Category Archives: writing

Surviving Septemblur

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but yet again I am dumbfounded by how quickly the time between mid-August and mid-October has vanished in what seems like the blink of an eye. It’s a whirlwind season, and my favourite time of year (students! school supplies! students!)  — but suddenly it’s Thanksgiving — already!

What’s been keeping me so busy, aside from the usual new academic year frenzy? A look back at my calendar since my last post reveals a lot:

  • I ran my fourth 5K of the season, which sounds much more impressive than what really happened: a six year old on a neon pink bike raced me up a hill and won.
  • I competed in a flash fiction tournament. The prompt was “Sci-fi, a tour bus, a cinnamon roll.” I wrote about a shape-shifting cat with a sweet tooth who holds two men hostage on a time-travelling tour bus. Because a future without cinnamon rolls is no future at all.
  • I watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad. In a week. It’s such a brilliantly written show that I don’t even feel a smidge guilty about it.
  • I hosted my book club for a discussion of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. With cinnamon rolls.
  • I climbed a 45-storey building for a firefighters’ charity. Although it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it would, I will not balk at the 8 storeys to my apartment ever again.
  • I started writing a series of articles on research communication: a scientist’s guide to talking nerdy.
  • Speaking of nerds, I met one who *gets* British comedy and Indiana Jones-themed science exhibits.
  • In round two of the flash fiction tournament, I threw my main character in front of a train. Twice.
  • Theatre season started. Hockey season started. Big Bang Theory season started. All is right in the world.
  • Work has commenced on the annual group Halloween costume. No sewing required this year — which I’m simultaneously relieved and disappointed about.

In short, life is a little crazy — but in all the right ways.

I’ll be back soon. I promise. :-)

Loud as a whisper: Deborah Levy on becoming a writer

Why write? It’s a question that perhaps every writer considers at some point, sometimes publicly, sometimes not. George Orwell wrote a famous essay on the topic. So did Joan Didion. Countless others have also chimed in: David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag, take your pick. I’ve always read such accounts with a kind of morbid curiosity about what makes other writers tick, but there’s also a part of me that resists the question. Of course I agree that we need to understand something of ourselves and our purpose as writers, and writing is naturally the most reflective instrument at our disposal. But I also feel that if we’re truly successful in understanding our purpose, it needn’t become a subject unto itself. Ideally, it becomes an unmistakable and inextricable part of everything we write — the backbone — without which our words flounder.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Deborah Levy’s response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay, entitled, Things I Don’t Want to KnowLevy reflects on writing as a way of dealing with “the knowledge we cannot bear to live with”, “the things we don’t want to know” — such as her father’s imprisonment for supporting the ANC during apartheid, or her convent school mentor whose belief in God wavered. The autobiography is in itself fascinating, but there are two quotes book-ending her story that I particularly appreciated because I think they place the emphasis where it belongs — not on defining our purpose, exactly, but on learning to trust our voices to convey it honestly.

In the beginning, she quotes Polish theatre director, Zofia Kalinska:

To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something. [...] A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish. But when you are ready to catch this wish and put it into language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you.”

Then later, she reflects:

To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice, which is not loud at all.

All in all, a quick, interesting read, and far more insightful, I think, than Orwell’s original essay. But you should know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with George Orwell — I appreciate his style, but I struggle with his cynicism. That’s another story…

 

Have notebook, will travel

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of my writing offline — longhand, in notebooks. I’ve had more free time to write than I’ve had in years, plenty of things to write about, and very little desire to be chained to my computer, or even my iPad. Although I’ve always done most of my “pre-writing” (notes, outlines, etc.) longhand, I’ve recently regained an appreciation for longhand composition. It’s slow. It’s messy. It’s interesting to see how things come out on the page when there is no backspace key to interfere. It breeds attentiveness. And it’s portable. Now that I keep a notebook at hand for more than just taking notes, I find myself actually going places to write. I try, at least once a week, to get out of the house and write somewhere else. Here are some of my favourite writing places:

1. Coffee Shops

Some would call this cliche, and to a point, I’m inclined to agree. But the advantage of this being so familiar is that people hardly seem bothered by some solitary stranger hunched over a notebook while nursing a latte. It’s a nice way to start a writing day.

