Digging up Archives Part 2

Digging up Archives Part 2

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Digging up Archives explored how to find archive repositories that might hold the material that is key to your research. But then what? What if the record exists on another continent? How do you know if the photos or maps they hold are the ones you need?

Since every archive is different in terms of size, staffing, regulations and collections, the first step is to find out what exactly what they hold. If they have a website, start there:

Catalogues and Databases

Do a topic search and find the relevant collections the repository holds. With luck the list of collections will have links to catalogues or databases similar to those in a library. Here you can search by subject, keyword, title, author, etc.  At Toronto University Archives I put in “Baffin Island.” The result showed 9 collections (3 of them digital). One that caught my eye was:

  • Al Purdy Papers: 28 tapes of Purdy reading his poetry (Cariboo horses; Pressed on sand). Typescripts and drafts of poems. Typescripts and mimeographs of articles and plays for television and radio.

Finding Aids:

Many catalogues and databases will then link you to finding aids. A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) provides a description of the contents of a collection just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. Finding aids sometimes also give background information on the collection, like when and from where it was acquired as well as how the archival staff have ordered the materials in the collection, and their physical nature.

With luck, the finding aids will be viewable at the website, but if not, some archives have paper copies on site, or will provide copies on request.

The finding aid for the Al Purdy Papers was 5 pages long. Here’s a sample of page 1.

Digital Collections:

More and more, archives are digitizing materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) making them more easily accessible, but beware. Often digital documents represent only a fraction of the total repository. You will have to ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing non-digitized content.

Archival Staff

Which brings me to probably the most precious asset in any archive, the archival staff who curate the collections. After you have examined the catalogues, finding aids, and website of an archive, archival staff can point you toward resources you may have missed. Write down the titles, call numbers, or other identifications from the materials you have sourced before you call or email. If an archive does not have a website, contacting the staff will be your only option.

In either case, if you are able to visit in person, set up an appointment time first. This will give the archival staff time to access the records you need, as they may be in another building or shelved in the basement stacks. Letting them know the background and scope of your project will help them better find appropriate materials.

If you can’t visit

Policies differ archive to archive, but here are possibilities for access if you can’t visit in person.

  • interlibrary loan – some archives lend printed materials or microfilm, but seldom primary or original documents like letters or diaries
  • scans or photocopies – be prepared for fees and limits
  • retain a research assistant – archives may recommend assistants or even provide paid research services
  • ask the archival staff – archivists routinely answer reference questions for researchers. Obviously it cannot be a great volume of material and you need to have specific questions.

 For many of us, the research part of the writing process is the most fun, and a visit in person to your chosen archive can be a highlight in that process. In Ruth’s previous blog, Holding history in my hands, she tells of her trip to the National Library and Archives to find her great-great-great-grandfather’s book. Published in 1790, it was a tell-all about The Hudson’s Bay Company, and a bestseller in its day. Ruth shares some of the protocols she encountered at the archives. It was a visit she will always remember.

 

Fall writing reflections

Fall writing reflections

Gwynn Scheltema

Fall. I love fall for the harvest, for the colour, for the diffused light and a sky that’s a different blue. I’ve harvested my veggies, and put away the summer furniture, put up pickles and raked leaves. Fall is a time to reap what you’ve sown, to reflect, to clean up and set up stores for the winter. I think writing has a “fall” period too.

Reap what you sow

What good is writing a wonderful poem, a brilliant short story, an entire novel manuscript, only to leave them forgotten in the digital drawer? A big part of being a writer is submitting your work. Agreed, not everything you write should see the light of day, but you know in your heart which pieces should be sent out into the world. It’s hard, yes. It takes courage to expose yourself to possible rejection, but you can only enjoy success if you take this important step. So, this fall, dig out those finished pieces, brush them off, pretty them up and decide where they can find a home. Then—the important bit—actually send them out!

Reflect

As we near the end of the year, reflect on what you achieved in your writing life. Was it more or less than you hoped for? If, like me, you didn’t get as much done as you planned, don’t beat yourself up about it. Take action instead.

