Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

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

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

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

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

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

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

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

Switch it up

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

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

 

Prime the Muse

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

Write what you know  

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

The Senses

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

Move into Metaphor

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

Be specific

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

 

Opposites

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

Lists

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

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

Give it a go

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

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

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

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

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

Seven Tips for Finding Inspiration

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

Ruth E. Walker

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

No two writers have identical pathstunnel-237656_640

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s get started.

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

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

About Freefall Writingtourism-776587_640

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

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

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

The door opened and I stepped inside.

 

 

Smile Poetry 101

Smile Poetry 101

Gwynn Scheltema

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

Light Verse

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

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

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

 Nonsense Rhyme

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

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

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

Bouts-rimés 

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

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

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

Clerihew

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

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

Epigram

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

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

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

Limericks

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

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

Here’s a fun example from Rudyard Kipling:

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

 Macaronic

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

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

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

Your turn

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

DID YOU KNOW

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

Are We Born Creative?

Are We Born Creative?

Gwynn Scheltema

When I looked at the perfect little face of my new born granddaughter, Elle Irene, I saw my son in her blue almond eyes. I saw my daughter-in-law in her pretty bow mouth. And as I played with her extraordinarily long fingers, I wondered if the old wives tale that long fingers were portents of being a creative was true.

There are a lot of artistically creative people in my family. My son is a fine artist and graphic designer; I am a writer, dabble in visual arts and spent years as a ballet dancer; my mother is a commercial artist by profession and our house was hung with her oil, pastel, watercolour and pencils pieces. But here’s the kicker. My artist mother is in fact my step mother. My biological siblings are not noticeably artistic. So was I born artistically creative, thus passing on creative genes to my son and possibly my granddaughter, or did the artistic and imaginative environment I grew up in and tried to create for my own children nurture creativity? The old nature vs. nurture maxim.

Nature vs. Nurture

 Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Ursula LeGuin said, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”

I believe that both statements speak to the uninhibited ability of children to express themselves. The older we get the more our actions are governed by social expectation, by self-assessment, by perceived judgement by others and by personal emotional baggage. Sometimes that frees us. Sometimes it restricts us. Whatever the outcome, that aspect of being creative is a learned attitude, a product of our environment and experience. It’s “nurture” at work.

But I think those quotes are also saying that we all are born with ability to be “childishly creative.” That we are “naturally” creative. Science backs it up:

Brain hemisphere specialization

Our two brain hemispheres are joined by a bundle of fibres called the corpus callosum. A study at the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University discovered that the brains of artistically creative individuals had a smaller corpus callosum. This, according to the study, allows each side of the brain to develop its own specialization.

Enhanced hemispheric specialization “benefits the incubation of ideas that are critical for the divergent-thinking component of creativity, and it is the momentary inhibition of this hemispheric independence that accounts for the illumination that is part of the innovative stage of creativity.”

In the genes

Another study from the University of Helsinki looked at musical creativity. They found the presence of a particular gene family involved in “plasticity”: the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by breaking and forming new connections between cells.

The team also noticed increased creativity in subjects with duplicate DNA strands affecting the processing of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Elevated serotonin levels in the brain increase connectivity in the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain, an area that communicates with other brain networks, and is involved with memory retrieval.

The verdict

 So in the end, it seems we all can be creative, but we have to make sure we encourage and preserve that child’s ability to let loose without reservation and judgement. We have to nurture our natural abilities.

One of the best writing books about being creative I’ve read (and read again and again) is The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. She has worked with many creatives over the years and her book is a wonderful aid to finding your own creative self and nurturing it back to its full potential.

My creative granddaughter

 So has my granddaughter “inherited” creativity? I hope so, but I’m not going to sit back and assume so. I’ll be reading to her and telling stories, singing, doing crafts and playing music and anything else I can to help her along. I will encourage curiosity, confidence and flexible thinking and most of all, imagination.

Here are a few links with suggestions on encouraging creativity in children. Why not treat your own inner child to some fun too…

 

DID YOU KNOW

Escape to write… is one way to nurture your creative self. Registration is now open for Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2017 retreat at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching. November 3, 4 and 5, 2017.

 

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Ruth E. Walker

Discovering Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a thrill. Oh, the combination: wit, satire and science fiction comedy. As a young-ish mother of four, the escape was delicious.

