When a Writer Goes Into the Woods

If this were a story, it would have a prologue something like this:

One morning about three weeks ago, while walking sweet Luna, I ran into a neighbour who told me she was woken up around 1 am by someone (something?) crying. She went onto her deck and saw two bear cubs up her cedar tree. Seconds later, she heard a growl coming from the darkness below. Then the cubs tumbled out of the tree onto the ground and presumably joined Mama before lumbering off into the night. Or maybe they jumped. I don’t remember the specifics of the descent because, at this point, I was calculating the number of feet between her house and mine (not nearly enough) and wondering just how far the trio had travelled. They obviously didn’t get very far because there were regular sightings over the next week and a half.

Despite that, I wasn’t thinking about bears as we set out for a bike ride a few Sundays ago. Instead, I was looking forward to a change of scenery and getting some heart-pumping exercise. So we decided to cycle the Big Qualicum Fish Hatchery trail, a route that’s new to us but one our neighbours, Rusty and Carol, ride regularly. They love it because it’s a wide gravel trail with easy climbs.  It’s also beautiful and surrounded by forest. “There’s never anyone around,” they both love to say. “We sometimes do the whole route without encountering a soul.” Since we were expecting a tradesman shortly after noon, we planned a short ride of about 10k and left early in the morning.

We cycled to the trailhead. There was a sign: bears in the area. I quickly hit the brakes and turned to Mr. Petrol Head, who said, “Look, it’s a permanent sign. It’s there twelve months of the year. There are no bears around here.”

Technically, he was correct. There were no bears in the immediate vicinity. And I was pretty sure if bears were an issue, Rusty and Carol would have alerted us. [They have kind and altruistic hearts; this story is not a thriller].

We rode on. The route followed the Big Qualicum River. It was lovely. The air was fresh; the sun sparkled off the water. We could see eagles soaring above the tree canopy. I whined again about the sign, mentioning that animals are typically more active early in the morning and that rivers are favourite gathering places.  

Mr. Petrol Head ignored me. “We should have brought our breakfast and had a picnic by the river,” he said. “That would have been romantic, don’t you think?” [It was our anniversary weekend. If my lack of response surprised him, then he’d forgotten who he’d married]

We continued. After about 1k, the tree canopy grew thicker. The trail began to twist. River glimpses became less frequent. It was still lovely and peaceful. It was quite literally a cathedral of nature’s making. I began to relax. I began to consider future picnics.

We cycled around the bend. And there it was.  Smack in the middle of the path in front of us. Substantial evidence of Smokey’s morning constitutional. “That pile is the size of a toaster,” I said as we gave it a wide berth. “A toaster oven.”

Mr. Petrol Head found my panic fear nervousness funny. I did not. This was not the kind of heart-pumping outing I’d had in mind when we’d set out.

We didn’t turn back. Of course not. We were only a few kilometres into the ride and wanted to continue (at least one of us did), so we cycled on. I tried to relax [I did not relax]. I wouldn’t let Mr. Petrol Head get too far ahead. By this time, we were climbing and descending. The forest canopy was becoming even thicker. We were banked on one side by a small mountain. Cougars were mentioned. One of us laughed.

And then, around another bend, right about the kilometre three mark, was another mound of bear scat. Smaller than the first one but unmistakable.

“I’m sure it’s from a dog,” Mr. Petrol Head said.

“I have a well-honed shit detector, plus I know dogs. That’s not from a dog.”

We agreed to keep going but to turn back at the five-k mark.  Over the next three kilometres (we missed the five-k marker), we saw not one, not two, but three more piles of bear scat. No dogs, no other people . . . nothing but us, our bikes and deserted forest. I rang my bell a few times occasionally a lot. “Stop it,” said Mr. Petrol Head. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Why are you embarrassed?” I asked. “There’s nobody here but us and the bears.” By now, I was convinced Mama and her two cubs had travelled from our neighborhood to this one. Where they belonged and we did not.

Finally, finally, we turned around and started back the way we came. After a while, the tree canopy thinned. We could see the sky again. Soaring eagles. Glimpses of the river. My shoulders loosened. I began to think about picnics, to laugh at Mr. Petrol Head’s teasing. We were nearly to the trailhead and talking about how we might want to do the ride another time when we saw more bear scat. A very fresh and very large pile that hadn’t been there on the ride out. By this point, even Mr. Petrol Head wasn’t laughing.

