When your usual source of inspiration has packed up and moved elsewhere or just thinking about sitting down to work on your writing feels more like a chore than a delight, it may be time for you to escape somewhere to write.
Of course, we’d love it if you joined us at our annual writers retreat Spring Thaw this April but there are other options. From renting a cabin in the woods to pitching a tent in the backyard, there are ways to arrange your retreat from the world. No matter your choice, it’s up to you to get inspired once more and put your focus on your work in progress.
Here’s 10 signs that just might be
pointing to your need to get away and write:
1. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are far more interesting than your current work in progress…even if you fooled yourself into thinking you might find inspiration from other writers posting their success stories.
2. When friends or family ask you how your writing is going, you change the subject. Repeatedly.
3. You spend a lot of time looking up recipes to at least be creative somewhere. That soufflé might be amazing but it won’t look great on your bookshelf three years from now. Your book will.
4. Your day job drains every ounce of creativity you once had and even the days off are lost causes. You yearn for vacation time but then remember that it’s booked up with family events.
5. The name of your main character is hard to remember…or the working title of your book…the name of the antagonist…or why you set a science fiction novel at a seaside resort…it’s all so vague now.
6. You have nightmares about winning the Giller Prize where everyone boos and calls you a hack and they take the cheque back. Really? Doesn’t every writer have that nightmare?
7. You yell “plot hole!” repeatedly at the television and then worry your novel is nothing but plot holes.
8. You can no longer imagine your book being published — in fact, you’ve forgotten why you started the darn thing in the first place.
9. The noise level at home is a constant distraction: kids, pets, neighbours, the dishwasher — you name it, there’s no quiet zone to just reflect.
10. You avoid meeting up with other writers to avoid hearing how well it’s going for them. Not that you don’t care, but really, it is hard to take when you’re in a literary sinkhole of nothingness.
Some of these may be a bit tongue-in-cheek but there’s a ring of truth in all of them. We know, because we’ve experienced them in one form or another. That’s why we offer our escapes.
And for 2020, we’ve opened our country properties to writers who want a self-directed or supported writing escape. Choose from a cozy lakeside home in the Northumberland Hills or a traditional riverside cottage in the Haliburton Highlands. Send us an email at email@example.com for more details.
There are probably 110 signs that a writer needs a writing retreat. Add to our list in your comments.
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?
“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.
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.
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 world is richer for its artists, not the least of which are the writers. In every country, indeed in every nook and cranny of Planet Earth, you’ll find storytellers, word spinners and scene makers. For many writers, there are places on the planet that will forever be associated with them. The following list offers you 10 writers with whom place has a connection — whether they wrote in that place, or wrote about that place — the connection is clear.
As with all our 10 on the 10th lists, this one is not complete by any means. But it is, we hope, an interesting list.
1 Havana, Cuba — ERNEST HEMINGWAY; The Nobel Prize winning author wrote seven books during the 30+ years he lived in Cuba. Among them: The Old Man and the Sea; A Moveable Feast; Islands in the Stream. Ten miles east of Havana, his island home, Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm/House), is now a museum and a place to imagine his inspiration.
2 Huron County, Ontario — ALICE MUNRO; Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Munro’s short stories are most often grounded in Huron County, Ontario, Canada. The fall is a lovely time to drive through Huron County and visit Wingham where her childhood home is still standing. Dozens of small towns are scattered throughout the rich farmland and it is the ordinary lives of those ordinary people Munro writes about in the most extraordinary way.
3 London, England — CHARLES DICKENS. Take a literary pub crawl through London Town with Dickens (as portrayed by an actor/tour guide) and glean inspiration and literary tibits. Tourists are invited to visit the public houses and taverns frequented by great writers. They promise you’ll meet Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, T.S. Eliot and others. And support new London writers! (We really liked that last bit.)
4 North Bay, Ontario — GILES BLUNT. Thinly disguised as Algonquin Bay, the detectives in Blunt’s wildly successful crime novels travel streets with familiar names for anyone who knows North Bay. His Detective Cardinal series of books and now a 3-season television series is set (and mostly filmed) in the city perched on the shores of Lake Nipissing, 2 hours north of Algonquin Park. Blunt’s characters are believable and the dynamic between Detective John Cardinal and Detective Lise Delorme adds spice to the rising tension in each mystery. Blunt, also a screenwriter and poet, was born in Windsor, Ontario and raised in North Bay. Lucky for readers, even after he moved away, he recognized how ideal it was for setting a murder mystery there.
