that’s done behind closed doors. But somebody’s surgery is not as routine as they thought. So it puts my dripping faucet timeline into perspective.

I could go for a coffee

The cafeteria is just down the hall and around the corner. But if I leave, I’d miss watching the screen of the Family Tracking monitor showing where patients are in the process. For privacy, each patient is given a number and a rolling scroll of those numbers is colour-coded depending on their progress. I’m watching for the number that is my husband to move from In OR green into the next colour, purple PostOp.

So clearly, I can’t go for a coffee because I’d miss the change. And change is good when the clock ticks like a…well, you know.

Open my eyes

So this writer is going to do the only thing she can: watch. At an Andrew Pyper workshop some years ago, I recall his referring to a useful kind of watching for writers are “reportage” observations. Without emotion, observe. Focus on details but don’t attach those details to motivation. Be specific but don’t speculate.

It’s surprising how tough that actually is for me. I’m naturally a “speculator”, wondering about the possible reasons for any given behaviour that catches my focus. Thinking about second thoughts, hesitations, determinations. It’s what drives a lot of my writing. The ever-nagging why.

But with Pyper’s reportage, it is this…an older woman in a red puffy jacket pushes a large navy blue stroller down the hall toward the cafeteria. The little girl in the stroller is asleep, her round face, closed eyes and wisp of black hair just visible above the side of the stroller. They pass an orderly in pale blue scrubs pushing a stainless steel cart, the wheels squealing as he saunters by in the opposite direction. The little girl wakes and begins to scream.

These descriptions are to be tucked away and pulled out later. Perhaps to add some verisimilitude to a scene, drop in a touch of “the real” to ground a narrative.

Old habits…

Of course, I can’t do that very well either. And it has nothing to do with the colour coding on the Family Tracking monitor. It has everything to do with that little girl’s scream. What horror did that squealing wheel awaken in her? Could she be possessed? Is she reliving a trauma? Did the orderly secretly kick the stroller to waken the baby and distract us all from some nefarious scheme unfolding a few doors away?

It appears perhaps I do need a certain amount of noise to trigger some broad thinking. Especially when my attention is so keenly focussed elsewhere. If nothing else, the clock’s slow progress is forgotten for a few seconds.

And look. There it is. The patient number that means the world to me has moved into a new colour: Recovery Room orange. And the doc says he can come home today, after all.

Be a writer, after all

So, the takeaway for me in all of this? Earlier, I said the only thing I could do is “watch” a la Andrew Pyper’s reportage approach. Well, clearly, I also can write in a distracting environment and the evidence of that is this blog post.

Though truthfully, I’d not want to be sitting here again anytime soon. Instead, I’ll head to a coffee shop or hotel lobby or shopping mall to get my distraction fix.

How about you? Can you write anywhere? Or, like some writers, do you need absolute silence in a pristine setting?