A few days after our ride, I emailed Rusty and Carol to thank them for telling us about the trail. I also mentioned how anxious disconcerted I was by the bear scat we’d seen.

They laughed. “Oh, there aren’t many bears in the summer,” they said. “That was probably from the horses. There are horses on that trail all the time.”

I laughed too. Of course, it was horse manure. That’s what happens when you set a writer loose in the woods. Her imagination turns horse shit into bear shit every time.

Except. Many doesn’t mean none. Probably isn’t definitive. And we didn’t see a single horse the entire time we were on that trail.  So, I’m still betting on Mama bear and her two cubs, which means no romantic picnics by the river any time soon and a lot of bell ringing if we ever go back.  

Filling the Well, Mosaic Style

I’m not great at finding time to play, and that’s been especially true lately with so many demands on my time. But as Julia Cameron talks about in “The Artist’s Way” it’s critical to take breaks, interact with the world and fill the inner well that fuels our creativity.

I thought about that last week when I took a class from Debra Hagen, a Nanoose Bay artist who specializes in mosaic art. I knew almost nothing about mosaics until I visited Debra at her house (okay, technically Team Sheltie went on a play date to visit Debra’s two shelties, Seamas and Merlin, and the humans accompanied them). Her home is vibrant, welcoming and filled with samples of her gorgeous mosaic art. 

Every piece drew me in. Some were bold, others were more subtle, but they were all beautiful. When Debra said she gave classes in her studio downstairs, I was tempted, though I’m not at all artistic. I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt I told her. I’m lousy with textiles. I’d probably mess up papier-mache.

Debra assured me it didn’t matter, so I decided to make a trivet. Something bright for my new kitchen.



Debra’s studio overlooks the garden and it has the kind of happy vibe found in any creative space: a feeling of expectancy and a sense of promise. Plus, it’s filled with more of Debra’s stunning art.

I enjoyed a cup of tea while Debra gave me a very brief introduction to mosaics. She pointed out her many containers of tesserae, the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other materials used to make mosaics . . . and the pottery and china that can be broken up and also used in a mosaic. It’s referred to as pique assiette.

She talked about the substrate or rigid surface that you need to form the base, the adhesive or glue that’s used to attach the tesserae, and the basic tools like the wheeled nippers I’d need to do the job.

Like writing, the first step was settling on an idea and getting started. I quickly realized saying I was going to make a trivet was like saying I was going to write a novel. The statement was too broad. In the same way that a novel needs a plot or a character or a problem from which to build, my trivet needed something from which to build too: a central focus or a color or a piece of tile. Something. I decided on a heart for the center which Debra helped me outline on my plywood substrate.


We looked at the various bits of red tesserae that might work, but I wasn’t hooked. My eye kept going back to the china and pottery.

I found a plate with colors and a pattern I quite liked. Though it wasn’t at all red or heart-themed, something told me to go with it. I began breaking it up.

I hadn’t consciously noticed the couple on the plate when I chose it, but as I began to play with my layout, I decided they would form the center of the heart. How could they not?

Because I wanted to be sure I was happy with my layout, I placed many of the pieces on my substrate before I began gluing. That made for a longer process but I felt more confident doing it that way. At the end of the day, I wasn’t finished, but my heart had taken shape and I was thinking about background colors which I’ll tackle next time. 

Once the background tesserae is glued down, those small pieces will need 48 hours to dry before it’s time for the final step: grouting.

I left Debra’s studio feeling refreshed and energized . . . and thinking about my next mosaic project!

Debra is a great teacher. She’s instructive and helpful, and at the same time she’s wise enough to step back and let the artistic process unfold. For more information on her classes or to buy one of her mosaics, she can be reached at goldbugmosaics@gmail.com


Just Listen

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend workshop. It had nothing to do with writing; it was about soul growth and reincarnation for those of us ‘woo’ types who believe in that sort of thing. In spite of the focus, writing was never far from my mind. That’s partly because I’m writing a book with a past life theme, but also because of a comment made by the facilitator.

“Imagination is real,” he said. “It’s a form of communication if only we’ll listen.”

We tend to think of imagination as pretend. His point was the opposite: imagination might be intangible and immeasurable, but it is as real as love, which also happens to be intangible and immeasurable. Imagination, he added, is communication from the soul . . . from spirit . . . from God . . . from the Source . . . whatever and however you describe it. I wondered if he was describing the muse?

