The Joy Factor

Last month I was lucky enough to take an all-day online workshop from Laurie Schnebly Campbell. Campbell, an Arizona writer and workshop facilitator, spent a few hours talking about how to put the joy back in writing. Her take is that writers sometimes lose that joy in the pursuit of publication. Being creative for the sake of creating is fun, but being tied to results can undermine joy.

It’s hard not to be tied to results. When I go into the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread, I expect I’ll end up with something close to edible. After I finish writing today, I’m going out to the garden to plant garlic. Come next summer I expect to be harvesting. I know intellectually that something might go sideways. There could be a power outage just when I get the bread into the oven or weather (or wildlife!) that negatively impacts my garlic harvest, but for the most part I anticipate positive results.

For a writer, positive results equate getting published. But they don’t have to.

A few days after the Campbell workshop, I had a phone catch up with a good friend, a fellow writer who recently lost her mother. Very soon after her mother passed away, a story idea took hold and she began to write. The idea excited her, the distraction from ‘real life’ was a bonus and she found herself being carried away by the story itself, and nothing more. The joy in the writing was propelling her forward in a way it hadn’t for a very long time. She wasn’t giving any thought to outcomes. In her words, she had no idea if the story would ever see publication and that didn’t matter. For her, the joy was in the doing. In the same way a violinist or any kind of musician takes joy in creating lovely music.

That was precisely Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s point. So, how do we get to the place where we aren’t caught up in the results, where joy is our fuel?

Here are some take away suggestions from the workshop.

Write something new. Write poetry instead of prose or a mystery instead of mainstream fiction.

Fill the well away from the keyboard/take some time away from writing.

Write to music that moves you.

Keep a selection of starter phrases on hand to kickstart your writing (examples: I wish I knew at the time . . . or If I’d left an hour earlier)

Go and sit somewhere with great sensory input.

Write about something you love that has nothing to do with writing.

Keep a journal.

And my personal favorite from a fellow workshop participant: “I go to the keyboard and say to myself ‘let’s just sit down and see what happens.’” In other words, she gives herself permission to play.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely give up my expectations around results. I still like knowing flowers will bloom when I plant seeds, cookies will be ready after I bake them, and books will be read after I write them. But I’ve decided to focus more on playing than striving, and to hold onto hope rather than expectations. Hope is a good thing to have these days. And for more on that, you might like to check out this blog by another writer friend of mine, Alice Valdal. https://www.alicevaldal.com/thanksgiving-2020/

National Library Month

Here in Canada, October is National Library Month. It’s a great time to celebrate libraries and especially librarians. I’ve written before about the pivotal role librarians have played in my life. It was a librarian who encouraged me to learn to write so I could get that first (and all-important) library card (I had to be able to sign my name). It was a librarian who encouraged me to learn to read. And there have been many librarians over the years who have played a key role in helping me source research information for my books.

Because of Covid, visits to my local library these days are limited to picking up reserved titles at the door and dropping them through the slot when I’m finished. One of these days I’m sure (at least I hope!) we’ll able to go inside and browse the collections. But for now, this will have to do.

Libraries and their staff do a tremendous job serving all Canadians, whether we live in big cities or small communities. Does the picture below look familiar?

How many of you ever used a bookmobile? I did as a young child when I lived in Deep Cove, just east of North Vancouver. We weren’t exactly remote but back then, Deep Cove wasn’t as built up as it is today. We had a portable library for a while, and then a bookmobile when the portable was being switched to a more permanent building. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but today I realize the significance and importance of uninterrupted library service.

Here’s a shout out to all the librarians out there who are working hard during these unprecedented times to ensure we still have access to library books.

My September Reads

Yesterday marked the autumn equinox, the first day of fall, and today the rains are forecast, reinforcing the fact that the colder season is just around the corner. Thanks to a neighbor who dropped off a generous box of purple grapes, I’m about to make a batch of jelly. When that’s done, I’ll tackle the Asian pears and turn them into chutney. Hopefully, the rain will ease long enough for me to pull the last of the tomatoes from the garden and clean up the basil bed too. In the meantime, I’m curling up with a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

With Malice by Eileen Cook

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

The Sundown Motel by Simone St. James

Books read to date in 2020: 46

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:

The Dog Days of Summer

I think of the dog days of summer as covering all of August – that time when life seems to slow down. In years past, people often left town in August, though that’s not so much the case these days with Covid. But August remains a month when life seems more leisurely . . . work recedes . . . meals are simpler (popsicles for lunch, anyone?) and even clothing is lighter.  

Well, depending on who you want to believe, the dog days of summer may end next week (I’m not impressed; that reminds me of fall and I’m not ready for sweaters and slippers).

In ancient times, the Romans associated the dog days with the Dog Star, Sirius, which happens to be the brightest star in the night sky.  It’s so bright the Romans thought the earth received heat from it. In the summer, Sirius rises and sets with the sun and at one point in July, it actually conjuncts the sun.  Considered a particularly potent time, the Roman’s deemed the 20 days before this conjunction and the 20 days after as ‘the dog days of summer.’  That meant the dog days could run anywhere from late July to late August, and that’s still the belief in many European cultures today.