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2. Bookstores & Libraries  

Because books. What can be more writerly than a place full of books?

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3. Under the shade of a palm tree  

Or any other vacation spot. I have become a total believer in writing vacations. They’re the best. In fact, going on a writing holiday was what started me on the habit of going somewhere else to write, to start seeing even the most familiar places in new ways.

4. The park 

Outdoorsy! The thing I like about writing in the park is that there are always people around, but it never feels busy. There’s much to be said for wide open spaces…or wooded paths.

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5. Planes, trains & automobiles

Okay, well I can vouch for planes and busses. I did try writing on a train from Lausanne to Paris once, only to discover that trains make me sleepy. However, a cross-Canada train trip is still on my bucket list, and I thought Amtrak’s new writers-in-residence program was a great idea. Writing in transit is like a retreat unto itself — new people, new scenery, and hours at a time with nothing better to do.

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6. The racetrack

I stumbled onto this one by accident, sort of. I was wandering the fairgrounds last weekend, in search of mini-donuts and a story, when intermittent showers forced me to seek shelter. It was post-time at the track, and I happen to love horse racing. Win-win. (Or is that win-place-show?) Anyway — turns out the track is a great place to write. You get two minutes of racing every half hour, there are plenty of people to watch, and when people see you with a notebook and a racing form, they just think you’re a really avid racing fan. Which I am. Really.

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7. Home

Recently, I’ve done some rearranging so that I can have a writing space that’s not the same as my computer work space. Because sometimes home still is the best place…or at least my cat thinks so.

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What are some other good writing places?

About that Word Crimes video…

Yes, this one:

Many (most?) of my friends have sent me this video over the past week, and I’ve got to be honest. I think it’s funny. As a language lover and someone who is sick to death of the original “Blurred Lines” song, I got a genuine kick out of the parody. Every. Single. Time. But after a colleague suggested that it might be my theme song (which don’t get me wrong, I also thought was funny), I thought it might be time to set the record straight about my take on word crimes (the acts, not the video).

I have a reputation as a grammar ninja, and it’s well-deserved. I make punctuation-shaped pancakes for National Grammar Day. I might never live down my infamous lab meeting rant about “comprised of”, or that time I wrote a sharply worded letter to a publisher about the shoddy copyediting of an overpriced textbook. I have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, my dictionary has a permanent thumb streak across the fore edge, and I keep more than one style guide within an arm’s reach. It drives me crazy that Tim Hortons, named after Tim Horton, doesn’t have an apostrophe. I use it to justify my Starbucks addiction. I’m not proud of that.

But it’s exceedingly rare that I’ll actually step in, uninvited, to correct someone’s grammar. I’m not one of those trolls that goes around stuffing asterisks into online message boards, and I don’t expect polished prose in your Facebook posts. Complete sentences are encouraged, of course, but I’m still your friend, aren’t I?

Every so often, I get an email from someone who points out that they spent more time proofreading their message than writing it, for fear I might go off the rails at the first misplaced comma. Relax, would you? YOU are not the publisher of my overpriced textbook! (I’m still your friend, aren’t I?)

Even when I am asked to edit something formally, it’s a process, not a prescription. There are some things that are clearly black and white, correct or incorrect, but most of the time — and this is part of the fun of being a writer — you have some choices about which rules to follow and how closely. My job as an editor is to help you decide, based on your intent, which choice is most appropriate in that situation. The context is really important here. More often than not, if you ask me a grammar question, my response is going to start with, “Well, it depends…”

I love that about grammar, and about writing and editing in general. It’s flexible. You can play with it. You can make it do things that the rules say you shouldn’t be able to do. (Take that, quantum physics!) And if it doesn’t work out the first time, you fix it. Not a big deal. The only “word crime” I truly and deeply believe in is the one that keeps people from saying what they mean to say because they’re too afraid of saying it “incorrectly.” Grammar exists to support expression, not to silence it.

