Uncomfortable Creativity

Uncomfortable Creativity

Ruth E. Walker

Ever been to camp in late September? Weather notwithstanding, (cold and wet) it is a unique experience to be at with 400 student campers. But this is not a post about camp. It is about our comfort zones and what happens when we shift outside of them.

I’ve been coming to the Durham District School Board’s Integrated Arts Camp (DIAC) fairly steadily since 2008. I teach a creative writing elective and always love being there, immersed in the high energy of young creatives. But when both 2020 and 2021 were cancelled, I’d pretty much decided that it was time for a younger person to take over.

So when the camp director sent me an email to see if I would return for 2022, I was fully prepared to say “no” and suggest a couple of other writers to take my place. However, it was like being possessed. I didn’t say “no”; I said “maybe.”

“Maybe” leaves doors open

Long story short, here I am, ready willing and able to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in a dining hall full of noise: laughter, shouts, wooden benches scraping wooden floors, Melmac dishware (look it up if you haven’t had the “pleasure”) clattering across long wooden tables, rain splattering against the wall of windows, dirt and bits of gravel gracing the floors…you get the picture.

So, this is something I’m used to, having been here many times before. And working with young students, I’m used to that though the new schedule means I had to alter my teaching plan (which I generally do, anyways.)

What I am NOT used to is teaching the Song Writing elective. When I saw that on my schedule, I panicked. I am a poet. I write short stories. Novels. I do not write songs because I do not sing and I do not play an instrument. Clarinet in Junior Band does not really count at this stage. And, sure, I loved choir because I could mouth the words. I do love to sing…in private. It’s a healthy practice for lungs and heart. And I love music – pretty much all kinds of music, from opera to blues.

But song writing? Nope.

Trouble is, kids were already signed up.

Commitment via contract

I spoke with my boss, the camp director. Explained the issue. Was prepared to step aside and call up a replacement who could handle both song writing and creative writing. Thanked him for having such faith in my ability but explained I’d fall pretty darn short.

He came up with a solution: a teacher who does know about song writing, who does play an instrument. I will tag team teach with him. And I’ll work with the students on creative writing, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, hooks, inspiration, using the five senses – all the things I share in my other class but with music as a full partner in the process.

Am I terrified, sitting in the camp lounge, writing this post for the coming Wednesday? Yes. Yes I am. But also energized, excited and curious. I’m ready to learn a lot – far more than my feeble research on the subject has taught me.

And our first day did not disappoint. Jeff is a terrific teacher – engaging and knowledgeable and, most importantly, knows how to make a safe and encouraging space for the mix of students (Grades 7 through to 12) and their range of abilities.

I’ll support his program with creative writing exercises. And, along the way, I’ll have a much better handle on the process of song writing. It’s a true gift and I’m delighted to receive it.

Saying yes

In my writing life, I’ve had lots of opportunities to say no. But every time I’ve taken the chance and said, “Yes!”, wonderful things happened. I learned. I stretched my skills. I failed (such a good thing to happen, truly) and I succeeded.

I am, at heart, an introvert who fakes extrovert pretty well. Stepping outside my comfort zone has generally meant overcoming fears and insecurities. Looking around at all these young campers, some picking up an instrument for the first time or stepping out alone onto a stage or sketching a portrait that others can see – these young people are my role models.

When my writing students put pen to paper, I tell them “Your words, your way.” And as we progress and they sometimes read their words aloud, I encourage them to “own your words.” It’s all a journey, I remind them, and we’re on it together.

That’s all I need to remind myself to stretch. Who knows, maybe this old writer will write a song or two. I’ll leave it to others to bring the music to my words, which I will only sing in private. Until, one day, I just might sing in public. One more comfort zone barrier pulled down? Maybe.

Put it on Repeat

Put it on Repeat

Ruth E. Walker

It’s Groundhog Day and this morning Wiarton Willie or Punxsutawney Phil will have divined our weather future. Early spring. Late spring. It’s the same thing every year. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

If you know the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day”, you’ve seen Bill’s hapless weatherman Phil Connors relive the same miserable day, trapped in a time loop he can’t escape – at least, not until he learns some essential life lessons: namely, what it is to be a true human being.

It’s a funny movie with some serious undertones. Phil is an unlikeable narcissist, lacking in compassion and empathy. But his blinders are lifted, through countless February 2nds, again and again, until he finally becomes the person he should have been all along.

The power of repetition              

Skilled writers and especially poets are well-familiar with the repetition tool. Sounds, words, images reappear to make connections, to emphasize or to treat the ear to an echo.