5 Georgia, USA — FLANNERY O’CONNOR; The childhood home of O’Connor is in Savannah, the heart of which boasts some of the finest restored urban antebellum mansions. The South is the heart of O’Connor’s stories and she is unflinching in her tales of what some called “Southern Gothic” and even, “grotesque.” O’Connor said: “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” She lived out the last 12 years of her too-short life in Milledgeville, Georgia.
6 Trinidad — RABINDRANATH MAHARAJ; Born and raised in George Village, Tableland, Maharaj came to Canada because he wanted to attend a masters program in creative writing. But he found that the distance from Trinidad gave him a new perspective with which to write his novels and short stories. His award-winning novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, captured the view of Canadian life through the eyes of an immigrant Trinidadian teenager. So while some of Maharaj’s stories and novels are set in the lush tropics of Trinidad, beautifully described so that readers will want to visit, the island flavours even his books set in Canada.
7 Montreal, Quebec — MORDECAI RICHLER with a dash of LEONARD COHEN; Montreal is a city of creatives. Artists, poets and novelists have made this cosmopolitan city their own. Chief among them, Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s best known writers who has left a legacy of literature. Like the vivid energy of his hometown, Richler was never a background player and spoke his mind freely. That same energy was found in his characters and storylines. His award-winning novels have been made into films — The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version — and Richler’s books remain in bookstores today. In 2015, Richler was posthumously made a “citizen of honour” in the city of Montreal and a library in the neighbourhood he portrayed in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was given his name.
8 Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County, Ontario. AL PURDY; In 1957, poet Al Purdy with his wife and father-in-law constructed the now famous A-frame.(Al tells the story in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea.). There he wrote poems about the area published as Poems for All the Annettes . The following year The Cariboo Horses won the first of Al’s Governor General’s Awards. Even while the A-frame was being built, it became a meeting place—for poets, for poetry lovers, for those aspiring to be poets. The list of people who travelled to the A-frame reads like a who’s who of Canadian letters—Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje; Earle Birney, George Bowering, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland, …. The legacy continues through the A-Frame Residency Program.
9 Lakefield, Ontario — MARGARET LAURENCE; One of Canada’s finest writers, Laurence’s novels, short stories and essays were framed by the many places she called home. Born and raised in, a small town well west of Winnipeg, Laurence set her books in Western Canada, Somaliland and Nigeria, Africa. In 1973, she settled permanently in small town Lakefield in the Peterborough/Kawartha Region. On the shores of the Otonobee River, she crafted scenes for her final and brilliant novel The Diviners. The town of Lakefield honours Laurence every July (her birthday month) with a literary festival.
10 Neepawa, Manitoba. MARGARET LAURENCE Yes. That’s two places for one writer and why not? Laurence’s childhood home in Neepawa is a museum dedicated to her and her writing. Purchased the year before her death, Margaret Laurence House hosts writers’ workshops and book launches. As an inspiring mentor to several young writers, Margaret would surely be pleased to know she continues to encourage writers to explore their craft.
For writers, serendipity, curiosity and a dash of chutzpah will uncover treasures: a great story or fascinating characters. Recognizing that moment and then acting on it can make all the difference.
A recent trip to meet colleagues for lunch gave Gwynn and me a chance for a leisurely stroll up Bay Street in Toronto. Spring was everywhere. Warm air and gentle sunshine. Pedestrians wore the slightly bemused smiles of people waking after a long and lingering winter.
And all along the sidewalk, cement planters outside of massive glass-walled corporate towers were a riot of spring blooms.
Gwynn was in photo op heaven, snapping pictures of especially vibrant flowers.
Purple pansies. Heady-scented hyacinths. Daffodils dancing
in the breeze. And tulips.
Oh my, the tulips. Cupped heads reaching up, announcing the
season, green spikes of leaves catching the sunlight. Red. Pink. White. Yellow.
And at one especially beautiful set of flower-rich planters, white tulips with the red streaks. “Canada 150 tulips,” I called to Gwynn. I so wanted to have those tulips in 2016 to plant for 2017 and celebrate our country’s sesquicentennial. But they sold out so quickly, I missed the chance.
I noticed a woman working on one of the planters, a large plastic
garbage bin next to her and her hands busy yanking out any tulips that were
drooping or beginning to widen their blooms. I couldn’t believe that they were
replacing the tulips already. We had a long way to go before spring would give
way to summer-stocked planters.
Gwynn and I walked over to her and, after a short
conversation, learned that any spring flowers close to the end of their bloom
(yes, tulips have a fairly short bloom time) would be removed. And if they
drooped, they were doomed.
“What happens to the bulbs?” I asked, eyeing the garbage bin nearly full of bulbs, leaves and flower heads.
