Friday, February 23, 2018

Up in the air between Abbotsford and Edmonton

The aircraft tips into the takeoff turn, revealing Fraser valley farms dusted with snow. Above Edmonton, snow covered farms, frozen lakes and rivers. Even the North Saskatchewan is a solid white. Between, we traverse the white clouds and blue sky all earthlings share.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Inspiring words by Lozan Yamolky

Last week, local poet Lozan Yamolky visited my class at Simon Fraser Continuing Studies. This poet speaks Kurdish, Arabic and English. Growing up in Baghdad and northern Iraq, she witnessed war and other human atrocities at first hand. Lozan has been in Canada for over twenty years and she arrived as a refugee.

In spite of the difficult topics she writes about, her poetry is full of wisdom, tolerance, love and light. With three books of poetry out, she's just been commissioned to write a poem that will be set to music a Toronto orchestra creating a special performance on refugees.

A favourite line of her poetry is from a poem entitled "Go Back Where You Came From." After enumerating all the reasons why she cannot go back, the narrator addresses the reader with these words of innocent encouragement:

"But you, you can go back. Go back to the time before you learned how to hate."

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Peter Selgin cautions writers against "Nagging" the reader

A recent contribution to Jane Friedman's blog warns the reader about creating confusion with "Nagging False Suspense Questions" in a story opening.

Peter Selgin, a successful writer and experienced editor, offers one-page critiques and more. This book consists of short meditations on quite a large number of things that can go wrong in fiction.

The gems he offers are designed to keep authors on track. First, to maintain authenticity and avoid sentimentality and melodrama, "a story should generate its own actions and emotions organically." Writers may think they can generate emotion by choosing dramatic subjects from "drug deals and busts gone wrong" to "murder, madness, rape, war." Not the wisest decision.

With such "sensational raw material, how can writers go wrong?" The author has an unequivocal answer. "They can and they do." One danger that awaits is a "minefield of cliches." The author likens melodrama to crab sticks: "an inferior substitute" for the real thing.

Cliche is an eternal danger, and the antidote is authenticity. When Selgin teaches writing classes, he invites students to write one piece they think boring, and one that is riveting. these are then read aloud, with classmates acting as arbiters of which is which. Aspiring authors are often surprised when the readers find the "wrong" piece riveting.

How can this be? Turns out the "boring" piece has greater authenticity. Instead of trying shortcuts like "fisticuffs and shipwrecks," writers need to slow down and take the time and trouble to imbue stories "with authentic, rich, specific moments and details."

Sex scenes can prove a minefield, and should be used sparingly. If lovemaking is not to be reduced to soulless pornography, it must be handled "with respect for both physiological and psychological truth." Like other elements of fiction, sex is gratuitous when motivation is lacking.

Similarly, fictional "tears, vomit and other sentimental bodily fluids" must be handled with great care, or better still, avoided. Even so, Selgin wryly admits, "the bestseller shelves are brimming with sentimental fluids." Obviously, an author can choose to pour a book full of them, and add some "industrial-strength mush." Knowing it is "for the sake of commerce and not art," the writer can then "laugh all the way to the bank."

Authenticity is essential in fiction. A fictional "world" must be established in the first few pages of the book. "Otherwise, readers can't be blamed for trying to graft the elements of the story onto their own world, and finding the graft doesn't take." If the author wants the reader to believe that three pregnant women are about to rob a bank, some serious groundwork must be laid. Still, Selgin allows, actions, "however far-fetched, can be rendered authentic provided they are sufficiently motivated."

If you're not Shakespeare, writing about suicide, like the act itself, is "a last resort." A fictional suicide that fails to come off may be both "predictable" and "unconvincing," leaving the reader with two contradictory dissatisfactions. The onus is on the author to make this desperate act to seem "not only plausible but inevitable."

This book is full of gems, but it should be read at the right stage of writing or editing your novel. Too early, and you may forget much of the advice. Too late in the process, when your novel is nearly done, these cautions might prove so terrifying as to bring revision to a standstill -- at least until it becomes possible to face what's wrong with the draft and deal with it. If you're just copy editing or proofreading, or between novels, it's a nice ride, both for laughs and learning.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Betsy Warland shares writing wisdom with Canadian Authors

Last night, Canadian Authors hosted creative writer, teacher, mentor and editor Betsy Warland. After reading from three different works of Creative Non-Fiction, she described how Bloodroot came into being, reminding listeners that the narrative is always "the boss."

