Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Sound of an Eclair

While pondering the word Eclair last week, I began reading Ursula LeGuin's book, 'Steering the craft,' which had just arrived. I've wanted to read it ever since Heathbird mentioned it in her post. And it has totally met my expectations. It's written in her unique style and breaks down writing further than any of the creative writing classes I've taken. I think this is because she writes it as a writer.

The book provides explanations and exercises which focus on developing specific aspects with the intent of practicing only that particular skill rather than "creating" something like most other writing exercises I've come across. Like making painter focusing on making as many shades of one specific colour as he can and playing with them to see what effects he can make on the canvas. This is an exercise which helps one to learn how colours feel together and what goes well and how shadows develop depth and change perception without actually creating a "piece of artwork." This skill however, will later be used to strengthen and deepen any piece later developed.

I was surprised to see the focus of the first exercise was on sound, something I already wrote a post about last spring and try and work on in my writing anyway. As I worked through it I suddenly had a flash of insight as to why poetry, even for those of us who aren't as good at it, helps improve my prose. The sounds in poetry go together making the poem easy and enjoyable to listen to, as is good prose. So it logically follows that listening to poetry helps attune ones ear to the way the sounds work together which then spills over into ones prose.

The following is my attempt at the first exercise in LeGuin's book. And although it's not the best thing I've written. I found it interesting to see how my writing changed from the beginning to the end and the crazy direction my thoughts took.


Deep fried dough filled with whipping cream dripping from the side in a solid white froth. Topped in chocolate icing and edged in fluffy white with cherries on top.
Oh to sink my teeth into the cool sweet gooey treat and see the foam slipping back onto the plate in ooey gooey gobs of whipped fancy.
Who can resist a white trimmed mustache made of a whipped creamy fill and chocolate on a deep fried bun. Not I. It's cool squishy sweet coats my tongue and slips wildly down my throat to the nether regions below on a southern expedition where the penguins roll and the snows blow across the great white icy expanse people refer to as the south pole.

Not quite an eclair, but just as pretty. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ode for a pair of glasses

Tomorrow a new word hopefully arrives and I have yet to write a post for the old one because apparently getting older means changing eyesight... so, after cutting down on my writing and reading, which was almost as painful as the headaches, I have finally gotten in to see the optometrist. As a result my post will appear in a day or two and my glasses shall hopefully show up in a couple of weeks, in time I hope for my trip to Newfoundland.

Thus I sit and sip my latte, my eyes resting on the mountainous scenery outside, and I work out the last touches of the post in my head. Later, I'll type it according to my recently reduced schedule and imagine all the wonderful things I'll be able to do once my headaches cease and try to envision how much clearer things will appear.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Encounters in Story

Labour Day weekend I sat down and finally put Changing Tides together, crossing an emotional threshold I didn't know about in the process. Saturday I tripped down to the local coffee shop, opened my laptop and painstakingly began again and again. I stared off into space, watched people come and go, tapped the counter with my fingers, stretched and finished one page of a new beginning that lacked any form of pulse; it stared at me in solid 2 dimensional starkness. Sunday I pondered, paced and thought about what was missing and why I couldn't seem to sink into the story.

I felt blind. I knew the story. I knew the outcome. It wasn't like I was writing something from nothing and yet, I couldn't find my way through the doorway into the story. In fact, I couldn't even find the door and looking through windows at the bits and pieces I needed to incorporate was not helping. I needed the key and I soon became convinced if I could just get the "hook," the right opening sentence, it would draw me into the piece. But what could I possibly say that would do everything I needed to do, I thought while the vastness of the story clogged my mind with events, setting and emotion all vying for a chance to be heard. I got it Sunday night; my first sentence, "picking up the path of my father's life, figuring out why he left and what that had to do with me was like picking up pieces of glass on the shore; each one had it's own story." I was in.

Monday morning I trotted back to the café, settled myself down and typed for 8 hours, went home, printed the draft and couldn't look at it. I felt as raw as a piece of flesh churned through a meat grinder. What had I been thinking? I'd taken a fictitious story set in a place I'd never really been with imagined characters and infused the narrator with emotions that belonged solely in the depth of my soul. The same emotions I'd suffered with and worked through in the darkest part of my life - what was I thinking? How could this possibly turn out any good? I couldn't bear to read it. What if, instead of writing a piece that was pure genius (as I had a good idea in my head of what I wanted and how it could be accomplished) it was instead a pile of pitiful trash?

My intent had been to look it over and make changes the next day... two days later it still sat, face down on the ironing board in the kitchen while I contemplated the Word of the Day, Threshold. I began thinking about all the thresholds I'd past through in the past few months. Every little discovery I'd made and every goal I'd achieved; the ability to integrate setting into plot and emotion, practice setting up and delivering scenes and the ability evoking an emotional response in the reader. I realized I constantly look ahead and challenge myself with new ideas opening doorways of possibility that expand my thinking and the directions my writing can move. And although I always know where I want to go with my writing and what I want to achieve sometimes the way requires experimenting with a roughly drawn blue print based on past experiences and glimpses around corners. It's to be expected then that things may not to turn out precisely as planned on the first run.

