Passion, vision and the page

A friend said to me a while ago that going to writing school ruined my writing. I said, no, I knew how to do that, I had to learn a lot of other things as well. Lately that conversation has come back to me as I begin and abandon writing projects. 

After writing school I wrote four books. Yes, four. Full length and complete. Two of them got published. The thing is: I wrote the first book just to prove to myself I could actually write a story, beginning, middle, end. It was published, a publishing contract I won with the manuscript in a competition. In truth, I dislike that book. Part of disliking it is that I learned how to write a story as I wrote it. Or should I say, reading it at events after I wrote it showed me how much I had learned. Some parts of it I like, some parts make me cringe because I could do so much better with them now. But I had to write it to learn how to make them better, and the how doesn’t happen in the moment. It happens later. Just like they told us in that writing year at The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. They said it would take a year or two to absorb and use what we’d learned. It did. And with each writing project since, it become clear that it takes a while to see what I’ve learned. 

One other book I wrote got published. That one I wrote because I was angry. Some twat of a US politician was withering on on CBC radio about repealing abortion laws, and how abortion was wrong. My impulse was to yell at the radio, yes, useless, but an often practiced uselessness in my house, sometimes it’s the TV that’s responsible for out loud yelling when I’m totally alone, but there it is. Later I got to thinking about how god and religion is used, about how groups can use it to chivvy us to do the ‘right thing’, and the question is how the heck do any of us know what the right thing is? We can do what is, by our own lights, the right thing and have very wrong results. And then I got curious about that and wrote a book exploring that theme. That book led to a publishing contract where a possible second book was mentioned, and there I was covered in expectation that a second book would happen. Possibly one just like the one I’d written, or similar enough. 

I found that expectation wouldn’t do at all. I knew how to write that book. What I wanted was a challenge. Something new and stimulating.  So I took courses in screenplays, then playwrighting. I wrote a couple of mini scripts which I enjoyed doing. The limitations  of each form stretched me as a thinker and a writer. Figuring out ways to get what I meant across absorbed me. The courses ended, as courses do. Then I began and abandoned many stories, some complete, some not. All of which didn’t quite satisfy me to spend time on. As many explanations as stories surfaced as to why. I was old and a novel seemed like a long undertaking, short stories were not my forte, and on and on and on. I sold up and moved to Europe for five months, then came back and settled in a new, quieter city. Wrote and abandoned more stories. Then the pandemic hit.

It is true that I am a dyed in the wool optimist. I can’t help it. No matter how dark things or I get, I bubble back up to the surface. There is no great credit due to me for this fact. It is my nature. And so it seems to be with the pandemic. It hit me smack around the head and woke me up, but I woke up reluctantly, with incredibly slow wit. Of course, I had worries the same as we all had. What did this mean in the big picture? Would I ever see family again? Would we all be wiped out, or most of us? How does capitalism fit in here? What is our social contract with each other? Why do we think it’s ok to underfund and warehouse citizens who are old and frail? Why do we expect the least well paid in society to carry us through? And nature, oh my, nature. In our initial withdrawal nature flourished. How do we respond to that?

No writing happened. None at all. Not even journal writing, a thing I’ve done consistently, though not every day, since I was about fifteen years old. Instead I took long, solitary walks. I sat in nature observing and just being. I gave up any and all expectations of normal life and lived with whatever presented itself physically before me. I connected much more deeply with family and a few friends. In short, I didn’t actively think at all. I was content in the moment. Happy even.

Yet. And yet. In those quiet, solitary moments, there in my deeper self, things were going on. Whole continents were shifting, clouds were forming and clearing rapidly, storms built up, exploded and were gone, epiphanies presented themselves and left if they were ignored and thundered now and again for attention. Somewhere in the turbulence the words of my friend came back to me, she preferred my writing before I went to writing school. Could this be the root cause of my impatience with writing? Could it have something to do with why what I was writing these days bored me?

Desperate for stimulation and occupation in my solitary state I turned to the internet. So much was going on. So much I had no real interest in. Then one thing caught my eye: a course from and Irish site in flash fiction. I signed up. 

It was just what the doctor within ordered. Stimulating and difficult assignments that my first impulse always decided were impossible for me to do. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d been writing flash fiction for years before writing school. Had even published some. It was a form of writing I was into long before it was a thing, and so I had dismissed it as valid. In this particular course I found challenge, stimulation, and passion. I was bereft when it ended.

Once again my friend’s words came back to me. It took me a long time of foostering around mentally, trying to write and boring myself to death, finding other things to do, anything, except write, to realize that my friend was not entirely wrong. I had, in a sense, lost my writing way. 

