Happy National Limerick Day

                                        

There is a writer who lives by the shore

And sometimes her words simply soar

But her finger is broken

And, no, she’s not jokin’

So today it’s a rhyme and no more.

Okay, so maybe a little more.

Today, May 12th, is National Limerick Day. It’s held to mark the birthday of Edward Lear, the English writer who popularized the limerick in his A Book of Nonsense, which was published way back in 1846.

Limericks are those recognizable five-line poems consisting of a single stanza and an AABBA rhyming scheme. They’re known for their humorous themes, they’re almost always trivial, and they often appear as children’s nursery rhymes:

Hickory, dickory, dock.

The mouse ran up the clock.

The clock struck one.

The mouse ran down.

Hickory, dickory, dock.

Regardless of content, limericks are designed to make you smile, and that’s why they’ve been popular for well over a century.

I can’t say I’m smiling over my broken finger, but putting pen to paper (figurately speaking) and making light of it, helps ease the pain.

Finally, for writers who read this blog, here’s a limerick written by editor Monica Sharman that may strike a chord:

Relentless, insatiable deadlines!

This manuscript’s still full of red lines.

First, I’ll sweat through the edits

And check all the credits

Then chill with my favorite red wine.

Happy National Limerick Day!

That Pesky Point of View

To a writer, point of view is everything. It makes – or breaks – characters. It plays into conflict. It spins a story forward. In fact, no decision a writer makes will impact their story more. Point of view flavors everything in the story world.

It also heavily flavors our own lives. Today I’m going for my first Covid vaccine, and I’ve never been this excited to get a shot. Most of my family and close friends are on board and have either gotten their first jab or are waiting to book. From their point of view, the decision to get it is a no-brainer. But not everyone shares that sentiment.

The topic of the vaccine came up last week while we were walking Team Sheltie. We stopped to say hi and admire a dog belonging to a couple we’ve seen only a few times. I asked if they’d had their shot yet. They hesitated before responding, and I had the fleeting thought that perhaps I should have asked ‘how do you feel about the vaccine?” Fortunately, they weren’t offended and responded by saying they were getting it in a few days.

I should have remembered that hesitancy on their part when I asked one of my cousins if she’d registered yet for her shot. She danced around the issue for a while before finally saying she wasn’t about to subject herself to changes in her DNA or a possible microchip implant. She was serious, and I was momentarily speechless.

It’s a point of view, a perspective I’ve read about but never expected to hear from someone I loved and respected.  

Point of view is everything. Not just for writers, but for all of us. It flavors everything we do: our relationships and our choices, our lifestyles and our attitudes. It flavors consequences too. And these days, some of those consequences can be far-reaching.  

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

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.

Embracing the Stillness

Last week, after nine months of working at home, Mr. Petrol Head went back to the office. There, the door is locked; everyone is physically distanced and separated by plexiglass; there are masks, sanitizer, and he must fill out a daily form stating that he’s well and without Covid symptoms.

Other than Team Sheltie who like to herd me on the treadmill desk when I start writing, or bark at the courier when the bell rings, the house is quiet and still. It is empty. Or at least it’s emptier than it was a few weeks ago. And I think my muse has noticed.

Mr. Petrol Head isn’t especially loud. When he was home during the week, he would be at his desk and I would be at mine. We’d always connect at lunch, but the rest of the time we were both silently engrossed in our respective jobs. Yet I always knew he was there. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s a different quality to the air when you know someone is close by. Or maybe the nurturer in me is automatically attuned to another body in the house.  

After a few days of him being back at the office, my productivity seemed to increase. I also seemed to be thinking more deeply and in new ways about my work in progress. I thought perhaps I was imagining things. I also felt vaguely guilty. It’s not like I want him out of the house. I like his company.

Around the same time, I received my latest hold from the library, a book I’d requested many months ago. Simple Living:100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy by Shunmyo Masuno. It’s a short volume of single page entries designed to make you think. And think I did when I opened it to the first entry.

Make time for emptiness.

The words struck a chord because I’d been thinking about how empty the house is without Mr. Petrol Head in it.

Masuno goes on to ask if we have time to think about nothing in our everyday lives. It’s important, he believes, to make time for emptiness, even ten minutes of emptiness, every day. He writes: “when you are not distracted by other things, your pure and honest self can be revealed. And that’s the first step towards creating a simple life.”

I know he’s speaking about meditation, or something close to it. But the same concept applies to the creative life. In the same way that we need to empty a vase before we can fill it with water and add flowers, we sometimes need to empty ourselves before we can fill back up with our muse. We sometimes need stillness, complete stillness and an empty house, to create.

The house isn’t completely empty – I do have my ever-present canine pals – but there is a stillness in the air these days. And that makes it easier to hear my muse.

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.

Hear the Mouse Roar

Sixty-eight years ago today, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End. It played every day for all those years, only going dark this March when Covid-19 made live theatre unsafe.

