Revise, Revisit, Redo

Celestial events are on my mind lately, influenced at least in part by this week’s solar eclipse. We didn’t see it here but some of my friends and relatives back east had a spectacular view. Even people who don’t normally follow these kinds of things seemed to be talking about it.

Some gardeners believe eclipses, moon phases and other activities in the heavens can impact our plants and gardens. The Farmer’s Almanac even provides information to help gardeners follow celestial rhythms. But gardeners aren’t the only ones who take their cues from gazing skyward. Many of the writers I know do too, particularly when it comes to the planet Mercury.

Mercury, in case you didn’t know, is the closest planet to the sun and the fastest one in our solar system. It rules communication of all kinds, as well as publishing and everything related to that industry. It rules other things too (technology, including computers, and travel being two of the biggies). Three times a year Mercury appears to move retrograde or go backwards for about three weeks at a time. When that happens, lifestyle stories sometimes pop up in the news or on social media feeds warning that Mercury is about to play havoc with communication, travel plans or our computers. And it’s true, if you follow the patterns, that there are more Mercury-related glitches during a retrograde period. But writers love it when Mercury is retrograde because it’s the perfect time to revisit manuscripts and refresh them. In fact, it’s the perfect time to do anything that starts with the prefix ‘re.’ And Mercury is retrograde right now.

Ironically, until the solar eclipse, I’d been too busy to notice. We have five yards of fish compost in our driveway waiting to be spread on the garden beds we’re revamping. I have a manuscript sitting on my desk needing to be reassessed and revised. There’s recycling that needs to be dropped at the depot. An orchid that needs to be repotted. All of these things are calling to me because in a few days we’re heading to the mainland to revisit family and friends and I’d like them done – or well underway in the case of the manuscript – before we go. The eclipse made me take a step back and look to the heavens. That’s when I realized I’m caught up in a number of Mercury retrograde activities. Does that mean I’m in the celestial flow? I hope so.  I’ll report back in a few weeks. When Mercury goes direct.  

Small Things

                                                             

I met a writer friend for coffee last week. She had a pacing issue with her manuscript and wanted to talk. She’d lifted out a key scene to use as a prologue and she didn’t know how to deal with the narrative gap she’d created. I hadn’t read her novel (and she wasn’t asking me to), but she felt somewhat overwhelmed with, as she described it, her conundrum. I listened, I asked a few questions and after a few minutes, I made one small suggestion. And by small, I mean small. Yet that seemingly small suggestion prompted an idea in her mind that led to the workings of a solution.

Small things can have big consequences, life-changing ones. Just ask someone who missed a plane on 9-11. . . or someone whose loved one didn’t.

We don’t always know the consequences of the decisions we make either. I’ll never forget the two women I overheard one morning in a coffee shop dissecting the previous night’s date. Apparently, she had a terrific time; the guy in question was intelligent, charming and attractive. But as she told her friend, “I just can’t get over the size of his nostrils.”  Small things, nostrils, though apparently not so in this case.

Small things can spin our lives in directions we don’t expect (I wonder what would have happened if that woman had gone on a second date?) and small things can take our art in new directions too.

It’s the big markers we usually think about when it comes to our art – getting a book published or going on an author tour; selling a painting or having a show. Those things are important milestones and definitely worth celebrating. Even finishing a book or a painting or sculpture is a big deal. No question.

Yet it’s the small, seemingly insignificant steps that get us to those big finish lines. Motivational author Julia Cameron believes that work begets work and that “large changes occur in tiny increments.”

All the more reason to celebrate the small things. And perhaps even embrace them. Especially when it comes to nostrils.

On This Day in History . . .

                                                

. . . a monster was born. Actually, that’s a bit of a stretch. The truth is, on this day in 1797, the woman who unleashed a fictitious monster into the world was born. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein, entered the world in London, England. Why talk about someone born so long ago? Because Mary Shelley was responsible for singlehandedly changing the trajectory of storytelling as we know it.

Frankenstein is considered the world’s first science fiction novel. Published when Shelley was only twenty-one, Frankenstein raises questions about the origins of good and evil, the existence of God, the impact of solitude, and human nature’s tendency to judge others by appearance. More than 200 years after it first appeared, the story of Frankenstein is still considered universal and timeless. In fact, Frankenstein is one of the most adapted novels of all time.

Stories abound as to Shelley’s inspiration for the tale. Some say she created it after having a nightmare. Others suggest it was inspired by terrible global events. 1816 was famously known as the ‘Year Without a Summer.’  The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia triggered massive and sudden climate change, sending temperatures in Europe lower than they’d ever been (and the record for those low temperatures held from 1766 to 2000!). Those low temperatures, coupled with ongoing heavy rain, resulted in crop failures and the largest famine of the 19th century. It was during this gloomy time that Mary and her husband, Percy Shelley, vacationed in Switzerland with Lord Byron and a number of other friends. Forced to spend most of their time inside, Lord Byron suggested they all write ghost stories to share with one another. And that, as they say, is history.

