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.

The Spirit of Sharing

The Spirit of Sharing

Ruth E. Walker

As noted in last week’s Top Drawer, Gwynn and I attended the Spirit of the Hills (SOH) Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, and filled our creative wells with workshops on the craft of writing. But there was more energy and inspiration to be found in the community rooms at St. Peter’s Anglican Church.

Ruth at Writescape’s table

Drawing together the arts of all kinds, the festival celebrated visual arts, music, theatre, dance and literature. And in each of those disciplines, there was a myriad of creative expressions. From Flamenco dancing to fabric art to photography to performance poetry, SOH festival attendees were treated to a rich immersion in the arts.

Not only were there feasts for the eyes and ears, there were several opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists.

Gwynn moderated an intriguing panel discussion between four poets, who proved that poetry is not just an economy of words on the page. Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis was joined on the panel by American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan. The audience was challenged to consider how each poet approached their craft

A Royal reception

Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell

The arts tend to be taken for granted, so when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, entered the exhibition hall on Friday afternoon, the excitement meter rose significantly.

She is the Queen’s representative in Ontario, and in her own words, is “Storyteller in Chief.” Her Honour knows the power of words to engage others, and holds close the stories she hears from her travels throughout the province. Gwynn and I were delighted when she stopped by our table for a brief chat.

Reva Nelson & Piers Walker

On Friday evening, we were treated to an evening of music, dance and theatre. As much as I enjoyed all the offerings, one short play held a special joy.

“Mouse”, by Marie-Lynn Hammond, explores how two different commuters — an introverted older woman and an over-active young man — have far more in common than they first realize. Of course, the fact that I had a connection with the young male actor might have influenced my strong preference. Cannot lie: I’m always a proud mother when I watch any of my children do something they love.

Mixing up the arts

The arts were thrown into a different mix of voices when Saturday’s lunchtime panel, moderated by Alan Bland, brought together poet Dane Swan, multi-talented singer-songwriter David Newland, award-winning author K.D. Miller and opera singer turned author and editor, Christopher Cameron. The audience engaged in a free-ranging discussion on the challenges and benefits of sharing across the arts.

Our consensus? There’s a definite richness of thought when artists of various disciplines take the time to talk with and learn about each other.

Marie-Lynn Hammond
& San Murata
Gwynn reading poetry

But the best example of sharing across the arts, for me, was the very cool Words on the Wire, multi-media event on Saturday afternoon. Video poems engaged our eyes and minds, exquisite music and singing rose to the rafters in the chapel setting, pioneer Susanna Moodie addressed the audience, and poetry and prose was shared by diverse voices. Musician and songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond was joined by acclaimed violinist San Murata. And a personal favourite of mine, Gwynn Scheltema, read two gorgeous poems from her poetry manuscript.

By bringing together a diverse gathering of arts and artists, the Festival attracted the attention of the Queen’s representative, someone who regularly consults with the provincial government and who articulated her belief in the power of grassroots art and volunteer activity to bring people together and enrich their lives. The Festival showcased the work of creative people in a public, accessible place. But more than that, Spirit of the Hills festival organizers created a space in which artists could share ideas, inspiration and art forms with each other.

The Festival of the Arts is held every two years in Northumberland County. I’ll be marking fall 2021 on my calendar to be ready for another immersion in the many creative experiences that will be on offer. In the interim, I’ll be looking at ways I might collaborate with various artists to see what synergy can develop.

Collaboration + creative people = ??? Share in the comments what you think can come out of collaboration across art forms.

Collaboration Opportunity

Applications have just opened for Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County. For summer 2020, organizers are dedicating one 12-day residency for up to four artists who want to collaborate on a project(s).

main cabin

Halls Island is an off-grid, eco-sensitive island on Koshlong Lake. Residencies are available to artists of all disciplines. Other than a $10 non-refundable application fee, residencies are free to successful applicants.

“As an environmental artist and geo-poet, the Island itself was a way to rejuvenate, and become re-inspired in my practice.”


