Tag Archives: writing

Gateway Compliment

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My friend Gayle had this great Facebook post about the awkwardness some of us feel giving a compliment after listening to someone read their work, and how it seems strange that a bunch of writers would have trouble finding the words to communicate our appreciation of each other. I certainly agree with this. Whenever I try to compliment anyone about anything, a little part of me steps back and starts critiquing the compliment. “UGH, you seem so PHONEY!” So then, while trying to have a goddamn moment with somebody, my eyes start darting around, my words falter, and the response of the person I’m complimenting (which is probably just their own awkwardness at receiving a compliment) feels like a sure sign that my appreciation came off as insincere.

So it should come as no surprise that when I am given a compliment on my writing, I just go ahead and assume the person giving it is insincere or at least misguided. Robbing myself of any real opportunity to enjoy the moment. I think I’ve written before about my friend Jay, the one who used to give me a hug, and then remind me to stay in my body, because there was hugging happening? Yeah. He got it.

My instinct to run from intimacy is annoying. What am I afraid of, exactly? If I had to come up with a word quickly, it would be expectation. I’m afraid of intimacy, because I don’t know what kind of expectations accompany that kind of closeness. Okay, sure, you respect me, so what now? Conversation? Friendship? I wrote those words in my pyjamas, eating Fritos, sobbing into a wad of toilet paper between keystrokes during the emotional bits. I have no glamour to offer you, no wisdom. Any thoughts you see expressed on that paper were able to germinate because I was alone. So what do you want with me?

It’s like not wanting to cuddle, because you don’t want to have sex. Gateway intimacy– too risky. Better just avoid it.

I envy people who have cultivated this comfortable faux-intimacy: a breathless, sweeping, hand-holding focus that zeroes in on you and penetrates your shell with the intensity of tongues touching, then flounces off before things can get serious. They call you “sweetheart,” and ask you how you’re doing with such vigorous sincerity, you feel utterly nurtured for a moment. But just a moment. These people can give compliments. They can dig deep and come up with just the right words so that you have no choice but to share a moment with them. And in the aftermath of that little heart opening, you don’t even care that they’ve moved on to the next person. They gave you a gift, one of the most rare and elusive gifts. Connection. Who cares what their motives are?

I have also run across some of these same people when they weren’t prepared for me, and noticed the flat affect and irritation they seem to experience at being caught off-guard. I’ve come at them like a puppy, seeking some of that feel-good they can dispense so effortlessly, and they’ve thrown up a wall. Yeah, I envy these people, but I’m a little afraid of them as well. Their ability to turn connection on and off. In the end, I probably have no choice but to be myself, awkward, but reasonably authentic.

I received the best possible compliment the other day, and this got me thinking about Gayle’s post. A woman I work with at the bookstore said. “You know, we get a lot of (finger quotes) “writers” here, so I wasn’t expecting much. But I looked at your blog, and I was pretty impressed.”

That’s it. It left me buzzing happily for hours. I think that anyone who is honest enough to tell me flat out that they didn’t expect to be impressed by me is worthy of my trust. I’m not suggesting you go out and compliment people using this method. I don’t think some people would appreciate it. But if self-doubt is keeping you from expressing your appreciation to others, keep in mind that their standards for receiving compliments may be lower (or at least different) than you think.

The Peel

Looks like I’ll be spending this September paddling the Peel River with a documentary crew, and five other artists. Then I’ll be writing about it for an exhibition that will tour the country. Equal parts exciting and frightening.

Visit the website at http://www.thepeel.ca

Stoppardian

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Photo: 2010 by Laura Hynd

Tom Stoppard on writing dialogue:

“I like dialogue that is slightly more brittle than life. I have always admired and wished to write one of those 1940s filmscripts where every line is written with a sharpness and economy that is frankly artificial.”

Yes. Yes yes yes. I’m no Tom Stoppard. But I agree so hard with this quote, I have goosebumps. Economical writing is electric. It’s that zap static charge, the arc between your finger and the balloon.

The “economy” people talk about is an economy of words, not emotion. People get that confused. The emotion I’m looking for happens in the meeting place between the audience and the page. I don’t know how many times someone has read a piece of mine in workshop and raved about everything they saw and felt and experienced, only to suggest that maybe I add some more words. They don’t usually have any specific advice on which words to choose. 

