Monday, 25 June 2012

A tree is just a tree

It's almost as difficult to write about nature as it is to write about sex. One person's sexy is another's disturbing. Or dull. Or saccharine. Or ridiculous. I like Michael Ondaatje's writing, but some of his descriptions of sex just make me feel his pain. Like this one from The English Patient: "Their bodies had met in perfumes, in sweat, frantic to get under that thin film with a tongue or a tooth, as if they each could grip character there and during love pull it right off the body of the other."

It's the words that are the trouble. Cloying or crude, there seems to be no middle ground. Descriptions of nature, too, seem to veer too easily to cliche. The moon is always a pale wafer, trees are towering, rain slants, sun beats and sand sifts. It's tough to capture it without resorting to verbal acrobatics that call too much attention to the writing.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Writing in restaurants

My niece emailed me a link the other day to Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling. Then playwright Dave Sealy called it "an excellent set of guidelines" on Facebook, so I had a closer look. I like this kind of thing, for some reason. It gets me wondering about what my own set of rules would include. The first rule would be "always be suspicious of rules."

But I like their rule number eight: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time. I sometimes get questions from people who are working on a book. They want to know how to get it published. My advice is "finish writing it." No one will publish an idea, even a fantastic one. If you're Margaret Atwood, you might get a nice advance for an idea, but you'll still have to write the book. That's why rule number 7 is also good advice: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. I like to have a general idea of an ending when I begin writing. That way I can write towards it. While writing Shelter, my ending changed because the middle changed. But not much.I knew the core of it from the start.

Rule number eleven is Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone. When I'm revising, I leave home, leave the computer, leave the familiar. I take a thick pad of yellow newsprint and a medium ballpoint pen and I head out. Sometimes I go for a drive, a productive place for me. Sometimes I go to the Bench, my favourite lunch spot in Penticton, or the Elite, a pretty good breakfast place downtown and a good place to stare out the window. David Mamet (king of dialogue) has a book called Writing in Restaurants. In the title essay he says, "In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved. Joy and sorrow can be displayed and observed 'unwittingly,' the writer scowling naively and the diners wondering, What the hell is he doing?" Being in a public place does something different to my writing. I take the section I want to revise and I start over. I write anything, stuff I'll never use. Writing on the yellow pad frees me up, makes me feel less committed. One sentence leads to another. I have faith in that.

In The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux, there's a chapter called "Stop Making Sense." I'd add that to my list of rules. Too much control over your story takes the fun out of it. I once had the pleasure of meeting with Timothy Findley to talk about a story I'd written. He asked me a question about something in the story. When I couldn't explain it, he said, "Someone once told me there are always chairs tipping over in my writing. I can't explain that either, but it must mean something." My unconscious mind understands things I don't. At 2 a.m., at 7 a.m., my unconscious trips along, throwing up dreamlike associations that I try to trust. 

That's why I disagree with rule number two:  You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different. Maybe they're different, maybe they're not. If I pay attention to what's fun for me as a writer, it's usually the same as what I like as a reader. I just heard a CBC interview with the band, Rush, who have a new album out. They talk about trying to live up to big ideas, constantly reaching, trying to push yourself. It has to be fun.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Good places to write

This good place is by the Chilcotin River in Farwell Canyon.
 I've started a new blog called Good Places to Write (after trying to do it as blog page and then realizing you can't keep the old posts). I'll invite writers to contribute their favourite places to write. My first guest writer is the funny and talented painter and poet Brenda Schmidt. Brenda often writes about nature, as do a lot of my favourite poets. But she does it in a way that is never dry, always quirky and unexpected. Her insights are sharp, often lonely. Her photographs and paintings are amazing, too. I hope you'll check out her post.

People often ask me how I get writing done. I have a full time "day job," like a lot of writers, and I also have the regular pleasures and duties in my life that call me. I've found two things that really help me get work done. The first is simple. I get up when my son gets up for school and I start writing as soon as he's out the door. In the morning my head is slightly foggy, still halfway in the dream world of sleep, a semi-altered state of consciousness that seems productive for me. I usually write until about noon.(It helps that my day job allows me to set my own schedule, more or less) Sometimes I have other obligations before then, but I try very hard to keep that morning time slot clear. I also try not to check my email first thing. Email is a great time-sucking, soul-destroying distraction that can lead me off into all kinds of directions and before I know it the day's half gone and I've accomplished very little of any kind of work. Not that I have strong feelings about it! Recently, I read that many companies are trying out a zero or minimal email model as a way to boost productivity. 

The other thing I do, and this comes back to the Good Places to Write blog, is go on writing retreats. These can be formal, juried retreats run by arts organizations for a minimal fee. I'll post some of these. But sometimes, I head out somewhere on my own, somewhere far enough away from home, preferably without email access, but not expensive. I consider $50-$75/day not too expensive. I might just take two or three days. If I can find a week somewhere, I'll do that and look for a cheaper weekly rate. The change of scenery is good for my writing and I almost always manage to write about a normal month's worth of work in those few days. (don't forget it can be used an as expense on your taxes).

Friday, 1 June 2012

Look for the trees

That's my canoe, on one of the most beautiful lakes I've ever seen. Scientists are discovering that being surrounded by nature is good for us. Dr. Esther Sternberg talks about this on CBC. Does it have to do with the calming influence of blues and greens or the comfort of patterns that we recognize in nature? Whatever it is, an "unscientific study" (below) suggests that some of us have more access to that calming influence than others.
How to spot income inequality from space: look for the trees