Writing had become a task. It had become something I did that wasn’t entirely for myself. If we are not careful, the urge to publish can do that to a writer. Some writers thrive in that world, and some can’t. Or they can if they stay true to their own interest and desire. I had strayed from mine. In my desire to learn ‘how to write’, I had misplaced the passion I had for writing, lost touch with that wild joy of following a line or a thought wherever it may lead, fallen into the trap that it needed to lead here, or there, rather than wherever it wanted to go. That glorious, thrilling tremble in the soul was being ignored for the ‘proper’ story. 

Recently a friend challenged me to write a short story. I took up that challenge with a preconceived notion of what a short story might be. I tried my damnedest to write one. I even had a whole idea for a book of short stores. One which, incidentally, I conceived as part of writing school. I shared it with a friend who was wildly enthusiastic about it. So I sat down, opened up my computer and began. I even set up the stories I had in mind as Scrivener projects. My inner writer rebelled. Shite! she declared, I’m not joining in with this. I coaxed, bribed, demanded, got stubborn and wrote, and it was just dead. No life, no joy. Nothing. Just writing that was as flat as a pancake.

By now my inner writer was impatient. She was screaming at me that I have many pieces to put together into a book, to add to, to immerse myself in and make something of. Finally I listened.

Listening may have something to do with the fact that I was fully vaccinated, and that some semblance of normal life could resume because the day I heard my inner writer speak was the first day I’d gone to a coffee shop and written my journal in one in over a year. A little tiny slice of life before. Whatever in me used to be alert to that inner world woke up, and at last heard my inner writer speak. My task was to work hard to marry together in harmony the way I used to write and all the wonderful craft I’d learned at writing school. In other words, create my own voice for my own stories. Because all that work I’d done was to get me to this point, the point where I had a myriad of tools at my fingertips, where I understood enough about craft to actually consciously create the stories I want, be they tiny or huge. 

There may be writers who arrive fully grown. They have it all, language, story, craft and dedication. But I doubt it. Most writers toil away for a long time learning what works, finding what they want to express, reading and writing constantly with drawers and notebooks and backup discs full of discarded work. If they are lucky, like I was, and get the chance to attend a supportive and great writing school with talented and wonderful mentors, at what is really a minor cost as these things go, they can get there a little faster. But nobody arrives full blown. Dig into any lauded ‘first book’ sensational writers and you will find oceans of manuscripts half finished, badly finished, published without a splash, or abandoned incomplete. You will find files of stories that few people have seen. You will find a world of patient, supportive people who have read, given feedback and helped clarify what that writer wanted to say. And you will find centuries of writer’s who paved the way with works to be read and learned from. Nobody arrives fully grown. Not in life, not in art. Growth is longer or shorter, but it is integral to the process. It is active. It is full of error, of elation and dejection. It must be worked at.

Have I reached, or will I ever reach fully grown? I have no idea, but I intend to keep growing, to keep creating stories I want to tell, whether they are fashionable, publishable or not. Whether a handful of people respond to them, whether I ever hit publication again, or not. Writing for me is not about that. I have woken up and remembered. Writing school has given me tools to use, introduced me to different ways to shape and colour stories I want to tell. It cannot be done  like a paint by numbers picture, no matter how pleasing such pictures may turn out. I must use these tools in concert with the skills that I already had, and have. I must uncover my own voice, my own style of telling tales.  It is part of me to express my own vision of the world, unadulterated, comprehensible to other or not. Writing is who I am as much as anything else about me. I am a writer. Even if no-one else notices.


So, I moved cities. The reasons I moved are hard to define exactly though one is solid. I sold my apartment. The reason for that is easy to explain: I’d lost trust in it. I bought more than 14 years before I sold it. I bought it, not because I loved it, or wanted to live in that area but because I needed some security. My relationship of 15 years had folded, I was not young, I knew I’d never be in another relationship in the same way. I had to look out for myself. So, I bought this apartment because it was available and I could afford it. And when, so many years later, it was invaded by bedbugs and I lived out of plastic bags for six months, when I’d cleared out a number of things that seemed important to me, I realized that I’d lost trust in it, it was time to go. By then it had been declared bedbug free by a bedbug sniffing dog and two separate inspections by pest control and by all good reason I should have settled back happily into it, I’d lost faith and developed a significant bug phobia. I sold it and moved to Europe for what I thought was forever. That’s not what happened. Brexit and a healthy skepticism happened. Also what happened was I underestimated my love/don’t love relationship with Canada. All that aside for another time, maybe. I moved back but could no longer live in Vancouver. All I’d enjoyed there was gone. Too much misery evident every day, too expensive, me getting older, and the perpetual association of the place with bedbugs, which was exacerbated by the tales of the people I knew who had to deal with them, so, on November 15, 2018 I washed up in Victoria.