For this office tower, garden companies are contracted to fill the planters. Building staff — like this woman — maintain the planters, removing any tulips and bulbs. The bulbs? “Compost,” she said. “Garbage.”
Gwynn and I left there, continuing our walk to lunch.
And our pockets and purses? Full of bulbs.
The woman thought were nuts but happily let us pick up
half-a-dozen bulbs each and squirrel them away in our purses. And I nabbed a
solitary Canada 150 tulip to decorate our lunch table.
From bulbs to books
If we had just walked away, empty-handed, regrets would have followed me home. Regrets are a part of life but they should be the exception. How many times have you regretted something you should have captured in your writing?
Waking from a dream, full of a story that vanishes like
wisps of clouds by the time you brush your teeth, grab a quick yogurt, pour
your coffee and sit at your computer.
Listening in on a fascinating conversation at a bus stop,
box office line-up or café and promising yourself to write it down as soon as
you get home but life was busy as you walked through the door and by the time
you sit at your computer hours later, those words are now jumbled snatches that
lost their energy.
Visiting a new place — a different city, a trip to the country, a historic building — any opportunity to tickle your muse and fire up your creative juices, can be gold to a writer. And that gold can crumble like pyrite if ignored–or turn into platinum if the writer mixes serendipity with curiosity and a dash of chutzpah. (I’m still toying with a story idea about the Roman gladiator who left behind graffiti on the Colosseum.)
Serendipity: The timing of the lights at the corner of Bay and Front Streets crossed us over to the east side of Bay. It’s the shady side before noon and Gwynn prefers the sunny side. But the lights ignored her preference.
Curiosity: Gwynn and I could have simply walked past that woman, assuming the tulip bulbs were destined to be stored dry and cool and replanted in the fall. But I wanted to know why she was taking still blooming tulips from the planter.
Chutzpah: I asked if the bulbs were garbage, could we take a few? (note: for me, this is chutzpah. For others, this might have been a no-brainer. But I’m shy by nature and pushed myself to open my mouth and ask.)
Gwynn and I both love gardening. Gwynn’s lakeside property is a gorgeous mix of flowers, forest and winding walkways. And I’m slowly rehabilitating a former urban backyard dumping ground into a perennial pleasure. We share plants and both our gardens will boast Canada 150 tulips next year (as long as the squirrels can be convinced to leave them alone.)
Bonus result for this writer: I have a character and story cooking in my mind. She’s a maintenance worker, spending her days in the shadows of a 75-story office tower, picking up trash from thoughtless passersby and trimming plants that almost no one notices. She pays her rent on her two-room west-end basement apartment by working weekends and midnights cleaning inside those tower offices. She’s tired all the time. But if she works hard and saves enough money, she can hire an immigration lawyer to help her bring her three children to Canada.
And then the lawyer disappears with all her money…
Inspiration for a writer can arrive at the most inconvenient times. Nonetheless, it’s good to answer the call of the muse. Even if that call comes via another call that is less than charming.
A recent 7 a.m. long distance phone call woke me with that moment of panic. Was someone ill? Did I forget that I was supposed to be somewhere? And why in heaven’s name does the phone have to play Ride of the Valkyries? [note to self: consider changing the ring tone.]
I managed an almost-awake hello and received the bad news. My credit card had been compromised. It had been used on two large online purchases, and did I authorize them?
Just three days earlier at a party, a good friend told me about her credit card being used for $1300 US-worth of Marriott hotel stays and fine dining. Which, of course, she hadn’t been at either hotel or restaurant…or in the US for that matter. Fortunately, she didn’t have to pay for the theft, just the inconvenience of waiting for a replacement card.
So it took me a few seconds to realize what I was dealing with.
Thinking is good
My logical side kicked in and I ticked off the boxes of How Stupid Do They Think I Am:
Box Number One: The call was a recording. A woman’s serious tones, in an vaguely English-accented voice, advised me “Your credit card has been used recently in two large purchases online. Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollars on Amazon and a one-thousand-two-hundred-dollars on eBay.” A recorded call. Seriously?
Box Number Two: The call didn’t identify the credit card company.
Box Number Three: Nor was my name used (um…it was a recording. Duh.)
Box Number Four: The detail provided on the amounts and places of purchase was in stark contrast to the lack of identifying info (see Box Two and Three.) This is the genius method of sounding legit whilst scamming.
Box Number Five: I was to “press 1 now” if I hadn’t made those purchases. By now, the caller’s tone was downright threatening. Customer Service 101 was clearly not in her background.
