Friday, December 10, 2010

Rose hips

Sometimes when I feel frustrated about the endless "to do" lists at work, office politics, my annoying dogs, and so on, all I need to do is go for a walk. It brings me back to a state of gratitude for living in this wonderful place on this wonderful planet.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Out of the Slough of Despond

I recently fell into the Slough of Despond. Or maybe it was the Pit of Despair. In any case, it was a dark, cold place with no up. I fell in suddenly and unexpectedly. The cause? I found out that when I wrote my novel, I hadn't followed any of the rules. Everyone else seemed to know the rules. I hadn't even realized that there were rules. Therefore, my novel must be crap. (And here I had been so satisfied with my first draft, so certain that the next step was simply to put some time into the manuscript revisions and I would have a substantial work.) There was no light anywhere.

Suspended there, motionless, directionless, and quite grumpy, I had my first insight. Perhaps one reason that I had not been proceeding with revising my novel in a timely way was that I was unsure of how to go about doing so. So, as much as I am always tempted to thumb my nose at "the rules" (I don't like rules), I reasoned (in the murky kind of way that one thinks in dark hopeless places) that I should take a closer look at some of those rules that other people follow to see if I could find some tools or strategies that might help me with my revisions.

Hmm, a faint sickly sort of light above me; I clawed my way upward. I inspected tools and rewriting advice: character grids, plot and subplot structure, archetypes, core stories. I began to analyze my manuscript in a structural way, similar to how I might approach a literary analysis of any other writer's work. Rather than "crap," I discovered interesting complexities of plot, character relationships, symbols, and social commentary there in the manuscript already, along with some flaws that had been invisible to me previously.

And now I'm out of the hole, back in the light, working through additional steps of analysis. I'm almost ready to start a beginning-to-end reread/manuscript markup. I'm not following anyone's exact prescription, but taking bits and pieces that fit my revision needs. And the next step after that, I think, will be to actually start rewriting the thing, with all my new ideas about character arcs and motives, plot points, etc. to guide me and my battered ego.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Sad NaNo Season

This year, at the beginning of October, I was looking forward to National Novel Writing Month with gusto. I have participated in it the past three Novembers. In 2007, I wrote over 50,000 words, developing 4 short stories that I had written years earlier into a novel. It was not nearly finished, so I continued working on it for each of the next two Novembers. By November 2009, it was 114,000 words long and the first draft was very close to being finished. A few months later, with some intermittent work on it, I finally had a completed first draft. I felt happy with it.

And then it sat. I made a few halfhearted attempts at revision. I did some research to fill in details that I had been vague on during the initial writing, but not much because that seemed to lead me off into endless digressions (internet surfing). I made a list of (mostly minor) problems with the manuscript that I needed to consider and rework. But then I didn't do it.

So when November rolled around again this year, I considered and rejected the idea of using NaNoWriMo to work on my revisions. Although NaNo might motivate me to work on those pesky revisions and it might add some necessary discipline and structure, revisions aren't really what NaNoWriMo is all about. Is it?

My next novel was rolling around in my head. I was laying out scenes, thinking about plot, building my novel world in my mind -- I was pumped and ready to go!

And then I went to the Surrey International Writers' Conference (SiWC) in late October. In three intense, useful days, I suddenly discovered why I was making so little progress revising my manuscript. It wasn't just that I was procrastinating (although I was), and it wasn't just that I had way too much stress at work (although I did). My revisions were stymied because I didn't really have a clue how to evaluate my novel's structure, story, and style. I didn't know what wasn't working well in it, or how to go about fixing it.

Although it was disappointing to realize that my manuscript was far less finished than I thought, at least I returned from the conference with some great insights about the revisions that I need to do and why. For the last few weeks, I have been evaluating the manuscript in terms of subplot structure, conflict, tension, character development, action, dialogue, and description. I have been developing a plan for the revisions.

So why is it a sad NaNo season? Well, I've shelved my new novel idea for now. It's time to work on those revisions.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pears and Brie in a Salad

This great salad comes from Rose Reisman's website Art of Living Well. Check it out; she has many great recipes. I found her site because I looked online for "pear + salad." I was asked to bring a salad to dinner, and as I have a surfeit of pears, I was looking for some new ideas for a pear salad. This one caught my eye because of the combination of pears and brie -- two things I love. When put together with spinach and candied pecans, it was definitely yummy. I only used up two pears though. One slight change that I made to the recipe is that I sprinkled lemon juice on the chopped pears so they wouldn't go brown. Next time that I make this salad, I will mix up a little less dressing, and toss it all at the last minute, as tonight I thought it was it was slightly soggy.