Let me say that again, because this is the thing you never learned in English class: Grammar exists to support expression, not to silence it. 

Honestly, go…have fun, break the rules, make mistakes, find an editor who will steer you just straight enough to help you say what you really mean. (Editors like that are gold, and are seriously worth trading your pet unicorn for.)

There’s only one caveat here, and I’m serious on this one. You have to know your audience. If you’re writing a business letter that breaks all the rules of business style, don’t be shocked if people correct you (if they pay attention to you at all). If you want to communicate — and presumably in writing you do — you need to be mindful of the reader’s expectations. Your credibility with your audience is a valuable thing; don’t undermine it with carelessness. The grammar ninjas will be watching…

Vulnerability, empathy, and writing through the mess

When I was a teenager, and not yet willing to call myself a writer, I stumbled upon the following quote in an encyclopedia entry on the library computer:

“Lord, let me grow into someone who has something to say! Let me be one of those that Henry James speaks of, one of those ‘upon whom nothing is lost.’ Let understanding and wisdom be engraved on my mind as deep as the lines of living on a wise and weathered face. Teach me to love and teach me to be humble, and let me learn to respect human difference, human privacy, human dignity, and human pain. And then let me find the words to say it so it can’t be overlooked and cannot be forgotten.”

I scribbled down the quote on the back of my math homework, took it home, and from then on, it was faithfully transcribed onto the inside cover of every notebook I owned. I was never much for the prayer bit, but the rest of the quote captured what I could not yet express about the kind of writer I wanted to be. The quote was unattributed, and I carried it around for many years before I was able to trace it back to what I believe is the original source — On Teaching & Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner. By the time I finally found it (in my late-twenties), I was surprised and a little disappointed to discover that it came from a book on fiction.

I’d given up on fiction.

To say this so bluntly suggests it was a conscious decision, but it wasn’t really. It just happened that I grew into science writing around the same time that my fiction was becoming more difficult. I wouldn’t have characterized the transition then as giving up — I still dabbled here and there in the odd short story, and even published a couple. But I could no longer ignore the fact that my fiction was missing something. It still struck me as superficial and lifeless. I hated that. Gradually my focus shifted, and fiction fell to the wayside.

My first clue to the problem came from an unexpected source. As a professional writing student, I took courses in rhetoric, learning how to write different styles of argument. This kind of persuasive writing came quite naturally, except for one thing: the emotional appeal. My arguments were always logically sound, and I had no difficulty establishing my ethos as a writer, but when it came to making an emotional investment in the argument and extracting the same from a reader, I came up lame. I blamed my scientific training. It would take me a few more years to understand that this was only part of the story, that my resistance to the emotional appeal was not so much a question of skill, but of comfort. I knew how to write it well enough, but I was simply afraid to commit.

Was it possible that the same was true of my fiction?

My fiction has never been the stuff of sunshine and rainbows and warm, fuzzy, feel-goods. I’ve always aspired to a kind of shadowy realism that reflects the complexities of human experience and conflict. I write stories about people, with characters that are flawed and imperfect, and whose behaviour doesn’t always clearly align with their motivations. Characters who, like us, have room to grow, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.

This kind of character-driven work is hard. To do it well, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable, not only to the people who may misinterpret the character as a real person (perhaps you), but also to those parts of yourself that you inevitably do share with the characters you create.  You have to be willing to root through a character’s boneyard to understand what makes her tick. What’s at stake for her? Where is the conflict? Why should you — why should anyone — care about what happens to this fictional person?

For a long time, I believed that my writing skills just weren’t up to the task of bringing a character to life with that kind of richness and depth. But looking back now, I realize that I walked away just as it was starting to happen. It turns out I was afraid of the very thing I most aspired to write.