Bonus Box Number Six: I took the call at the cottage. My bank and credit card contact info is not my cottage number.
Thank goodness I have a logical side. I hung up. But as a writer, now my brain is working overtime.
Inspiration is really good
Who is this woman? Did she know she was making a recording that would bilk lots of ordinary folks out of money? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Does she know credit card companies will cover these sorts of losses so she thinks she is only scamming the corporations?
Is her vaguely plummy accent real or does she have a range of accents she pulls out for various countries or regions? That accent might not do as well in other English-speaking countries. Does she have a lovely southern drawl for US calls south of the Mason-Dixon Line?
Where was she when she made that recording? In a sound studio between music recording sessions? Or a dingy backroom in some illegal call centre in southeast Asia or downtown Toronto?
And what about the rest of her life? Was this a harmless one-off that somehow ends up costing her in the future? Was she tricked into this recording, told it was an audition for computer voice in an upcoming film? And then later on, in an audition for a real film, the casting director recognizes her voice as the one that scammed him a few years ago and he vows revenge…
See? One inconvenient and potentially disruptive phone call, and my imagination is off to the races.
Before you think this is one crazy idea, take a look at Will Ferguson‘s unsettling but terrific novel 419, a deep dive into the world of the insidious Nigerian Internet scams, and the people who, worlds apart, are drawn into the trap of a better future. You remember those emails…”Sir or Madam, I am the son of an exiled Saudi prince. I need your help in getting my late father’s treasure and promise you 20% of the millions hidden in Swiss bank accounts…”
Combining thinking & inspiration is best
My 7 a.m. cottage phone call proves that my muse is alive and well, even if not conveniently timed. It confirms I possess a vital skill that I employ as a writer and an editor: Logic. And logic drives all narrative arcs. From science fiction or fantasy to police procedural mysteries, logic forms the base of all the story elements: plot, conflict(s), character motivation and behaviour, setting, and resolution.
That last one, resolution, is the place that many writers lose the thread of logic. Have you ever read a good book only to arrive at the end and be confused or disappointed by how things are wrapped up? The ending just isn’t logical. Maybe there was nothing in the preceding pages that set up that ending. Or maybe the author thought “Surprise!” was a neat way to end.
Logic works in real life. So it has to work in your writing. If it’s logical that your character would give up their life’s work as an astrophysicist to become a hermit on the mountain top, you better give us something in the story that supports that change.
If it’s snowing heavily in the beginning of the chapter, the characters better have their coats, hats and boots on as they squint into the flakes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t have the cop showing up on his motorcycle at the end of the chapter. Are there even snow tires for a motorcycle. [note: research is an important step to ensuring logical writing.]
Logic in writing. Use it. Because if you don’t, we will notice.
Writescape workshops help writers focus on the important elements of story, including logical plots and characters with motivation and behaviour that makes sense.
Why is February 6 an important date? For James II of England/James VII of Scotland, this is the day in 1685, he becomes king upon the death of his bother Charles II. In ancient Pompeii, AD 60 to be precise, a bit of wall graffiti shows February 6 as the earliest date the day of the week is known: Sunday apparently, though it would be Wednesday using our calendar. And for British women over the age of 30, this day in 1918 gave them the vote. At last, some women were considered to be adults…
From facts to inspiration
I’ve never paid attention to this particular date, February 6, and many other days that pass me by, year after year. But I got to thinking about how writers and other artists can find inspiration and ideas by checking out a day here or there.
Right now, I’m thinking that my friend and author of historical novels, Cryssa Bazos, would be able to tell me what inspired her to write about 17th century England. Perhaps she was just Googling dates when all the intrigue, civil war and passions of that time caught her attention.
And Pompeii? The place that captured the people and places of the ancient city, buried beneath a mountain of volcanic ash, is rich with high-tension moments. Unable to escape, families, friends and strangers succumbed to the poisonous gasses and then were covered with ash in their desperate last seconds, frozen with an arm extended in fear or draped around a loved one to protect one last time.
It was so sudden that tables were set with food, prepared for a meal never eaten.
Archeologists unearthed a time capsule, including that February 6 day-of-the-week discovery. And for writers, there’s been no end to the stories imagined by the vignettes revealed.
Thinking about British women’s right to vote February 6, 1918, I was reminded how hard won our right to vote is in Canada. Not so very long ago, it was meted out, inch by excruciating inch, province by province, until Canadian women finally got the right to vote federally on May 24 1918.