True or not, it makes for an interesting piece of trivia about a story that has become a classic.

             A Formidable Woman . . . A Powerful Tale

                                  

                                

On this day in 1811, Harriet Beecher Stowe was born. Stowe was the author of more than twenty books, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published in 1852. The anti-slavery novel was the most popular novel of the 19th century, outselling the bible when it was published. It’s often called “the first bestseller” because there had been nothing like it in popular literature prior to its publication.    

The story is told through the eyes of Uncle Tom who saves the life of little Eva while being transported by boat to auction in New Orleans. Eva’s grateful father purchases Tom, and Eva and Tom become great friends. Always frail, Eva’s health begins to rapidly decline, and on her deathbed, she asks her father to free all his enslaved people. He makes plans to do so, but before he can act, he is killed.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband were ardent critics of slavery and supported the Underground Railroad, temporarily housing fugitive slaves in their home in Brunswick, Maine. With the rise of the abolition movement came the demand for hard-hitting eyewitness accounts of the harsh realities of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided that as Beecher Stowe based her novel on real-life situations. The book influenced many people’s thoughts about African Americans and slavery. It also strengthened the conflict between the Northern and Southern U.S., playing a significant role in rallying ordinary groups of people to fight for civil rights. So much so, in fact, that when President Lincoln met Beecher Stowe, he was quoted as saying, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not without its critics. A significant number of people found the story itself racist and patronizing, saying it perpetuated stereotypes about black people. The character of ‘Uncle Tom’ – and the term Uncle Tom itself – has become synonymous with servility and self-hatred even today, though not everyone in the African-American community agrees. For an interesting take on the evolution of Uncle Tom and why the character has become something of a lightning rod in the black community, check out the transcript of this short NPR interview with Professor Patricia Turner.  https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93059468

Uncle Tom’s Cabin made its mark. More than 160 years after its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been translated into more than 70 languages and is known throughout the world.

Myth Busting

Last Saturday, I attended a Zoom workshop given by author Becca Syme. Her topic: ‘Eleven Productivity Myths and Why You Should Stop Believing Them Right Now.’ Syme holds a master’s degree in transformational leadership and has coached over 6,000 individual authors and creatives during the last fifteen years. She’s also the author of a cozy mystery series and a series of books for writers.

Before discussing the myths, Syme walked us through a few quick exercises to demonstrate that we’re all wired differently and have different needs. She also spoke about the importance of questioning what we’ve absorbed as truth. Look for the assumptions under the following and decide whether they fit you.

Myth #1: If I can do it, anyone can. Not so. “Excellence is individualized, so the fact that someone else can or can’t do it has no relevance to us,” Syme says. Believing that myth could lead us to minimize our talents or hold ourselves responsible for outcomes that are out of reach. Syme illustrated the point with a story about two groups of people who were taught to speed read. Neither group had speed-reading training at the start. The first group started out reading 90 words a minute; by the end of the speed-reading course, they were reading 150 words a minute. The second group started out reading 350 words a minute; by the end of the course, they were reading 3,000 words a minute. Her point: innate potential combined with intentional development equals outcomes.

Myth #2: Having a daily routine will make me more productive. The underlying belief here, according to Syme, is that consistency is righteous (not so) or that systems are magic, which is also untrue. In my case, a daily routine does increase my productivity. For other creative types, the opposite is true.

Myth #3: In order to write faster, everyone should outline. This implies that every writer knows their plot in advance. Not true (for this writer, at least).

Myth #4: I can start my day with Facebook (insert your favourite social platform or online time waster here) and be quick about it. We tell ourselves we’re in charge of our decisions, but that’s less true than you might think, says Syme. Our decisions fall into three categories: non-habitual, like meeting a friend for lunch (free will); habitual like getting dressed or eating breakfast (less free will) and decisions like breathing/waking up tired/surfing the net when bored which Syme says is an automatic decision for many (virtually no free will). She also reminded us that Twitter/Pinterest/The Guardian always takes longer than we think. “As soon as we visit any of those platforms, someone is making money off our eyeballs,” Syme says. “We need to spend our eyeball money on our own stuff first.”

Myth #5: Planning makes me productive. This myth suggests that if we plan something, we will execute it. That’s not true for many of us, Syme says. A quick survey of the writers Zooming in on this session proved her right. The planners – and I was one – were in the definite minority. Syme says we also need to be mindful of overplanning (guilty!) because that can lead to frustration, disappointment, and a drop in productivity if we don’t achieve our plans.