This was a tough thing to accept at first, but as I’ve slowly been working my way back into writing fiction, I’ve learned that it requires a great deal more empathy than I had back then — not just for the characters and their stories, but also for myself and the process. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of that old adage to “write what you know,” but now I think I’m finally starting to understand what it really means. Taken literally, it sounds like nonsense — writing is a creative act; the whole point is to be able to stretch beyond the confines of what you know for sure. But, perhaps it makes more sense to “know what you write” — that is, to share the experience of whatever it is you hope to evoke in the reader — to embrace the messy intensity of it and write through it, honestly.

Or as Wallace Stegner put it far more eloquently:

You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished, and so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility. But isn’t it enough?

On writing and happenstance

I like commencement speeches. Before you roll your eyes, let me qualify that. Yes, some commencement speeches are cliched and syrupy, and some have all the lasting substance of soap bubbles in a porcupine pen. I get that. And I’ll admit, I don’t even remember the speeches at my own ceremonies, not because they were inherently bad, but because there’s a lot going through a person’s mind on convocation day, the most pressing of which (for me, anyway) is not tripping over my own feet and going splat in all my newly minted, technicolor penguin glory.

But I like the idea of commencement speeches. Most years, there are one or two that resonate with me in some way, but precious few that I’ll actually come back to and watch a second time: David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech (2005, Kenyon College), Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech (2012, University of the Arts, Philadelphia) — and this year, Daniel Pink’s “Sometimes you have to write to find out” speech.

There are speeches that say something meaningful about writing, and speeches that say something meaningful about life — this is one that offers something meaningful about life by way of writing. It’s well worth the 15 minutes. Go watch:

 

Writing and the maker mindset

The other day, I attended a public lecture by Mark Frauenfelder, creator of Boing Boing and editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine. The talk was about the popularity of do-it-yourself technology projects and the growth of so-called “maker culture.” It’s a fascinating topic to me, not so much because I like to build things myself, but because I’ve always looked at science as a way for people to engage meaningfully with the world around them. Science is all about finding stuff out, and there’s no better way to do that than to take something apart, tinker with it, and perhaps even solve a problem with it. Today’s makers, whom Frauenfelder describes as “broad spectrum enthusiasts”,  are not much different from the curious amateurs and natural philosophers who did science before we ever thought of science as a professional activity. Maker culture thrives on people sharing ideas openly and collaboratively improving one another’s designs, without the same barriers that often thwart open innovation models in professional science. And perhaps best of all, making is becoming increasingly accessible to people of all ages and all interests, in a way that professional research isn’t and perhaps never will be. It’s kind of exciting, seeing this resurgence of popular science.

Now, this will sound a little strange, but while my interest in maker culture comes from my interest in science, as a scientist, I never considered myself much of a maker. Of course there were many times in the lab when I had to come up with creative solutions to problems for which there was no ready-made, off-the-shelf protocol or apparatus; that’s just part of being a scientist. But outside the lab, at home, I don’t mind admitting that I’m somewhat less resourceful about DIY projects. I’ve tended to direct my creative energy to other pursuits — to writing, mostly. Does that count?

Going into Frauenfelder’s talk, I wouldn’t have thought so. But in the Q&A, someone asked him whether he’d found it difficult, transitioning from mechanical engineering to journalism, and his response felt immediately familiar. He described how, as an engineer, he would often work on a project for a year or more at a time before seeing a tangible outcome, while journalism allows him to keep moving, feeding his curiosity with new projects all the time, without being stuck on one thing for too long. It certainly sounded consistent with what one would expect from a broad spectrum enthusiast — a maker — as well as many writers I know, including myself.