For obvious reasons, it’s easier for me to work with rhythm when I have less words to contend with. When I’m writing, the only time I really feel rhythm and cadence is when I’m writing dialogue. I have difficulty finding rhythm in prose, or at least, the kind of rhythm I want to work with. And I think it’s because dialogue can be dissonant and still be rhythmic. That’s what I’m looking for: the anti-cadence. Choppy, brittle dissonance. That’s where the good shit is. That jagged meeting place between characters who are tripping over each other trying to communicate. 

Whether between reader and writer, or characters in a story, for me the really crackly writing happens in the in-between. I don’t believe in trying to fool my readers or mislead them for the sake of “suspense,” basically an eleventh-hour plot revelation. I don’t think they should have to labour over complex plot lines or vague character motivation. I do want them to take a few steps towards me, though. Into the void. Economical writing beckons readers towards that emotional space. 

Anyways, quit listening to me, and read this sweet interview with Stoppard.

A 3-day novel, unicorn writing, Anne Murray and mental Pilates.

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I participated in the International 3-day novel contest on the Labour Day long weekend. I registered on a semi-whim on August 30th, and started writing at 4am on the 31st. I finished yesterday, Sept 2, at 7pm. I slept for about 7 of the 72 hours we had to work with.

So obviously I didn’t have much time for preparation, though I was writing about material that I’m very familiar with. Considering how the writing process works, I wasn’t sure how much preparation could really be done for an event like this. I certainly don’t tend to stick slavishly to a structural outline when I’m working, and character traits that sounded great in the character sketches are often discarded (or never even acknowledged) when they start moving around in the world I’ve built for them. What I did try to do was prepare myself mentally, since that is something I do have some control over.

Although I can be extremely competitive when I’m writing, I also value the ability to know when I’m outclassed, and to switch my efforts from WINNING to LEARNING and simply doing the best I can. Let’s be honest here, competitive people get ahead, even in the creative world. My competitiveness kept me writing, kept me churning out pages long after I wanted to quit. My desire to come out of the experience with some kind of mental and emotional gain kept me from pushing myself to utter exhaustion, and allowed me to learn a lot about my process. So basically, whatever happens with the manuscript, I’ve already declared myself a winner. Cheezy, but true.

It took me a long time to give up control.

I write slowly and methodically. I go back and correct obvious typos right away, because they bug me. My first drafts look like third drafts, because I don’t even go near the page until the stories are clear and partially written in my head. I edit while I write.

None of that was going to work for me now.

Still, I refused to relinquish my grip on the narrative. I paused to question the relevance of certain paragraphs. I spent precious time chastising myself for the cliché, television-esque dialogue, the long expositional passages, the less-than-literary themes. For a while, I decided I was writing a romantic comedy and I nearly gave up altogether. One of my characters even says “Are we in a rom com right now?” Then I realized I was trying to use post-modern, self-reflexive writing in an utterly transparent attempt to forgive myself for a cliché, television-esque, highly expositional rom com, and maybe I had better just abandon my writing career altogether.

By the end of the first day, I had written 6 pages, and I was the worst hack ever to have put pen to paper. I thought of businesses who advertise that they want “perfectionist” writers. Wrong. Perfectionists aren’t people who get everything right, they’re people who obsess over getting everything right. We just sit and stew and never get anything done because nothing is good enough. What you need is someone who can just give it up and write. And then after the writing is done, what we all need is a copy editor who is a perfectionist. Thank goodness for those people!

On the second day (which I started at 2am), I was aware that I needed to just give up and write, but I wasn’t quite ready to do this. I ventured in to this realm, where you kind of unfocus your eyes and stop asking questions and imagine the words are coming from your hands rather than your head. Unicorn writing. So elusive! Being exhausted helped, and I’m sure that’s part of the idea of the contest, write until you(r guard) drop(s)!

At the other end of these brief sessions of unicorn writing was usually a trip to the processing plant, cutting off limbs even before I’d given them time to prove their potential usefulness. The words weren’t well crafted enough. The theme was too trite. Off with its head! In some ways, the lack of editing time at the other end made me more brutal. It had to come out right the first time or not at all.