John Milton’s massive poem Paradise Lost has nearly 11,000 lines but the lines he gives to Lucifer ruminating on his kingdom in Hell are effective (and often quoted) repetitions:

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Milton repeats this idea later in the stanza, underscoring the Devil’s motivation:

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Lines, stanzas and even separate poems reach out to one another. Even repetition in titles creates connecting threads (Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and the titles of many novels that are part of a series — Harry Potter, for example.)

There are many forms of literary repetition. Google will take you from “7 Types of Repetition” to “25 Literary Techniques of Repetition”, such as alliteration, assonance, negative positive restatement, parallelism, chiasmus – many of them sounding like weird medical conditions.

Whatever the term, repetition in all writing is a power tool. And as with all power tools, caution should be used.

Hammer or nail?

Description often needs a form of repetition to become clear to a reader. But writers can get tripped up when they go from nailing in another foundation board to set a scene or develop a character, to hitting the reader on the head with a hammer of unnecessary repetition.

For example:

               The child’s blue eyes were the colour of the sea, ever changing with the light and shadows.

That’s a lovely image, comparing eyes to the sea. If the child’s eye colour was significant to either the plot or character(s), that image could reappear at key points in the story. But a writer needs to make choices on how and when to repeat an image so that the reader doesn’t roll their eyes and mutter “I know, I know – eyes the colour of the sea – get on with it already…”

Rarely do you want an exact repetition.

“Look dear, the child’s blue eyes are the colour of the sea!”

“Yes my love, and did you notice how they change in light and shadow?”


But a wise writer can play with an image to craft echoes of ideas and add richness to a story.

“I took the stroller out to the boardwalk this morning. When the little one woke and sat up, the strangest thing happened. Just beyond the reef, a whale breached and she laughed. But when I looked at her, she had tears in her eyes. Remarkable.” He paused and glanced away. “And that laugh – at first, I thought I was hearing a dolphin. But it was her. The child.”

Press “repeat” in your story or hit the “delete” button?

Look for repetition in your own writing. Take a close look at narrative scenes, seek out descriptive words ask yourself the following:

  • Does this repetition have a purpose? Are you emphasizing for a reason?
  • If so, is it necessary here? Would it have more impact elsewhere in the story?

Now, do the same in action scenes.

  • Is the repetition adding to rising tension or is it getting in the way?
  • Would it be better to have it later or earlier in the story?

And finally, look closely at dialogue. Repetition in dialogue may relate to the way a character speaks, such as dialect or an idiosyncratic phrase or word (“oy!” or “Well now,…”) Or it may be a hammer, with characters essentially giving the same information that the reader already knows. Either way, it can be too much of a good thing.

  • Am I overusing a repeated phrase? Does it overtake the spoken words and get in the way of important information?
  • Are my characters saying the same thing unnecessarily?

At the risk of repeating myself, repetition is a writer’s tool. It has the power to overwhelm, confuse or bore your reader. Use it wisely, and you will craft unforgettable prose or poetry.

Six Writing Resolutions For 2022

Six Writing Resolutions For 2022

Ruth E. Walker

Five years ago, we posted some ideas on writers’ resolutions for 2017. With just three days to go before the world shifts into yet another year, I think our suggestions are still valid. I’ve tweaked it a bit to acknowledge that the past couple of years came with pandemic challenges. But honestly, I didn’t need to make a lot of edits.

So here you go: Gwynn and I kept it simple and doable back in 2016 and that much has not changed. Six resolutions to choose from to enhance your creative skills. You only need one commitment for New Year’s Eve:


1.   To pay attention. Yup. Maybe you think you already do this just fine. We’d like to suggest two very different approaches that maybe you’ve not yet tried:

  • At an Andrew Pyper workshop, he suggested that paying attention without judgement is a great way to develop characters and ideas. He calls it “reportage” — take a seat in a public space and people watch. Simply record the facts of what you see. No emotion. No subjective consideration. e.g.: Young woman without a face mask in red halter top and white shorts pushing dark blue stroller without a baby inside it. Man in N95 face mask, yellow ballcap and biker jacket runs up library steps and goes inside.
  • Gwynn Scheltema suggests that there are benefits to being subjective when noticing, and that it really is a kind of art. Her Art of Noticing in The Top Drawer takes us on a trip in 2016 to her childhood home, Zimbabwe, where she notices everything in a sumptuous five-sense immersion.

2.   To write while travelling (and yes, we know we’ve not travelled a lot lately)

  • We didn’t say “write a book” when travelling. We only suggested that you write when on a journey. “Writing” can be a restaurant napkin recording a snippet of overheard conversation. “Writing” can simply be notes on a map or guidebook: stopped here and ate weird-tasting burgers at Fast Eddy’s Eatery. Nobody got sick.
  • The point is that there are all kinds of ways to “write” while travelling. And there’s all kinds of travelling: lately, even a stroll to the neighbourhood park, or a trip to the grocery store has become for many of us the most common form of travelling. You’re creative. In 2022, see what you can do to Write While Travelling.  And if we’re lucky, 2022 will be the year that proves Omicron to the be the last blast of COVID so that real long-distance travelling will return.

