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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BREAKING THROUGH THE BARRIERS

"All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath."
Francis Scott Fitzgerald 1896- 1940 (undated letter)

With all my moving, a house guest, broken printer, classes etc I've been somewhat 'blocked' with my writing, although once I had time to sit and make handwritten notes I managed to break through the barrier and finish another chapter segment of my novel.

I'm always looking for new techniques to overcome writer's block. Making notes is one of the things I do, looking over research notes, browsing through other historical novels for little 'prompts' that jog my subconcious into action and in no time I have whole paragraphs, even pages written which I then transpose onto the computer and work from these rough drafts. It works for me. So does taking long walks by the sea or in lovely parks (at the moment the crisp Autumn colours are inspiring.)

In my novel writing classes, the first night is always a discussion about "Plotting Your Story". We play a plotting game, in groups, which is fun and also a good 'ice breaker' for the class.
Then I ask them to prepare a rough outline of a plot for the following week: think of what the theme is and sketch in the story (which, of course, may change as they go along, but it's a kind of road map so the novice writer knows where they are going.) Next, characters and voice. Who are your characters, who's story is it? I suggest they begin keeping bio files on their characters which will include description (perhaps pictures of like characters) and other pertinent data about the character. The following week we talk about settings. Where does your story take place? What is that place like? Even invented worlds have to seem real to the reader so it's important to have a clear image in mind of where your characters are living.

Now I have learned of another technique for visualizing plot, characters and settings. I recently attended an interesting workshop at the Surrey International Writers' Conference with
a presenter I have enjoyed on other occasions. Jennifer Crusie (www.jenniecrusie.com )
was presenting a workshop on"Brainstorming with scissors and glue". A story collage workshop.
What a novel idea! She explained she is a writer who doesn't easily visualize settings and characters so she has devised a way to make it more visual for her as she is working on her novels. She uses collage as a visual first draft. She cuts pictures from magazines, brochures, and newspapers and pastes them onto a collage: pictures of her characters, settings, ideas for the plot etc. She explained that as she is working on the collages she often has new inspiration for the story, plot changes etc. She not only pastes on clipped out pictures but other objects that relate to the story and chracters. By the time she's finished, she has a visual idea of her story to refer to as she is writing. (She also uses a 'shadow box' technique which is equally successful for visualizing, giving a more 3-D affect.)

I thought this was an excellent idea to go along with keeping the character bios and in my next novel writing sessions I'd like to suggest to the class to try this technique.

I do something similar in a way... surrounding my work space I have many objects and pictures on the walls that remind me of my characters and the setting (ancient Greece) where they lived. Fortunately for me, I have visited some of the sites and studied many pictures and history books of places I couldn't visit, so I have a clear visual image of the ancient settings. And in my travels I have met people who to me were the incarnations of characters in my novel. But for those writers who are not so lucky as to be able to visualize their characters and scenes, I think the collage idea is brilliant.

As for my own writing, I'm back into it now and will hopefully get another chapter segment finished before I fly off to Chile. (Two weeks to go...check my travel blog at
http://travelthroughhistory.blogspot.com )

"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance..."
Alexander Pope 1688 - 1744 An Essay on Criticism (1711) l. 162


Sunday, October 22, 2006

THE WRITERS' CONFERENCE

"One writes a novel in order to know
why one writes. It's the same with life --
you live not for some end, but in order
to know why you live."
Alberto Moravis


"But have the courage to write whatever
your dream is for yourself."
May Sarton

I spent the weekend at the Surrey International Writers' Conference www.siwc.ca
I volunteered again this year because it allows me a chance to sit in on workshops and shcmooze with other writers and I otherwise couldn't afford to attend. It has now become one of the biggest and best writers' conferences on the Pacific Coast and I highly recommend it to anyone who can come next year.

It's not only informative but quite a thrill to rub shoulders with the published authors and meet agents and editors. Some of those who attend yearly are authors Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, Jennifer Crusie, Elizabeth Lyon (editor) and Donald Maass (agent). As well, there are always a lot of the local writing community attending and it's a great time to socialize.

Again this year I was given the honorable task of introducing the guest presenters. On Friday I introduced The Wandering I, a workshop by David Leach, a B.C. adventurer, author and award winning freelance writer who is managing editor of Explore: Canada's Outdoor Magazine. And I also introduced Jill Amadio, an award winning journalist and author who was presenting a workshop on The Autobiography and Personal Memoir. On Saturday I was able to sit in on one of Jennifer Crusie's entertaining workshops Story Collage - Brainstorming with Scissors and Glue. Later I introduced an agent, Nadia Cornier for a most informative presentation Stuck in Query Hell. She gave some excellent tips for writing the winning query letter.

I always come away from these events feeling inspired and encouraged. Last week I started a new chapter of my novel, so this week I am hoping to stay on track and get a little farther along with it. Now I'm actually beginning to 'see' the end in sight and it was fun yesterday thinking about what I might write in a query letter once I'm ready to pitch to an agent. I also got some new ideas to use in my classes. It's good to have some variety in the program and I liked Jenny Crusie's collage idea for brainstorming the plot and characters. By the way, if you ever get chance to sit in a workshop with this particular writer, do so. She is not only extremely informative but hilarious and you will be pleasantly amused for the whole time you are learning great things!