Today I was able to pick up the story again and read it with perspective. I can see the weak spots and the flaws and I acknowledge there are some major and minor changes I need to make in order to achieve the finished product I'd envisioned. However, I'm very happy it's no where near garbage. Instead the frame work of my intent is present. A softly outlined ghost, waiting to be shifted slightly, pulled closer to the surface and carefully fleshed out a into what it was born to be.

And so the use of "threshold" in my writing this past week was not something in a story, nor did it wind up as a writing exercise. Instead, it was a reflection on my experience, the relationship I have with my writing and the realization that despite this new threshold I've just crossed there will always be more doorways to traverse and things to learn as I push my writing ability forward, stretching the limits of my word use, composition and broadening the expanse of my end desires.

Photos taken of Dredge No.4 in Dawson City, Yukon. Summer 2008. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

A whimsical Setting

I have always loved the word whimsical although the images it brings up are nothing like the dictionary definition which describes whimsical as a "playfully quaint or fanciful, esp. in an appealing or amusing way; acting or behaving in a capricious manner." However, I think of whimsical I think about soft images and a place where ones thoughts could run in any direction. This is why the setting in Changing Tides has always seemed whimsical to me despite being the backdrop for some pretty major issues Mira, the main character, is dealing with.

The following is my original opening, which I have since altered and added to:

My gaze strayed out across the horizon and the great pulsing force my grandmother referred to as the sea. The waves rolled up the beach as I walked leaving the sand smooth and wet. It clung to my toes in great knobby-growths, thick and sticky, until the next wave washed over my ankles and carried the whole mass out to sea in it's wake. The cool breeze blowing in made my hair stream out behind me in a flickering golden-wave; it sharp fingers ripped through my sweater, flitting over my skin. Turning I could see where the waves washed away my tracks. It was as if I'd never walked there, the beach a soft unbroken expanse and that suited me fine. My grandmother hadn't seemed to care how many hours I spent out here. "Go on," she's day, smiling. "The Sea gets in your blood. It was in your father's blood." She giggled, "It was all I could do to get him to come in for meals."

Note: The photo above was take in Ontario from the shore of Lake Simco at sunset.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Finding The Heartbeat or The Rescue of a Stranded Story

Saturday morning I sit at the local café reading the newest edition of the Writer. This act is a precursor to beginning work on the story at hand just as this post is a warm up for my other writing. In both cases the story is Changing Tides. I know I have mentioned this story in older posts and it's one which I've been easing myself back into. However, I'm now up against the do or die deadline. This is the story I'm going to work on in Newfoundland when I attend Piper's Frith and I have to put it back together before I go because in it's current million and one, okay I exaggerate, pieces it would never survive the trip in any recognizable state.

I first wrote Changing Tides in the fall of 2005. In 2008 I painstakingly revised it, polishing the flow in an attempt to prepare it for a reading. That's when I realized it was missing... something. It was mostly a very well painted backdrop strung on a beautiful island of prose. Masked somewhere behind the conscious words I'd thoughtfully written was the rest of the story, for which I would need to search my subconscious. So, with a setting rich enough to taste, crafted with gorgeous scenic descriptions (which I loved!) setting both tone and mood with perfect clarity - the story nevertheless lay stranded in limbo, lacking a strong enough plot to carry it off.  Until now...

As I read through the 5 new beginnings I've made since then, I make notes and questions to help me bare the meat, to locate the life line - the missing connections to something. To what? As the flesh begins to emerge I'm startled when the missing "details" suddenly show themselves unexpectedly and I begin to see how it fits and why it was so hard to include; how emotionally charged it makes me feel - how deep the connection is - it scares me and excites me at the same time. It's not that I haven't discovered the emotional connection to a story before, but it's never been this strong or quite like this. And I realize this is what Jenny Rough was talking about in her article, "The Essayist finds her stride," in Septembers issues of the Writer, when she describes sculling. She uses her her experience in learning to scull to explain how she uncovers the missing pieces in her writing - the emotional connection, that something that makes the writing work and brings it alive.

The more I continue to delve into the missing pieces of Changing Tides the clearer  this reveal becomes and I'm startled to discover the backdrop colours, moods and highlights are all in the right spots to reflect and display them to the best advantage - like a stage set built to order, waiting for the main attraction. An event I now acknowledge I could not have written in 2005 or 2008 because it contains aspects of my life I had not yet allowed myself to see. Things and feelings I was not ready to face at that time. Perhaps one could argue that the piece would not be the same as it is now had I finished it 2 years ago, but I believe differently. I believe it was always meant to be what it is now and I'm awed by the genius way it all fits together.

This revision will still be difficult, but I know from experience it's often the most difficult things which are the most rewarding and I am eager to begin work on it. However, in retrospect I wonder if, just as this unwillingness or inability to reveal certain aspects of myself stopped me from being able to write the crux of this story 2 years ago, perhaps it's the same thing that's also at the root of the writer's block some people experience.