By 6pm on the second day, the website said we should be half way through if we were hoping to reach the goal of 90-100 pages. I wasn’t even a quarter of the way there. This, FINALLY, is when the soul searching happened.

Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? Am I too focused on the page limit? What if I just write the best story I can, while shooting for 100 pages? What if I stop trying to be the Anne Murray* of Canlit.

Okay.

On day three, the magic. (Finally!) Not good writing–give me a break!–I was exhausted and really really angry (letting go of control has that effect on me). For lack of a better description, I stopped writing in my conscious brain, and let the subconscious take the reins.

When the sun began to rise on the third day, I’d already been at it for four hours. At this point I can honestly say I was equal parts convinced that this was never going to happen, and absolutely certain that I was going to make it happen. So, there had to be some compromise.

Compromise #1: go for a walk. I know chaining yourself to the computer is a bad idea. I do it anyway. So, I walked into the neighbourhood: up Lakewood towards Hastings. In the same way that we sometimes ask our dreams for insight on our lives, I asked my brain for help.

And, in the same way that our dreams gather and mash up stimuli from memories, and current events and present them in a weird and wonderful narrative, my brain delivered.

As I walked up Lakewood, I passed a boxed-up old plastic Christmas tree that someone was giving away, with a sign on it that said FREE. The tree became an image, and the image suggested loneliness at a time of togetherness, and also the seasonally prescribed surrender to dopey sentimentality that Christmas provides, (Yeah, I’m a cynic- surprise!)  And that reminded me of one of my characters. When I got home, it became 6 pages of writing. I didn’t re-read it.

From that point on, the process was more like recording a dream in realtime than actually writing a story. Memories surfaced and were written into scenes, characters became a mash-up of people I know and some people I’ve just met. Voices came to me from old conversations, some of them even had accents! Even things people were posting on Facebook as I was working ended up in the work. No (or very few) questions asked. I’ve been in this zone before, and I suppose it’s what many writers would consider “pure” or “real” creative writing. But it’s not somewhere I visit very often, to be honest. It’s kind of like doing Pilates (yeah, I’m going there) I know I’m supposed to be using my core muscles, and that using them is the only way they are going to get stronger. But they are so wussy! And my back muscles are so much stronger! And they do a pretty good job, too. Until I wake up with a backache the next day.

Did that metaphor work? Maybe. Maybe got away a little from me at the end there. Give me some slack, I just wrote a novella! What I’m getting at, is that this contest forced me to stop writing with my back muscles, and start writing with my core.

Yeah.

I still don’t know if I prefer the idea of writing every possible thing down as part of realizing a first draft. It still seems unsightly- all those extra words. My way still FEELS more efficient. But projects like this force perfectionist types to try this method, and it’s worked for some of the greatest writers of all time. So I’ll keep participating in events like the 3-day novel competition, because it’s good for me, good for the process, and I feel great about what I accomplished. A 75 page, verbose, poorly assembled mashup of potentially usable material.

A true first draft.

*Anne Murray is famous for being a one-take-wonder, she could just sit down at the mic at a recording session and nail it the first time.

Reading your work.