Myth #6: You can’t edit a blank page. This phrase, made famous by author Nora Roberts, is so widely touted that even people living with writers believe it! Mr. Petrol Head said it last week as I struggled with an article draft. The underlying belief is that thinking is a waste of time, but for writers and many creative types, thinking is working, and we need clear head space in which to do it. Besides that, Syme says, some people can edit in their heads.

Myth #7: If it works for INSERT NAME OF PERSON YOU’RE TRYING TO EMULATE HERE, then it will work for me. This suggests someone else knows better or that their system is magic. It also tells us, at a subliminal level, that if we don’t write/create like someone else, then we’re doing it wrong.

Myth #8: This should be easy. Here we absorb the idea that there’s something wrong with us or we’re not doing it correctly if it doesn’t come easily. Believing this undermines self-confidence and the ability to take creative risks, and that, in turn, can torpedo productivity. The truth is, some things are hard even when you’re doing them right. 

Myth #9: If I write (or create anything) to fit the market, then I will write faster, sell better and have greater success. This is based on the incorrect assumption that the only books that sell well are those that are written to market. For many writers (and other creative types too), working intentionally to meet market demands can ruin our storytelling capability and lower productivity.

Myth #10: Everyone should use voice dictation software to produce more quickly. The premise here is a societal one particularly prevalent in North America: speed is all-important. Not true. As well, there’s a steep learning curve for voice dictation software, and some writers find it slows them down more than speeds them up.

Myth #11: Writers write. She saved the best for last because virtually every writer I know takes this to heart. This suggests that if we’re not producing words constantly, then we’re not as much of a writer as someone who does. Syme says over half of all working writers don’t write every day. They write much more sporadically than we would think and for a host of reasons: second jobs, family demands, health issues or simply because of their own natural rhythms.

It was a great workshop and I’m still processing what I learned. One key takeaway? The ancient Greeks were right when they said ‘know thyself’ and ‘certainty brings ruin.’ In other words, know what works for you and question anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

The Likeability Factor

I got together with two friends for a visit last weekend. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while; we have a wide range of interests and busy lives, so we had lots to catch up on. Eventually, the conversation turned to books and movies . . . what we were reading, what we were watching. And since the Academy Award nominations had been announced earlier that week, we began discussing which of the movies we planned to see, if any.

This year, there’s one movie I’m not sure I’ll watch: The Banshees of Inisherin.  Written and directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Colin Firth and Brendan Gleeson, the movie is set on a remote Irish island and tells the story of two lifelong friends who drifted apart after the end of the 1923 Irish Civil War. It is not, by all accounts, a feel-good film. It is described, at best, as bleak. It’s also a movie that seems to evoke particularly strong emotions. Those who love it rave about it. Those who hate it do so with a passion.  

“I wonder how the screenwriter feels?” I wondered aloud to my friends. “To have produced something so many people dislike?”

“There’s no guarantee something you create will be well-received,” one friend responded.

“And it’s been nominated for an Academy Award,” my second friend added. “So not everyone disliked it.”

They were both right. However, too many negative reviews of a movie, a book, an art installation or any other creative venture can mean the difference between success and failure. And by success, I don’t mean public accolades and praise, but the kind of success that allows an artist to make a living, even a modest one, and carry on with their craft. For a writer, a book that draws significant negative reviews won’t sell well, which could mean no contract on their next book. These two women aren’t writers, but they’ve been my friends long enough to understand some of how publishing works. They were sympathetic.

After a minute, one of them said, “Maybe society needs to reframe the idea that disliking something is bad.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know what they say – if everyone likes you, you’re not living an authentic life.” She paused just long enough for us to reflect on that. And then she said, “Maybe it’s the same for art. If everybody likes what you produce, how authentic can it be?”

I know, intellectually, that tastes vary. Not everyone will love the same book or movie or song. The same food, the same colour, the same breed of dog. And yet, as a creator, I want people to love what I produce. So, if I’m truly honest with myself, anything less than that feels like a failure.

But my friend helped me see a simple yet profound truth: Something that is truly authentic is never a failure. It may not appeal to the masses; it may not be a critical or commercial success. But it can still be meaningful, it can still touch people, it can still convey feelings and reveal big truths. In the same way that authenticity in relationships is where we find our true joy, authenticity in creativity is where we find our true success.  

I still don’t know whether I’ll watch The Banshees of Inisherin. Apparently, people leave the theatre crying, and I don’t need sadness in my life right now. But I do need authenticity. So maybe I’ll pack up my Kleenex and go.