One of the things I realized quite early on in a vagabond life, is that those creative people I knew had a certain stability about them. Yeah, the drank too much, doped up too much, gained and lost too many jobs, but the one thing they did was stay put in one place. That was my Vancouver. There I wrote and published, I had a community of writers and creative folk I valued, I got to explore myself in relation to others and them in relation to themselves. All lovely stuff and I thrived. But those bloody bed bugs.

Here in Victoria I am happy. I got so incredibly lucky in that I found a lovely apartment in a great location within days of arriving.  While I was cooling my heels and regaining some kind of perspective on a world full of bugs of various kinds in Europe, a couple of friends had moved to Victoria. One, a close friend who had lived two blocks away when I lived in Vancouver, offered to put me up until I found a place. I am so grateful.

Settling in has not been all suns and roses. I sorely miss the creative community I had in Vancouver and I find myself quite a different person here. Disinclined to go out and meet people, happy to walk by myself on the seafront every day and live a life that is pretty solitary. I also had some shocking and abrupt ruptures with folk I knew who lived here, and a past that intruded in a disturbing way. Yet, here I am, walking on along the seafront, enjoying a beautiful day and watching otters and harbour seals hunt in the ocean thinking “I love my city” and realising that I have thought ‘my city. I have not written much creative stuff since I arrived. Some short flash pieces and attempts to complete longer works that have failed miserably. Lately I’ve understood that for me this is the price of upheaval. No, not all the emotional stuff of shattered and miscued friendships or resurgence of past relationships not in a good way, but of actual physical uprooting. My roots are gone and so I am like a leaf on a river, drifting along. I am enjoying the ride, but there is no time for a social or philosophical fascination on which to base writing. There is only absorption, accretion of detail, that may come to fruit at some later time. There is the waning horror of bugs of any kind. There is a putting together of a different self. And there is the loneliness left by the lack of my constant companion since I was a young teen: writing.

Listening Is Not Reading

I’ve tried my first real audio book. Well, I listened to books before when I was in the gym or on tape during long driving trips, but never at home for pleasure. I’m unlikely to do it again.

Maybe I began badly. I had read several of the series I selected, so I already had a clear voice for the hero. The voice of my audio book was nothing like that. The voice in my ear showed my hero as a much more crass person. The wonderful, tiny observations I so enjoyed and used to build his character and world sounded crude. The tone, inflection, and emphasis on the story were not at all what I would hear as I read myself. The private space I create when I read a book was totally violated.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised by my reaction. The biggest pleasure of reading and, even more so of writing a story, is in creating a deeply private and intimate space. Dictating instead of writing would totally not work for me. To talk out loud makes me aware of other folk, which makes me more critical and inhibited. This doesn’t at all work for making up people and situations. The parade of pictures and events that pass through my mind grind to a stop. And it seems the same can happen when I listen to audio books. I have been lucky so far in that voices in books I’ve listened to have been congruent with my idea of characters, or I’ve been meeting the characters for the first time and so accept what the reader’s voice offers. Or, perhaps, I’ve been so intent on not falling off the treadmill that I’ve not been paying too much attention to the voice in my earbuds.

Another problem with my audio book listening is that I’ve fallen asleep after about two paragraphs. This is not good as the book is supposed to be a thriller, adding to which I keep having to rewind to find the last thing I remember hearing. It’s not been easy to roll back to where I fell asleep, and I spend more time trying to find my place than listening to what comes next. At the rate I’m going it’ll take me months to read this book.

The Persistence Prism

Years ago, sometime in the 1990s, I went to Stephen Leacock’s house in Orillia with friends. We went for a writing workshop and it is there that day I wrote the first piece that included the main characters of what became Left Unsaid. The grounds were lovely. Green space. Lots of green space. But it was the house itself that inspired me. Specifically the kitchen. There were bells there so the servants could answer a call from any room in the house. Something about those bells, maybe about the whole estate itself, created a ruffle of class-consciousness in me. Immediately three people jumped into my mind: a man, a writer (no surprise, I was in Stephen Leacock’s house), and his two daughters, one of whom is missing, the other who holds deep resentment against him for some reason. I had no idea what the reason was.

At this early stage I even had the name of the missing sister, Fran. The other sister held a number of names over the years before she settled in as Jude. She was Jody for a long time, but that was in a different story. Somewhere during that writing a housekeeper appeared, and the housekeeper was mysterious to me. I wasn’t sure why she was in the story in the first place, and in the second I knew she had a secret of some kind.