And lately, I’ve enjoyed getting reacquainted with his wacky worldview in the television series Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency. But all that is an aside (which is one of things I loved about reading Douglas Adams — the incredible digressions…but then I also enjoy Monty Python.)

What I most admire about Douglas Adams is how often his words (either from his books or otherwise) remain so smart and relevant. Here’s a gem from a speech “Parrots, the universe and everything” at the University of California in May 2001. It was just days before his untimely death at age 49:

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

And here’s my favourite because it fits my writing world:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. 

Yes indeed. So today, I have no less than two writing deadlines. First, I need to finish THIS post and get it proofread and ready to launch by midnight. And second, long before midnight, I need to send the last four chapters of my novel to my critique group.

Time Management?

Look at that. My “midnight” deadline is secondary to my “long before midnight” deadline. Well, that must be because my last four chapters are ready to go.

Nope. They are “mostly” ready (Python-esque description, yes?) I’m still agonizing over plot decisions I’ve made. I’m unsure if I’ve overwritten the final few scenes, that I’ve gone for “big” when “intimate” might better serve the story.

Yes. Of course I hear you. Isn’t that what my critique group is for? To offer feedback on the writing? So what is my problem?

It’s the deadlines that are killing me and my creativity today. Add into the mix some background on another deadline, one that I’ve missed. In the past couple of years, I’ve been at a few writing conferences. At those conferences, there were optional pitch sessions with literary agents. I started with the idea that I could use those sessions as a chance to practise a real pitch for when the book is done.

So I paid attention to the questions the agents asked. I noticed what got their interest in the written query and writing sample and what put them on snooze. And I practised being comfortable sitting across from someone who might have a profound effect on my writing career. Believe me, I need that practise.

True confession

I can stand at the front of a room and deliver a workshop with passion and confidence. But offer up that compelling elevator pitch? Describe my book and its themes in 25 words or less? Open my mouth and not jam my foot directly into it?

Something terrible happens to me when I’m talking about my novel to agents and editors. My brain leaves the room. So practise is necessary, in my case.

Last September, I was at a pitch session with a well-known literary agent. I didn’t even have to open my mouth before she let me know how much she enjoyed my writing sample. In seconds, I went from Nervous Nellie to author. We had a great meeting and I imagined how lovely it would be have this woman as my agent. She asked to see the full manuscript in November. “Of course,” I said. I was only a month or so from penning “The End” so that timing was a perfect fit.

I had a deadline. I had strong interest from an agent. And a manuscript so close to being done, I could taste it. What could go wrong?

The Douglas Adams effect

Whoosh. That deadline went by so fast, I barely heard it. Sure, I have a lot of reasons that the book languished, unfinished. But I suspect that a big part of the missed deadline is related to my lack of confidence in writing the darn thing. That’s not a logical reason. Feedback from agents and editors in my practice sessions, along with my excellent (and tough) critique group’s comments, confirms that the writing is strong and the story original and engaging.

But when are we logical beings? When does our passion for our craft translate into efficiency and organization? In my case, it often doesn’t. Remember those digressions I love? Squirrel! And I’m madly off in several directions, forgetting the original goal.

Nonetheless, I’ve made it to the end of this post so that is one deadline met. As long as no squirrels pass my window and the house remains relatively quiet, I should also manage to meet the next one. And as to that November 2016 so-important-I-shouldn’t-let-it-whoosh-by deadline? I can only hope that literary agent is okay working with authors for whom deadlines are sometimes counter-productive. And that she’ll like the novel well enough to sign me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Did You Know:

You’ve got lots of time before registration deadline for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. But don’t let that stop you from signing up. The first four writers who sign up get a special bonus: a suite room with a lake view. Still waiting for the deadline to creep up on you? With this year’s guest author Vicki Delany ready to share secrets on how she’s one of Canada’s top mystery writers, we expect a full house. Don’t be disappointed. November 3, 4 & 5.

Recipe for a Writing Grant

Recipe for a Writing Grant

Ruth E. Walker

Gwynn and I know firsthand what a thrill it is when someone validates us as writers. When you are told that you’ve won an award, a scholarship or a grant for your creative work, it’s not just about the money. Don’t get me wrong. For almost all of us, the “starving artist” is not a metaphor. It’s a hard reality.