Not every writer believes in a muse though many do, and Ray Bradbury was one of them. “I’m not in control of my muse,” he once said. “My muse does all the work.”

Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art believes in the muse too. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us,” he wrote. “The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

On the other side of the equation, a number of successful and prolific writers find the notion of a muse or any sort of communication absolutely ridiculous. Jodi Picoult, a favorite writer of mine, is one of them. Picoult believes writing is total grunt work; it’s not about the muse. Nora Roberts says every time she hears writers talk about the muse, she ‘wants to bitch-slap them.’ Stephen King says writing is a job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. “It isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about,” King says.

Maybe not. But there’s no denying that for writers and other creative types our imagination bears a great deal of responsibility for the work we do.

The night before I sat down to write this blog, I saw Paul Simon interviewed on Stephen Colbert. He was talking about the inspiration for his song ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.’ Apparently, he was at Joan Baez’s house doing some collaborative work when Joan had to take a phone call. Restless or bored (or maybe a bit of both), he pulled a book off her shelf and began skimming it. He came across a picture of a man and a woman with a dog. Below the photograph was the caption ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.’

He began to think . . . to daydream . . . to weave a story out of the image. Communication, by definition, is a form of sending or receiving information. In that moment, Paul Simon was receiving something intangible that fed his imagination . . . and he listened.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter whether you think imagination is real or pretend. All that really matters is listening to it. Listening and doing the work.

Imagination: Blessing or Curse?

mental-workspace-in-human-brainOne great thing about being a writer is my imagination is always on steroids.

One lousy thing about being a writer is my imagination is always on steroids.

Plus when you’re a writer and a mother, there is guilt. I’m not talking about the guilt of deadlines, or traveling when there’s an event at home, or being preoccupied with the book a little too much.

No, I’m talking about the guilt of having an imagination that’s always on steroids. Because if you have more than one child, chances are high you’ll pass that particular blessing on to at least one of them.  If so, my condolences. And a suggestion: get out the Tylenol. You will need it.

Case in point (actually two cases).  Case one: Several weeks ago, a friend left six chocolate covered strawberries on my doorstep. Delighted, I brought them inside, ate one, and put the rest on a high table for later.  When my back was turned, Luna, my Sheltie, jumped up, grabbed three and gobbled them down before I could pry her mouth apart (first time she has ever grabbed food from the table).   I spent the next twenty-four hours in one of three states: on my laptop trying to assess how much chocolate it takes to cover three strawberries and how toxic that would be to a 20 pound Sheltie; staring at her while I waited for the convulsions to start; and obsessing about how we would break the news to Teen Freud that one of the dogs died while he was in Morocco.

Case two: in Morocco, Teen Freud was having adventures of his own, including, but not limited to, getting a bad concussion after hitting his head so hard on a bathroom sink that part of it broke off.  Determined to avoid Moroccan hospitals (he was traveling with an Australian medical doctor who came equipped with her own IVs and syringes, among other things) he opted to wait until he got to the London leg of his trip before seeking medical attention. Unfortunately before he could do that, he bumped his head a second time which led him to immediately google second impact syndrome. He spent the next several days convinced he had it, waiting for the convulsions to start, and obsessing about dying so far away from home.

By the time we got wind of all this, Luna had recovered completely but Teen Freud was certain he was poised to die from a brain bleed.  I’m not minimizing brain bleeds. They’re serious, we all know that, and there’s no question Teen Freud had a bad concussion, which is nothing to mess with either.Two doctors told him so (one was, in Teen Freud’s words, ‘barely out of diapers’ and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard your baby child describe someone else as young enough to be in diapers).

You also haven’t lived until the offspring with the imagination on steroids sustains a (potentially serious) injury 7500 kilometres away from home and you are forced to read between the lines. To separate the rhetoric from the meaningful. The facts from the paranoia.  Until you are forced to remind yourself that he carries your genes, your imagination, and your touch for drama along with a dose of hypochondria that clearly came from the other side of the family.

One great thing about children who travel is they always come home. And there’s nothing lousy about that.  However, Teen Freud is now convinced he has post-concussion syndrome.

We’re beating back our collective imaginations and monitoring the situation. Stay tuned.