3.   To devote at least one day exclusively to the craft

  • Think about it. Just one day. C’mon, you can do it. Pack a lunch and head to the library. Or unplug the phone and the Internet and spend the day writing. Maybe you can pretend it’s a snow day. Or maybe you can book a one-day escape at a local hotel or B&B. Consider what “craft” means: In Old English (pre-900 CE) cræft meant strength. A day to focus on the art and skill of your craft can only strengthen your words on the page.
  • No matter what option you choose, make sure you schedule your day devoted to writing. And then make sure you show up, as scheduled.

4.   To write something different from your “usual”

  • Step away from the familiar and head down the rabbit hole. If your passion is fiction, go for non-fiction or poetry. If your comfort zone is poetry, try your hand at playwriting. If non-fiction is your go-to, start a graphic novel. Science fiction writers, take the time to meet romance. Mystery writers, shake hands with erotica. There’s a strange chemistry that happens when you shake up your pen and at the very least, you’ll return to your writing nest with some fresh ideas. And maybe you might find that trying something new opened up a whole new “writer” in you.

5.   To devote at least one day to NOT writing

  • Counterintuitive resolution? Actually, this is a great resolution for those who have trouble leaving their desk or pen or computer. It’s great to be a devoted writer, one who writes every day without fail, one who will forgo lunch if a plot point needs adjustments or a character is sitting a bit too flat on the page. You might be surprised how giving up just one day of writing can do. The tension of staying away from the writing could fire up your pen in ways you hadn’t imagined. The “day after” writing may be something you choose to create more often. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experiment for the relentless writer to try out.

6.   To read something different from your usual

  • This doesn’t have to be a big book. How about an article in a bodybuilding handbook or a finance magazine? Or a graphic novel, or modern play, or a children’s board book? Or a corporation’s annual report, or a technical how-to manual. The object of this resolution is to teach your eyes to look for what made it publishable. Where is the strength in the writing? Who is the reader or audience? And why do they need this publication? What changes might you make to improve this?
  • This analytical approach might prove useful in your own writing. At the very least, you introduce your eyes to a way of writing or content that is not what you normally choose to read. An excellent exercise to expand your writing horizons.

As noted, you only need one of these resolutions for midnight on December 31st. But consider holding onto this list and dipping back in from time to time. It may be just the medicine you need to fire up your muse and ignite your imagination.

Here’s to 2022. May the world put COVID to bed at last and may your writing dreams all come true.

When an Agent Says Yes

When an Agent Says Yes

Ruth E. Walker

Some time ago (frankly, too long ago) I wrote about my manuscript being rejected by a literary agent. This wasn’t an ordinary Thanks But No Thanks form letter. It was a thoughtful explanation about why this agent was taking a pass on my Young Adult science fiction novel. She included comments from a reader, noting areas of concern.

It was gold – and not just because I was being provided with helpful feedback from a complete stranger. Clearly, the agent felt engaged enough with the story and my writing to have it read for a second opinion. Even more clearly, the agent felt engaged enough with me to offer these suggestions. And she left the door open to resubmit.


For most of us writers, and certainly for me, self-doubt is a constant companion. Sometimes, I can supress the little monster long enough to finish a third or fourth or fifth draft. But even then, it whispers sweet nasties from the back of my brain.

So, this agent’s treatment of my novel as something worthwhile was rocket fuel. However, life got in the way and time to focus on the book kept getting put aside. In 2019, I finally pulled up my bootstraps and devoted my full attention to the book once more. By January 2020, I had a revised draft (thanks members, past and present, of Critical ms, my critique group.)

February 2020: a professional and organized plan

I sharpened and polished my query (thanks Heather O’Connor) and made my synopsis all shiny. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions and colour-coded each entry’s status (thanks to my Writescape partner and sister-from-another-mother, Gwynn Scheltema.) No colour for open submissions. Putrid peach for rejections. Bright blue for full requests. I had no idea what colour I’d use for “yes.”

I took a much more methodical approach to search agents and started in with QueryTracker, an online list of agents in Canada, the U.S. and beyond. I narrowed the list category to YA and science fiction/fantasy.

Agent Tab on Query Tracker

And then I started to submit to agents who were open to submission. First, I checked out their websites and, where possible, their MSWL (manuscript wish list). I quickly learned that not all YA Science Fiction agents would work for my novel. Mine isn’t “hard science fiction” so I avoided submitting to those agents. And mine isn’t younger-YA-friendly; agents who didn’t like violence or edgy topics came off my list.