Winning an award or grant is more than an income boost, however. It shows the world that others place worth on your craft. And it validates you as a working writer, one who is submitting their work for evaluation. That you are willing to risk the opinion of strangers.

So it gives us great pleasure to participate in an annual scholarship program with The Writers’ Community of Durham Region. WCDR is a 300+-member networking organization for writers of all types and levels. Heather O’Connor and I have been members for years and Gwynn was there at their very first meeting in the 90s. We all know that education is a prime focus for this non-profit group.

2017 Essay Prompt

When we were approached a few years ago to be part of their annual WCDR scholarship program we said Yes! Writescape funds a $150 scholarship.

Applicants must be members of WCDR, they must complete an online form to outline their background and budget details on their writing project/plans and, most importantly, craft a compelling essay inspired by a writing prompt. All applications are judged on their practical, logical content as well as how their passion is conveyed in responding to the prompt.

Our $150 support is not tied to taking any of our workshops or retreats. Writescape has no part in the adjudication process. We aren’t on any of the judging panels, we see none of the applications or essays, and only learn the name of the recipient a day or so before the award is announced.

A prize-winning event

It’s always been wonderful to attend the award breakfast and to hand out the prize. But this year was especially delightful for me. I’ve known the winner for twenty years. I also know he was the originator of the WCDR scholarship program and willingly volunteers his business acumen and well-honed technology skills to support the group and individual members.

In short, Rich Helms a good guy.

Rich Helms is not, however, a poet. Nor does he write mysteries or thrillers or historical romance novels. His excellent resource book Book Trailer 101 coaches writers on making their own book trailers. And if you want to understand Amazon SimpleDB, Rich co-wrote a guidebook on that as well. So I was curious and asked Rich if I could see his application and essay. What technological advance was Rich taking on this time? He willingly shared his application. Turns out, Rich reaches back to the early days of civilization for his latest topic.

Rich is baking bread. And he’s writing about it.

In his background notes, Rich shows his logical side. “…40 years in computer research and development, where I took complex ideas and turned them into marketable products.” and lays out his plan “The next thing I want to tackle is how to write a recipe – an area in which I have no expertise.”

But baking bread is his passion. Does his essay reveal any passion?

“When I retired from the company I once owned, I spent a month living by the ocean. Every day, my dog, Margaret, and I would walk the shore, then stop and fish. My all-consuming thought was, what now?

I’m a computer nerd who bakes bread and writes about it, and I’m not afraid to describe bread baking as a sensuous experience. I revel in the feeling of kneading dough into a boule of smooth, elastic food that is alive and growing. I breathe deeply the smell of the flour and yeast fermenting, breaking down the starches as well as the tantalizing aromas of caramelizing sugars…”

“…Thinking back to my walks by the ocean with Margaret …when I returned each day, our footprints were gone. Only pictures on my phone proved that we had walked the shore. The sand looked clean, and all traces of the day before were removed. What remained was a clean slate beckoning us to start the walk again.

This all makes me think about my journey with breadbaking. The traces of the journey disappear; time washes them away. But what survives are the writing, the stories, the recipes and what I learn along the way. As I move forward, I am excited to knead a deeper element of writing into the mix.”

Yup. I’d say the passion is there. And a wonderful depth and elegance to Rich’s writing that I’d not seen before.

A worthwhile gift to writers

We know that every writer who has received the Writescape scholarship has appreciated the support and used the money to deepen their craft or expand their skills into new areas. This time, it’s especially nice for us to know the recipient. And I can add that I have tasted Rich’s breads: a superb cheese loaf and dinner rolls that engaged the senses and deliciously filled the belly.

This ancient craft is even older than written language. I’ll be looking for Rich’s recipe book but in the meantime, I’ll settle for an occasional taste from the hearth. Yum!

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape offers Get That Grant, a fabulous one-day workshop on the art and skill of applying for writing grants and scholarships. Participants have a pretty good track record, and we can happily boast that Rich Helms is only the latest success story from taking the workshop this past February. Heather O’Connor offers her workshop yearly in Durham Region as well as “on demand” for groups and organizations that express interest. Email info@writescape.ca for details.