I enjoy the almost mystical way Warland talks about the writing process. "Underneath the language of craft," she informs us, "are other unnamed forces" waiting to be uncovered. She invites the audience of writers to consider this: "What are the stories behind our compositional strategies?"

Left: Betsy chats with participants.

Openings are critical. In order for the reader to follow, the writer must "put the scent down right away." Choosing the most appropriate narrative position enables a writer to tell a story that is easy for the reader to enter. Questions for the author include these: Who is telling this story? How am I identifying them? Am I using camouflage?

Another important principle is pacing. When too much intense material is packed together, the reader may be unable to process it all, and might set the book aside. For this reason, the formal presentation of the work should allow processing time for individual readers. This can be achieved by offering white space on the page.

Warland's 2010 essay collection Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing is a priceless resource for any writer. The author also calls it a "big teacher" for her. From Breathing the Page, she shares what she considers the best line she's ever written: "All lines require years of effort."

According to Betsy Warland, writing well requires enormous amounts of time and effort, and I doubt any writer would disagree with her comment that the remuneration is "ridiculous." Yet when a piece is satisfactorily completed, "a certain kind of elation makes it all worthwhile."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Christina Baldwin's thoughts on journalling revisited

I read Baldwin's 1991 book, Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice, shortly after it appeared. Scanning the introduction to this one, I was surprised to read that journalling as a writing practice was "not a thing" back then. But that changed, and Baldwin's career teaching journal-writing workshops took off.

Picking up this later volume, I was curious. How had her thinking on journal writing evolved? How had my practice changed since reading her work all those years ago? I've kept journals practically since I learned to write, but before reading Baldwin, the idea of applying a method never crossed my mind. This author says journals can be much more than a way of preserving travel memories or coping with sad times. Many journal writers today keep records of their inner thoughts in pursuit of self-discovery.

"There is a committee in the mind," says Baldwin, "and journal writing gives its members voices on the page." For her, journal writing is a response to "the challenge of learning responsibility," and that entails a commitment to "create a flexible, changing, updatable idea of what is in your power to control and manage." She connects questioning with responsibility, and calls it "a form of power which allows us to restructure our lives from the page outward."

Native Americans of the prairie tribes, she tells us, end their prayers with "All my relatives," and that includes "everything made of earth, air, fire and water." This is an expression of "their connectedness to life and their responsibility...a wide hoop inside which all life must be drawn in and considered."

In the same way, journal writing can serve as a way of reaching for this wide circle of connection. Alone with our journals, we can dialogue with "the greater intelligence" of our minds and even tap into the unified field of consciousness. Many writers report that they tap into this invisible source of information and "receive" or "download" the information they need for their stories.

This may sound weird, but we are told that "Writing for self-awareness implies the ability to increase awareness, and that means living at the edge of your current insight, choosing to ask for more insight." Even though asking is "risky, it is how human beings grow."

The world is changing around us at great speed and we need new insights. The only way out is in: we must look within ourselves to see what positive changes we are capable of. For those attracted by the idea of writing their way to new insight, journalling a great way to do so.

Over the past eight years, much of my own journalling energy has been subsumed into blogging. The discipline of expressing my evolving insights and perspectives in clear prose is a challenge that never seems to pall.

In 2005 Christina Baldwin published a book called Storycatcher, Making Sense of our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story. It's a good resource for journallers interested in doing writing exercises designed for self-illumination.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Caroline Myss packed the Bell Centre last night

Last night I was part of a very large audience at the Bell Centre in Surrey. Young and old, women and men, we poured into the theatre, overflowing all three parking lots offered by the facility to hear the words of Caroline Myss. Years ago, I was introduced to this remarkable woman thorough her book, Sacred Contracts, one of many she has penned. Last night's talk was entitled The Power of Your Words. Though I wasn't sure what to expect, I followed my impulse to be there. I wanted to hear her thoughts about the words we choose and the consequences of these linguistic choices.

