Taking Chances

 Lately I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. The phrase came up in a news conference this week when our province announced its staged reopening plan based on our rate of immunization and our Covid numbers. Because even though the government is establishing guidelines, we’ll have to make personal decisions about how interactive we want to be.  As Dr. Bonnie Henry put it, we will have to decide our own level of risk tolerance.

People take chances all the time. In fiction, we need our characters to do exactly that. I’ve started reading a suspense novel, Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. It’s fast-paced and gritty and so far, the main character is taking a lot of chances. I’m okay with it because she’s well-motivated and the action is plausible. There are times in books or movies, however, when a character goes too far and deliberately walks into danger when there’s absolutely no reason for it. In the writing community, we refer to that character as being TSTL – too stupid to live.  But if risk tolerance is well-motivated that’s a different thing. In the Slaughter novel the character is young and under pressure; she’s terrified for her mother and acting in the heat of the moment. It all goes to plausibility and it works for me even though I’m naturally risk-averse.

Take the black bears, for instance. They’re back in our neighborhood. Not just one, but five. At least. There’s a mama and two cubs. A solitary male that’s been described as ‘a very large boy’ and two juveniles who travel together and like to knock over compost bins. Clearly the bear equivalent of teenagers. And if my neighbor to the east is to be believed there’s another one roaming around too, for a count of six.

Just last week we had to turn back on the trail while walking Team Sheltie because the lone big boy was up ahead. Yesterday morning, we narrowly missed the two juveniles having a go at the compost bins one street over. A few hours ago, we saw signs of a recent bear visit on the other side of our back fence. I’m watchful and uneasy. Bears pose a risk I’m not inclined to tangle with.

Yet some people feel quite differently. One neighbor finds it thrilling to know they’re so close. Her back yard isn’t fenced and she enjoys it when they wander through. Mind you, she enjoys them from the safety of her house. Another neighbor, Richard, was so intrigued when he spotted the large loner bear on the trail the other day that he followed him. Yes, you read that right. He followed the black bear for ten minutes at least, giving the animal enough space so he didn’t feel threatened but close enough to allow Richard a decent view.

Richard was born and raised on acreage in South Africa where wildlife was common. Respect and common sense are key, he said. To him, following a black bear on a paved trail with houses nearby felt quite tame. He indulged his curiosity, stepping into what he considered a minimally risky situation.

No wonder I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. I can’t bear the thought of taking those kinds of chances.  

My May Reads

The seedlings are doing what seedlings do best: growing madly and readying themselves for more spacious surroundings. In other words, they need to be transplanted, which means I have my work cut out for me getting them from the greenhouse to the ground. I’m not complaining. This time last year, I was struggling to learn the microclimates in our new garden, and I was doing it under less-than-optimal growing conditions. Things are better this year, though the learning curve is still steep. Good thing I have some great books to settle down with at the end of the day. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Breath by James Nestor

Barry Squires, Full Tilt by Heather Smith

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story by Erin French

Books read to date in 2021: 36

Quiet or Boring? You Decide

There’s been chatter lately on a few of my writing loops about quiet books. Everyone defines the term differently. Some suggest quiet books are stories that are forgettable, that don’t have exciting plots or that have stakes too low for the characters. Agents and publishers sometimes refer to quiet novels as low concept. By that, they mean books without flashy hooks or any obvious marketing angle, which makes them hard to sell. To those who don’t like them, quieter books are considered boring and a waste of time.

And yet, there are readers who love quieter novels. To them, the moniker ‘quiet book’ isn’t negative. It doesn’t mean a boring or plotless read. Instead, proponents define quiet books as introspective, character-driven stories that are rich with language and emotion. They frequently say that while the story may not be huge, the books take them deep into the character’s world and those characters always resonate in a personal way. Some even suggest that quiet books say things about the human condition that their faster-paced counterparts can’t touch on. Quiet books make ripples rather than waves. And yet ripples can be powerful in their own way too.

Around the same time as the quiet book discussion took place, a writer friend died. Jodie’s passing was sudden and unexpected, and it came just a few weeks after my father’s death. I couldn’t help noticing the different responses. There was an outpouring at Jodie’s passing. It was indicative of the fact that she touched a great many lives. She was an author and, before that, a school teacher and principal. My father, on the other hand, touched far fewer lives, and the response to his death reflected that. One life much quieter than the other, and yet both touched and impacted others.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to equate lives with books. Perhaps, as someone pointed out, the reason many people don’t enjoy quiet books is we live quiet lives (especially these days with Covid), and we’re looking to escape into a larger, noisier world.  