Of course, there were exceptions. And there were restrictions. You had to be 21 or older, and not a Status Indian or Inuit woman (or man, for that matter.) And restrictions applied to anyone disenfranchised provincially for reasons of race. Thus, Japanese, Chinese and South Asians in B.C. and Chinese in Saskatchewan were kept from voting.
As a writer, this rabbit hole of research got me thinking.
I’m driven by character, and I try to imagine what the power to vote might have meant to a woman who, on May 23, 1918, couldn’t vote.
I’ll call her Edith.
And what it meant to a woman who, on May 24, 1918, still couldn’t vote.
I’ll call her Miko.
Consider the opportunities for tension if I put these two women in the same house. A Japanese immigrant, Miko is a cook in a boarding house. She is 48 and widowed. Her only child, her son, died fighting in the Great War. Edith’s mother owns the boarding house, and 25-year-old Edith joined the women’s suffrage movement with exuberance. She doesn’t understand why Miko is so quiet on this day because it is a day to celebrate. Whatever is the matter with Miko?
From character to plot. And all because of a date.
So, what about you? Did any of this tickle your Muse? Have you ever checked out an innocuous date and discovered a treasure trove that inspired you to release your Muse and take you on a journey to people or places you’d never thought about before?
Launched in 2018 as a year-long celebration of our 10th anniversary, this monthly post proved so popular that we’re keeping it going. Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Movies. Film. The cinema. The flickers…or flicks as they became known. Since 1895, the art of filmmaking has left a legacy of profound movie moments. For nearly 125 years, audiences have lost themselves in the stories unfolding on theatre screens. While the way we watch movies has changed — reclining and wired-for-motion seats in state-of-the-art theatres to surround sound in homes with 75″ television screens and Netflix at the ready. What hasn’t changed is the importance of a compellling story to create excellence in film.
Yes. Of course. Some “blockbuster” films are more about sound and fury than a believeable plot and characters. At a recent screening of “Aquaman,” Writescape’s Ruth Walker almost always knew the next plot twist or line of dialogue before it was voiced. “It was a fun movie with great visual effects,” she said. “But so predictable.”
Nonetheless, in our first 10 on the 10th for 2019, we’ve come up with an admittedly arbitrary list of movies that are useful to explore and perhaps will help you find some inspiration to be completely unpredictable.
#1 I Remember Mama— a 1948 movie about a young aspiring writer who discovers her “ordinary childhood” as a Norwegian immigrant in 1900 San Francisco is actual gold for her stories. Memoirists, be inspired because despite a dose of sentimentality, there is also a frankness in this movie that surprises. All memoir is strongest when it tells the truth. The movie is based on the stories of Kathryn Forbes which she based on her own Norwegian-born grandmother’s life in early twentieth century San Francisco. Real life is the well of inspiration for writers everywhere.
#2 Adaptation written by Charlie Kaufman who is also, coincidentally, the lead character played by Nicolas Cage — a funny and unsettling 2002 film about a screenwriter failing at adapting a novel for film and his overshadowing, successful twin. Twists. Identity crises. Writerly angst. More twists. Confusion. Mayhem. In fact, many writers will recognize this as just another day in the life. Is this Kaufman’s memoir? Sort of. For the screenwriters among you, here’s a link to the screenplay on Stephen Follows’ website.
# 3 Sense and Sensibility 1995 Ang Lee version for a film adaptation of a timeless plot. All of Jane Austen’s books make for terrific film and television series but this is an excellent example of subplot doing brilliant service to the main plot. Austen wisely set the subplot with the main character’s sister and made these sisters different in almost every regard. The simple main plot of girl falls for unattainable boy needs the heightened tension of girl’s sister falls for falsely attainable boy while one true love watches in agony from the sidelines. The standard romance plot in Austen’s hands becomes a look at social status and, in particular, women’s power (or lack thereof) in the early nineteenth century England. A deceptively simple plot with a potent punch.
#4 Pan’s Labyrinth — this visually stunning and mood-rich 2006 film set in 1944 Fascist Spain was written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Part fairy tale and part historical film, this Spanish-language movie blends reality and fantasy so well that belief in the mythical creatures is as strong as in the heroic characters. Why should you see it? Del Toro worked from his 20-year journal notes of ideas and concepts to carve out a screenplay that feels like an ancient parable told long ago. He had the whole screenplay in his head before he wrote a single word of it. And bonus trivia for all writers: he wrote the English subtitles because he was disappointed with the subtitle work on his earlier movies. Clearly, a writer who is dedicated to his craft, and who cares about his audience and conveying his story to them.