Reflect on what stopped you or got in your way: Did you give your writing what it needs to grow? Enough time? Enough discipline? Enough freedom from the internal editor? Permission to write a shitty draft?

Reflect on what you are writing. Does it excite you? Are you afraid to finish it? Should you be writing something else? Are you afraid to try something new? Do you need help from a workshop or mentor?

Clean up

I am terrible for starting projects and not finishing them. Are you? Is there even one project you could finish up and clean off your list before the end of the year? What about your writing space and daily habits? Are they “cleaned up” enough for you to feel creative, to have the time you need? Should you be throwing some habits out and replacing them with new?

 

Set up stores for the winter

Now is the time to plan a winter schedule for your writing. What project/s do you want to tackle? Are there courses you need to sign up for in 2019? Conferences or retreats you want to attend next year that you must register for or save for now. A writing residency? A grant application? A submission schedule?

 

As winter approaches, take advantage of fall. Curl up in front of the fire with a hot beverage and make those plans. Be specific; make them attainable. Plan on a reward for when you reach your goal.

Something Wicked is Coming

Something Wicked is Coming

Ruth E. Walker

It’s October, Hallowe’en is coming and as two of my writing idols once wrote: Something Wicked this Way Comes. William Shakespeare gave the line to Macbeth’s witches. Ray Bradbury wrote a novel about an ill wind that blew in devilish characters.

But in today’s parlance, wicked has come to also mean GREAT!

When the universe sends you signals, the wise writer pays attention. I had something totally wicked happen to me and it has fired up my pen once more. I’m about to dive back into an old manuscript and I feel great!

There’s lots of ways a writer can lose the muse with a story. Usually, it’s just a short-lived, middle-of-the-book depression that a chat with a supportive colleague can fix. Sometimes, it’s a bit tougher to get past and a workshop or two can help shed light on the lack of inspiration. Occasionally, it’s much more serious and can lead to an abandoned manuscript.

Not all manuscripts can or should be resurrected. I have a couple in the drawer that I consider to be “training wheels.” But I also had a novel in progress that was a contemporary retelling of an old Breton fairy tale. It was a risky business, taking the magic of the tale and reworking it. But I disliked the so-called happy ending and I knew the main character deserved a much better happy ending.

It was great fun and a huge challenge. I had to make the magic real and the reality, magical…yet grounded. I re-read Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales, Grimm’s deviously delightful fairy tales and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. I dived back into my cultural studies oral narrative course work, spending time with The Mabinogion and Alice Kane’s The Dreamer Awakes. I let the rhythms fill my bones and added layers of story to the novel. I was on a creative roll.

How I lost my way

I signed up for a week-long writing retreat and symposium. I felt that being far from home with experienced authors, attending workshops and most importantly, one-on-one sessions with a well-published writer, would offer me insights and inspiration.

The escape to a distant location was amazing. Expansive horizons in a rural setting. My own private room and writing space. Far-off coyotes howling and yipping every night. We even had a gorgeous full moon. And somebody else cooked for me. Heaven.

Surrounded by writers at all levels of the writing journey, I enjoyed listening to the enthusiastic and generous teaching faculty. Except for one thing: my mentor writer was less-than-positive about my story.

Not all mentors are meant to be

I arrived at our one-on-one session and when handed back my submission, I saw my retreat mentor had read the 10- or 15-page excerpt. There were plenty of notes scribbled in tiny script on those pages. But I was tough. I figured I could take it.

I left that one-on-one session a total mess.

I was asked if I were writing a story for children. Oh my God, I thought, I’ve been writing a children’s story all along? I was told to read other fairy tale re-workings and learn from those authors. I should have said “I have,” and then named them. I should have asked what the mentor knew about writing for children because I sure knew the difference. I should have asked why my mentor’s tone was so condescending.

I should have asked a lot more questions. Instead, I simply took it all in. My mentor had published books in book stores. My mentor had an agent. My mentor seemed to be “in” with all the other faculty.

I arrived at that retreat excited and enthused. And while I benefitted from the other opportunities the retreat offered, I left feeling confused and that I’d made a mistake.