My pears are beautifully flavoured, organically grown winter pears. I like pears a lot, but my family members will not eat pears at all unless cooked into something. I have been making pear jam, putting pears into my barbequed back ribs marinade, and hiding them in pancakes. I have given many away, although I have discovered that many people are not all that interested in being given homegrown fruit and veggies. They apparently prefer to eat the perfectly shaped, unblemished, and often tasteless and pesticide laden produce from the grocery store.

I am on always the lookout for new ideas for pears. . . or friends who appreciate a gift of fruit. So, here's Rose's great salad:

Spinach Salad with Candied Pecans, Pears and Brie
This is the number-one salad in my catering company. The sweet and savory combination of cinnamon-sugared pecans, ripe pears and small morsels of brie is sensational. There is very little oil in this, but you won’t miss it. You can easily make this a main meal salad by adding some grilled chicken or shrimp. Photo by Brian MacDonald.
1/3 cup pecan halves 2 Tbsp orange juice concentrate, thawed
3 Tbsp icing sugar 2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp cinnamon 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/8 tsp allspice 1 tsp minced garlic
1/8 tsp nutmeg 1/2 tsp liquid honey
8 cups baby spinach leaves 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup diced radicchio
1 large ripe pear, peeled, cored and diced
2 oz brie, diced
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a baking sheet with cooking oil.
  2. Rinse the pecans with cold water. Drain, but do not let them dry. Combine the icing sugar, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg in a small bowl. Dip the pecans in the sugar mixture, coating them well. Spread on the prepared baking sheet.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes in the center of the oven. Remove and cool. When they’re cool enough to handle, chop coarsely.
  4. Combine the spinach, radicchio, pear and brie in a large serving bowl.
  5. Whisk the juice concentrate, oil, vinegar, garlic, honey and mustard together in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat. Garnish with the candied pecans.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Salmon Glacier

This is the Salmon Glacier. It is located in Northwestern Canada, at the border of British Columbia and the southern tip of the Alaska panhandle. I believe that it is the largest glacier in North America that is accessible by road. I was there this summer and took this photograph.

This week I had a horrible week at work. Nothing bad actually happened except that we were short-staffed, which meant that I was not able to progress much on some big projects that have looming deadlines. However, it suddenly became clear this week that a problem that has been developing for a long time is about to become acute in the next week or two, and it is likely to have very negative implications for the whole workplace.

I am the boss, and for me the week was horrible because I wasn't able to think of a solution to the problem. Yet I could clearly visualize what an impact this problem is going to have on all my colleagues and staff in the workplace. It is a realistic concern as we experienced a similar problem a few years ago, and the result was anger, inefficiency, despair, burnout, and resignations. Also, I worked so hard that time to try to hold things together, get us through the problem, and find solutions that I almost lost my health. I don't want to go through all that again.

I worried myself sick about this problem all week. I could hardly sleep. I talked the problem over separately with two of my closest friends, both of whom are managers of similar organizations. I vented, and they vented to me about their workplace problems, but we didn't really come up with constructive suggestions for each other. I also discussed it with my boss, who listened sympathetically, and we discussed temporary fixes that might help us through the worst of the crisis. But he couldn't come up with any long term solutions either that would address the source of the problem. It is systemic and pervades the whole larger institution.

I played out all kinds of scenarios, and outlined action plans. In my adrenalin fueled exhaustion and anxiety, I was on an emotional roller coaster -- sometimes jolly and encouraging, sometimes grumpy and despairing, and sometimes accusatory towards administrators who should have been helping but seemed to be doing nothing. By Friday afternoon, I had worked myself into such a state that I spoke shrilly to my boss, and critically to one of the other administrators who is usually quite helpful.

I might have alienated them. That certainly hasn't helped solve the problem. By working myself into such a state of worry and responding so emotionally, I have become part of the problem.

