Write a book review

Write a book review

Gwynn Scheltema

Want to do something positive for writers during your time at home? Write a book review! Write a dozen reviews!

A 3/5 goodreads review of the book Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale popped up in my Facebook feed this week from a good friend and fellow writer and reader—and I took note. Why?

I took note, because I find her reviews aren’t like the endless run of promotional 5-star ratings for friends’ books that show up in my feed all the time: gushing reports awash with hyperbole and high praise.

Her reviews are honest and analytical. Even on a 3/5 rating she wrote about what was good. When it came to the aspects that didn’t work for her, she articulated it in that vein—not a trashing by a know-it-all, but considered comments from a genuine reader. She wrote about writing style, story and character problems and all of it couched in the knowledge that her reaction could be to do with what she brings from her own experience to the reading of the book.

So much brilliance: psychological excavations and gorgeous writing, worthy of pencil marks. But ultimately the story weighed me down with its onslaught of details—the kind of notes a diligent writer might keep in a binder called Character Profiles. I wouldn’t have minded had the details bound me to the characters, but in fact I closed the book feeling as though I never really knew anybody, or cared about them all that much..…the trauma that served as the main mystery to be solved over the course of the story, failed to live up to its billing. I suspect this has more to do with the frame of reference I personally bring to the reading room, than it has to do with the writer. Still….Glad to have read it, but left without an appetite for more.

I’m always encouraging writers to help other writers by writing reviews. But I think it’s important that they are meaningful reviews. A writer who reviews with all good intentions to help, but gives a 5-star rating to a book that doesn’t deserve it, diminishes all further reviews from that reviewer. It’s like giving a winning medal to someone who ran only half the course, negates the value of that same medal given to the real winner.

This excerpt from the same reviewer about the book Know my Name: a Memoir by Chanel Miller has me adding this book to my reading list—not just because it got 5 stars, but because it got 5 stars from a reviewer I trust.

A searing, courageous, and articulate stream of social, institutional and legal indictment, emotion, outrage, and love for family — bright red in its flame-throwing honesty and indignation. Chanel speaks for me, and likely for most women I know.

Writing a review

Of course, you can write reviews on many online platforms, but if it’s not something you do often, goodreads is a good place to start because half the “review” is already done for you: title, author, copyright date, genre, price, subject matter of the book, and special features.

Essentially, you need only dwell on highlights of the book and your opinion of its readability. Remember, you are not writing a book report for school, showcasing your knowledge of literature. You are offering a prospective reader reasons to read—or not read—a particular book. Your review should be an accurate, analytical reading but delivered with a strong, personal touch from any reactions and arguments from your unique perspective.

And don’t spoil the book for prospective readers by giving away the ending or unexpected twists. You can say you found the ending satisfying (or not) and you can mention that there were unexpected twists, but hold off on actual details.

As you’re writing, try thinking of your reader as a friend with whom you are having a casual conversation. Use language you would use in conversation rather than trying to be formal.

Review the book you have just read, not the book you wish the author had written. It’s okay to point out areas that were weak, but not to dwell on what you think should have been included that wasn’t.

Questions to consider about your reading experience

A review can be as long or as short as you like. Not all the questions below need to be answered. Pick and choose to highlight what you think is important about the book you are reviewing at the time.

  • Were you engaged from the start or did it take time to get into the book?
  • Will any scenes or characters stay with you for a long time? Why?
  • What aspects were highlights for you: style, characters, world-building, themes, plot? Talk about how well the author dealt with these, what you enjoyed and what you didn’t.
  • Was it an easy read? A wallow in exquisite language? A hard slog?
  • How does it compare with other books in its genre?
  • Did the style and/or content suit the intended audience? What do you think is the ideal audience?
  • Is it a departure from this author’s usual, or what readers would expect? Why?
  • Did the ending satisfy you?
  • Would you read more from this author?
  • Would you recommend this book?

Practicalities

To review a book on goodreads follow these steps:

  • Go to goodreads.com
  • Use the search bar at the top of the page to open up the book’s profile page
  • Scroll down until you see 5 stars and a button Write a Review.
  • Click on Write a Review and type away….
Writing in Difficult Times

Writing in Difficult Times

Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency 

Originally posted in BookEnds’ blog, the following is such sage and practical advice for writers that we requested and received permission from Jessica to share her words on our Top Drawer blog. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time in modern history. But there are ways we can all keep our creative flames lit. Write on, as best you can, knowing that we hold the mirrors for the world in which they see themselves. Let’s encourage only the best in each other.

There is no doubt that difficult times make writing harder. When the world seems like it is blowing up, focusing and being creative feels nearly impossible. And yet, deadlines don’t stop just because the world is crazy.

No one thing will work for all people and, certainly, everyone’s situation will be different. But for those seeking guidance, I have some tips.

1. Just keep writing. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good, but sitting down every day to put words on paper makes a difference.

2. Shut down social media. When the world is crazy-making we all go to social media for information. It’s useful, but can also be destructive. Pick a few times each day to check-in, limit your time, and get out.

3. Talk about it. If you’re truly struggling, reach out to your agent [or mentors or writing colleagues] and let them know. Sometimes just sharing can release what’s holding you back. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling.