Sophie Edwards, artist residency at Halls Island, 2019

Applications and additional details are available online.

Why Workshop?

Why Workshop?

Gwynn Scheltema & Ruth E. Walker

This past weekend, Gwynn and Ruth spent some time at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. We’ll have more to say about this great festival next week but wanted to share some insights we gained from each taking a writing workshop.

K.D. Miller

Ruth attended The Captive Moment with author K.D.Miller where she spent time with the haunting paintings of Alex Colville. K.D.’s Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated collection of short stories were inspired by 12 of Colville’s paintings.

Cynthia Reyes and Ronald MacKay

Gwynn attended Your Journey, Your Story with Cynthia Reyes and Ronald Mackay. Both published memoirists, their workshop covered the structure and purpose of writing a memoir.

Both Gwynn and Ruth are seasoned workshop facilitators. They both spend a great deal of time researching the topics they teach and discover new ways to inspire writers to keep their pens moving and their imaginations engaged.

So why would either of them want to take workshops?

To be better writers

More than just wanting to learn new things to bring into their workshops, they are both, at their core, writers. As such, they need their pens to keep moving and for their imaginations to be engaged.

Ruth left The Captive Moment with two new poems and one story idea. Gwynn left Your Journey, Your Story with a workable plan for focussing the story aspect of a memoir.

Of course, they both left with new ideas to bring into their own workshops. But that was simply a bonus. For Gwynn and Ruth, carving out time to devote solely to their craft, to stretch, experiment and explore always fills their own creative wells.

That makes them better workshop facilitators AND better writers.

Workshop with Gwynn and Ruth

On Saturday, November 2, join Ruth at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge for a creative writing workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. This hands-on morning session is part of Blue Heron’s inspired Book Drunkard Literary Festival. Cook up a new character or add spice to an established character in a fun and creative way.

On Sunday, November 10, Gwynn is at the Writers’ Community of York Region’s monthly meeting. Drawing on her expertise as a professional accountant, Gwynn is sharing Touching on Taxes, helping writers identify the different kinds of revenue associated with writing and how to report it.

Hike to Write

Hike to Write

Ruth E. Walker

For the past two years, I’ve participated in the Hike Haliburton Festival, leading one of the more than 100 hikes held over 4 days each fall. But not just any trek through the woods or up a hillside, my hike is called a Hike and Write: Inspiration Trail.

It all started three or four years ago when Barrie Martin, a curator of outdoors experiences in Haliburton County, invited me to sponsor a hike in the festival. Our back and forth correspondence led to him inviting me to instead lead a hike in 2018.

Me? Lead a hike? At first, I had this picture of some of the challenging trails I’d portaged and hiked over the years. Frankly, I’m past all that.

But Barrie persisted. Told me I could design whatever kind of hike I might like that would include writing.

And that’s the so cool factor that elevates the Hike Haliburton Festival from a series of treks in the bush to hikes that integrate the arts, culture, heritage and foodie experiences.

For example, Hike for Art’s Sake was a wander along quiet roads with a local artist to sketch abandoned buildings from bygone days. And for the mushroom lover, they could take the Fungophile Foray, an easy walk in search of edible fungi. All 115 of the 2019 hikes were free.

After hosting two back-to-back hikes last year, I opted to extend the pen with a single walk in the morning and an afternoon writing at my cottage. Five hikers joined me at Dahl Forest for a hike along the Big Bend Trail Loop. They were ready to walk along, using the senses to make observations to apply to writing opportunities.

Special guest magic

Just before we started, a sixth hiker arrived. A celebrity guest, in fact. The 2019 Writer in Residence for Haliburton, Susanna Kearsley, joined us. The bestselling author of 13 books was generous with her time and attention to the other hikers. Notebook in hand, she explained how paying attention to small details is a vital part of recreating reality in her novels. How the light hits the lichen and moss on a rock, or the power of the damp scent of a pine forest — these are the kinds of things she looks for and records.