 

 

The Power of Colour

The Power of Colour

Ruth E. Walker.

St. Patrick’s Day is coming, and we can expect lots of green glitter, shamrocks and dyed beer. It’s a time where just about everybody declares a connection to the Emerald Isle, real or otherwise. On March 17, we are green with envy for anyone who really is Irish. But is it easy being green? Just ask Kermit. Or any seasick passenger.

Colour associations are like gold to the knowledgeable writer and when used in subtle ways, bring added depth to text. Figurative language–using words or expressions that mean something different from the literal interpretation– is a useful skill for all writers. And colour is a power tool that works brilliantly with figurative language. But don’t splash colour willy nilly into your writing. The link between colours and ideas relies on many factors to reach your readers’ imaginations.

Get red for your readers

Think of the colour red. Basic association leads us to all things bloody. Red is life, as in lifeblood. Red is love, beating-heart, romantic love captured in a red Valentine. Red is hot, as in fire. Red is also danger: stop signs and red flags. And it is anger, as in flushed cheeks. And what about those red flushed cheeks? They can mean shame. And arousal. Or the aftermath of a brisk winter walk.

See what is happening here? Red on its own has common associations and it also has branches. Once you throw “people” into the mix, our associations get increasingly complex with lots of room for error and misdirection. So it is up to writers to set the stage for meaning.

Here’s a simple sentence of description:

He hesitated outside the room, his cheeks reddened.

Is “He” embarrassed? Turned on? Frostbitten? Angry? The reader will never know if you haven’t put into place all the right ingredients. And is it necessary to say “reddened”? Why not imply red cheeks and allow the reader to imagine or even experience the colour?

Same colour…different tones

Here are three different takes of the same scene with some tweaking for changing emotions:

Fury:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so hard he was sure he could crush it. She was hiding on the other side. He felt colour ignite the skin of his face. Good. Let his fury be the first and last thing she sees.

 

 

 

 

Arousal:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the round knob so hard he was sure it would catch fire under his touch. She was hiding on the other side. He felt heat rise over his face. Good. Let his passion be the first thing she sees.

Shame:

Paulo hesitated just outside the door, gripping the handle so tight he was sure he could break it and keep him outside forever. She was hiding on the other side. His cheeks burned. Good. Let his shame be the first thing she sees.

Remember: Preparing context  is important. And using imagery to support the emotional context helps guide your reader to understanding.

 

 

A rainbow is global but symbolism is another story

Another part to using colour in your descriptions is to remember colours hold different meanings for different cultures. Western brides would be unlikely to wear red to their wedding. But in many Eastern cultures, red symbolizes the colour of celebration, good fortune and a long life.

That’s why using colours is so dangerous to writers. You need to be clear about what you intend for the colour’s meaning, but subtle enough that you’re not hitting your reader over the head with a hammer. (As an aside, my three examples earlier are exaggerated for effect. I’m sure you could be more subtle than those attempts.)

Christina Wang explores colour in an interesting article for Shutterstock, the stock-photo company: Symbolism of Colour and Colour Meanings Around the World. And you can look further into the whole idea of imagery, symbolism and meaning. Head to the library and discover how symbolism is analyzed in psychology, art, religion and dreams.

There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were

As for me, I’ll be putting on the green this Friday. I can truly claim some Irish lineage, admittedly mixed in with English, Scottish and Norman flavours.

Nonetheless, on St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll be wishing a leprechaun or two might happen by with all the colours of the rainbow to inspire creativity and a quick pen to record it with. Because for writers, that’s a true pot of gold.

 

Did you know:

The luck of the Irish may be with you. There’s still a couple of spots left in our writers’ retreat on April 21 – 23. Join Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker at Emhirst’s Resort for feedback on your manuscript and one-on-one consultation. Enjoy dedicated time to write, the camaraderie of other like-minded folks and inspiring lakeside vistas. All-inclusive means you just need your writing project, jammies and a change of clothes. Writescape takes care of all the rest at Spring Thaw 2017.

The 13,000 Km Workshop

The 13,000 Km Workshop

Gwynn Scheltema

While caring for my post-operative mom in Zimbabwe this winter, I signed up for a creative writing class. Although it was an introductory class, I knew that coming away with just one new skill or “ah ha” moment that moves my writing forward would make the day worthwhile.  Besides, I needed to do something that would get my head (and pen) back into writing.