4. Do something else creative–make a cake, knit a scarf, take a photograph, or build a coatrack. Finding something you enjoy outside of writing helps take your mind off what is blocking you.

5. Give yourself a break. Times are tough and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re struggling. Allow yourself some time if you need it.

I wish you all good health. And promise, the words will come again.

Jessica Faust is President and founder of BookEnds Literary Agency where she represents adult fiction and nonfiction. Her areas of expertise are mystery, suspense, thrillers, women’s fiction, literary and upmarket fiction. She also represents select areas of nonfiction. More about Jessica can be found through her blog, YouTube, and Twitter.

My non-journal

My non-journal

Gwynn Scheltema

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.

My Non-journal

My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.

With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”

In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.

Lists

I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……

Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.

Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:

  • half a phone book from ten years ago
  • a dried-up bottle of cochineal
  • iron burn marks on the sheets

Photos

Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.

I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.

I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.

Language                                                                                    

One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.

  • dumb as a cow’s arse
  • she flapped her lips
  • give it to Old Pisquick over there
Southern ground hornbill walking in the high grass in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.

  • names of things – utshani = grass
  • exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
  • orders—faga punzi = put it down

Hidden Gold

Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.

Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.

And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.

Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.

Crybaby for Characters

Crybaby for Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Life of Pi movie still

True Confession: I cry in the sad parts. Tears trickle down with a good book. Louisa May Alcott’s Beth in Little Women, again and again with Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle (alternating with laughter, of course), the tiger at the end of Life of Pi.

So many books have brought me to tears. I’m also a sucker for a well-acted stage production, movie or TV show.

It’s the characters

I invest in characters. I cheer for them and I admonish them and I cry for, or with them. Of course the story matters because that’s where the characters come to life. But the most compelling actors or characters in a story won’t move me if I don’t believe in the truth of their situation.

Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise

Star Trek is a television series I’ve followed since the early days of Captain Kirk. I watched every single television incarnation or reboot. And the movies. I don’t have a room full of Trek memorabilia but until my doggie decided to chew off his leg, I did have a tiny Captain Jean-Luc Picard on my office windowsill.

I’ll admit that some of the stories are not especially well drawn. And especially in the early days of limited FX options, those alien masks were, shall we say, rudimentary?

But it’s always been the characters for me: how they act, react and yes, occasionally, over-act (sorry Bill.) Because I believe, on some level, that they are real and the situation they are facing is founded in reality.

A learning moment

A recent story-time session with my 2-year-old granddaughter Clara reminded me that characters — even non-human ones — can have an emotional impact on readers.

One of her favourite books when she comes to visit me is Snow by P.D. Eastman. It’s an early reader in the Seuss series and frankly, the text could use some work: What is snow? I do not know. I do not know what is snow. and  Do you like it in your face? Oh yes, I like it anyplace. Suffice it to say, while I like repetition for word recognition, encouraging snowballs to the face is problematic. And yes, Grandma does know what is snow and explains it. But I digress.

Clara loves the book, always asks for it and so we read it. Until last weekend.

My granddaughter immerses in books. In the case of Snow, when we reach the pages where they building a snowfort and make snowballs, her fingers are all over the page, gathering imaginary snow to add to the construction.

But then we come to the snowman

At first, everything is fine. Just like every other time, she gathers the snow with the book characters, rolling each one into a three-tiered figure. Adds the glasses, pipe, coal smile and the ubiquitous hat. We turn the page.

The sun comes out.

The snowman melts into a slushy puddle.

And this time, for the first time, her face is stricken. “I don’t like it,” she says, her face now on the verge of tears. “I don’t like it,” she repeats.

What? This never happened before. Not with her. Not with any of my other grandchildren. I shift into hyper-vigilance and flip over the page. Distract her with the kids putting snowballs into the fridge freezer to keep them from melting. Suggest the snowman could go there as well.

Then I say, “We don’t have to read the snowman part again.”

Clara looks up at me, thoughtful. “Okay,” she says. But I’m pretty sure what she means is that we won’t read the book again. Ever.

Mending a broken heart

An illustration on two pages of a simple early reader book came to be absolutely real for her. And she was heartsick for the melting snowman.

It was a beautiful moment for me and a teaching one, at that. I was the learner and she, the instructor. Characters can be beloved even before words on the page are familiar.

I always thought that stories were favourites of very young children because the rhythm of the words and engaging illustrations caught their attention. But I hadn’t thought about a relationship with the characters. I thought that was something that grew as toddlers became more self-aware primary kids.

Pixabay

I also recognize that despite my love and frequent interaction with dozens of very young children over the years (my own, my daycare charges and my grandchildren), I had more to learn about the way story characters impact them. That even toddlers can have sufficiently developed empathy to be moved by characters.

It will be some time before I’ll be introducing Clara to Star Trek. But in the interim, I’ll be looking for additions to my children’s library at home. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

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.

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?