The speaker opened the evening with the comment that a benefit of aging is the rising awareness of the limited time we have left. Then she expressed her intention to offer the audience "something you can use for the rest of your life." Words, she told us, are the doors to entire universes.

She then proceeded to show and tell us how within our own subjective worlds, we all make rules for other people. You're not allowed to use that word with me. Don't take that tone with me. That is too much volume. You must not be so loud when you talk to me. Unfortunately, everyone else has their own rules, and nobody knows anyone else's. We laughed with uneasy recognition.

Boundary, she said, that word used to belong to geography. Now it's used in the context of emotions. But what does it really mean? And could it be one of the stubborn words we can't let go of? A medical intuitive, Myss informed us that what keeps us from healing our emotions and our bodies is embedded in language: the thoughts, stories, beliefs and ideas we refuse to release.

The word pride, she commented casually, "should be about lions." That word can "make or break your life." Consider the word fear, now so commonly used as an excuse for complaint and inaction. Time was, "before the therapeutic era, when people wouldn't pull out fear so easily." Where once we focused on courage and fortitude, now we discuss our fear and weakness. "We use our fear as if it allows us to deserve comfort."

Deserve is another toxic word. The objective of life is not to deserve sympathy, to have such a sad story that we will "never get over it," or "never forgive" those who wrong us. The goal of life is not to feel entitled to this or that, and be miffed when we don't get it. Entitled? (What are we -- titled aristocrats, who are owed debts of allegiance by our underlings?) Our lives would change for the better overnight, she assured us, if we made the choice to stop using words like never and always and lie and deserve. Inability to resort to those old claims would force us to think in new ways.

Our sacred purpose is to manage our own energy. One way we can do that is by choosing our words wisely, and staying open to grace. Banished along with other soul-related words, grace is a word we rarely hear today. Yet it is not medicine or even energy that heals us, but grace. Only grace stops us saying something we'll regret for life; grace alone brings the moment of holy illumination that the world is conscious and alive and that we are deeply connected to it.

Meanwhile, we are in a difficult moment on earth. If we're to make it into the coming "galactic era," we must each take responsibility, contribute our individual effort and energy to the shared goal of survival through the coming positive transformation. "It's a privilege to be alive now," but we must get over the deadly illusions that "everything out there is something we have to kill," and prayer is a magic formula "that saves us from our own stupidity."

Even though "this is the most narcissistic planet in the galaxy," Myss told us, we have enormous power to change for the better. This can be done by casting our attention on the words we are using, and making saner and healthier choices about how we talk to ourselves and others.

Everything we say, think or do either empowers or saps our life force. Stubbornly maintaining the belief that we must win at all costs, control others or earn their approval brings the inevitable consequences of resentment, angst, feelings of powerlessness. We pay with our life force. The psychic weight of such negative emotions robs us of health and ages us before our time.

We need to be humbler, and less afraid of humiliation. We need to focus inward, develop a strong sense of inner authority. A person without the need for external approval cannot be hooked into the destructive "pride game." Needing the approval of others is "a weakness, a flaw." What other people say about us, or "do to" us is never personal. Blame and shame are destructive emotions that keeps us stuck.

We constantly tell ourselves stories. Since "they're all made up" anyway, it's time to choose words that help us experience the world in a more enlightened way. When bad things happen, it is futile to regret, argue, blame, agonize, backtrack. We all experience good and bad times, and loss is not personal. "Until you see this," Myss assured us, "God will send it to your door." Yet the laws of nature also mean that "God has committed himself to bringing us spring after winter." That is how the universe works.

Using words like entitled and deserve, justice and fairness sets us up to take things personally, and perpetuates suffering. Feelings of entitlement, says Myss, lead to rage at the world, and this in turn brings physical ills, especially involving the heart, stomach, and lower back. To permanently heal from such pains, we must be willing to give up the deep-rooted ideas that anchor the negative emotions in place. Entitled people resent others, are not generous. Belief in entitlement is "causing the world to go on fire, and it must end."