Looking at the photos that I took during my travels this summer has helped me step back from the problem a little. Look at the Salmon Glacier, so huge and spectacular. My tiny little problem in a tiny little organization in a tiny little city is only temporary. It is small compared to the Salmon Glacier. If I can see nothing but my small temporary problem, I won't see the Salmon Glacier. And you know what -- it isn't even my problem. Someone else is responsible for the decisions that have led to it. All I can do is identify the problem to my superiors, and do the best that I can to mitigate its effects on my staff. After that, I need to walk away from it, and go home and enjoy my family. And, I need to take time to lift up my eyes and see the Salmon Glacier.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Distant Storm

I love this artist, Toni Grote! This one is called "Distant Storm." Check out her website. She posts a new painting almost every day.

Monday, October 4, 2010

National Novel Writing Month 2010

November 1-30 is NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- and I'm starting to get excited. Yesterday I went and peeked at the site and signed myself in for 2010. I'll have 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel.

I participated for the first time in 2007 (a year in which I had a reduced workload) and achieved the 50,000 word goal. Although I had a novel in progress, about 60 pages long at that time, instead of completing it I started writing a new novel. The new one wasn't an entirely new idea. It built on four linked short stories that I had written a couple of years earlier. In NaNoWriMo 2008 and 2009, I continued working on the novel started in 2007, and by the end of November 2009, I more or less had a rough draft of about 120,000 words.

The title of the novel is Memories of a White Girl. In it, I play around with the notion of memoir, and with the role that family and friends play in shaping the adult self. I explore the seductive hold of small community home towns, and their dual nature: deeply familiar yet strangely odd; both exclusive and inclusive; embracing and rejecting; the place you run from and the place you run back to. I touch on the collective making of racism and how racist attitudes become woven, unseen, into everyday practices.

Over this past year, I have done a little rewriting and revision. Memories still needs a little more. But for NaNo this year, I'm embarking on a new project, and the thought of it has me all fired up.

It's almost November. That gives me permission to ignore many of my obligations and write. (Then I'll spend months afterward trying to make up for it!)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Quest of a Balanced Life

Like so many other people, most I suppose, I strive for a balanced life. Yet sometimes that quest seems to take the form of simply adding more things to my already crowded "to do" list.

For example, here is a list of things that I do (or try to do) every day:

- exercise
- eat 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables
- cook a healthy dinner and sit down with my family to eat it
- tell my partner that I love him
- give my teenage son a hug
- drink a glass of milk
- drink 8 or more glasses of nonalcoholic beverages a day
- brush my teeth at least twice
- floss my teeth
- observe nature: the quality of the light, the pattern of leaves against the sky, the reflections in a puddle
- do one extra task, aside from the daily ones
- read something not work related
- talk with a distant friend or family member
- take a multivitamin
- take a calcium pill
- compost organic waste
- cuddle, pet, and give attention to the pets
- listen to or read the news
- take some time to daydream or muse
- write, or think about writing (writing emails related to work doesn't count!)
- spend time with my partner
- spend some time outdoors

Along with the daily things, there are the bigger goals, principles, and seasonal activities and weekly regular activities that are really too numerous to list, but here are some examples:

- grow, harvest, cook, and preserve my own organic fruits and vegetables
- play indoor soccer (twice weekly in season)
- ski (weekly in winter)
- journal (various types, including this blog)
- reflect on experiences and life goals, and plan for the future
- manage my finances in a planful way
- cook from scratch
- spend time with friends; e.g., host dinners
- spend time with my kids
- donate to worthy causes
- make "green" choices
- travel

And, in order to accomplish any of this, there are some things that I try not to do, or at least severely curtail the amount of time that I spend doing them:

- watch TV
- go to bars
- work overtime
- shop (aside from groceries)
- wait (in cars, airports, or doctors' offices; if I have to, I bring stuff to do and multitask)
- turn on background noise
- commute
- eat fast food
- use combustion engines (I do use them; I'm just trying to use them less)
- attend events that do not interest me because of a sense of obligation or politeness

I believe that the main reason that having a balanced life is so hard to achieve is that I work, and my work greedily eats up much of my time every day. Even when I am not at work, the problems of work intrude on my thoughts and use up my thinking time.

You probably have noticed that none of the things I am trying to do to be more balanced are work things. Work is what I am trying to balance against. Right now it tips the scales heavily in its own favour. It is not that I don't value my work. I do, and I'm very committed. It's just that work takes more than its share; it uses me up.