My mistake was not my mentor’s fault

I didn’t challenge my mentor. I didn’t ask questions. I let the whole thing simmer instead of addressing it on the spot. And I may have missed an opportunity to take in valuable insights from my mentor because I was so distressed.

My mentor did not abandon my story. I did.

It’s been eight years but the universe has conspired to bring me back to Yvon’s tale. This past summer, I needed something to read for a maximum of 7 minutes at a public event. Something “light or humorous and crowd pleasing” the invitation suggested.

Trying to find a short passage was a challenge, and a lot of my work is serious, sometimes edgy stuff. And then I remembered the opening of Yvon’s story. Ironic and satirical and just a little bit magical. So I dusted it off, tweaked it here and there, and read 7 minutes to an appreciative crowd this past summer.

But the clincher of the universe nudging the muse along was a post a colleague writer put on my Facebook page two weeks ago. She was part of a novel-writing group we were in together when I first developed Yvon and his story. She posted a cartoon of Baba Yaga — a witch character who shows up in my manuscript.

Bingo! How could I turn my back on Yvon a second time?

Baba Yaga cartoon credit: cranberrytime

Some mentors are exactly what you need

Two weeks ago, I met with another mentor, author Frances Itani. She is the 2018 Writer in Residence for the Arts Council of Haliburton Highlands where my cottage is located. Frances read a brief excerpt of Yvon’s story and offered excellent advice: practical, encouraging and insightful. She pointed out strengths in the style and areas to tighten. And most importantly, she asked me questions related to the theme and heart of the story. Questions that helped me plan the revision to come.

I’m just finishing the edits on my YA sci/fi novel, getting it ready to go out to agents once more. This time, it won’t be a challenge to let go of The Last Battlewipe because The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville is waiting for me to get started again. I’m a lucky writer to have such a busy muse these days. It’s totally wicked what this way comes.

 

 

Digging up archives for research

Digging up archives for research

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers got me thinking more about research, and in particular about how to locate archive materials.

Of course, you can always start with Google, but beyond that, you might try:

Bibliographies

Look in the bibliographies at the back of books that you are already consulting for research. Where did those authors go to get information? Even if you don’t read all the books they consulted, you can still check out what sources they used. Likewise with any essays you read. Even websites dedicated to your topic may list archives they used. Sometimes the dedications at the beginning of books also thank people who helped with research.

Experts

While I’m not suggesting you stalk big names in your field of interest, we often meet experts (and other novelists) at book readings, symposiums, conferences or casually at other events. Asking about their research and the collections they may have used is a good conversation opener, and you might just learn something. If you are interviewing them, make it one of your questions.

Libraries

Your local reference librarian is bound to be a treasure house of information, especially about local archives.

But beyond that, ask your local library about accessing the WorldCat database or Archive Grid, with close to a million listings for archival materials stored in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Many of the libraries within that network offer inter-library loans. Your library may also have access to the subscription site Archive Finder which has over 22000 listings of historical collections of primary source material in American and British archives. For American publications, the Library of Congress  is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

College and university archives
An 1864 photo from the collection

Apart from theses archiving, educational institutions often have “special collections”. University of Toronto, for instance, has a collection called “The Barren Lands: J.B. Tyrrell’s Expeditions for the Geological Survey of Canada, 1892-1894” which includes over 5,000 images from original field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, maps and published reports covering two exploratory surveys of the Barren Lands region west of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the area now known as Nunavut.

Corporate archives
1936 Parade of Progress

Large corporations often have archives, like the General Motors Heritage Centre, that preserve the history of their corporations and industries. Collections of videos, photographs, and corporate records have varying degrees of public access depending on the company’s policies and archival staff availability.

Canadian archives

Our National Archives known as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are housed in Ottawa. (read about Ruth’s research visit there). Among their collections are:

The Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), in partnership with LAC, maintains ArchivesCanada.ca which lists over 800 repositories across Canada and has links to databases by province.