Dahl Forest

The weather was perfect. A stunning blue September sky, a light breeze riffling the tall pines and fir trees, and a carpet of moss and pine needles underfoot.

Susanna Kearsley captures a scene

Stopping at a riverside picnic bench, I led the hikers in a freefall writing exercise. The pen starts and doesn’t stop. Writers are encouraged to “follow the energy” and “write what comes up.” There’s more to it but that’s for another time.

It was magical. I was wondering how well the afternoon could go given how perfect the hike and morning had unfolded. Would an afternoon of tea and light refreshments lead to more brilliant writing?

I needed not to worry. The afternoon was just as perfect as the morning had been. Was it spent writing in hushed stillness, against the backdrop of the cottage birdsong and rustling leaves in the breeze?

Not exactly.

Inspiration comes in all forms

It was, instead, a delightful afternoon of discovery. Over tea, coffee, cheeses, fruits and ginger ale, Susanna shared some of her experiences as a writer. She spoke of her research and pleasure in writing. And soon enough, the conversation turned to the importance of story.

I sat to one side, judging just when I’d suggest clearing the table to start to write. I waited for the inevitable lull in the conversation.

But then — oh then — the real magic happened when the topic of films that tell a good story came up. And chief among them, the Marvel movies. It turned out that Susanna and one of our hikers (and a colleague writer of mine), Stephanie, were both big fans of the comic book film series. Drawn to the cinema for the strength of story and characters that carry that story, the two fans exchanged favourite movie titles.

The other hikers were intrigued and soon enough, Susanna and Stephanie were curating the ultimate list of Marvel movies to watch. Titles were broached, discussed, discarded and reordered into a “must see” list, and in what order they should be seen.

I’ll admit relief that Guardians of the Galaxy was included on that list — I’m an old-school Marvel fan but that revised rag-tag band of misfits resonated with me. At this point, I stopped to consider what we were all talking about. Frankly, I was perplexed by how a writing afternoon morphed into an analysis of superhero characters, their origins and challenges.

And then I got it. It’s the story, stupid.

What drove Stephanie and Susanna to get into such animated chatter about the film series was to talk about the power of story to transport us. Story in cinema led to the Marvel movies and the rest, as they say, was our afternoon.

2019 Hike & Write: Inspiration Trail

As the afternoon wound down, the hikers went home elated with their day spent hiking and writing in the morning and exploring ideas of story at my cottage. The curated list of “must see” movies went with them and they were already planning a series of binge movie nights.

Was this a silly thing to end our hike with? Absolutely not. We all crave story in our lives.

From the once-upon-a-times of our childhoods to the complexity of a well-crafted novel, it’s story that nudges our imagination and offers us new ways of seeing our world. It’s why we write. And thankfully, story can be found just about anywhere: on a morning walk through a stunning forest or over tea and biscuits in a rustic cottage.

Lucky us. We get to find those stories and make them our own.

The Write Award

The Write Award

Ruth E. Walker

Awards. What writer would not want to win an award for their writing? After all, we write with passion and know that few of us will be compensated for the hours and hours we devote to our craft. So awards and grants are a welcome bonus. A recent article in the Toronto Star newspaper about Canadian writers of commercial fiction got me thinking about who wins the major book awards and who gets left out.

In Canada, we have some lovely prizes for fiction writers. Notable among them:

Scotiabank Giller Prize

Arguably, the “Giller” is the glitziest party with hefty prize money for the winner: $100,000. The four finalists each receive a very nice $10,000. The prize is awarded each year to a novel or collection of short fiction.

Governor General’s Award for Fiction

While the Scotiabank Giller prize is rich in monetary rewards, there’s no denying the cachet connected to the GGs, a national recognition of literary merit since 1936. Expanded over the years to the current seven categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, young people’s literature — text and illustrated — and translation. The Canada Council for the Arts hands out prizes for English-language winners and for French-language winners. 14 prizes in all, with writers, illustrators and translators receiving $25,000, their publishers receiving $3,000 and finalists receiving $1,000.

Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Like the Giller, this prize is awarded annually to a novel or collection of short fiction. The $50,000 purse is impressive and finalists receive $5,000 each.

Canada Reads

Inspired by the one-book, one-community phenomenon, CBC launched Canada Reads where five diverse panellists each champion a book that they think all of Canada should read. There’s no prize money; however, finalists and winners have all seen significant increase in sales for their books. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion sold 70,000 copies after being declared winner in 2002, fifteen years after it was first published.

There are also many regional, provincial and municipal awards for literary fiction. But where is the prestigious prize for popular, commercial fiction? Generally sponsored by writing associations and groups, genre fiction has some great prizes. For example:

According to Wikipedia, there are more than 50 literary awards in Canada for writers of adult and children’s fiction. In Canada, literary awards of serious prize money and prestige most often means serious fiction — elegant text, subtle layers of meaning, imagery and metaphor that bring us to tears with their beauty.

What about the joy of reading a terrific book? Commercial fiction, also known as “popular fiction”, is that book you can’t put down because the fascinating characters or plot are like musical earworms you cannot get out of your head. And the suspense or romance is pulling you along. There may be precious little imagery happening or subtle layering, but does that mean it is “less than” a literary gem anointed by a panel of literary judges?

I once taught a workshop where a participant was shocked that I referenced Stephen King as a strong and compelling writer. She once said a similar thing in her university English literature class and was shamed in front of her classmates by her prof’s seething rejection of “that hack.”

Victorian-era best-selling author Charles Dickens was considered to be a hack, I told her. And like Dickens, Stephen King’s work has found its way onto more than one postsecondary syllabus.

Of course, there’s also some satisfaction in King’s earnings as an author of popular fiction. But even bestselling Canadian authors of popular fiction are unlikely to find themselves on the Giller prize list or anticipating a nod for a GG.

Maybe we should take a page from the National Book Awards in the U.K.  Launched as the Popular Fiction Award in 2006 and now dubbed the Fiction Book of the Year, the shortlisted and winning books have included thrillers, romance and humour. Currently sponsored by a corporate giant in vision care, they are now known as the Specsavers National Book Awards.

Seems like a good idea to me. And I suspect our many popular fiction writers would agree.

Last Word

Ruth is delighted to confirm the Writer in Residence for the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands is bestselling Canadian author of decidedly popular fiction, Susanna Kearsley.

Her latest book, Bellewether, is Haliburton Reads & Writes pick for The Big Book Club and readers are invited to join Susanna in Haliburton on September 15 to talk about Bellewether and ask Susanna questions about the book. The Big Book Club will be live streamed so that anyone can join in and participate in the discussion and Q&A. Check out the Facebook page for details.

Susanna’s books, published in translation in more than 20 countries, have won the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize, RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, a RITA Award, and National Readers’ Choice Awards, and have finalled for the UK’s Romantic Novel of the Year and the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel.

Book Nooks

Book Nooks

Gwynn Scheltema

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved hide-away places and I’ve loved books. Put the two together, and I’m in heaven. I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom growing up, and could close the door and read in comfort on my bed. But for all that, I still preferred and created cozy, secret “book nooks” in the bottom of my closet, or under my desk covered with a blanket. I longed for a padded a window seat.

Book nooks don’t have to be fancy, or requiring of great space or large funds. Below are a few ideas gleaned from the internet:

Whimsical window seats:

No need for a window with a wide sill. Just frame out any window with simple shelves, a purchased bench or custom built box. Outdoor furniture cushions, or fabric covered foam and a few throw pillows and it’s done.

This vertical shelf design comes from The Habitat Collective at the habco.com

The horizontal design is from Googodecor at googodecor.com

Convert a closet or old wardrobe

Do you really need all that “stuff” in the closet in the spare room, or the basement? How about converting it to a book nook for your kids or grandkids?