I wonder if I would have mental lists like this if I were retired? Maybe my life would automatically become balanced without work to use up so much of my time. Or maybe I would still have the same lists, only I would be balancing against sloth and ennui rather than work!

The photo was taken at Boya Lake Park, British Columbia, Canada, near the border with the Yukon Territory. Getting away on holidays is a wonderful way to re-balance.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Starting Things

I love to start new things. And I seem to have no lack of great ideas for new projects. Here's an example.

On Sunday night, as I was about to drift off to sleep, the thought came into my head that it is only one more month until NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, during which crazed people from all over the world hunker down in darkened rooms, consume nothing but chocolate and coffee, and attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. But I digress...). Anyways, the thought of NaNoWriMo led to ruminations about my novel, the behemoth that is a product of past Nanos. The thing is finished, mostly, but it still needs more revisions. I am supposed to be completing those revisions. "Shall I use Nano 2010 to finish the revisions?" I asked myself.

"No," I instantly answered myself. "How dull! I will write a new novel." Immediately upon permitting myself that thought, the plot for a new novel took shape in my mind, and proceeded to scroll by for a good hour. It is a science fiction novel, not my typical genre. I am feeling quite excited about it. A nice new project...

Here's another example. Last week I was stranded for a couple of days in the metropolis of Fort St. John, BC. For those who have never been there, Fort St. John is a brash, scruffy little prairie boom town, bursting its seams with oil and gas development. Everywhere you look, there are pickup trucks, young men, and drinking establishments. One sunny afternoon, I went walking along some trails in Fish Creek Community Forest. as I walked, a painting project formed in my mind. I pictured a series of paintings of water -- not landscapes per se, but images somewhat more abstract and close up. And then after that, I could go on to paint a series of cloud paintings, again, zoomed in, without the the context of land to anchor each piece. Hmmm.

And the week before that, a colleague phoned me up to see if I was interested in doing some collaborative research on a particular topic. Well, I haven't been working in that topic area nor had I been thinking along those lines, but in no time flat a great idea came to me for a study that would be interesting and useful, and that would capitalize on the different expertise each of us would bring to it. Another new idea, another new project.

All these great ideas, and no time to do any of them. My life is ruled by the urgent minutiae of administration. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, or like a fisherman trying to untangle a ball of fishing line, the tasks take all my energy, focus, and time. The reward each day is to do them all over again tomorrow, or something very similar.

When I do start on a new project, it takes such effort to steal little bits of time to work on it, and to try to focus in the face of constant interruptions. Inevitably, the project ends up dragging on for months or years, until the beautiful idea that gripped me in the beginning becomes yet another obligation lined up with all the others, clamouring for attention, haunting me with its incompleteness.

I used to comfort myself with the thought that there would be time to do what I wanted to do. But I'm getting older. I've now had the experience of abandoning stale projects that were left too long. And I'm realizing that eventually, time will run out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I'm back

Sorry I have been absent from my blog for so long. There really are no good excuses, but here are some: I joined the evil time sink that is facebook. I obsessively had to watch a lot of the FIFA World Cup Soccer matches (mostly late at night, from web archives). I have expanded my veggie garden this year and it has taken quite a lot of time to look after it, and now I am picking, freezing, and canning...). And I have been hiking, fly fishing, biking, canoeing, seeing friends, and seeing family.

But truly, the one really big reason that I have not been writing on my blog much is that work has been sucking my bone marrow out and leaving me with little energy or inclination to write, or even to think. The kind of work that I do is demanding and time consuming in every season. Most years, things slow down a little in the summer, but not this year. It has been an endless year. It's been a good year, but intense, with no breaks.

Work can wear a person down. Lately, I have been too tired at night to even want to read novels. That is rare for me; I am always reading something (except when I am in the flow of a big writing project myself. Then sometimes I purposely avoid reading other writers' novels so that my own writing is not unduly influenced by their work.). I have been too tired at night to even want to watch movies -- usually the activity I turn to when I am tired.

I have been trying for years to get the work-life balance thing figured out. But always the solution seems to be either to work less (something that I have not been able to do -- call me "type A"), or to try to cram more into my day. It seems that I have so much that I want to do, and no time to fit it all in.