Other web sites to check

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives , the record keeper of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The American Historical Association sponsors Archives Wiki which gives information on (and links to) archives around the world from a researcher’s perspective.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  looks after US Federal government materials, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

And then what????

Of course, locating the archive that holds the documents or other materials you need is only the beginning. Accessing that information and dealing with archival staff is the subject of another blog. Stay tuned.

Last Word

This twitter quote comes from this year’s author guest at Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2018 retreat in November, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpayper). And it’s so true!

The thing with research is you only know you’ve done enough research after having done way too much research.

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Gwynn Scheltema

If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected  to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.

When writing or editing

  • Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
  • Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
  • If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
  • Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
  • When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Research hacks
  • Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
  • Simple.wikipedia.org will condense the main points of any Wikipedia article
  • Does your Google search turn up too many options? Not sure which are most reliable? Search with scholar.google.com instead for more relevant choices.
  • When you copy from the net, use crtl + shift + V to paste it. This will prevent the text from formatting.
  • If you accidentally close a tab while researching, hit ctrl +shift+ t to reopen it.
  • Use the space bar to scroll down a webpage. Use shift + spacebar to scroll back up.
Keyboard magic
  • Instead of hitting the backspace key multiple times to erase a word., hit crtl + backspace to erase the whole word at once. It works the same for deleting a whole word with crtl + delete.
  • Although you can add symbols (like the copyright symbol ©) to your text using the insert tab, it is worth learning the shortcut keyboard codes for the ones you use most often. Note that these codes work only with a numeric keyboard, but on some laptops adding in the fn key allows them to work too. (e.g. alt + fn + 0169 = ©) You can look up the keyboard codes on the character map (insert tab; symbol; more symbols).
    Here are a few to get you started:
    • © Copyright symbol = alt +0169
    • ™ Trademark sign = alt + 0153
    • ° Degree symbol = alt + 0176
    • ¢ Cent sign = alt + 0162
    • £ English pound = alt + 0163
  • The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
    Here’s a full list:

.

There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Ruth E. Walker

Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s exceptional writers, spoke of the other Canadian writers — friends, colleagues or just-starting-out — as “the tribe.” It was at a time when writing was a lonely business in Canada. When literary prizes were few (let alone boasting glitzy galas and live broadcasting) and especially for women writers, when there were few achieving success and critical acclaim. So for Laurence, she saw the truth behind the word “tribe”: a community of humans.

In ancient Rome, the root word of tribe, tribus, meant a division within the state. When European settlers began explorations, they used the word “tribe” to describe any and all cultures they came in contact with. I guess it was a handy, one-size-fits-all way to deal with difference and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that conquer-all mindset.

A Tribe of Writers

But back to Margaret Laurence and her use of tribe. It was a term used in a good way, meant to gather together the group of humans who penned words, often without any hope of recognition or acclaim. Her tribe was other Canadians driven by the passion and need to write.

Some years ago, I had a chat with Linwood Barclay, then a Toronto Star columnist and now a hugely popular author of mystery novels. He told me how Laurence was a mentor to him when he was a student at Trent University.  He never forgot her kindness and direct, unerring eye, and the difference it made to his eventual career and international success.

Linwood was in Margaret’s tribe long before he was selling his books in the millions. And Laurence was in his tribe, long before he realized he had a tribe.

Everyone’s Tribe is Unique

My tribe is difficult to capture in words, mostly because it is a loose-knit connection of all kinds of writers. Sometimes I spend more time with some tribe members than others. My intense critique group, Critical ms, where we give written and verbal feedback to each other, meets every other week, alternating between Peterborough and Whitby. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region counts among its membership many writers who I am so happy to call friends as well as colleagues.

Haliburton Writers

My tribe also includes the Canadian Authors’ Association, CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Muskoka Authors’ Association and the Muskoka Novel Marathon group (the photo at the top of this post is from 2014, the year I attended the MNM in Huntsville.) I’ve recently expanded my tribe to include members of the Literary Arts Roundtable of the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands.