I was asked to give a short speech at the university tomorrow night about readings. Here’s what I came up with.
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I’m sure some of what I have to say won’t be new to you, but it probably bears re-stating. Because I don’t know how many times I’ve been reminded to breathe before I give a reading, and yet find myself gasping for air as soon as I’m off stage. That’s what panic does, it padlocks your handy little public speaking toolbox. So, I’m telling you to breathe, but I’m suggesting you start your deep breathing pattern long before you get to the mic. Start it the first time you practice reading your piece aloud. Take 30 seconds and breathe before you begin. Do it every time as a preparation to reading anything aloud. And read aloud often; read the pieces people send in for workshopping. Read your own piece aloud, over and over and over again.  Read to your pets, they probably love the sound of your voice.
Okay. Next, I’m going to suggest you take a moment to yourself when you step up to the mic. Though you may be feeling infinitely thankful to the event organizers, the people who have come to watch, the reader who preceded you… etc…unless you are the host, you are not expected to thank these people before you begin. You are not accepting an award, you are giving a reading. The best way to honour these folks is to give a shit-kicking performance, and the best way to do that is to be in your body when you read. Even if you just spent the last half-hour at your table breathing deeply and squeezing your fingers and toes trying to stay in your body, it may have slipped away from you in that precious few steps to the mic. Don’t worry about anyone but yourself when you’re up there. You are not being selfish. You are being professional. Smile, say “thank you,” take a moment to breathe and focus, shove those shoulders down and begin.
Finally, I’m going to suggest something I just tried myself at the TWS reading on Thursday, and had great success with. Since I tend to power through my readings (and I know I’m not alone in this) I added some friendly, hand written reminders in the margins. Places I really wanted to slow down a little, to deliver an extra punch. I included smiley faces, to remind myself that I was indeed having fun. There will come a time when you will be up on stage and you will see that you have been given absolute control of the energy in the room, and it won’t intimidate you. I remember reading at Douglas College years ago in a room that was lit so you could see the audience. About half way into my last poem, which was kind of a cheeky piece, I leaned in towards the audience conspiratorially, and a hundred people leaned towards me. That’s probably as close to rockstar as a CanLit writer ever gets.

Dream analysis and writing short fiction

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The Dream. Hussien Ahmad

I was lucky enough to learn about dream analysis at a pretty young age, so I’ve got a few years practice under my belt. There are many ways to analyze the contents of your dream, and images will hold different meaning for different dreamers. I don’t necessarily want to tell you that my way is right, but I would like to share with you how my work with dream analysis has helped with my writing.  I believe that dream analysis has taught me to trust my subconscious and its ability to assemble images to tell a story.

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” Henry Miller

When I’m writing I often get an urge to include an image (This story about recovery from addiction needs some benches from Expo 86!) or a motif (This story about female violent offenders needs rushing water!) and in the moment, I seldom know why.  But I don’t question. In it goes, to be analyzed at a later date. Not acting on this impulse has resulted in mini-blocks, that kept me from projects for weeks, sometimes months. That’s much worse than just deciding that the impulse was wrong, and cutting the image later. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me though. Usually I read through later and find the connection to the theme pretty quickly, and it’s pats-on-the-back all around. How clever you are, subconscious! Archivist of my days, filmmaker of my sleep. Let’s have a beer to celebrate.

So, here’s how I analyze a dream. It’s easy. I didn’t make this method up, but I’m afraid I no longer remember the name of the book I got it from.

As soon as possible after waking, I write down everything I remember from the dream. Then I draw a line lengthwise down a sheet of paper. I break the dream up into images, and list all of the images down one side of the paper. One the other side, I write down what each of those images means to me. I’m not a fan of dream encyclopedias, unless I’m really stuck on an image. I prefer my own interpretation, since it’s my dream.

So for example, let’s say I dream that I’m at my family’s old summerhouse at Shuswap Lake. I’m doing math homework, and when I’m done, I go para-sailing.

one side of the page would look like this:

1. our old summerhouse
2. Shuswap Lake
3. math homework
5. para-sailing

And on the other side:

1. Freedom, happiness, sun. The only time of the year I felt happy and pretty. My first boyfriend. Suntanning. Swimming (the only sport I was ever good at)

2. Comfort. Feeling more comfortable in water than on land. Adventure. Minnows and snorkeling. Sitting on the dock with my sister practicing fly fishing in the evening, even though there was nothing to catch.

3. Feeling inadequate, stupid. Not applying myself, or trying to apply myself and failing. Hopelessness.

4. Showboating, showing off. Looking down on others. Wanting to be seen. Fear.

If you’re looking for messages from your dreams (it’s a popular exercise to ask your dreams a question before bed) sometimes, a narrative may show itself. Keep at it! And remember, sometimes the most upsetting dreams have the strongest messages. It might be hard to relive them, but it might really be worth it.

You may also feel a little bit weird exploring your dreams like this, like some kind of astrology nut or gypsy fortune-teller, but hey you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else by analyzing your dreams. You don’t have to tell your empirical evidence-loving friends what you’re doing. It’s not like your dreams are going to send you messages not to leave the house on any given day (if they do, seek help) you’re just entering into a dialogue with them that may help your creativity.