My out-of-work time has very little down time; I am not at all good at being lazy. Here is an example of a day off for me: Sleep in until 9:30. Grab some coffee. Feed the cats. Work in the garden for 2 hours. Come in and eat. Sort the laundry and put in the first of five loads. Make a list of all the tasks I and other family members need to accomplish today (before leaving on a holiday tomorrow). Do some emails and phone calls relating to an important work issue that cannot wait until I am back from my holiday, and send a couple of emails related to planning a family event in August (2 1/2 hr). Have shower. Go down town and do some errands. Cook a big supper. Sit down for 30 minutes and have tea with partner. Watch son try out new long board. Work in garden for another hour until the mosquitoes get too voracious. Clean and package the veggies I have picked. Pit cherries. Make sour cherry jam. Freeze cherries. Sit down at computer and check facebook. Write on my blog. Oops, it's after midnight -- time for bed. This was my day today.

Now we are heading off on a two-week camping trip. Most of the time, I will be in places where I will not have internet or cell phone access. I will have some down time. I'm running away from the frenzy that is my life. I hope that when I come back, I will be ready to think and write again.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gardener as Leader

Okay, I admit it. 'Tis the season to be obsessed with gardening. I'm out there every second that can spare, digging, planting, weeding, and watering. And then when it's dark, I come indoors to my computer, and instead of working on revising my novel, I connect to gardening websites and read avidly about the mysteries of growing potatoes, or how to mulch properly. Most recently, I have discovered a gardening social network called Folia that allows one to keep a gardening journal online and much, much more.

Lately, I was involved in some leadership workshops. In keeping with my current obsession, I began reflecting on what you can tell about a person's leadership style from the kind of gardener he or she is. Here are a few examples:

  • plants vegetables, not flowers -- pragmatic leader
  • plants intensively -- concerned with productivity, and careful husbanding of resources
  • seeds too thickly -- lacks confidence; failure averse
  • turns all the garden into lawn -- not a nurturing type
  • digs and turns over the soil by hand; handpicks weed roots and bugs -- engaged in the day-to-day functioning of the organization; possibly a micro-manager
  • Uses a motorized tiller -- efficient; seeks power
  • uses organic gardening methods -- concerned about healthy relationships and team building
  • uses fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides -- efficient, possibly ruthless, needs to be in control; any means to an end
  • Doesn't keep up with the weeding -- dislikes the dirty work; disorganized
  • Doesn't keep up with the watering -- lacks focus and disorganized; possibly incompetent
  • Plantings are not suited to climatic zone or recommended planting dates -- lacks appropriate knowledge; doesn't do background research; poor planner
  • Plants the same thing every year according to schedule -- solid and dependable, but lacks creativity and vision
And so on. Do you have any to add here?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Little Weed Patch

Here's dirt under the finger nails; planting is the best part of all! You can catch a little glimpse of the composting area and the greenhouse in behind.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Imperfect Garden

I recently joined a sustainable living meet-up group. The more popular discussion topics on the group's website all have to do with gardening. I have noticed an interesting thing about the way people talk about their gardens and gardening practices in a public forum like this. . . nervously, defensively, sometimes didactically, and just about always with heavy ego involvement.

Hmm, not unlike writers talking about their writing.

On the above-mentioned site, when I first joined, I was trying to craft a self introduction. I began to write, "I am not a very experienced gardener. . ." Wait a minute, should that be "very amateur"? Or did I really mean "not very good"?

Certainly "not very experienced" is not an accurate description. For I have been dabbling in gardens for more than 40 years, from the time that I first planted my own little flower bed in a corner of my parents' garden (and this is not counting the earlier years of my childhood, standing out in the garden every summer helping my Mom pick raspberries or peas, or crawling along the rows of vegetables learning how to weed). From my initial experiences with marigolds and bachelor buttons, I went on to develop a passion for growing my own vegetables, and, except for a few years in university residences or apartment buildings, I have planted some version of a vegetable garden in every place that I have lived since my early twenties.

Over all of those years, I have managed to grow enough veggies, fruits and berries to put home grown garden salads and other vegetables on the table every summer. I have have made many pies, as well as jars of apple sauce, pickles, salsa, jams, and jellies.

So why is the first self descriptor that comes to mind "not very experienced"? And why do I instantly want to amend it to "not very good"?