The facilitator was John Eppel, an award-winning poet and novelist, and newly retired English teacher. I didn’t know his work, and with no Internet connections available to me, I arrived without expectation. There were sixteen of us in the group, seated on dining room chairs gathered in a circle in his living room. We were all ages, and a good mix of men and women. I relaxed. This all felt comfortable and familiar.

In his introduction, I learned that John was primarily a poet, and had been raised in a small mining town not too far from my own home town of Bulawayo. Like me he had been through the Rhodesian civil war of the 60s and 70s, but unlike me, he had remained in Zimbabwe, teaching English at a private school and for South African Universities. He told us that the day would be spent not “learning how to write”, but learning about the power of words. Perfect! I love words. Today I would be a happy word-wallowing hippo.

And the day delivered—in spades. There were many “ah ha” moments. Here’s one about paradox:

“Philosophy gives up at paradox, but that’s where poetry begins.”

Poetry begins? A paradox is a situation, person or thing that seems to combine absurd or contradictory elements that prove to be true. I liked John’s explanation that dual meanings in words allow room for reader interpretation, and the wobble in logic makes the reader stop and think about what is written, even if only at a subconscious level.

He’s right. Take this line from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion.”

….blue is the balsam, water sounds still unfrozen, and the trail is evident…

If water “sounds still” there is no noise, but if it is “still unfrozen” is must be running and therefore making a sound. A paradox, but one for me that now suggests new sounds, perhaps the creak of ice forming, or pop of a bubble trapped in the forming ice.

Image paradox

Now stretch that concept to an image (a cluster of words to which one or more of our senses respond.)

Image paradoxes, like word paradoxes, merge opposites. In the well-loved poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” an image that has always intrigued me is in the line:

…Of easy wind and downy flake.

I realize now that image is a paradox. What is a “downy flake”? “Downy” suggests soft and warm (life), yet “flake” suggests stone-sharp and cold (death). By using opposing words together, the image attempts to evoke a simultaneous experience of living and dying—which, (not coincidentally) is the theme of the whole poem.

Symbol Paradoxes

But John Eppel took it a step further. He introduced me to symbol paradoxes. First he explained: “A symbol is an image with a more fixed connotation than other images.” We all recognize a white dove as a symbol of peace or a red rose as a symbol for romantic love. Symbolic images gain even more power when they are used in an opposing way.”

A unicorn is a symbol of purity and also, paradoxically, of lust. In the play, “The Glass Menagerie”, the glass unicorn represents fragile Laura’s lust for self-absorbed Jim and also her lack of sexual experience. The breaking of the glass unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura’s failed attempt at seduction.

 

Heady stuff for sure, but it fired up our discussion over lunch. We all agreed that it was freeing and motivating. I couldn’t take home the Zimbabwe summer sunshine, but that day exploring paradoxes on the other side of the world travelled home with me. Now, I’m inspired to drag out some of my poems that “aren’t quite there” and see if working in a few paradoxes might make them sing.

 DID YOU KNOW?

Spring Thaw, our upcoming retreat, is the perfect opportunity to play with paradoxes in your writing, and focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors. Join us for three days or five on the shores of Rice Lake for an all-inclusive escape to write.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Noticing

The Art of Noticing

Gwynn Scheltema

Lately I haven’t been writing much. For once I have a valid reason. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially, because of a family crisis, I find myself back at my childhood home in Zimbabwe with little to no time to myself and definitely no emotional energy to be creative.

I decided that I should at least do a bit of journaling, and record what is happening and how I felt about the situation I find myself in, but I’m too close to it right now, and too focused on what needs doing to write even that. My friend and business partner Ruth, in her wisdom, suggested that I just be aware of the five senses while I am here. Store up the smells and sounds and tastes of Africa where my novel is set.