  • Do I know everyone in all those organizations? No.
  • Do I support the work they do and volunteer when I can to help them grow and support other writers? Yes.
  • Do I have members of my writing tribe who don’t belong to any of these groups? Yes indeed.
  • And do I have members of my writing tribe who I value beyond the ordinary? You bet.

I have a core group of writers who I might term My Tribe within My Tribe. My go-to people when the rejections arrive and the first ones to know when I’m celebrating. The ones I will drop almost anything for if they need my help. Some have been in my tribe since 1996 when I started this crazy journey of words. And some are more recent core members. They are more than friends and colleagues, and they know it.

Tribe Members Aren’t Always Writers

My tribe also includes people who are not writers. The people who support and encourage my writing — family and friends who turn out for book launches, readings and events I help organize. And I learn from the non-writing members of my tribe. I learn about books I might not have picked up myself to read. I ask research questions and get directed to places and people who can help. I have beta readers who offer feedback and suggestions.

In short, a writers’ tribe benefits you when it’s not an exclusive group.

So who’s in your writers’ tribe? Is it like my ever-expanding circle of contacts or a more intimate group or a combination? Is your tribe online or face-to-face? Is it just Canadians or does it have an international flavour?

One thing is certain: Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Links to writing organizations in my tribe:

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Union of Canada

Canadian Authors’ Association

CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers)

Muskoka Authors Association

Muskoka Novel Marathon (Facebook page)

Arts Council ~ Haliburton Highlands

 

 

Little Libraries

Little Libraries

Gwynn Scheltema

I love libraries. I even have a Pinterest board of book spaces and libraries. But I have a special fondness for little libraries; libraries that make the effort despite situational difficulties or lack of resources.

Perhaps it’s because during my childhood, there was but one small library in town, a long car ride from my rural home. Nonetheless, my parents made the weekly trek every Saturday morning, where I chose my six books for the week (the library max). It didn’t take long to exhaust all the books in the children’s section, so the librarian gave me special permission to borrow books from the adult floor. What a treat!

Little Libraries

I especially love “pop-up libraries” or “little libraries” on people’s front lawns. I love that people have taken the time to make them, to stock them with free books, and to trust that other book lovers will use them. This one at the end of my street is nestled in long grass and the sign inside suggests that you take a book, swap a book or donate a book.

This summer, on a visit to Stratford I noticed that there were several little libraries in one neighbourhood and a closer inspection revealed that they were all connected through LittleFreeLibrary.org and each had a “charter number”. Why an organization, I wondered. Were there rules? Expectations for what I thought were purely random, personal fixtures?

 

The Little Free Library organization

Turns out, there are no “rules”. The organization exists to spread the concept across the world and to support those who want to start a little library. They maintain a world map of registered Little Free Libraries to help people find and share books and donate Little Free Libraries to communities where books are scarce through their Impact Library Program.

If you want to create a Little Free Library, the organization offers free Library building instructions, access to free or discounted books through their partners, and an online store that offers Library kits and pre-built Library models.

A global movement

There are currently more than 75,000 registered Little Free Library book-sharing boxes in 88 countries worldwide.

This funky little mushroom-shaped kids Library is installed at Grant Place Reserve playground in Flinders Park, Australia. The builders of this library say, “Our ‘Reading Spots’ give a fun place for kids to read in an awesome playground! We did some fun community art with the kids when we launched the Library, and we put a fabulous sign up on the fence.”

 

 

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania teacher Johnny Buckley felt that abandoned pay phones could take on a new life of storytelling by transforming them into Little Free Libraries for pre-schoolers.

 

 

And across the pond in Oostakker, Belgium, the makers of this Little Library say, “The model fits our house perfectly, because our house is a hundred years old and has no straight walls, just like the Library. It has the charm of a place with a soul. It reminds us of our childhood, too, with all the colours.”

 

 

 Do it your way.

Of course there are many more unregistered Little Libraries everywhere. If you are considering making a Little Library, how you construct it, the books you stock it with, and whether you do it as an individual or in community doesn’t matter. What matters is that more books become available to more people everywhere.

If you prefer to simply use and enjoy Little Libraries, that’s fine too. Happy reading!

 

 

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.