A Panel of Poets

A Panel of Poets

Guest Blog by Antony Di Nardo

But first a word from Gwynn

As mentioned in last week’s blog, The Spirit of Sharing, I was honoured to moderate an unusual literary panel at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, Ontario, on October 25, 2019. Four very different poets shared what form their poetry took, what poetry meant to them, what inspired them and what happened when poetry was shared. The Four poets who shared their thoughts on “A Panel of Poets”, were Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis, American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan.

Among the audience members was Antony Di Nardo, a fine poet I first had the pleasure of meeting during the days when Ruth and I were editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview. As the event progressed, I saw Antony scribbling notes and taking part in the discussions. Later, I asked him if he would mind sharing his observations with you here on The Top Drawer, and to my delight, he agreed. Thank you Antony, and over to you:

The Poetry Panel

Amsden talks of poetry as a state of rapture; Swan listens for its pitter patter; Keeler playfully recites the poet’s prayer in an Anglican chapel and subverts an institution; and for Hoogendam poetry is a world where time can come to a stop. Four poets, four traditions, four perspectives, four very different ways of understanding and questioning. Of giving poetry a forum for human discourse. And Gwynn Scheltema, our moderator, looks for answers.

Readers, writers, thinkers, talking and reflecting across the arts. A panel of poets, in this case, to ratify the only truth there is in poetry: it’s as subjective as personal experience.

Sure, there’s common context and cultural bias, societal slants and preferences, there’s even the current flavour of the month that contributes to shaping a poet’s voice, their choice of words. Each poet occupying their own seat, their own space in time, like every listener in the room. Who else, I wonder, saw the crucifix in the corner from the same angle that I did? The nail plunged into the heart of where the cedar crossbeams met? The lashing? The angel that appeared as a shaft of light?

Vitruvian man

“My mind wanders to Joy Harjo,” says Katie Hoogendam before she reads her own sample selection, and Harjo’s poem, she tells us, is about a farm boy who loses his two-year-old sister to a drowning accident and how he sees his mother descend into grief. The poem is called She Had Some Horses, and Hoogendam calls hers, Vitruvian Man, and while I listen to the narrative that unmistakably is the fabric of her poem, my mind wanders to the crucifix in the corner that is unmistakably Vitruvian.

Poetry is play.

Poetency & Apoetasy

Trucks and dolls and Lego blocks, our very first metaphors, our substitutes for making real (or “realer”) our understanding of the world around us. The Poetician, Wally Keeler, says so and I believe every word he says. In a poet’s mind there can be a new world order and it appears on paper and on the sides of transport trucks and as manifestos and in gleeful fabrications like “wire taps” that serve no purpose but to confront and re-imagine. Metaphor: to cross over and go beyond where no one has gone before. Poetry can do that and never hurt a fly.

Poetry is music, rhythm and jazz

And it takes words to do that says, Ted Amsden. It takes words that you might hear at the foot of a master, Earle Birney, say, who also had horses in his poems or Michael Ondaatje who referred to Ted’s first attempts with a manuscript as “half a beer commercial.”

Poetry is everywhere

And there’s poetry in beer commercials and also in Nathan Philips Square where one day Dane Swan looked down at his bare hands and wrote, “do not look at your hand, look at your hand.” Form he says is a function of the poem’s direction. And poetry, says Ted, happens when you treat yourself as a poet. Both rely on the intuitive, a poet’s first faculty.

Paying attention

Poetry also happens when you pay attention.

When she pays attention, Katie Hoogendam enters another world. The world of the imagination, I suppose, or Wally Keeler’s Imagine Nation, perhaps. Alien to some, familiar to others. It’s a good thing we have words in common to know what we mean. Nevertheless, it’s another place, a place of rescue or a place where you can meet yourself on different terms. Katie will follow an image to the ends of the earth and bring it back to put on the page. And sometimes, as it happens, she’ll open her hands to the sky and the words just fall in.

Poetry is work.

And when we work, we make mistakes, we fail and try again and get it wrong until we get it right. It’s a mind mapping activity, says Dane Swan. He makes a list of themes, supporting images, metaphors, visualizes concepts that fit the tenor of his observations where the poem had its beginnings. It’s a balance of trial and error. Of beauty and terror.

Leave more than you take

Here’s part of a poem by Dane Swan, Soothsayer, that Dane never read:

I am the result of my flaws,
mistakes,
failures,
losses.
Yet treated like a snob,
judged ornery,
misunderstood.


If my destiny is to fall apart
I shall give away my limbs
after using them to print text
hidden under pillows
by those who say my name in vain.


I’ll leave more than I took.

It is a good reason to write poetry, I think. To leave more than you take. One day I will see Wally’s People’s Republic of Poetry as a Broadway Musical. Vitruvian Man will come down from the cross and sashay into poetry. Ted will recite the words vulture and voucher from the back of a motorcycle and Dane will have figured out how to slip barbed wire into a poem.

But for now, I’ll content myself knowing that poetry is its own rapture.

Antony Di Nardo is the author of SKYLIGHT, which includes the long poem suite, “May June July,” winner of the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize. His other books are Roaming Charges (Brick), Soul on Standby (Exile), and Alien, Correspondent (Brick). Born in Montreal, he divides his time between Cobourg, Ontario and Sutton, Quebec.