That makes The Mousetrap the longest-running show of its kind in the world. Agatha Christie herself is the best-selling novelist of all time, with estimated sales of around two billion. And yet, when people are asked to name her best-known work, The Mousetrap is rarely mentioned. Instead, people point to Murder on the Orient Express, or The Murder of Roger Akroyd, or And Then There Were None.

That lack of recognition wouldn’t have surprised Christie. The Mousetrap was originally written at the request of the BBC as a radio play for Queen Mary, and when it moved onto the stage, Christie didn’t expect it to last more than six or eight months.

But it outlived her. Since its opening in 1952, it’s been presented in 27 languages in more than 50 countries. Over 460 actors and actresses have appeared in it, and some have made records doing it. David Raven is in the Guinness Book of Records for 4575 performances as Major Metcalf and the late Nancy Seabrooke made it there for her 15 years as an understudy.

As creators, we can never gauge the impact of our work. We might think we’ve written or created a masterpiece – a work of art – only to find the rest of the world disagrees. Or we might create something rather quickly, with joy and skill and attention to our craft, but not expect it to amount to much. And yet, that something might grow legs and end up impacting people in ways we never imagined.  

It’s a bit like the butterfly effect: the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts in a big way. Only in Agatha Christie’s case, it was a little mouse. A mouse that roared for 68 years.

Rituals and Writing

This is the season of pumpkins, black cats, and superstitions, and that has me thinking about writers and their rituals. Not all of us have rituals, but many of us do, and we’re in good company. 

Apparently, Charles Dickens had to arrange the ornaments on his desk in a certain way before he started writing. May Sarton cued up 18th-century music. Maya Angelou used the same writing ritual for years: she got up around five am, drove to a hotel, and was writing by 6:30. Longhand. On yellow pads. And she asked the staff to take everything off the walls so there was just her, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, and some sherry. Isabelle Allende begins writing every new book on January 8th, a tradition that started in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a letter that sparked The House of Spirits. 

Many writing rituals are more mundane. One author friend writes her first draft in longhand using a particular type of pen (she orders them in bulk). Another can’t write with shoes on her feet, only slippers. My ritual is an early morning walk, a check of email while I drink my first cup of coffee, and a glance at my ‘to do’ list. Then I’m ready to write. But I do like to have a sweater hanging on the back of my chair to pull around my shoulders when a chill (or insecurity) hits. The latter ritual goes back years to a hand-knit sweater my aunt gave me. Having it close was a reminder that someone had my back. It was a good feeling. 

You might think I’m fussy or just plain weird, but there’s nothing weird or merely superstitious about rituals. Neuroscience tells us that rituals can increase confidence, reduce worry, and make it easier to get things done.   

When we repeat behaviors, the neurons in our brains communicate together, wire together, and activate each other. If we do things fairly often in a similar sequence, our brains get used to that order and become more efficient at the task. 

“It’s like developing friendships,” says Dr. Brian Christie, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At first, the conversation is awkward and stilted, but as you become more comfortable and better friends, those conversations flow more easily. It’s the same with neurons. The neurons that fire together, wire together.” 

That means if the neurons for writing are activated at the same time as you follow a specific routine – whether that’s pouring your first coffee of the day, pulling on a familiar sweater, or rearranging the things on your desk as Dickens did – they’re primed and ready to go. And the more regularly they fire together, the bigger, stronger, and more powerful they become. 

I don’t know about you, but I can use all the help I can get. So, I’m off to check my email, glance at my ‘to do’ list, and get to work.  

And So It Goes

Last week brought to mind the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall . . .

Here on the west coast, the ‘rain’ we experienced was the ash fallout from the horrendous wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington. We’re still living with smoky skies and poor air quality as I write these words, but we’re far luckier than those who are living in the line of fire.  Fires on the west coast, hurricanes out east and a worldwide pandemic. No wonder the world seems on edge.

I was on edge this week too. I lost a full day of writing because of a massive Windows update. Yes, I’d saved, or at least I thought my computer had, but it turns out the computer save function goes to a temporary file. In the past, I’d always been able to recover temporary files but not anymore. Not with Windows 10.  A little rain must fall . . .

As Longfellow said, however, behind the clouds the sun is still shining. And in my case that sun came in the form of an interview by the editor of Second Opinion QB. It was lovely to chat with Lois Sampson. If you’re interested in our conversation, you’ll find it here: https://secondopinionqb.ca/qb-author-taps-into-young-adult-scene/

Since I opened with a somewhat bleak Longfellow quote, here’s something to remember when life seems especially dark:

Watch For It

What are you doing next Tuesday, May 19th? Can you spare an hour? If so, plan to catch this Facebook live event (find it under events on your Facebook page) at 4 pm, Pacific time. That’s when a group of us will be talking about writing and illustrating and all things children’s books. I’ll be answering questions about my latest YA, No Right Thing. Thanks to Crwth Press for setting everything up. We’re looking forward to it, and we hope you can join us!