Well, there is a lot to learn about gardening. I would have to know much more than I currently do to think of myself as an expert. With my full time work schedule, many activities, and summer travel, I hardly have time to look after my little garden, much less to develop significant expertise.

Mainly though, I think it's because my little weed patch looks quite. . . well, weedy, compared to the beautiful photos of other people's gardens that I see in magazines and gardening books. Rather than long rows of fat, healthy vegetables, in my garden there are dandelions, crabgrass, and the evil invasive comfrey plant trying to take over and crowd out the poor little vegetable seedlings. The raspberries are trying to spread into the herb bed. There are wire worms, slugs, carrot flies, and cabbage worms doing their dirty deeds.

It is an imperfect little garden. But I sure do like it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reversals, Narratives, and Red Queens

I found this image, Walking on a Dream, at a bilingual poetry website, Poesia torta|Crooked poetry. This blog by Kenia Crissantos from Brazil features poetry (in both English and Portugese) and some great photos. Check it out!

I have been thinking about representation, and especially reflections, doubles, and reversals, since watching the recently released 3D film Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton. The film combines elements from both of Lewis Carroll's original Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, but adds a narrative line not in the books.

As a child, I read and re-read those two books. In Looking Glass, I found the idea of reversals very interesting; images were reversed, time ran backwards, and social actions often were opposite to convention. Also in that book, Carroll took objects with inherent mathematical patterns, like playing cards and chess pieces, and animated them. It has been a very long time since I last read the book. I should go and dig it out of my bookshelf and read it again.

Burton has produced an interesting mashup that reinterprets and extends the two Carroll books. Many of the central events and characters from the books are present in Burton's film, and faithful to the spirit of the original: the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the caterpillar smoking a hookah, the Mad Hatter's tea party.

But there are significant differences as well. His Alice is a young woman returning to Wonderland thirteen years after her first visit (which is presented briefly in a flashback). As well, Burton's Mad Hatter and caterpillar are much more sympathetic characters than Carroll's, and Burton's White Queen is a different creature altogether than Carroll's. But perhaps the most significant departure is the addition of a narrative line that brings the bizarre tale into conformity with typical North American narrative structure. In Burton's version, Alice becomes the (reluctant) hero who slays the dragon... er... Jaberwocky in a climactic battle, thus rescuing the enslaved populace from the evil Red Queen, and everyone lives happily ever after. It's familiar, and it works.

Burton's Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham-Carter, is fabulous. Many other parts as well are exactly perfect. I loved the movie, especially the 3D version. But maybe it ended just a little too neatly. And there is much more room to have explored the idea of reversals.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Free the Writer's Mind

I was reading one of my favourite blogs, The Longstockings, and came across this piece of writing advice from Lisa Greenwald: "think, think, think about your book!" Her point is that the work of writing doesn't occur just during the time that a writer is sitting at the keyboard or in front of a blank page. Rather, much of the work of writing takes place in the writer's mind during the in-between times -- commuting, walking, showering, gardening.

Perhaps this bit of wisdom about writing tends to be placed in the background in many books on writing just because of the truism that until the words are on the page, the story hasn't been written. Many a wonderful idea for a story never makes it to the page. For many writers, the anxiety about putting words down prevents them from even starting. So there is a lot of advice focused on coaching writers to sit down and write -- to just get the words down, and defer any editing and much thinking until a second revision stage.

But, in fact, the daydreaming and thinking time periods are also essential. The story doesn't spring to life only at the keyboard. The story is churning away, under the surface, whenever we let our minds have the freedom to do so. For me, it is so important to have times in my day that are not filled with other fully engaging cognitive tasks. When I use up my thinking on work tasks, or reading, or social interaction, or any activity that is filled with words, my mind does not have the unstructured space it needs to drift to the story at hand. If I let it have the time, my unfettered mind does a lot of the writing for me, in between each session at the keyboard.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Hands in the Soil

The digging and planting has begun!

Every year, as the last of the dirty grey snow recedes, the pussy willows puff out, and the springtime smell of wet earth swirls on a promising breeze, my thoughts turn to the garden. Now keep in mind that I do not live in the balmy south but in a zone 4 region in Canada where the folk wisdom tells me that the 24th of May weekend ("May Long," in the younger generation's parlance) is when to put in the garden. Anytime before that, the over-eager gardener risks a hard frost.