It was a good idea. I had noticed, for instance, that when I arrived in the last week of October the Jacaranda trees were in full and splendid bloom. They only bloom like this for about a week, and if you are lucky enough to witness it, you can find yourself travelling under a canopy of trumpet-shaped lilac blossoms—no green leaves yet, just blossoms— each blossom bunch a nodding head of delicate beauty. Then one gusty wind storm or a thrashing afternoon thundershower and they fall en masse, carpeting the ground in lilac for one glorious day until they are trampled underfoot into a bruised mess. I knew this about Jacarandas. I’d grown up with them. But in my memory, I had one important detail wrong. I always thought this happened in September!

flying-white-antsIt’s also the time for flying white ants. I thought I knew all about them too. After all, as kids we used to catch and cook them on a fire till they were crispy and edible. (Yes, people, the fad move to eating insects is definitely not revolutionary.) What I had never noticed, however, was that once they lost their wings (a natural occurrence) they seek each other out on the ground and form a train of wingless bodies head to toe. To what end, I have yet to discover.

So, I told myself, maybe forget trying to advance the novel for now and concentrate on noticing with a writer’s eye. Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says, “Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

It’s advice I give to participants in my creative get-a-ways at Glentula. It takes time and focus and a willingness to really look and see what really is and not what you think is or should be. There is an art to noticing.

So how can you develop your writer’s eye and learn to really notice?

  1. Practise, practise, practise

cafe-845527_640Whenever you are out and about, pay attention. In cafés, in waiting rooms, at the supermarket or on a lonely country road. Notice with all the senses. I listen in on conversations at Tim Hortons, or between the cashier and the shopper, moms at baseball games and GO train passengers. I notice the words and phrases they use, the topics they discuss and the reactions of those around them.

I often travel by car long distances on the same road and have challenged myself to notice different things on different trips. One trip, I may focus on what grows in ditches. Or what yellow things occur naturally in nature. What birds sit on fences or what a roadkill really looks like. I feel the fabrics in a fabric store or smell the flowers in public gardens. How do you describe the taste of coffee?

  1. Look for incongruitiesleaves-1380761_640

How is the thing you are observing different from other things of its kind? Why is it different? What’s missing? What’s extra? Why are all the kids at the crosswalk wearing coats except one? Why does only one apartment in a high-rise have a balcony flower box? Can you think of a story behind that observation?

  1. The same thing can be different

Microsoft Word - Artist's Book Cover in total.docMy good friend, Ingrid Ruthig taught me an important lesson about observation: the same thing can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

Try describing the same thing at different times of the day, different seasons. Notice what cell phone covers women or young people choose over older men. Don’t just notice a colleague’s scarf, notice how it is tied today versus yesterday. What colour is the asphalt when it rains versus a sunny day? What colour is snow? (it’s seldom white).

  1. Read people

Don’t just look at people in general, look for specifics: what makes them stand out or blend in. What actions and body language do they use to exude confidence or jealousy or nervousness? What can you deduce from how they dress or wear their hair or hats? If a couple looks unhappy, businesslike or best friends, can you identify what made you come to that conclusion? What is it about someone that makes you uneasy or willing to open your heart to them?

  1. Challenge your powers of description

How many ways can you describe something? What is it like? How many different similes can you come up with? How would your characters describe it? My husband and I try to find different names for the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Do you always resort to sense of sight? Do you consider light and temperature, texture and mood?

piet-my-vrou

So what have I noticed today? I’ve noticed the three-note call of the piet-my-vrou bird is the first birdsong of the morning. That the pods of the weeping boer bean tree hang like fruit bats. That the blue-green iridescent loerie bird that flew overhead has red underwings, and the bark of the fever tree is yellow.fever-tree

That my sister’s dachshund dog is so portly that when he sleeps his legs stick out straight like roadkill. That the tortoise in the garden can devour half a watermelon in twenty minutes, and that my mother’s hair is the colour of history: iron, copper, silver and gold.

flower-15249_640And I’m waiting to see if, like the lilac Jacarandas, the red flamboyant trees will lose their blossoms in the storm that is now brewing on the horizon.

What did you notice lately?

Writing Room Worthy

Writing Room Worthy

Noelle Bickle

holding-hands-858005_640Four months after my mother’s death, I vowed her tireless efforts to inspire belief in my dreams and evoke courage in my endeavours would not die with her. As much as I’d always credited her as my biggest cheerleader, I hadn’t fully realized that my mother served as advocate for how I valued myself. She lifted my ego when it wilted—always reminding me that success was in the intention and enthusiasm to make good things happen—in both art and life.