An Ode to October

 I am, for the most part, a spring and summer person. The gardener in me craves sunshine and warmth. That said, fall and winter are restful and rejuvenating, and with more time to read and cocoon, I appreciate them for different reasons. And I especially love October. The beauty of the changing leaves against a brilliant blue sky . . . the crisp fall air . . . the chance to pull out those cozy sweaters that have been tucked away . . . and pumpkins! Lots and lots of pumpkins (though I’ll pass on the pumpkin-flavoured lattes, thank you very much).

October is also a significant month from a literary point of view. Oscar Wilde was born this month, and so were Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, Anne Tyler, and Zadie Smith.  Frank Herbert and R.L. Stine. Nora Roberts, Michael Lewis, and Wally Lamb.  Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin.  Emma Donoghue. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Many bestselling literary characters came to life in October too. On October 2nd, 1950, Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts crew first appeared, thanks to creator Charles M. Schulz. Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne made its debut in October, as did Paddington Bear by Michael Bond. Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in October, and so was Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway.  More recent October releases include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.

October definitely has a long-standing literary leaning. No wonder it’s an excellent month to pull up a chair, light the fire and open a good book.

My September Reads

Fall is always a busy time in the publishing world. A fall book release is coveted by authors since it coincides with the busy holiday book-buying season. And publishers always consider fall when releasing noteworthy titles. Not to suggest that other release seasons are poor – they aren’t! – but fall finds those of us who live in the northern hemisphere at least cozying up with our books. Here’s a Publisher’s Weekly article on what books to look for this fall. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/89655-adult-books-for-fall-2022.html   And here’s what I’m reading this month:

The Maid by Nita Prose

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Alone in the Great Unknown by Caroll Simpson

Books read to date in 2022: 58

Beginner’s Mind

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been teaching myself to make sourdough bread. A friend gave me a starter and I’ve had fun feeding it and trying out recipes.  The results have been mixed. Subtext: the results haven’t been what I expected or wanted.

I cook a lot and I enjoy it. I’m no professional but I know my way around a saucepan, I can turn out a decent meal, and I can bake. At thirteen I made my first batch of cream puffs; the choux pastry was so utterly perfect even I was surprised. I’ve made quick breads, flat breads, yeasted breads. Lots of bread, and almost always with delicious results. How hard could sourdough be?

Turns out, it’s harder than I thought.

The cinnamon buns disappeared quite quickly, and after a couple of tries, I eventually ended up with a passable loaf of bread. But it didn’t have the texture or lift I’ve come to expect from the sourdough breads I’ve devoured in the past.

Because of my previous experience with all things flour I figured I’d be able to do it well right out of the gate (those successful cream puffs spoiled me). But in reality, professional bakers can and often do spend years perfecting the perfect tangy, chewy sourdough loaf or crispy croissant. Working with just a few basic ingredients, they combine their scientific knowledge of the chemistry of baking with their life experience and personal philosophies to create an edible piece of art. Those same ingredients, in different hands, produce very different results.

It’s a bit like writing. Working with only 26 letters, authors combine their understanding of the craft of storytelling with their life experiences and personal philosophies to create readable works of art. Those same letters, in different hands, produce very different results.

My disappointing experience with sourdough reminded me of the people I’ve met who believe they can write a bestseller the first time they sit down at the keyboard. I believe they could write a book if they put in the effort. But they aren’t thinking of the learning curve or the effort involved. They believe that because they write articles for their club newsletter or a professional journal – because they are imminently capable of relaying information in written form – the first book they write will be a rousing success. And that’s unrealistic. It happens, just like perfect choux pastry can happen the first time you whip those eggs into the flour, but it’s not a given.  

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as shoshin. It means beginner’s mind. It’s about letting go of preconceptions, being willing to learn, and being open to whatever happens. It’s about focusing on possibilities and not judging outcomes.

Sourdough is a unique beast in the breadmaking world. There’s no question I’m a beginner at it. One Zen master calls beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”

I’m definitely ready for new sourdough baking adventures. I’m not sure about an empty mind, but I definitely have an empty stomach.

Crwth Cares

Here’s a spot of happiness in these difficult times. From now until October 15th Crwth Press is donating over 40% of all website sales to non-profits. That’s twelve authors and twelve different titles to choose from. Personally, that means when you order No Right Thing from Crwth, they will donate $6 to my charity of choice. I’ve chosen the Manna Homeless Society, a group dedicated to helping the needy and homeless in the Oceanside area and where No Right Thing is set.

I’m proud to be associated with a publisher that gives back. For more information on Crwth’s initiative, follow this link and check out all twelve titles: https://www.crwth.ca/crwth-cares/?fbclid=IwAR09yIwSgE4iZJ6bjO2xlrUfiKfBOBqtMQ-y47Pq7R_ZACEsqGPUqp2t3BE

You can find information on the Manna homeless society here: https://www.mannahomelesssociety.com/