So what do I mean, the planting has begun? Well, this has been an unusual winter -- little snow, warm temperatures, and a very early spring. Everything is a 5-6 weeks ahead of schedule. I bought a gardening magazine the first week of February, and have pored through it, becoming ever more intoxicated with grandiose gardening plans. A couple of weeks ago, I gave in to the urge to get my hands in the dirt, and planted two kinds of tomatoes and jalapeno peppers in biodegradable fiber (not peat) pots, and set the flat on a south facing window sill in my living room. I also planted five pots of herbs -- basil, chives, marjoram, oregano, and parsley. Everything but the parsley has germinated, and now I am thinking of starting some cucumbers and eggplants.

Okay, if you've done the math, you're thinking I've made a big mistake. Normally one starts seeds indoors 5-6 weeks before the planting out date, and I just told you that the date for this region is May 24. Oops. Do I really think that I can plant tomatoes out in early to mid April, even this unusually warm spring?

Aha! I have a greenhouse. Admittedly, it is kind of rickety, has no heating system, and the south-facing plastic needs replacing soon. But it is a productive little greenhouse. Last year from June to mid October, I scarcely bought vegetables. The greenhouse veggies, along with potatoes, onions, bush beans, and herbs that I grew in a small outdoor plot, fed the family. And I grew it all organically. So the greenhouse is where I'll put the tomatoes, etc., when they are ready to set out, and probably I'll take the added precaution of using hot caps at first. (I've been saving milk jugs.)

Today the gardening fever extended beyond my indoor flats. I turned over the compost (it is not frozen! It should still be frozen in March), and screened a wheelbarrowful. Then I dug up and prepared one bed in the greenhouse, augmenting the nice sandy loam with compost and sheep manure. I planted romaine lettuce seeds, and some mixed winter salad greens (stuff like kale and mustard greens). Let's just think of it as an experiment.

For this truly is a record -- the first seeds in the ground on March 6th.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Skeena Angler

Check out this link to The Skeena Angler. It's a writerly perspective on life and fishing written by my friend Rob -- writer, angler, musician, red wine imbiber, and all-round good guy. I've also linked it on my sidebar.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Confessions of a Non-Watcher

I am one of those unusual people who does not watch TV. I grew up in a small town that was, to me, the center of the world, but which other people would describe as "remote," "on the frontier," or "in the bush." Television reception did not come to my town until the winter that I was six. My dad brought one home from the store on spec so he could watch a ski jumping competition on it. I had never seen a television before. I remember that I actually went around to the back of the TV to try to discover how the little tiny ski jumpers had managed to get inside of it. My theory was that they entered single-file through a pipe. However, I didn't have any explanation as to how they could have put the mountain and the snow inside the TV. And why didn't the snow melt now that it was inside the house?

By the following summer, we owned a black and white TV with rabbit ears, which was proudly ensconced in a corner of the living room. It was popular with TV-less neighbourhood children, who dropped in to watch Quick Draw McGraw, Batman, and Bugs Bunny. Over my growing up years, the television remained a centerpiece of the living room. At some point, we had an aerial installed on the roof (remember TV aerials?), and at some later point, we acquired a colour television. However, there was only one channel; it broadcast CBC plus some local programming. Cable did not come to the area until many years after I had grown up and moved away.

Those were the years of my TV watching -- ages seven to age eighteen. That is the only era for which I have even a remote possibility of being able to answer entertainment themed Trivial Pursuit questions. After that, I did not own a TV for quite few years. Then when I was married with children, TV came into my life again, but I seldom watched it. (There was a two-year period around the early nineties that I suddenly started watching two programs: L.A. Law, and Star Trek, The Next Generation. That's it. I guess I was looking for any excuse to avoid writing my graduate thesis.)

At this time of my life, we have a TV with a full cable package that resides in the basement for the benefit of my son. I don't watch it, except for three things. I watch elections. I watch World Cup Soccer. And I watch the Olympics. The Olympics are over now, and so my sudden spate of TV-watching is now finished as well, for awhile. I think my son will be relieved to have the basement TV room back to himself again. Just this last few weeks, I've been able to contribute to the conversation when people started talking about what they watched on TV last night; that's been a benefit. But I will be glad to get back to my old non-watching habits. . . . all that time -- time to do what I want to do.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hello Old Friend

Hello, old friend. I have been absent for too long. During the month of November, I worked on my novel almost every day. Writing was what I did around the edges of my full, busy life. I added 20,000 words to the manuscript. I brought it to the point where I could finally say that I had a first draft. (Which is not to say that there is a clear demarcation point. There still are holes in it that need to be filled. And I edited and revised as I wrote it, rather than leaving all that for the second draft.)