I didn’t rely on QueryTracker for all my efforts. I paid attention to blog posts and various “10 Agents Seeking Writers” kinds of announcements (thanks Brian Henry and Writer’s Digest.) Friends and colleagues pointed me in a couple of directions, shared insights and ideas. A couple even went to bat for me, speaking directly to their own agents on my behalf (thanks Tom Taylor and the ever-supportive, Heather O’Connor.)

During 2020, there weren’t many opportunities to attend conferences and writerly events. Basically, once March happened, everything stopped (remember 2020?) But I hoped that agents might be like the rest of us, with strange time on our hands to not go anywhere or meet with anyone. I continued to query, methodically, in chunks of two to four queries at a time.

A tailored submission: snip, sew, snip again

An important note: not all agents want the same thing. For instance, my two-page synopsis had to be rewritten as: a one-page synopsis, a two-paragraph synopsis (yikes!), a 500-word synopsis…if nothing else it was a masterclass in editing. Nobody wanted the outline I’d drafted and redrafted. Darn. And what each agent wanted to see meant carving the full manuscript into custom-order submissions.

Wikipedia: Benihana

From five pages to ten pages to the first three chapters, to the first 50 pages, to 1000 words, to 2500 words – I was slicing and dicing like a personal chef at Benihana. Do I include the epigram page? What about the cover page? Did they count on the number of pages? Or word count? Or, or, or.

For the record, I left out the epigram and cover page and just started with Chapter One. And I noticed a few necessary tweaks as I reviewed some of those submissions. Tweaks that I then incorporated in the full ms. So again, editing masterclass.

Lottery: Losses, close calls and then…


My first agent query was sent February 10, 2020. My first rejection arrived March 2, 2020. Between February 2020 and November 30, 2021, the majority of my queries resulted in standard, form-letter rejections.

Occasionally, there were personal notes but they were rare. Some agents still haven’t replied.

Fifty-two queries later, I met over Zoom with Ali McDonald from 5 Otter Literary Inc. for a 15-minute pitch session (thanks PYI organizers at CANSCAIP.) The first thing she said to me was: “Ruth Walker. Why haven’t you queried me before? This book is right in my wheelhouse!”

Ali McDonald
5 Otter Literary

More than three weeks later, Ali and I met again. This time, we chatted for more than an hour and a half. That evening, November 30, I had an offer of representation. On December 4, I signed a contract and can announce that Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary is representing my YA Science Fiction novel and I could not be happier.

Well, I suppose once she sells my book to a publisher (fingers crossed), I might have to be happier but for now, I’m over the moon. Next step: To infinity, and beyond!

The work ahead

Now I have signed with an agent, I needed to stay professional and focussed. I contacted the U.S. and Canadian agents who asked to see the full ms, along with the others who’d not yet replied. From Rachel Letofsky at CookeMcDermid Agency, I received a gracious reply: “I am delighted to hear this news. I know and respect Ali very much. She has great relationships in the industry, and a deep knowledge of the kid’s book world. You’re in good hands with her and Five Otter Literary.”

I also had to turn my mind to specifics:

  • announcements
    • see this blog post and my social media (personal and professional)
    • family & cheerleading friends
    • critique group
    • writerly contacts
    • writing organizations
  • update my Literary C.V. to include: Ruth is represented by Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary
  • revise bio and update headshot for 5OL website
  • clear my calendar and schedule editorial meeting(s) with Ali
  • mothball my Agent Spreadsheet

And one more thing: Allow it all to soak in. I’m realistic enough to know this is not a guarantee that my book will find a publishing home. But it’s a wonderful step into a world of possibilities. And a reminder to everyone who is struggling to find an agent to champion their work: Keep going. Take every opportunity. And know you’re not alone in the journey.

Returning from Retreat: Reality

Returning from Retreat: Reality


person-110303_640I will go on retreat and when I come back, I will be energized and my writing will be brilliant.


We all start a retreat with optimism, plans and hopes and dreams. But on the drive home, or maybe just as you turn the handle on your front door, something hits you.

It’s over. The planned escape to focus on your writing is done and here you are, back home, facing all that your return will mean. And it ain’t always pretty when you once again face reality.

portrayal-89189_640Some of us easily get past that return to reality and can gather back the positive energy we found on retreat. But others might get mired in one or more of the following disappointments:


Right on. Once you add the laundry in your suitcase to the pile you didn’t finish before you left, you realize your life waited for you. And there is no escaping it.


That’s right. You lazy, good for nothing writer. You spent time staring out the window at the lake or the forest or the desert or…whatever. And some of the stuff you wrote is so lame, you won’t even look at it.