So, there wasn’t some defining moment where I was like: “Eurika! I’m in touch with my subconscious!” I’d say that over time, I just started to listen to what it was telling me. After a meditation retreat, I blogged about my weird and vivid dreams and let people laugh or share their own. I kept a dream journal. I even shared bits of my dreams on Facebook, and  I still do. I gave my subconscious a bit of space on the page, and it responded with a little creative inspiration for me.

On remaining optimistic without losing your creative edge.

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“You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” -Arlo Guthrie

Do you remember when you discovered critical thought? When your world ceased to be perfect? Do you remember the first time after that that you felt genuinely hopeful? Doesn’t count if you were drunk. Or high. Neither does that blissed-out natural high you get after running or yoga (seriously, you people are obnoxious, stop!) I’m talking about a sentient, “fully aware of how shitty the world seems right now, and yet still hopeful” state of mind. I can, mostly because it didn’t happen until pretty recently.

I was at a meditation retreat, a grueling  painful, miserable meditation retreat, and needless to say, I wasn’t having much “success” with the practice. I was pissed off with everyone: the nuns, my fellow participants, the Buddha himself. My husband for agreeing that this was a good idea. His mother for driving me there. Whatever. Around day five or six, for whatever reason, my consciousness stopped fighting me, and I had a moment. A true, pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel moment, which I suppose was actual meditation and not the noob flailing I’d been doing up to that point. I felt happy. Not only that, i felt like I deserved to be happy. Then I got excited and screwed it up, and the moment was gone. But I had that little glimpse.

I’m not trying to push meditation on you (yes I am!) because it was only part (a big part!) of the fairly intensive regime that pulled me out of my hole. This regime also included therapy, supplements, and a diet and exercise plan that bordered on obsessive, Then I left my spouse, learned to live below the poverty line, and started my career as a writer. So I’m not saying there’s an easy fix. There isn’t. But, you do deserve to be happy. So go get it.

Okay, there’s my motivational speech on optimism. If it sounded like a bunch of crap to you, you’re just not ready yet, and that’s fine. A lot of artists believe their creative edge actually comes from their cynicism. That’s certainly the stereotype-angry artist at a cafe with a ciggie in one hand and a gun pointed at their head in the other- and I bought into it. I was totally one of the multitudes who confused extreme cynicism with a particularly intelligent or astute view of society. I don’t regret those years, but I sure as hell didn’t get much quality writing done until I allowed a tiny bit of hope into that world view. Suddenly there was a reason to write, a reason to improve my skills, and a desire to actually connect with people through my writing, rather than just shove my apocalyptic opinions down their throats. The latter approach had won me a like-minded audience, for sure, but few of us were making a career of it.We were just sitting around at cafés with guns pointed at our heads.

Here’s a quote a friend shared with me this morning about optimism and creativity:

“Blockage can occur if you decide, at a conscious or unconscious level, that the world is too sick, difficult, unresponsive, alienating, stupid, or bourgeois a place in which to do art. In a manner of speaking, you judge the world a fraud or a failure. This judgement is often tied to your feeling unrecognized, unrewarded, rejected, and embattled. But the judgement may arise independent of your personal frustrations, independent of the cattle-call auditions you endure or the embarrassing smallness of the roles you win. It may come upon you simply because you chanced to watch the news. It is easy to grow cynical or misanthropic, but it is harder to realise that such cynicism can become a source of blockage. The artist, angered or saddened by the world, may not understand that his blockage is more accurately his refusal to bring art products into a world that he does not love.”
– Eric Maisel

I don’t love the world. I don’t even like it most of the time. I don’t watch mainstream news, follow politics, or subscribe to a religion. Pretty sure that as a society we are totally going to hell in a handbasket. I love my cynicism, it built my creative voice and it keeps me real. My characters are usually flawed and dispossessed, and they don’t live in a perfect world. Won’t be joining the “life is pure bliss” crowd any time soon. But after I began my little crusade to always be just a teeny bit hopeful, my writing transitioned from angsty journal entries to actual stories, with plot and narrative, and most importantly, perspective. That also took training, and a shitload of practice. Again, no easy fix. But I had to see some purpose for all of this, some reason to create. Still not really sure I know what I’m hopeful about. But I’m thankful it’s there.