I was determined to honour her by letting go of insecurities and self-doubt, but first I had to alter how I valued myself as a woman and artist. She always encouraged my individuality, creativity and connection with others. She applauded unusual concepts and imaginings. Losing my mother quite literally brought me to my knees, but it took those first four months to understand I was also grieving the loss of her ongoing reassurance.

I needed serious personal and creative recalibration, so I started exploring worth and how it impacts every aspect of a woman’s life. After almost a year of not writing or reading—a self-induced boycott of the fuel that had always fed me—I had a non-fiction book idea that sparked passion in both the intention and enthusiasm to make good things happen, and so it took hold.

An elusive life-write balance

A work of non-fiction was a first for me and a stray from the fiction I spent years practising. I was knee-deep now in reading, researching and workshopping—on worth itself and on the business of writing book proposals. As much as it motivated me, it also overwhelmed. I tried to carve out more hours at night, sandwiched with a short stint of writing in the morning before work. I’d sit at my kitchen table and plug away, but I felt scattered. Notepads landed on every flat space in the house, my kitchen whiteboard filled with workshop concepts alongside grocery lists. I didn’t want to lose my drive but I was starting to feel uninspired.

After a meeting with my writing critique group, one of the members came over for tea. I wanted her opinion on my recently assembled art-gallery-style wall in my bedroom—had I gone too far with the floor-to-ceiling display? I value Jessica’s opinion in many things—but she has super-human powers in organization, and each room in her century home looks like a gorgeous magazine spread.

laundry-basket

We spent just five minutes in my bedroom with few suggestions–not because she didn’t have a laundry list of further ideas, but because Jessica was far more interested in the spare bedroom across the hall. She asked what I used it for, and I sheepishly explained away the baskets of to-be-folded laundry, and a mass of odds and ends stockpiled in the corner.

My excuse—I wasn’t using it for anything else and could quickly shove things in closets if someone were to sleepover. She wasn’t interested in excuses; she was perplexed why I hadn’t utilized the room as a creative space for myself.

I didn’t have a reason. Frankly, I’d never had a creative space to write, and although I’d spent time dreaming of “She-Sheds” or one day owning a home with a grand studio space, I didn’t think to use this or any other spot in my home to carve out as my own, because I didn’t put stock in the fact that I deserved a space of my own.

I had excuses why it wouldn’t work—I might need the room, I didn’t have a writing desk, and I couldn’t afford to buy anything to make a great creative space. Jessica balked, and said if nothing else, throw an old table in there—all a writer really needs—in order to have a spot to write. A place to hide from regular life and to simply write. It was sage advice.

A writing room for under $100

My writing room—as it stands—cost me under $100. It would have cost me nothing, but I envied the floor-to-ceiling chalkboard Jessica had in her writing room, and wanted one too. I decided on whiteboard paint instead, an easy choice more suited to me. I could use a multitude of rainbow-coloured markers, with far less mess than the chalk powder would leave on my floor. The whiteboard paint was $40; I needed two cans. The marker kit was $10. Voila – a fun mind-mapping canvas. Next item, I scavenged an old bedside table from a neighbour on garbage day. Short of tightening the legs which were a bit wobbly, it was a great wood piece. I painted that baby up pretty nice thanks to dollar store paints and examples on Pinterest. Cost me nothing.

20161125_124217-resizeEvery other item in my writing room was already in my house. A 25-year old kitchen table previously stored unassembled in my basement serves as my writing desk. Every piece hanging on the wall, on my desk or a shelf was pulled from other rooms in my home – often hidden or tucked away, not being seen or enjoyed. I tore apart a journal that was filled with inspirational quotes and filled old frames that sat in my closet. I took an old shelf, three bucket-style herb planters that were under my kitchen sink, added some twine with a glue gun and bam—my whiteboard markers had a home.

I didn’t need to make it pretty—I could have had the desk alone—but I like pretty. I also like (almost) free. My room satisfies both. There is something about the space I created for myself—it gives me exactly what I need. Each item gives me joy, calm, or creative zeal.