Whatever your taste in books, I’m on board with children’s author Barbara Park. She once said, “I happen to think a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. In fact, I happen to think that’s huge.”

So, whether it’s a book or a life, whether it’s quiet or roaring with action, if it touches us in some way, that’s enough. That, as Barbara Park said, is huge.

Arts for Our Health

                                                      

In case it was ever in doubt, enjoying or participating in the arts – all arts – is good for us. Canada Council for the Arts surveyed nearly 10,000 Canadians comparing health and well-being between participants and non-participants in arts, culture, and heritage activities. The results of the survey, released in March, showed a strong connection between cultural participation and overall health, including mental health.

Reading a book, listening to live music, visiting an art gallery, attending live theatre, a comedy show, arts and cultural festivals, or actively participating in an artistic activity of your own, all fell under the arts umbrella. Here’s a great example of something we love being good for us!

If you’d like more information on the study, you’ll find it here:

https://canadacouncil.ca/research/research-library/2021/03/canadians-arts-participation-health-and-well-being

Small Pleasures

Where I live, the Covid numbers are climbing again. It’s now a race to vaccinate people to offset the spread of more contagious and potentially more severe variants. Maybe that’s why morale seems to be dropping amongst friends and family. These aren’t easy times. It’s been a long, difficult haul, and the restrictions aren’t over yet. So, this week, a bit of cheer from Canadian Neil Pasricha, one of the most popular Ted Talk presenters. Admittedly, some of his recommendations for simple pleasures – going to a movie, for instance – are off the table right now, but they won’t be forever. And his short twenty-minute talk is guaranteed to make you smile.

My March Reads

The daffodils are blooming and the tulips on the windowsill are too. The seedlings have sprouted, and once they get a second set of leaves, they’ll make the pilgrimage to the greenhouse to harden off before being planted out in May. Gardeners live for warmer weather and more hours of daylight, but the downside – if there is a downside – is that the gardening season means less time to curl up with a book. At least for now. Once the spring chores are done and the seedlings are planted out, there’s usually more time. That being said, I can always find an hour or two after sunset to get in bit of reading. Here’s what I’m enjoying this month:  

Grit by Angela Duckworth

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters by Bernie Glassman & Rick Fields

Books read to date in 2021: 26

Coastal Infusion

Life has thrown me a curve ball in the last week and my attention is fragmented, so here’s a blog post that appeared five years ago. The sentiments are as true today as they were back then.

I received an email a few weeks ago about living in B.C. The woman in question is doing her master’s and preparing to give a seminar focusing on BC authors. She wanted to know how living here informs or influences my writing.

I mulled it over for quite a while because it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. When I responded, I gave her some context, explaining that though I was born on Vancouver Island (Victoria), I grew up in both Victoria and Vancouver, spent a year in Edmonton as a young teen and five years living in Winnipeg when I was in my early twenties. When I finally returned to the island in my late twenties, it really was like coming home.

I think there’s a certain mindset one has, having been born and raised on an island. To a large extent, you’re dependent on ferries (or planes) for mail, food, fuel and the ability to come and go. You can’t just up and leave (or return, for that matter) without checking a schedule or two. There’s also an understanding that land here is finite: there’s only so much room for garbage disposal or new buildings. That’s not so on the mainland where there’s always room out in the valley or up the mountain. Island living is said to be an insular sort of existence. If one defines insular as being set apart, I’d agree. If you toss in the other definition of insular as being ignorant or disinterested in different cultures, I’d argue against it. That kind of insular attitude isn’t limited to island living, and I certainly don’t see it here on Vancouver Island.

With those thoughts rattling around my head, I was no closer to answering the woman’s question. How does living here specifically impact me as a writer? I finally came to this conclusion: living on the west coast impacts me. I bring that sensibility to my life generally, which, by extension, flavours my writing. Some of my books are set in B.C. Others are set on the prairies, which I grew to love too. A few are set in the U.S., though every U.S. setting I’ve used has been on the west coast – Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. I think that’s telling.