Oh yeah. This is just like the diet you started in January. Your 3 lb loss turned into a 5 lb gain in April. You are just the same writer you were when you started, so why did you even bother?

THE TRUTHtruth-166853_640



Don’t look at that laundry pile the same way. Consider that t-shirt you wore on retreat before you put it into the washing machine. It’s full of your writer’s sweat and you can launder that out. But even if you deleted every single word you wrote, you can’t wash your retreat away. Instead, those words you crafted will percolate in the back of your mind and two things can happen:

  • ONE, you’ll realize the writing wasn’t so awful after all. In fact, those words are looking pretty good again


  • TWO, those less-than-perfect words will inspire fresh ones that will move your work forward (after all, we all know the true work of the writer is in the edit)


anvil-1169340_640Even if you did very little writing, your retreat was not a waste of time because everything you experience flavours your creative self. Sometimes, we don’t recognize the new ideas and perspective a retreat gives us.  Chats over dinner with the other writers, quiet walks down country lanes, staring out the window at a completely different view — all of this has an effect on you and your writing. While it’s not bum-in-chair writing, it is a legitimate form of creative work. You’re feeding your subconscious.

Your subconscious is your best friend as a writer and none more so than when your main purpose is to create. That’s why you went on retreat in the first place. When you come home, your ugly Internal Editor may perch again on your shoulder whispering negativity into your ear, but your Creative Self is still being fed by your subconscious.  And it’s rich in retreat compost.soil-766281_640

So turn your back on any negative thinking. Start digging into your retreat compost and see what treasures are buried in your mind. And follow that energy!

For more on retreats, see Ruth’s post on preparing for a writing getaway.

Living Underground: a novel

Living Underground: a novel

The Allies won both World Wars and our history books make clear who were the bad guys and who were not. But “the enemy” is often just another ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events. And the effects of those two wars continue to echo to contemporary times.

Sheila Barnes is a shy and unhappy teen living in 1960s suburban Toronto. Sheila’s dismal childhood is transformed when Sigmund Maier, the family’s enigmatic German tenant, introduces her to opera, music and much more. Later in her adult life, Sheila reconnects with Sigmund when he asks for her help with an immigration issue. Perhaps now she will discover the truth of why he vanished years ago? But, “truth” has no clear definition and memories are nebulous.

Sheila is drawn into the turmoil and accusations surrounding Sigmund’s life before and during World War II. As she struggles with her own issues and family conflicts, she is forced to confront the secrets she has held for over 30 years.

Only a handful of times in a reader’s life do they come into contact with a book that causes such a rift in their sense of reality. Living Underground is one of those books for me. It left me breathless at every turn.

author Kevin Craig, “Try This Book on for Size”

How can I get my copy?

PRICE: $12 including postage anywhere in Canada.

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In both cases make sure to include your name and full mailing address so we can send you your book! Ruth is happy to personalize your copy.

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Research Redux

Research Redux

Ruth E. Walker

History holds so much richness for writers. It’s a deep well many of us dip into, finding inspiration, surprises and mysteries. And it’s why we call it a rabbit hole–wander in and you might find it tough to resurface.

As I work on the second book of my speculative fiction, I research ancient (and not-so-ancient) history to strengthen plot developments and character actions and reactions. I look for the sparks that ignited revolutions, for the leaders and strategies behind uprisings, and for the willful blindness of those in power.

Good grief, we humans are ridiculous when it comes to willful blindness. From aristocrats to bureaucrats to potentates, the “safe” bubble that power, influence and wealth creates is the reason so many of them are in shock when the masses are at the gates.

Similarly, we humans are one hot mess when we are that angry mob. Just wander through social media of all stripes to find postings of extreme outrage, disgust and threats. And algorithms make sure that like feeds like, so travelling down that rabbit hole is risky business.

Frankly, it’s why I barely dip my toe into that form of fury. Give me instead human interest stories or pics of your grandkids any day.

The online anger is nothing new. The difference is the speed and volume that social media platforms provide. And while they can offer insights into discontent, there is no lack of page-by-page context available in physical text. That’s why I like to research through books and magazines. Just one phrase or footnote can launch a whole new idea.

When you write with history in your back pocket, your characters, plots and themes carry a truth. Truth grounding any fiction creates reality for the reader – and most importantly, confidence for the author.  And that, dear writer, is pure creative gold.

Revisit Research

Research is a topic we’ve covered in previous Top Drawer posts. So I’ve gathered a collection of some of our more popular posts on that topic because, after all, they’re still useful and timely. You’ll notice that most of them are written by Gwynn. She is known for bringing her analytical mind to the creative table, and for that I am grateful, as are her readers.