Ever since reading the tales of Narnia, wardrobes have had a magical feel for me. As a child I would have LOVED this Narnia inspired wardrobe book-nook from Blesserhouse.com

Reclaim under the stairs:

Harry Potter made good use of his spot under the stairs. Why not use that space for a child’s Harry Potter hide-away?  Or make it a bit more adult for yourself?

These designs come from media.bookbub.com; http://gurudecor.com/ ; and https://gowritter.com/smart-ideas-for-under-stairs-storage-space/

Repurpose space and furniture you already have:

William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” But when you have a small house, the furniture has to fall into BOTH categories –

Think outside the box.

Here Ikea spice racks become picture book shelves; vertical shelves and cabinets are laid on the floor with a mattress on top. A curtain is hung from the ceiling around a hoop.

These ideas from kidsroomideas.net; https://www.clubmamans.com/ and  www.prettylittlerowhouse.com 

Last word.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you read, as long as you do. Happy reading!

Books or Bust

Books or Bust

Gwynn Scheltema

This unusual picture came through my Facebook feed recently, and I was drawn not just to the semi-circle of mounted women, but to the library sign behind them. Apparently these women were librarians—travelling librarians. It got me thinking of the lengths to which people will go to have libraries and access to books.

Have horse will read

The Pack Horse Library Initiative operated in the 1930s during the Great Depression, as part of a program in Kentucky run by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was the brainchild of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to help job seekers during the Great Depression.

Locally known and trusted women rode as much as 120 miles in a week to reach isolated mountain communities. They went in all kinds of weather and traversed difficult terrain, sometimes even finishing the trip on foot if it was too tough for their horses. Unemployment ended with war production for WWII and the pack horse initiative funding was stopped in 1943.

Walking the plank

On the other side of the world in Indonesia, the environment can’t stop readers getting access to books. In this fishing village, the “library” is a tin hut on stilts, whose only access is a series of wooden planks nailed together in a wobbly path over the water.

Despite its precarious position, the 85 degree heat and 90% humidity, the place is always packed, especially with children.

One man’s trash…

In Turkey’s capital, Ankara, garbage collectors began in 2016 rescuing books destined for the landfill to create a library for employees and family. The project mushroomed, and the local government got behind the idea and supplied a disused brick factory building at its sanitation department headquarters.

The “new” library opened to the public in September 2017 with over 6,000 fiction and non-fiction books, all gathered from the garbage or donated. It boasts a children’s section, an area dedicated to scientific research books, and some foreign language books. In fact, the library’s collection is now so large that it can loan books to schools, educational programs, and prisons.

Home tongue book refuge

What happens if your home language is not that of the dominant language at your town library? Most libraries have moderate foreign-book sections, but in Quebec City, there is a small library that houses English language books—and it’s not new. The Morrin Centre was built on the site of the old military barracks in 1808. Initially it was Quebec City’s public prison, housing its first prisoners in 1812.

Then in 1868 the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec moved in. Over the years, they have gathered historical Canadian documents, republished rare manuscripts and were instrumental in establishing the National Archives of Canada. Sadly many of the older books are no longer in the collection, but the collection still includes a number of books dating to the 16th century.

In more recent times, they established an English lending library, and also act as Quebec City’s English-language cultural centre and an historical interpretation site. The Society has hosted such greats as Charles Dickens and Emmelyne Pankhurst.

The New Pack Horse Librarians

We may not use pack horses any more, but many will be familiar with—the Bookmobile. (Also known as the Book Van or Travelling Library). Following WWII, vans filled with library books were driven by a librarian to areas that did not have bricks and mortar libraries, to village centres, schools, and sometimes even to individual homes. In the Canadian North, when the road ran out, the service continued by boat.

These days, many large urban centers have bookmobiles, and just like their bricks and mortar partners, they offer more than books. They have library programming, and serve as WIFI hubs. They offer access to computers and printers, movies and video games.

Last word

It seems that when people love books, they will take whatever measures necessary to get them. Ain’t life grand!