We must become aware of our negative thought loops, change our language habits and make room for the power of grace in our hearts. Grace is "a silent force and presence that helps you save yourself from yourself."

Separation is an illusion. We are part of a single system with nature. We need to choose to see life as a web of interconnection, because we are all one, and "in this critical time, it is up to all of us to generate light."

Tomorrow Caroline Myss speaks in Victoria, and Thursday she'll be in Toronto. Her message is well worth hearing.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Before and After. That's how the world divides. Until he is nineteen, Youssef does not know himself to be a secret son. When heavy rain floods a Casablanca slum called Hay An Najat, he views it as another mektoub, a fate that would "split someone's life into Before and After, just as his father's death had done to him."

Rachida can never return to the time before she fell for her employer's assurances that he'd leave his sick and pregnant wife to marry her. Youssef can never return to the time before he learned his father was alive, wealthy and living nearby. Nor, once his mother has explained why she raised him as an orphan, can either of them go back to the relationship they had before the mother revealed to her son the stark choices that made up her history.

Neither can Youssef's father, Nebil Amrani, block out the knowledge that he has a son. On discovering he'd impregated his pregnant wife's maid, he'd let Rachida go, assuming she'd obey his instructions to have an abortion.

For Nebil's daughter Amal, the news that she has a brother is almost as upsetting as her parents' demands that she return home to Morocco. Once she's completed her degree in America, they expect her to leave her American boy friend to return "home." Torn between cultures, loves and loyalties, Amal seeks out her brother, only to have access blocked by another wall of lies.

For 19-year-old Youssef, the shocking revelation that his father is alive proves too much. Which parent should he choose? How can he abandon the mother who has sacrificed so much to give him a good life to follow the wealthy father who seems thrilled that he has a son after all?

Forced into a series of false choices, Youssef is alienated from the life he knew Before. Bewildered, unemployed, and powerless, he falls into despair. He had wanted to be an actor since childhood. Yet until it is too late, he he has no idea of the ghastly role he is manipulated into playing, nor the dreadful drama that will come After.

Author Laila Lalami reveals another Casablanca that lies behind the smooth facades of the touristic hotels that host elegant international conferences. While poor Moroccans can barely afford bread, wealthy businessmen and corrupt government officials display their expensive cars, clothing and watches as they sell off their country's resources to foreign companies. Meanwhile, tourists are encouraged to visit Morocco, "the most beautiful country in the world."

In Nabil's hotel, the reality of life for ordinary Moroccans is kept well-hidden. A strict employee dress code means that while bellhops wear identical white jellabahs and red fezzes, other men must wear suits. Skullcaps, tribal tattoos, and "qualms" about alcohol are not allowed. Women in headscarves may work only behind closed doors, invisible to the guests. In this "sanitized" Morocco, "the restaurant was called Al Minzah, but the menus were printed in French."

Language is deployed in a complex system of social codes designed to maintain the status quo. Nabil normally speaks French with his wife, "using Darija Arabic only with the maid and the driver." But they resort to Arabic in front of their daughter's boy friend because they do "not want to risk being understood, in case Fernando spoke some French." In the end, keeping up his elaborate facades cannot protect Nabil from the sharp insight he must face: "life had caught up with him and dealt him a sentence of unendurable fairness."

With a sure touch, Lalami portrays ethnic, cultural, and economic gulfs in Moroccan society. Using judiciously chosen words, she describes The Party that arises in the slums, recruiting young men who have no income and nothing to do. At university, she baldly lists the divisions: the "headscarf and beard faction," with its girls looking "at once virtuous and threatening," the Marx-and-Lenin group, the Berber Student Alliance, and the Saharawis, who rally round the coffee machines under "a banner in support of the independence of the Sarharan territories." Skillfully, she deploys words like shame, blood, honour, respect, insider, betrayal, hope, and "appearances to keep up." And of course, there is always mektoub, fate.

This novel brilliantly evokes contemporary Morocco. Reading it, I learned a bit more about the country, and felt I was moving around the different areas of Casablanca with the characters. This story could have taken place in many other settings; the real power lies in its universal themes.

Secret Son was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2010. In 2014, this talented young novelist published The Moor's Account, which won several prestigious prizes.