One of the reasons I never wanted to get a PhD in science is that I didn’t want to specialize. The idea of spending 4-5 years on one project didn’t excite me at all. I enjoyed being more of a generalist. I liked being exposed to a lot of different ideas and projects and people — and the deeper I went into my own research, the more isolated I felt. With writing, I get to ask more questions about more things. I get to tinker with ideas and words — which may not be as sexy as building gadgets with a 3D printer and DIY electronics kits — but it’s all creative problem-solving. It’s all making something out of nothing, learning more about how it works as we go along. It’s the maker mindset.

If you’re not familiar with Frauenfelder’s work, I highly recommend checking him out — you might want to start with his TEDx talk, here:

 

Libraries: the great, unseen, can’t-miss attraction

One of the unexpected advantages of going on a writing holiday, I’ve discovered, is that it takes some of the urgency out of being a tourist. The pressure to see and do as much as I can has been tempered greatly by the fact that my real purpose for being here is to give myself time to write. Don’t get me wrong, the sightseeing has been fun too, but the other day I was standing in a rose garden amid a busload of bona fide tourists who seemed to be in such a hurry to see everything that I’m not sure they saw much of anything at all — and I actually felt a little sorry for them. (I mean, if ever there was a time to literally stop and smell the roses?)

I knew coming into this week that I would not be trying to see everything. I deliberately chose a destination with plenty of options, but kept my mind — and my schedule — open. Today, for example, I ventured off in the general direction of one of the local “must-see” attractions, but stumbled instead into the public library, where, after a brief delay due to a fire drill (during which, I got a terrific lunch recommendation from a random library patron), I settled into a wonderfully peaceful morning writing in the stacks.

Now, to a tourist on a sunny day, there are probably dozens of more exciting things to do than hang out at the library. Truth be told, I think I was secretly counting on it. I knew as soon as I walked in that it was going to be more satisfying than navigating herds of camera-toting tourists, Instagramming their way through the guided tour.

I think you can tell a lot about a place by its libraries. I might be biased, having spent my own formative years under the influence of a pack of librarians (which is kinda like being raised by wolves, but without all the howling at the moon). But I think libraries are just honest, down-to-earth places. Unlike most tourist traps, libraries strive to put their best foot forward to everyone, all the time, and without the underlying profit motive. Libraries are about adding value to the community, in the broadest sense of both words.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to roam an unfamiliar library, but the kid-in-a-candy-shop sense of wonder never really fades. It’s like grandma’s apple pie (or cookies, or pot roast, or whatever your grandma happens to be famous for). The scent of a library — somewhere between that glossy new cover smell and the musty vanilla character of well-travelled books — evokes some of the best memories of my childhood. It’s calm, but not too quiet. And though the layout is instinctively familiar and readily navigable, every library possesses its own distinctive, for lack of a better word — personality.

Whenever I visit a new library, I like to get a feel for the collection. I start in non-fiction, usually around the 020s (because librarians pick the best books about themselves — I once stumbled upon an enchanting anthology of library love stories on just such an adventure). I mostly cruise through the 100s-400s, although I might pause on some of my favourite topics (363.31 – Censorship, 370s – Education). And then I do a thorough rooting through the 500s, the 600s, and the 800s — wrapping up, wherever possible, with a nostalgic thumb through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (808.882). I took it out on a librarian’s dare once when I was thirteen, and dozens of borrowing periods later (and probably some long-forgiven fines), it’s still my favourite book to just sit and flip through at random. (Though oddly enough, I still don’t own a copy…)

If I ever manage to get my head out of Bartlett’s, then it’s off to fiction. It’s always interesting to see how libraries organize their fiction — sometimes alphabetically, sometimes by genre. Then reference, periodicals, local history, special collections…who says libraries are not “must see” attractions?

Today, however, I found a quiet nook in the late 700s, somewhere between stringed instruments and games of chance, sunk into some words of my own making, and didn’t look up until lunch time, when I saw this quote painted above the library’s main entrance:

You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that has been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians. ~Monty Python

Yup, that’s my pack. Wherever I go, there they are.

Ocean waves, creative flow — coincidence? (I think not…)

When I was thinking about destinations for my summer writing getaway this year, every place that came to mind had one thing in common: the ocean.