#5 Dinner at Eight — a clever, star-studded 1933 comedy/drama. The whole complex plot revolves around a high-society dinner party organized by a wife to help her husband’s business dealings and all the problems in the hours before: Suicides, business failures, affairs, sneaky backroom deals and lack of a single man to balance the table setting. Nonetheless, Mrs. Jordan’s dinner gets served precisely at eight. The “over-acting” of the age is a fabulous metaphor for when stereotypical characters can be successful because they carry a message: pretense vs reality. No one is who they pretend to be. The writing is darn good as well, adapted from a Broadway play.
#6 Julie and Julia – 2009 “blogger” story based on the real-life Julie who has a blog in which she will make a Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. We get Julia Child’s history as well, as Julie’s life takes twists and turns she didn’t expect. Julia refused to acknowledge the Julie blog which adds another rich layer to the background of the story. A useful examination of writing two POV characters and ways to create thematic connections between two separate stories. In real life: Julie and Julia never met and they don’t in this movie, either. Yet we suspect they could have been friends.
#7Run Lola Run— a 1997 German thriller written and directed by Tom Tykwer. It’s a simple plot: Red-head Lola has 20 minutes to get 100,000 Deutsche Marks to her boyfriend Manni or he’ll rob a store to get the money to pay back the mob. Much of the movie is about Lola running. And running. And, yes, running. But it is a clever tale, told with three different endings. Every action and interaction Lola has the first time she tries to save Manni shows up in the next two endings. Like the butterfly effect, a simple pause not taken or decision delayed has consquences. And through each iteration, there are important constants that anchor the themes of free will and fate. Take note of the “blind woman” character and her pivotal role: is this fate for Lola or is she being given the chance to, at last, get it right?
#8 The Princess Bride— This 1987 classic film’s screenplay was adapted by the novel’s writer, William Goldman. Directed by Rob Reiner, the movie preserves many of the elements that make the novel a delight to read. Ironic. Self-aware. Fantastical. Romantic. Adventurous. And rich in life lessons, including: There is such a thing as Mostly Dead. Revenge can’t give us back what we’ve lost. And inconceivable is a word that can be overused and, occasionally, misused. The Princess Bride is a story of True Love, framed by a grandfather reading the book to his ill grandson. It honours the gift of imagination and delights in playing with the tropes of fairy tale and fable, just as the novel continues to do for readers since its 1973 publication date.
#9 Misery – a 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 1987 novel, the movie was directed by Rob Reiner. And the screenplay adaptation was written by William Goldman. Despite that successful pairing for The Princess Bride, there is little humour in this movie but plenty of irony. And really, it’s about a best-selling novelist, so already it has a hook for any writer. The movie is true to the novel with few exceptions. Given that many of Stephen King’s novels and novellas have been made into movies, it’s interesting to note that this is the only one to have garnered an Academy Award. Actor Kathy Bates embodies the obsessed fan Annie Wilkes and deserved that award. King structures well-paced plots and develops engaging characters that translate well onto the screen. However, this is a psychological horror film so it’s not for everyone. But with a novelist as our protagonist and a crazed reader as our antagonist, it comes close to the writerly bone. Perhaps having a Number One Fan is not always something to strive for.
#10Moonlight— a 2016 coming-of-age film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Just like Del Toro, this movie’s writer and director lovingly crafts an evocation of time and place that is both highly specific and broadly universal. As writers, we strive to create characters and storylines that resonate with readers. Moonlight manages that because it is unflinching in giving us flawed characters with rich layers of humanity. At its heart, the storyline explores the outsider’s journey: a quest to discover who he is and embody that person. It takes the standard 3-act structure to heart: each act, or chapter of the film, is a slice in the life of a boy who becomes a teen and eventually, in the third act, an adult. There’s a lot of learn even from the film techniques of Jenkins, for example, changing the colour tone and palette of each act to echo the time in which it occurs and the emotional energy of our lead character.
As writers, we need to be aware of tone and palette choices in our stories. As we gain ability of that technique, it will transfer into emotional resonance every time we want it to occur in our writing.
More on that subject another time.
This list of movies for writers is by no means exhaustive. What movies do you think writers should put on their “must watch” list?
A writer—any good writer—has certain gifts and qualities that should serve them well away from their works in progress. But recently, I was reminded that those gifts can only show up if they are called on to do so. When we let assumptions take over and when our imaginations are dulled, it won’t matter how creative our thinking is. We’ll be as clueless as the next guy.
It all started with the dishwasher. We’ve gone two years without a working dishwasher and when recently offered a gently used one, we said yes. It’s nice to have one when there’s a lot of company and a lot of dishes, I reasoned.