For me as a writer, setting plays as big a role as character. So, when I place a story in a particular location, I need to have lived there or at least spent time there to absorb its nuances. But while I’ve been to New York, for instance, I haven’t spent as much time there as I have in Seattle, San Francisco or L.A.  

I relate to the coast. I know the flora and fauna, the birds and animals. When someone complains about a heron fishing at their pond, I know precisely what that sharp, two-toned beak looks like as it dips into the water. When a friend mentions that the bark is peeling from their arbutus tree, my mind immediately goes to the intoxicating honey scent of the arbutus flowers that bloom in spring. I know what spring is like here (often rainy), and summer and fall and winter too (most definitely rainy). I’ve lived with the nuances of light and dark; I’ve experienced drought and floods and windstorms. I understand the politics, the environmental issues, and the social nuances that permeate towns and cities up and down the coast.

Does that mean I’m limited to setting my books on the coast? No. I love to travel and spend time in other places, and I’m pretty good at researching too. So that’s not an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I get the west coast mindset. The saltwater tang infused my blood at birth. And I’m more than okay with it.  

Creativity is Messy

We’re in the process of gutting and rebuilding an area of our garden. We have a vision of how we want it to look when it’s done, we know the steps needed to get us to the finish line –we’ve done multiple garden overhauls before—yet we’ve been surprised at how much chaos our efforts have created.

Creativity is messy. All of it is. Whether you’re sculpting, painting a picture, cooking a meal, rebuilding a garden or writing a book, there are sloppy and disordered times, and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to create, there can also be times of feeling muddled and overwhelmed.

American novelist Ellen Klages wrote: My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something – anything – down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context.

Messy. Non-linear. Fidgets and doodles. All that’s true for me too, whether I’m working in the garden or writing a novel.

Creativity is also unpredictable. We can’t be sure how things will turn out. We can plot and plan and sketch things out, literally on paper or figuratively in our heads, but even with our best efforts, weather happens or plants refuse to thrive. Story characters act out in ways we don’t expect, taking our stories in directions we hadn’t anticipated. Editorial input or our own fresh insights results in revisions and a completely new take. When it comes to creative projects, there’s always something to tweak, adjust or reframe.

In the end, though, if the final result doesn’t quite match the vision we hold in our heads, there will always be another opportunity. Another project, another mess to create. Because as Michael J. Fox says, a creative mess is better than idle tidiness.

I Read Canadian

I Read Canadian Day, which is coming up on February 17th, is a day to celebrate Canadian books, to acknowledge the writers and illustrators who create them, the publishers who get behind them, and the independent bookstores where you can buy them. The I Read Canadian initiative takes place this Wednesday in homes, schools, libraries and bookstores across the country. All Canadians are encouraged to read a children’s book by a Canadian author or illustrator for even 15 minutes.  

The initiative began two years ago as a collaboration between the Canadian Children’s Book Centre; children’s author Eric Walters; CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers) and the Ontario Library Association.

The goal is to raise awareness of all Canadian books and to celebrate the richness, diversity and breadth of Canadian literature. And this year, as we seek to connect while remaining physically distanced, the goal seems to resonate even more deeply.

If you’re a teacher, librarian, home schooler or simply a lover of books, you can register to participate at the official website here: https://ireadcanadian.com/day/   And at noon EST February 17th, a series of videos called I Write Canadian will premiere on the CCBC’s YouTube channel, Bibliovideo. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoRQbrmtvSYMRm1emqkhP8Q?sub_confirmation=1

Set aside a few minutes to check out the presentations. And remember to read Canadian for even a few minutes on February 17th!

Steady On . . .

I’m working on a manuscript I started several years ago, and I’m second-guessing myself with just about every paragraph. The story in question is a departure for me; it’s a contemporary middle-grade novel but with a suspenseful, paranormal element. The only thing I’ve written that comes even close is Exit Point, a short novel for reluctant teen readers, and I use the word close loosely. There are some similarities but not many.

Earlier this week, in need of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore from my shelf. And I opened it to this quote by John Irving:

If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.’  John Irving

The passage goes on to talk about how the work of the writer is the true work of all artists: to take risks, to lean far out over the edge of the accepted truth. If you are trying to tackle a project that is beyond your existing capacity as a writer or an artist, if you’re just a little bit afraid of the direction in which you are heading, then you are likely heading in the right direction.

Onward. And steady on.