Then December arrived. NaNoWriMo ended, and I lifted my head from the screen. I realized that Christmas was almost upon us, and I had done nothing to prepare. My loved ones were grumpy from having been ignored for a month. My son was in danger of failing math. The pets had developed new bad habits. All the deferred household tasks had reached the point of being overwhelming. Work was crazy (annual planning and budget time!). I had a big knot in my right upper back from hunching over the computer all day at work, and then coming home to sit at the computer again, writing. My neck made a clicking sound when I looked to the right; in fact it still does.

So, on December 3, I set the novel aside. I struggled to catch up with my responsibilities and my relationships. We celebrated Christmas and spent time with our families and friends. We skied. I didn't write.

Once I stop writing, I find it hard to start again. Everything seems to stand in the way of opening the document and getting back at it. I don't have enough time right now. I need to put another load of laundry in first, or run downtown, or take a look at the local paper. It's easier to surf the net, or spend time on forums or social networking sites.

But today I sat down to my novel again. There it was, my old friend. My characters, were still there, puzzling through their lives, inventing new opinions and troubles while I was absent. I revised a little. I added a little. It was like coming home.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Living in a Full-Colour World

In reading over my post from the other day, I can see that I sounded downright gloomy. Grey, in fact. I'd like to state right now that glum and miserable is not my usual habit of mind. More typically, I am a person who is thrilled by the experiences, sensory richness, and social engagements of daily life. And I like colour (even the muted colours of November).

This photo above is one that I took while walking in a field near my home during October. It is a beautiful field for taking a walk, whether snowy, soggy in the springtime with the impossible bright green of the first new growth, lush with lupins and buzzing bees, or red and yellow under autumn's crisp air. I especially love the autumn colours.

The seasons can also be enjoyed from within the coziness of one's house. This fall, I took a series of photos that I call "Views from my Window." The one below is one that I like. If you look closely, you can see a small reflection in the window. I wanted to capture the reflection because, after all, I wasn't out there; I was inside looking out.

I am lucky to live in such a wonderful place, surrounded by landscape views like this on a daily basis.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Work is the new grey

On Monday, I did not want to go to work. I really did not want to go. I slept late; I dragged out the morning preparations. The Christmas break had sped by in a twinkling. Our cherished children had visited and left again. We had feasted, drunk wine, skied along ridges, played with the dogs. Now Monday loomed bleak and ugly, the start of a new week, a new year, a new decade of work, work, working. Grey. Damp cold that gets in your bones. Inescapable.

I put one foot in front of the other, drove to work, unlocked the office, let myself take it slowly. I watered the plants, dry after ten days of my absence. I greeted colleagues and inquired about their holidays, my voice faint and echoing as if coming from the bottom of a giant tin can. My hands flapped like squid, and my feet dragged along the carpet like disobedient pets. I clasped my hands in front of my belly, wrung my fingers, crossed my legs. I hardly seemed to be in my body, but gazed on its awkward postures with annoyance from outside.

The litany wrote itself inside my brain: overdue unfinished tasks, too much, more work flooding in, trapped, don't show it. I organized my desk, deleted email, and started with some easy tasks. Plod, plod, plod. Made it through the day.

Tuesday, inside a cold grey metal can. Bent under my burden, a basket of boulders. Wednesday, a reprieve. A caring boss talked me through an impossible task, offered help, extended a deadline. His voice was as warm as a mug of hot chocolate.

Thursday, freezing rain coated my car like molten glass. In windy gusts, pins of rain flew at my eyes. Tires left slush puddle ruts. A medical test, finally after months of worry, ruled out the feared possibility. And now there was a yellow glow around me and my flesh was warm and vital. Back at the office, I chatted with staff, made decisions, and completed tasks, each neatly clipped and filed.

Friday, I'm back. Back at work, my usual efficient self. Back at home with a laugh and a hug. The year is full of possibilities.