Our lovely gift was easily installed and the first run through was a total success. Sparkling clean dishes and I didn’t need to don rubber gloves.
Two days later, we ran it again. Once again, the dishes were sparkling clean. But the nearly 1/4 cup of water on the floor was a sign our free dishwasher might be a bit of a lemon.
Now here’s where the writer in me should have given this a lot more consideration. Writers are supposed to look closely at things, to puzzle out mysteries and consider optional scenarios. Many of us suffer from the ” What if” syndrome. We ask questions. We do it all the time for our characters and plots. So, logically, we should do it in life.
But the writer in me jumped ship as I stared at the small puddle in front of our dishwasher.
I called the installer. It would be a few days before he could come back out to look at it, so we waited. Meanwhile, we worried. How much would the repair cost? Could it even be repaired? Was this a huge mistake, taking on a used dishwasher?
Asking yourself the right questions
It was my husband who first broached the optional scenario. Maybe it was the ice cubes.
The evening of the water leak, he’d dropped a tray of ice cubes onto the kitchen floor. He thought he’d got them all, but in retrospect he wondered if he missed a couple under the cupboard. Beside the dishwasher, in fact.
And here’s where my writer-brain finally kicked in. If this leak was from the dishwasher, why had it only been clean water? Cold clean water, in fact. If the gasket was faulty on the door in just one corner, it still would have been faulty during the whole cycle and not just the rinse. But there’d been no soapy residue.
No. The more logical culprit had been a couple of wayward ice cubes tucked up next to the bottom right corner of the dishwasher. And there they melted. And there they waited for me to jump to conclusions.
Hand slap to the forehead
I ran the dishwasher again. No leak. I called and cancelled the service call. No invoice to pay.
I’ve used the dishwasher two times since the ice cube hypothesis and not a drop of water on the floor. The dishwasher is fine. It’s my brain that needs some work.
Assumptions can be the bane of any writer’s life, especially when they filter into our writing. It’s the place stereotypes lurk, the home of As You Know, Bob moments and the heartbeat of a complete lack of surprise in our stories.
It is exactly what you do not want your reader to experience. Ho-hum…
And writer, here’s the thing to remember: if you can avoid assumptions in other areas of your life, it can save you some angst and expensive service calls.
By the way, did you take a close look at the picture at the top of this post? Did you assume he was a writer, sitting on that stump? He’s actually an artist sketching in the forest. Give yourself ten points if you thought he was an artist. Otherwise, guess you’ll have to keep working on looking closer at things.
Let’s end with a wish for you all to have a lovely holiday season and all the best for an inspired new year.
Two-time Governor General Award winner, author of 7 books and our delightful guest author at our 2015 fall retreat, Caroline Pignat shares an epiphany on her creative process. As anyone who was at that retreat can tell you, Caroline was pure inspiration and what she has to say as our guest blogger continues to inspire:
A few years ago, I started collecting acorns on my morning walks. It became a thing to find that perfect seed: that cute little nut capped in its tiny beret. As a kid, I always loved acorns: the look of them, the weight of them, the wonder of holding the promise of an oak in my palm.
Acorns, to me, were like ideas, so full of possibility. I fancied myself some kind of modern mystic (read: hoarding squirrel) as I collected them in the jar on my desk. They were the perfect metaphor for my creative potential. Still, like most ideas found and treasured as I walked, these little seeds were soon forgotten in the busyness of my days.
Until the maggots
“Umm…why do you have a jar of maggots on your desk?” my young niece asked, in a mix of wonder and disgust. Sure enough, she was right. My poetic potential had become infiltrated with a mass of wriggling, white worms.
On my desk!
The horror! I wish I could have given her some inspired response. It’s a science experiment? Novel research? Pets? A snack? Any one of those answers would have been better, I suppose, than admitting that all this time, I did not see what was wriggling before my eyes.
With great dismay and even greater heebie-jeebies, I tossed the lot into the woods behind our house. So much for my profound metaphor.
But now that I think of it, my little acorns taught me another truth. Ideas, like seeds, are not meant to be hoarded. Sure, there is something comforting in filling files and notebooks with ‘what ifs’, plots, and projects. I sure feel productive squirrelling ideas between the covers of my journal.
But then… what?
I have to actually do something with that seed. That creation, invention, process, product, insight, voice — that inspiration — whatever it is, I have to let it go.
Why is that so difficult?
Maybe it’s because I like feeling the weight of its potential in my pocket. I could plant it here. I could plant it there. This could be the next big thing. That sense of could-ness makes me feel all powerful. In seed form, that idea doesn’t have to face the axe of rejection or ridicule. In seed form, perfection is still possible and so I like to hold on to it just a little longer.