Let’s start with the treasures found in archives. In a well-received two-part series, Gwynn explores where and how to dig in:

Digging up Archives – Part I — an overview of where to find archives in Canada and beyond.

Always thorough, Gwynn followed that post with the answer to “Now what?” in Digging up Archives – Part 2 Top Drawer readers told us they had a much better understanding of where and how to use archives for research after reading Gwynn’s posts.

I chronicled my own experience with Canada’s National Library and Archives, researching my great-great-great-grandfather’s book about the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1700s. Holding History in My Hands shares what that moment was like.

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And more recently, Gwynn posted a number of computer hacks that make writing — and researching — easier and faster.

In Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers, she offers up a taste of ways writers can make the work less onerous.

Access is key

A final note – many of the featured sources are online. Given that we are still treading a careful line between in-person and virtual activities, what was convenient less than 18 months ago is now pretty much a lifeline.

We writers know that library and archive staff are incredibly helpful when doing our research. Express your appreciation when they go that extra mile and be kind when health and safety regulations limit their efforts.

Writing in the time of the pandemic…that has an interesting ring to it, don’t you think? I wonder what the textbooks, novels, poetry, lyrics and archives of 2020 will reveal to writers in the year 2220 and beyond?


Re-emerging, our all-inclusive writing retreat in October is now fully booked except for one single cottage available at a premium rate. OR if you’re a cottager/resident nearby, we have a couple of spaces for day-rate participants.

Email us at info@writescape.ca for details.

Wait List:

We are launching a Wait List for anyone who’d like to join us at Elmhirst’s Resort this fall. Email us at info@writescape.ca with the subject line: Wait List Fall Retreat and if we have any cancellations, we’ll let you know in the order your email was received.  

What’s in a Word?

What’s in a Word?

Ruth E. Walker 

A restaurant’s Help Wanted ad caught my attention the other day. It wasn’t the requirement “Must be 18 years of age or older” that piqued my interest. Under Ontario’s labour laws employers can’t schedule anyone ages 14 to 17 during school hours unless they’ve been excused from school. So, it’s okay to require an age minimum of 18 for daytime work.

But the restaurant was looking something else in their applicants. The job was for a waitress. A waitress? I haven’t seen that in a very long time.

What do you imagine with that word? Not a male applicant. Not a binary or transgender person. Nope, you conjure up a female.

Maybe your mindsight has that woman in an apron, hair tied back in a bun or net, order pad and pencil poised to take your order. Maybe she’s wearing sensible shoes as she balances a loaded tray in a crowded diner somewhere. No matter what you imagine, when you read waitress, you think female.

In Ontario it’s illegal under the Human Rights Code to reference and/or require directly or indirectly anything that is listed under the code as discriminatory, and that includes “sex” unless it’s a bona fide exception. A specific driver’s license, for example, to be a cab driver or transport truck operator.

So how come this clearly defined by gender job title sits there, bold as brass in the newspaper? Because words don’t matter to everyone — but they should. And most especially to writers (and newspaper editors, too.)

The times have already been a-changin’

Years ago – and I do mean years ago: over 40 to be precise – I worked in Human Resources in the health care field. It was a time when you had nurses aides and orderlies. Nurses aides were female and orderlies were male. It was just hospital staff titles. Our world back then had waiters and waitresses. We had firemen and policemen and chairmen and postmen.

There’s a long history of separation by gender. Our elementary school still had the boys entrance and the girls entrance carved over the doors, where, before my time, students lined up by gender. My gym classes were all female. Girls took Home Ec. Boys took Industrial Arts.

No wonder language and, specifically words and especially job titles, were framed within gender. The wake-up call arrived while I was working in HR during the 1980s. It was a revolutionary time when women (and some men) demanded gender-neutral job titles. Women didn’t want to be constrained by their gender. They wanted to be persons first. And there were males who wanted careers in “traditionally female” jobs.

Oh the outcry and resistance was massive. But eventually, common sense prevailed. Union contracts had to be revised. Policies and procedures updated and, in some cases, deleted. Nurses aides and orderlies became nursing assistants and, eventually, personal support workers. Firemen, policemen and postmen became firefighters, police officers and postal workers. The chairman of the board awkwardly tried on “chairman/chairwoman” for a while but eventually morphed into the much better Chair. No gender necessary.

Language reflects society

As language and its uses changed, opportunities developed for women in “non-traditional” jobs. Now, when a woman drops envelopes in my mailbox, it’s not unusual or remarkable or noteworthy. It’s my mail being delivered. And when a tragic fire happened in my city some months ago, the firefighter quoted in the paper was a woman. We mourned the losses. We didn’t stop to question why a female was working as a firefighter. As it should be.

Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing into this transition. There are still pockets of “waitress” out there. But the fact that it stands out as I skimmed the classified (often the source of story inspiration, by the way) – it’s a sign that my brain has accepted “server”, a non-gender job title, as normal.

Language is dynamic. It is always changing just as members of society change. Successful writers pay attention to the way language changes because it is more than just a word used to describe something. Language — the words we use and how we use them — reflects changes in social values, in institutional structures and how something that was remarkable or strange becomes ordinary.

And paying attention to those changes (and those diehard stubborn holdouts who think it’s all just being “politically correct”) can lead writers to stories, characters and diverging plot lines they’d hadn’t considered before.

Well worth looking more carefully, don’t you think?

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Re-emerging: Pen in Hand

Ruth E. Walker

I don’t know about you, but I suspect most people want to see the back end of COVID as desperately as I do.

My writing has suffered these past few months and I’ve been grateful to this blog for forcing me to engage BIC (bum in chair) and regularly pen some creative words.

But now it seems there is light on the horizon. Cases are way down. Second vaccinations are happening with greater frequency. Restaurants, retail and rec centres are easing back to life. And yeah, the warmth of early summer and longer spans of daylight are tickling our imaginations. My creative self is getting excited – and not just about COVID taking a walk into the sunset.

Just the other day Gwynn and I confirmed that Writescape’s long-delayed 2020 spring retreat was going ahead. Of course, we can’t keep calling our annual retreat Spring Thaw because it’s happening in October. So, we’ve just stuck with Writescape’s Fall Retreat: Re-emerging.

We’re thrilled that almost all the retreat participants who signed up as far back as December 2019 are able to join us this fall.

Reasons to get excited

Fully equipped cottage kitchen at Elmhirts’s Resort

Elmhirst’s Resort confirmed our cottages will be ready, and that all cleaning and safety protocols are constantly updated to meet the local health unit standards and provincial regulations. Elmhirst’s has always gone above and beyond to make our retreats an amazing experience and we’re confident that tradition will continue. Frankly, we expect that by October 15, our annual retreat won’t look too different than our retreats have for more than 10 years previous.

Writing on the deck

We will both still read and review 10 ms pages submitted to us in advance. And we’ll sit down for a one-on-one feedback session with those writers. And we’ll be available for individual consults that can be deep discussions or just bouncing ideas around. We’ll ensure each cottage is stocked with breakfast items so writing in pajamas remains an option. Gwynn and I will deliver group creativity sessions and there’ll be plenty of time for private writing. And lunch and dinner are always prepared so no need to stop to cook when you’re on a roll.

Of course, how some of this happens may be a bit different to ensure a safe space but the vibe we create: escape to focus on your own writing – that won’t change.

Heather M. O’Connor with Betting Game through Orca Books

Our philosophy has always been to curate a space in which writers can escape daily life and immerse in their projects. Over the years, we’ve watched stories, novels, memoirs and non-fiction books take shape and several secured a publishing home.

Writers on retreat find space in which to imagine, start, revise and/or finish their stories. Connections with other writers are made. Characters and plots discovered. Ideas for marketing and publishing tips are shared.

Maighread MacKay’s mystery series

All of that is what excites Gwynn and me. To see it unfold and know that we’ve had an important part in a writer’s journey.

Are you ready to retreat?

We still have room for a few more writers to join us. A $250 deposit guarantees your space. Our brochure outlines our agenda and registration details are on our website.

Aerial view of Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake

Nestled on the shores of Rice Lake, Elmhirst’s Resort’s amenities offer guests many ways to reflect and rejuvenate. Given the past year, I can’t think of a better way to recharge my writing.

We’ve blogged in the past about the joys of writing retreats. One way or another, find a way to treat yourself and escape to write.

10 Signs You Need a Writing Retreat in case you didn’t know you actually needed a retreat. 😊

How to Pack for a Writing Retreat covers some of the things you might not think about bringing along. It’s more than stuff in your suitcase.

10 Peeks into a Writing Retreat shares prompts and tips gleaned from our decade-plus of companion workbooks provided at our retreats.

Of course, once you have gone on retreat Coming Home from Retreat: Reality offers practical and self-care tips when the heady joys of writing on retreat land back to face the daily grind of life.

And finally, Your Anytime Writing Retreat offers ideas and solutions for writers who can’t join us this fall for our Re-emerging retreat. There are ways to curate your own escape.

Last Word

Just a quick reminder that our Summer 21 Poetry Contest deadline draws nigh. Enter your 21-line poem — any form or style — for a chance to win full bragging rights and honours, publication on our blog and a copy of Gwynn’s newest chapbook, Ten of Diamonds.

Rules, regulations and details on our website.