However, nothing stays the same, including the constellations in our sky. Given the precession of the equinoxes (basically the drift of our nighttime constellations) the conjunction of Sirius to our sun takes place earlier.  So, these days the Farmer’s Almanac lists the dog days as beginning July 3rd and ending August 11th.

Personally, I’m backing the Romans. Mind you, they also thought the dog days of August was an evil period of time when “the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and men were plagued with hysteria.”  They were so fearful they generally sacrificed a dog to appease the Gods. 

There’s no need for that around here. In my little world, the sea is calm, the wine is crisp and the dogs are happy. Yes, we’re still dealing with Covid and all that the pandemic entails, but somehow during the dog days of August even that doesn’t feel quite as bad as it did a few months ago. Happy August everybody.

What I’m Reading

Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest, bringing sunshine, warmer temperatures and garden happiness. Our veggies have stopped pouting and are galloping to catch up to where they normally would be at this time of year. It’s been an odd gardening year though. Summer started out cool and wet; we’ve been dealing with Covid restrictions and stock limitations at many garden centres; and we’ve been in observation mode in our new garden – watching what flowers when, checking out the light levels and exposure patterns, and planning for next year. It’s left me more time to read . . . and I have a lovely patio where I can enjoy a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.   

The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn

The Moonglow Sisters by Lori Wilde

In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn

Books read to date in 2020: 36

The Long Reach of an Influencer

The word influencer is used these days to describe a person with the ability to influence public buying habits by promoting or recommending products or services on social media. People make entire careers out of being influencers.

In truth, we’re all influencers in one way or another. Life is an interactive gig. We can’t help but be touched and impacted by people, often for as long as a relationship lasts and sometimes even after. But occasionally, a single brief encounter can influence a life. Or a career.

Decades ago, when I was starting out as a journalist, I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. This was probably fifteen years after she published her classic book ‘On Death and Dying’, but before she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.  She was in the prime of her career at the time and landing the interview was something of a coup. I can’t remember how it came about but I remember the interview itself quite clearly.

She was humble and unassuming, but strongly committed to erasing the taboos around death, and more than willing to deviate from the traditional questions I was expected to ask. I had a deep personal interest in the spiritual side of death, and while that was covered in many of her books, she was also becoming known for exploring more mystical elements like near-death and out-of-body experiences, even mediumship, all elements that didn’t go over well in the traditional medical sphere she operated in.  

We spoke for several hours, much longer than she’d originally agreed to. I remember the passion she had for her subject, and how engaged she was with me, a young newbie journalist starting out. She was intensely encouraging, suggesting other books I could read, places I could go to explore further (this was pre-internet) my interest in the spiritual side of death and dying.

Her influence has stayed with me, both in my personal life as I’ve witnessed people I love passing on, and also in my work. I relied on Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief when Cate, the heroine in No Right Thing, had to say goodbye to someone she loved. I turned to Kubler-Ross’s work when I wrote The Art of Getting Stared At, utilizing the five stages of grief when Sloane loses all her hair because of alopecia. And I’m using the mystical, spiritual side of Kubler Ross’s research in my work-in-progress, Something About Julian.

A brief encounter in my life but an influential one. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would have been 93 today. I leave you with one of her many wonderful quotes.

Happy Canada Day!

July 1st will be different this year without the concerts, large street parties and especially without the fireworks (Team Sheltie is quite happy the latter are cancelled). I hope you get a chance to celebrate somehow. I’ll be away from my desk, aiming to catch the sunrise and hopefully the sunset too. We aren’t a perfect country by any stretch, but I’m proud to call myself a Canadian. Enjoy the holiday everybody!

Perspective

I had an interesting lesson in perspective last week when I received my second review for No Right Thing.

Perspective is all about our individual reality.  A luscious, triple decker ice cream cone viewed through the eyes of a hungry five-year-old will elicit a far different reaction than the same ice cream cone viewed through the eyes of a diabetic adult who also has a heart condition.

On an intellectual level I understand that my taste in movies, restaurants, shoes, art, politicians or books may not be your taste. That’s a good thing. Diversity is healthy.

Intellectually, I also understand that reviewers have different tastes too. The key word in that sentence is intellectually. Because even with over 20 books published, I still have the ability to be emotionally impacted by a less than stellar review.

Kirkus was the first to review No Right Thing. You can find that review here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/laura-langston/no-right-thing/

CM magazine was up next with their review for No Right Thing.  That review is here: https://www.cmreviews.ca/node/1680

Same book, two different readers. One found the plot predictable and the main character one dimensional. The other found the plot richly layered and the main character fascinating.

The Kirkus review upset me. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I had a few rough days wondering if I’d failed in what I set out to achieve in the novel. Kirkus and CM reviews are read by the bookstore owners, librarians and educators who are trying to decide where to allocate their book buying funds. A bad review in that kind of publication can make a major difference to a writer’s bottom line.

I had to remind myself that reviews are, as one writer friend used to say, out of my sphere of influence. There is nothing I can do to influence them. All I can do is write the books, send them out into the world, and hope they are well-received.

My lesson for the week was the reminder that perspective is subjective. Perspective comes from personal taste, life experiences and expectations, among other things. It varies from moment to moment, day to day, mood to mood. And it certainly varies from person to person.

Not only should I remember that but I should celebrate it too. Because what kind of world would it be if we all thought and believed the same thing?