But as I learned, nothing good comes from hoarding ideas — and that’s the cold, wriggling truth.
Sowing that idea takes courage. The courage of letting go. The courage to be patient and to trust in hidden growth, when all I see is dirt. Anxiety and doubt threaten to choke all hope, especially during those times when it feels like all I am growing is impatient.
Planting more seeds
And here’s another thing my acorn taught me: I’m an idiot if I think by will or worry I can make it grow any faster or become what it isn’t. I’m finally coming to realize that there is a natural process, cycles and seasons to my creative self. Just as there is a natural process for every seed of an idea.
Of course, I wish each one will sprout into a mighty oak, but the truth is many will never quite get their moment in the sun. Some will languish in the shadow of someone else’s great idea. And more than I’d like to admit, are just duds destined to rot away.
But, you know what? I’m finally okay with that. I’m starting to realize that even the duds serve a purpose. Often they make the fertile ground for a new premise to flourish.
So to you, maggots, who wriggled your way into my writer’s block and opened my horrified eyes — thank you, I think. Thanks for helping me learn to seek, sow, and let it go knowing there are always more acorns waiting on the path ahead.
About our guest blogger:
Caroline Pignat is a teacher, a two-time Governor General’s Award winner, and a best-selling author of seven novels, including Egghead and Shooter. Known for her lyrical style and varied forms, Pignat explores the cycles and seasons of life through acrostic poems in her latest release and first picture book, Poetree.
She has written teachers guides for many books including her own novels, Egghead, Greener Grass, and The Gospel Truth. In her upcoming Poetree Activity Guide, Pignat offers resources for nature journalling and poetry with students. Links to these free downloads at www.carolinepignat.com
Writescape was delighted to host Caroline as our guest author at Turning Leaves 2015. She brought her excellent workshop skills and generous spirit to the writers on retreat with us. This year’s retreat is November 2- 4; there are still a few spots left to join guest author Andrew Pyper and Writescape for another inspiring writers’ weekend.
Wasn’t it just the other day that all the retail signs announced: Get Ready for Summer!
I just blinked and now what do they say? Get Ready for School!
Once I got over depressing thoughts of our vanishing summer, it got me thinking. Some years back (many years, in fact) I decided it was time to return to school. A high school dropout, I’d left the workforce and a developing career in the human resource profession to stay home with my young family. Getting back into the H.R. game would be tough without a university degree; a sociology or psychology major would be best, I thought.
But I was a bit scared so decided to at least start with something I really liked. English. Books are good. And reading. And talking about books…about reading books…books…
Fast-forward a couple of dozen courses later and somewhat longer years of evening and summer classes at Trent University, Durham Region Campus, and I had my degree. And no, not sociology or psychology.
English. And darn-near a minor in Cultural Studies. Even better: I graduated on the Dean’s List.
What I Learned in School
Study what you enjoy. And be open to stepping beyond what you know you’ll enjoy.
I took an Introduction to Anthropology. In the course catalogue, it all sounded a bit “sciency” but a lot of it focused on the past, so, because I like history, I risked it and I loved it. I even considered changing my major.
During the section with a biology focus, I held a plaster cast finger bone of the famous “Lucy”, Australopethicus afarensis. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, this hominid’s skeleton is about 3.2 million years old. It blew my mind and created a connection that inspired a thrice-published poem, Lucy’s Bones from Afar.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the next section on archaeology was great grounding for my final course before graduation on Greek and Roman Mythology. And from that course, I found my way to a series of poems and flash fiction, powerful characters and a novel that continues to simmer on the back burner.
Suffice to say that just one course outside of my English Literature comfort zone affected my muse, inspiring characters, poems, themes and plots in much of my future writing. I didn’t stop with Anthropology 101: Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Ancient History and yes, even a sociology course or two peppered my learning. By the time I graduated, I’d explored far beyond Shakespeare and sonnets.
Continuing that Education
I’m not suggesting that writers need university courses for success. That choice worked out well for me but not because I started out thinking about a career in literature. And it isn’t the only choice that had a profound impact on my writing.
Over the years, I’ve taken more than one writers’ workshop that inspired new and exciting work from me. I had mentors that gave me new perspectives. And there are many books on writing that took my craft on deep and engaging journeys.
Learning for all of us is on offer from a multitude of options: mentoring, workshops, private retreats, resource books, conferences, and so on. But not all conferences or workshops need to be about “writing.” And not all resource books should follow a familiar or safe path.
Some stretching into the unknown can help you reach new heights. It certainly did for me.