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.

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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.

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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.

Tea, Coffee, Withdrawing-rooms and Writing

By the time I was five years old I was a café hound.

smallMacaroonsMy mother and father met downtown when he came off night shift and went for tea and buns. Sometimes I was lucky enough to join them. Mullaney’s and Finn’s Restaurants being the most popular, though my Da preferred Finn’s.  I loved the clank of cutlery, the clatter of cups and saucers, the buzz of chatter, the waitresses, for they were inevitably waitresses, bustling between tables and the tongue-watering display of cakes, buns, scones and pies all mixed in the heavy, almost spicy aroma of coffee. I loved the women in scarves and hats, the damp wool smell of coats in winter and the clack of toeless high-heeled sandals in summer. And over it all the haze of cigarette smoke. I was forever hooked.

I live in Vancouver, Canada, far away from the cafés of Limerick, Ireland, and am glad that smoking in such establishments is outlawed these days, yet my love of coffee houses remains. I can be found in one, usually Our Town, most days of the week, rain or shine, if you know when and where to look, scribbling in my notebook and listening in to conversations of strangers.

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My neighbourhood, Mount Pleasant, is going through the inevitable gentrification pervasive in Vancouver. Still, I was surprised to find a new tea house, Le Petite Cuillere, on the corner of my daily beat as I make my way to my favourite coffee house. It caught my attention first because it has a lovely collection of 1950’s style half-aprons in the window. I hadn’t laid eyes on one in years so I stopped to admire them. The place was not yet open so I had to content myself with peering in the windows.

Because I am a nosy sort, I kept an eye the place. Often it was packed with young women working singly or in groups on laptops, on cell phones, reading books, or simply enjoying each other and chatting up a storm. It was also a hangout for women in their thirties, forties, and up. I have never seen two men sitting in there enjoying a pot of tea and a three tier cake stand piled with scones and delicate cupcakes. This got me to thinking about tea and coffee and space. Is it more manly to drink coffee than tea or is something else going on?  So, of course, I had to pay the teahouse a visit.

The women, and it is women, who run the teahouse, have done a lovely job of creating a cozy space of what is essentially an awkward space. Large, plush easy chairs with little cushions surround round, cloth draped tables. Tea for one comes in small fat teapots, Table1larger pots for two: real teapots covered in tea cozies that never drip. Light classical music plays at really low-volume. All in all a quiet, peaceful place to spend time. It called to mind an old fashioned drawing-room. I haven’t even thought of the word drawing-room in years, and over my tea and macaroon, I wondered where the word came from.

A drawing-room is, according to the OED, a room in a private house in which guests can be received and entertained. It is an abbreviation of withdrawing-room. Wiki says: Until the mid-twentieth century, after a dinner the ladies of a dinner party withdrew to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen at table, where the cloth was removed. After an interval of conversation, the gentlemen rejoined the ladies in the drawing room.

So it seems the modern teahouse, reminiscent of an old-fashioned drawing-room, is being used in exactly this way. Women are withdrawing to the teahouse to hold their own discussions and men may, from time to time join them. And they do a mean soy cap too.

A perfect place to linger and chat the afternoon away with a friend over a cuppa and macaroons, it does not entice me to scribble away at my novel. It is too luxurious, too genteel for the drama and angst of my characters. Or perhaps my characters are too modern and rude for drawing-rooms. They fit perfectly in my coffee shop though, among the girls who come in early Sunday morning still dressed in their night before clothes, looking like their heads will explode if someone drops a spoon, and the guys, gallant and embarrassed, with their morning-after girls. Such goings on would never happen in the teahouse, I’m sure of that.

The difference between teahouse and coffee shop is not so much about manliness or the OurTownUselack of it. It is more about style. For writing time I stick to my coffee house, more inspired with the familiar buzz and bustle of folk coming and going, making out and breaking up, laughing and crying over their lattes, cappuccinos and triple shot Americanos.