Tag Archives: writing

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.
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

the_dream_by_P_R_O (1)

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.


“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.


I’m writing a novel about bees and crystal meth. (Not bees on crystal meth. Shudder.) Here’s a teaser.


Unlike me, Doug has no reservations about offering up his life story. “I jacked a car and needed to get away from the cops. I’m from Surrey. It’s a fucking war zone there, man. I was selling meth too, it was just a matter of time before I ended up on the inside.”

“Fascinating.” Donna hands him a smoke. “Ember here is getting away from drugs too.”

“Donna!” Traitor.

“Really?” Doug sneers. “You don’t look like the type. What was it, coke?”

“Ritalin,” I say somewhat sheepishly, though I’m not sure why.

“That’s a good drug,” Doug says.

“That’s what I said!” Donna chimes in.

“I’d be dead without it.” Doug grins at her.

“You and my son both, kid.”

They high five. I’m not about to explain myself to some thug kid from Surrey, so I take a bite of my sandwich. Now I’m almost positive he’s the lawnmower thief. How could he not be?

I don’t have to wait long for affirmation. “Thanks for not ratting on me with Meg by the way,” he says to me.

“So that was you.”

“Yeah, of course.” He shrugs.

“And you’re just gonna put it out there like it’s no big thing”

“Sure,” Donna says, “ride on mowers go missing all the time.”

“Would’a got away with it too, if it didn’t run out of gas.”

“What the hell were you going to do with it?” Donna says. “Sell it at the farmer’s market?

“Nah. Craigslist.”

We’re all quiet for a moment, exhaling smoke, wondering where to go next. With Donna, you never have to wonder very long.

“So, planning on stealing anything else while you’re here?”

“Nah,” Doug says. “That was just a relapse. I’m gonna lay low and just work for awhile. Thanks again, Ember.”