I began to write that different story. Wrote quite a lot of it, in fact, before it occurred to me that I didn’t have a real story there to tell. This fact annoyed a friend of mine who read part of that story. For years she nagged me to get back to it, she wanted to find out what happened to Fran and to hear her story. I told her it was never going to be Fran’s story, I was sure about that, but she persisted in asking for it.

Fast forward quite a number of years, years during which these four characters popped into my head on a regular basis, and I wondered about the sense of class I’d felt in the Leacock house. Where did that fit?

I started a number of other writing projects. I wrote and published a book for young adults, and all during that time my friend nudged me about Fran. The characters too appeared on a regular basis demanding that I write about them. In a fit of idleness at a café one day I devoted a couple of hours to thinking about these people. Who were they anyway? What story did they have? Slowly I began to understand that I had the relationships right in emotional tone but wrong in every other possible way. Over the next month or so I made notes on Fran (the missing sister), Jude (resentful daughter), Daniel (was he a good or a bad man?) and Ellen (Daniel’s wife). The housekeeper kept popping up, so I had to ask why? The final piece of the puzzle fell into place: she once had an affair with Daniel. All that writing I’d done before didn’t go to waste in the end because in it was the background detail I needed to understand the characters and make them real.

I took the whole month of August that year to write the first complete draft of the story Left Unsaid. This draft too was all wrong. The story itself was right and was told in part by Jude, in part by Iris and in part by Delia, the housekeeper, (who turned out to be a nurse, not a housekeeper, another mistake of mine). Even I could see it didn’t work. I asked myself who is the most interesting character here and quickly identified Delia and decided she should tell the story alone. At that point her part was the smallest in terms of writing. Go figure.

At this point my mentor from The Writer’s Studio at SFU, Wayde Compton, was running a workshop for grads of the Studio who wanted to work on a long work. I quickly signed up and over the next six moths rewrote the story again from Delia’s point of view. Which was much more fun and absorbing to write, and this time I do believe I got it right. Left Unsaid will be published by Signature Editions in October 2017.

WORD Vancouver Sunday, September 25, 2016

I will be giving a workshop on Sunday at WORD Vancouver. The workshop is free so do drop in with paper and pen in hand. The location has changed.

The one on one sessions have been moved to a workshop room on the 3rd floor of the Library.

Take the escalator you see immediately upon entering the library, up one floor (not 2).

Once on the 3rd floor the room will be to the left and there will be signage indicating where exactly to go.

Trust in my creative self in the face of idleness and silence

I envy writers who get an idea, settle in to create an outline and then write. My process is not at all like that. At least not at first.

I have written nothing for four months, which is not at all usual for me. I have three or four beginnings on the go, which is quite usual. However settling on one of those just hasn’t happened, much as I’ve tried. My mind kept skipping from one to the other, back and forth as if fuelled on high-octane caffeine, even though I mostly drink decaf these days. In the end I reconciled myself to the fact that none of these projects actually excited me enough to sit down for four hours a day for months, so I gave up on them. No point flogging a dead horse.

Mid-April to mid-June I was content enough to write nothing, although I did keep a pretty active journal. I have, after all, written four complete books in as many years, no matter that only two of them were any good, so time off seemed proper. I was in Ireland then and became fascinated with graveyards. Travellers' CemetaryMy brother totally indulged me and we toured some old and new graveyards. The feeling that something was stalking me, some story, became clear. CrecoraGraveyard (1)Just what story, or where it might go, I had no idea. I didn’t worry it; just let it simmer all by itself. Now and again I checked in, what’s up with that? I asked my creative self, who said absolutely nothing in response.

When my August efforts to settle into a work came to nothing I nudged my creative self. All that actually happened was a sudden urge to paint my apartment. It wasn’t the best time to do this. The weather was hot. Very hot. I didn’t want to paint my apartment, but one thing I’ve learned about my writing process is this: when I get the urge to move the furniture around or paint my walls, then a story is brewing. I can count on that. So I spent one of the hottest weeks we’ve had sweating and swearing and painting. The place was a mess, furniture out of place, tons of books and papers turned up from where I’d stashed them that now needed to be sorted and either filed or flung out. I gave my creative self another deadline, knowing in my heart trying to dictate to that part of me is useless at best, but you know, sometimes you’ve got to lay down the law, seem in control of things. My new deadline to start is September 1.