Constant inspiration

2015-09-28-noelle-her-mom-resizeI have only three photographs in the room—all adorn the mirror which runs the length of my writing desk (placed there so I can keep an eye on myself—one look and I can see if I’m working or playing, focused or distracted—it’s a clever trick, actually). The first photograph is of me and my mother, Norma, laughing. She always told me I was good enough, inspired me to dream big, and laughed at almost everything I said. I glance up at that photo when:

  • I’m deep in doubt and need a boost of confidence to believe in myself
  • I need the strength to just keep swimming
  • I need a helpful reminder to stop excessive late night munching while I write (thanks, Mom…you’re right, sugar only keeps me up later!)

maalik-resizedThe second photograph is of my Maalik. Before he died just this November, my 9-year-old golden retriever spent hours at my feet under my writing desk, or lounged on the bed beside the desk, watching me spin in creative chaos. I would talk aloud as I mind-mapped on the whiteboard, or practised and timed pieces for readings or presentations. He would simply watch attentively and smile on cue. He was my first audience for every piece I ever wrote. He thought anything I wrote or said was brilliant, even when it wasn’t. I glance at his picture when:

  • I need to feel like I made a difference
  • I need calm
  • I need to feel like I do indeed have something worth saying

 

The last photograph is me, aged 4. I’m dolled up in a bright fuchsia kilt my mother brought from a visit back home to England. I’m positioned in front of her rose garden, my stick straight hair curled at the ends—an effort to make me look less unruly for the picture she’d send back home to family. At first glance, I look darling. At second glance, the jig is up. My hand is deep in my pocket, fingers waving out the bottom of the hem as a friendly cross-continent hello to family I’d never met. I’m grinning ear to ear, cheeky thing that I was. But somehow that is what how I endeared myself to my mother. She was that same age when she came across oceans to Canada, a very small girl on a very large boat. She was quiet and serious, intelligent and well behaved, but very timid. I was wild and rambunctious, often naughty and always playful.

20161125-noelle-age-4-resizeAs little girls, we were very different. However, Mom loved books all her life—both as an escape and as a window to the world she lived in. That she passed on to me, an undeniable effort to make her children aware of the enormous impact of words. I can’t remember a time without books and all forms of writing as a main source of information, enlightenment and entertainment. I glance at that photograph when I need to remind myself:

  • that my strengths often come from being a whirling dervish
  • that life is supposed to be fun
  • that going pant-less has its perks

Over a few months, I’ve made little changes to my writing room, but it remains a creative space only—no bills, no school reports, no work outside artistic measures. I enter the room and get right to work. I don’t have to prepare or clear away the overflow of everyday life. When I leave my writing room, I become regular-life me and get to the daily grind. But in that 8×8 room, I find harmony and am inspired to create.

More than a place to work

Though a little disappointed that I didn’t give myself the gift of a creative space in the more than ten years that I’d been writing fiction, it is gratifying that I’ve finally invested in my work and am honouring my artistic self. I take myself and my craft more seriously because of it. I won’t ever land myself in a home again without somewhere to create that is mine and mine alone.

20161125_151622It doesn’t have to look like an office or a studio. I know a writer who literally created a space under her stairs—but it was hers. It doesn’t have to be magazine spread perfect, or be something to boast about. It is less about the space and all about the sanctuary.

Invest in yourself. Give yourself a sacred space to create. Whether you aim to be a published author or a lover who simply writes poetry to your muse. Regardless of whether you aim to be commissioned at an art gallery or someone who fills their own home with paintings rendered on dollar store canvases.

No matter what your creative goal is, don’t wait until you’ve reached what you deem as success to take your craft seriously. Be it a basement, a bedroom, a she-shed, or under the stairs—you are worth making room for.

Did you know:

Noelle is a writer, workshop facilitator, researcher and worth cultivator. She is currently exploring worth and morphing a non-fiction book idea into a women’s movement. Aiming to promote a nationwide surge in the well-being of Canadian women, Worth Cultivating: a women’s movement examines the commonality of women’s struggle to value themselves, and examines how each individual woman can recognize, cultivate and sustain self-worth.

Let’s prepare for a worth-cultivation movement. I guarantee—you are worth it.”  www.worthcultivating.com.

Noelle is represented by the extraordinary Carly Watters, VP and Senior Literary Agent of P.S. Literary Agency.