I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but then again, I probably didn’t need to. Just as some people are naturally attracted to mountains or wide-open spaces, I am (instinctively, it seems) drawn to the water. I love everything about the ocean — the salty sea breeze, the soothing white-noise of waves breaking on rocks, even the way the light shimmers across the surface, causing mirage-like reflections that ripple and fade with the current. I could sit and watch it for hours.

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I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about the ocean that seems conducive to creative endeavours. Perhaps it’s just the natural ambience that relaxes the mind and sharpens the senses. But I’ve often wondered if there’s more to it than that. Water is embedded in the very language we use to describe creativity — from “tapping in” to “filling the well” to the whole concept of creative “flow.” And I can’t help but imagine that Kafka’s famous quote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” applies as much to the writer as to the reader.

Or maybe it’s that the ocean reflects an inescapable truth about ourselves — that what lies on the surface, whatever its character, is but a glimpse of the life within. There’s a whole world below the surface — colourful, diverse, and mysterious — that remains unseen by most people. Maybe the ocean connects us with that part of ourselves — the place where stories live.

I’m not sure what it is, but I do know that whenever I’m here, I’m as close as I can be to finding out. This…is my happy place.

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“Write-seeing” (or, the care and feeding of the uncaged writer)

This week, I’m getting away from it all. And by “it all,” mostly I mean other people. Almost every summer for the last five years, I’ve taken a week off to focus on writing, not because I don’t write the rest of the time, but because there’s something distinctly nourishing to the spirit about getting lost in it for awhile. It’s like a spa treatment for the soul.

The first year was an act of rebellion. Juggling grad school and a full-time job, I was burnt out and bitter, desperate to do something — anything — to carve out some quality downtime. So I signed up for a week-long writing-as-play workshop that seemed as far away from academia is possible. Play, I thought, was exactly what I needed.

When I arrived on the first day and we started making collages out of old magazines and drawing nicknames at random out of the clippings, I immediately had my doubts. It was all a bit too touchy-feely and crafty for me. Describing ourselves in metaphor? Surrealist poems about rain, other poems, or in my case, test tubes?

Despite my hesitation, by midweek, my writing became more relaxed, more fun. This was the part of writing that I’d forgotten. Later, I realized it was also more than that. When I look back now at that messy collage of magazine metaphors, it seems awfully ransom note-esque: writer, held hostage, crazy from neglect.

It wasn’t just the writing I missed, but the creative part of myself that thrives on the process.

Now, summer writing week is an annual fixture on my calendar, and I no longer consider it an indulgence. For the last few years, it’s been part creative retreat, part reunion with a community of writers I may only see once a year. I think there’s a kind of intimacy about writing in the company of others that perhaps only other writers can understand. They know how to be content in a room where the only conversation happening is between pens gliding across pages and the unfettered tapping of keys.

When I write on vacation with non-writers, I always feel like I’m being watched. The well-intentioned might ask what I’m writing about, which I find awkward for two reasons: 1) I honestly might not know yet — writing does not just appear on the page, fully-formed and whole. 2) It feels like an intrusion on the only part of the writing process that’s protected from public scrutiny. Nothing I’m writing about is a secret, and if you’re truly interested, at some point, I’ll share — but the first draft is mine, and mine alone.

The other problem with writing with non-writers is finding the time to write. Maybe it’s just me, but I often worry that if I disappear into a notebook in the company of others, they’ll think I’m ignoring them. In fact, writing is, for me, a powerful way of being present. Some people take photos on vacation. I write.

Of course, I understand that I would bore my companions to tears if I set out to experience a place in writing the way they might capture it in photos. And yet, whenever I travel, there’s a part of me that craves to do just that. To slow down, take the time, and write in the moment. To ditch the itinerary and wander in search of a story.

So this year, I’m finally doing it. A true writing holiday — just me, a map, and a stack of Moleskines — and a thousand words to a picture, give or take.

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