Today is August 31. The morning dawned cool and wet. I woke up with headache and stuffy nose from paint fumes. Crabby as could be I set out for a swim, which didn’t happen because of a fire in the swimming pool complex. When the fireman told me I couldn’t go in because of a fire in the pool, I almost laughed, but I could smell smoke and the unmistakable odour of electrical burning. Folk were sitting around outside in their swimsuits. Little kids were wrapped in towels, and a few who’d already been let in to get their gear were drying off and dressing themselves, trying various degrees of modesty,  in the parking lot. I trudged back to catch the bus, changed my mind and had a coffee, thought about some journal writing. Rejected that and headed for the bus.

Typical of the day so far, there was a five car accident attended by two ambulances, three police cars, a fire engine, and, eventually, a solitary tow truck. The accident blocked most of the intersection, and all I could do was stand in the rain and watch four busses stop dead in a line waiting to get through. Relax, I told myself, nothing to be done.

As I gazed into space, missed two busses on the cross street because of inattention, listened to the rain batter the hood of my jacket, my creative self sprung awake and laid out the next writing project before me. It has, I must say, nothing much to do with the day that was in it. Well, maybe a little in a hugely exaggerated way. Typically it builds on a small paragraph I wrote about a year and half ago in response to a writing prompt at a workshop.

This will be the third story I’ve taken on that is developed from a long ago written paragraph that was assigned to a notebook and almost forgotten. It is the fifth I’ve worked on after an overhaul of my living quarters. If there is anything to be learned at all from this is to never throw out the little paragraphs that seem to go nowhere and never mess with your process once you recognize it.


The village of Kiltilly in ‘Left Unsaid’ is not real, but…

It’s been a while since I posted regularly here. I’ve been busy writing and finished a new novel titled Left Unsaid, so I’ve not been skiving off.

I’ve been fortunate to visit Ireland, albeit unexpectedly, this month and got a chance to go to the village of Foynes, where I spent a lot of time during my childhood and youth visiting my aunts, Eileen and Maureen. Although the village has changed a lot since then my memories of it are vivid, so not surprisingly I called on some scenes and aspects of it when creating the village of Kiltilly in the story.


FoynesCafe (2)For those who kindly read and commented on Left Unsaid here is the café in Foynes, Ireland that was the inspiration for Peggy O’Shea’s café in the story. However, none of the lovely staff there in any way resemble Peggy.


The building up on the hill, the white block, is the old TB hospital in Foynes, which inspired me to invent how Delia and Daniel met. Once again I used my memories of the hospital building sitting above in isolation of the village.

HospitalFoynes (3)

2,600 Words a day for 27 days

The first draft

The first draft

I had been dicking around with a story for a few months so I decided that to get it down on paper in August. I would write 2,600 words a day for 27 days, that is one day off each week for four weeks.  I did keep to the schedule, with a bit of monkeying around, and got 55,000 usable words at the end of the month.

Some reflections on the process:

I would never give myself such a word count in such a timeframe again. This does not mean I wouldn’t do it; I just wouldn’t give it to myself as a goal. The first 2,300 words were not too bad, but that last 300 broke my head more than once.

So I don’t have a secretary or a wife who will happily take my scrawl and enter it into the computer while I write the next lot. Which meant I also had to type up what I did the same day. This turned out to be the hardest part of the day. I needed to rest up my brain, but I couldn’t. On the upside, I got to edit a little as I typed and that mostly improved the work. My handwriting is so awful I couldn’t risk leaving it overnight because likely I wouldn’t be able to read what I’d scratched down.

I didn’t worry about writing well or writing badly. I just got the basic story down. I didn’t polish much at all, as I had no idea what I would keep and what I would consign to the trash. This helped me to keep moving forward with the plot.

Now and again I did do minor changes from previous days work when the story took a shift. When the deviations were huge from what I’d already written I simply made a note to look at it and moved on.

Now it’s done, I’m glad I did it. Here are some things to consider if you ever try it:

Don’t decide to give up your night out for a glass with friends. I did this for two weeks, felt very virtuous, then thought to heck with it, I need that. Life improved and so did my eagerness to write.

Don’t put on the dinner and think you will write just while it’s cooking. I burned a few of perfectly good meals and ended up scrubbing way too many pots doing that.

Don’t look at the dust bunnies as they turn into sheep and gallop across the floor. It only encourages them.

Don’t put off that shower first thing in the morning. Trust me on this. It could days before you remember it again.

Don’t leave the house before you check that you clothes are on properly.

Most days your kitchen might look like this

Most days your kitchen might look like this for a while

Don’t forget to take a little time to daydream. It helps the characters sort themselves out and makes it easier for you to figure out what devious devils they are.