What a Touching Story

What a Touching Story

Ruth E. Walker

I imagine you’ve heard this kind of phrase more than once:

I’m touched by your generosity.

I swear he’s been touched by an angel.

I can’t wait to get my hands on that ring.

As soon as this bloody plane touches down, I’m out of here.

And so on. It is interesting that the sense of “touch” should be used in such emotionally charged moments. I believe it speaks to the power this sense has to connect our hearts and minds.

In any kind of writing, the power that all five senses can bring to your material is enormous. In previous posts, we’ve written about smell, taste, hearing and sight. Then just to keep you thinking, we followed each post on the sense with a companion post focusing on poetry using that sense.

Today, we bring it all home with a focus on the sense of touch and ways in which it can power up the emotions in your writing and immerse your reader in the story.

A trio of touches

We touch through our skin. As our bodies are 99.9% wrapped in the stuff, this massive organ is constantly sending messages to our brains. Once there, our brains choose what signals to notice and what signals to put aside.

There are three types of touches.

  1. A light touch, also known as a “protective touch” includes tickling. A light touch engages our brain immediately so, if an insect starts crawling along your arm, your body responds right away. Depending on your history with bugs, you might swat or brush away the insect immediately or, if you’re less bug-averse, take a closer look to decide if it’s a threat or benign.
  2. A fine touch, also known as a “discriminative touch” is responsible to give your brain specific information about what is touching your body. So, the fine touch alerts the brain that the insect left a slimy trail on your arm as your fingers touch the yucky stuff. Ewww. Get. Slime. Off.
  3. Touch pressure and deep touch pressure is the last of the trio. Shoes that are too tight or that dear old auntie who gives everyone a hug are examples of touch pressure. Covered with a soft feather duvet or a double-layer woolen blanket, it’s your touch pressure sense that tells your brain how heavy each one is. If you’ve ever caught your fingers in a car door, you’ll know what deep touch pressure is like.

Be aware of the degree of touch in your writing. I’ll have more to say on that in a moment.

Touch in writing

It’s easy to use ordinary actions. He touched her face. She picked up the stone. They hugged each other. But it’s useful to consider the variety of ways in which humans give and receive a touch and apply those to your writing.

Touch is more than hands. All of our body is touching something all the time. Even naked, our skin is touching the air.

  • Do your characters touch only with their hands?
  • If the hands are the logical body part to use, can you get more specific? Fingertips, nails, palm, heel, knuckles – all can be used to “feel” something/someone
  • What degree of touching? He felt for a pulse versus he pressed two fingertips against her cold neck, seeking a pulse.
  • What other body parts can you use for touch? Our bodies bump into things all the time and we don’t notice – are there places where a hip brushing against a doorway or when a thorn lodging inside a thigh could give a bit more of setting for your reader? Lean back in your chair and what parts of you are connecting with it? Now write a paragraph or two with one of your characters sitting in a chair, describing the physical connection with that chair.

Go beyond the physical

And touch is not simply physically connecting with something. There are degrees of types of touch that relate to more than the object itself. Touch as an action either being delivered or received is affected by a person’s emotional state and by their own history (stove=hot!) and sensory input levels. Someone with acute sensitivity to physical touch will back away from a hug or even a handshake. And that same person may avoid wools, corduroy or nylon materials. A person with low levels of sensitivity may not notice the texture of rough wool and, in extreme cases, not have any sensory input for types of pain.

With the emotional in mind, remember that the act of touch includes many qualities, and as infants, we learned about our world through the senses. Touch taught us so much through physical explorations. If you want to bring your reader deep into the story, you’ll be wise to keep those qualities in mind:

  • Texture – every physical thing has an exterior that has a texture. Sharp, smooth, ridged, pocked, spongy, liquid, etc.
  • Size – from tiny seeds to cardboard boxes to solid walls, touch informs us of size
  • Shape – similar to texture and size, our 3D world holds all of geometry. Round, flat, oval, rectangular, bulgy, pyramidic, etc.
  • Temperature – cool to the touch, barely warm, flaming hot, ice cold. Our skin is our constant thermometer
  • Pressure – a squeeze of an arm or a chokehold on our throat, we feel the touch and can decide if it’s good or bad
  • Vibration – Place a hand on the washing machine in the spin cycle and the movement and noise reaches us but it’s our skin that is the “first responder” to that vibration
  • Pain – So many kinds of pain that come from our skin being touched by something or someone and yet, so many kinds of pain that can be relieved with a soothing or loving touch

This is just an overview of this last of the five senses. When you finish your first draft, remember to give at least one edit pass that focuses on your use of the senses. If they’re missing or just given a superficial treatment, then you are probably missing the opportunity to immerse your reader in the physical and emotional heart of your story.