"One writer excels at a plan or a title page,
another works away at the body of the book,
and a third is adapt at an index."
Oliver Goldsmith 1728 - 1774 "The Bee" 1759

"The writer's point of view is a choice among tools" Tracy Kidder


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

HOW MUCH DOES NOSTALGIA INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?

"NOSTALGIA: Nostos (Gr) "Returning home" - algia (akin to Old English 'genesan') "to survive", the state of being homesick, a wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning to return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition."

The other day, while browsing the shops in my new neighbourhood, I saw for sale a 10 lb bag of green olives. I bought them and brought them home, and later that day, sat on my balcony and began to prepare them for pickling. First, you slice them to the pit, then put them in a heavy salt brine for 10 days before finally packing them in jars with olive oil, vinegar, oregano and a bit of lemon. Delicious home-made olives! As I sat there, I had such strong feelings of nostalgia for the village in Greece, remembering sunny afternoons sitting on the porch cutting olives that I'd picked from the trees around my little spitaki. I had a big crock to put them in with the brine. Antonia's son told me I made better olives than his mother. And when I brought some home to my family in Canada, my little two year old grandson gobbled them down like popcorn.

I am a writer who tends to be influenced by nostalgia. Perhaps it's my life style, the fact I've always been on the move, even from when I was a small child. Perhaps it's my keen interest in the past, history and old family stories.

I just finished reading an excellent memoir by Isabel Allende, "My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile" . She writes that at a conference where she was a guest speaker, a young man asked her what role nostalgia played in her novels. According to the dictionary, nostalgia is "A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past. The condition of being homesick." She said she hadn't realized til then that she writes as an exercise in longing.

I thought, as I read this, of how much of my own writing has a nostalgic theme as well. Like Allende, in spite of my many friends and family I have often felt like an outsider, and like her I've traveled many roads, said goodbye so many times.

My friend Anibal, who I loved so much, often spoke to me of his nostalgia. Like Allende, he was an exile from the horrifying events that occured in Chile in 1972. Like her, his life was changed forever by these events. I still have an email message he sent to me (written on Oct 26, 2004 - exactly 1 year before the day he died) We had been discussing nostalgia and here is what he wrote to me. "Hey there, friend, here is what I found about Nosta algos ..."the Greek word for "return" is Nostos. Algos means "suffering. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. In each language this word has a different nuance. Often it means only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country" a longing for country, for home. What in English is called "homesickness"...You are far away and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there. The dawn of ancient Greek culture brought the bird of "The odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia. Odysseus, the greatest adventurere of all time, is also the great nostalgic"

Anibal, like Allende, was a political exile. I'll never forget how, on the day the World Trade Centre collapsed, Anibal, clearly shocked as we all were, told me the blood chilling story of how he had watched the media towers in santiago attacked and bombed by military planes in the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy, at exactly the same day, week and month and almost the same time of morning. Nothing was ever the same again for him as it was all Chileans, (and Americans after 9/11). He fled to Argentina, and after the coup there in '78 he fled to Canada. He was forever haunted by nostalgia, that deep longing to return home.

I recalled the story of Sappho, the poet, and my as yet unfinished play House of the Muses.
Sappho's life changed forever when she was sent into exile far from her island of Lesbos. her life was never to be the same again, and when she returned she found her world turned upside down, her shool (The House of the Muses) in chaos, her land taken by the tyrants, her most beloved friend gone. because of her political stance against the tyrants and her love of the girls in her shcool, she was accused of disorderly conduct and being a 'woman-lover'. She was slandered and defiled, and most of her poetry was destroyed. In the end, betrayed by her young male lover and desrted by her goddess, Aphrodite, she committed suicide.

Nostalgia and tragedy often seem to go hand-in-hand.

I've spent enough time in Greece to have put downs some small but firmly planted roots there. I am forever torn, not knowing where I want to be most -- there or here. I have nostalgic memories of the hey-days of the '80's when I'd sit with friends in Plaka Square drinking retsina and spinning yarns with my pal Roberto, who like Anibal, suffered the nostalgia of an exile and dreamed of returning to his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Robbie died without his dream being fulfilled. He's buried in a simple grave in Athens. After Anibal died, his wife Cecilia took his ashes home to Chile. She's made a little shrine for him on the beach "Where he is quiet and happy."

I'm looking forward to retracing his steps soon, seeing the places he told me about, visiting the houses of the poet Pablo Neruda who he loved so much; accompanying Cecilia around their city, Santiago, to the places where they used to go and loved to be together before theri world was turned upside down that September day in 1973.

Strange, as I was making the notes for this blog, I suddenly realized that the melody of the bolero we often danced to was playing in my head. Nostalgia brought the tears once again.

How much does nostalgia influence your writing?

"...for some reason or other, I am a sad exile.
In some way or other, our land travels with me
and with me too, though far, far away, live the
longitudinal essences of my country." -- Pablo Neruda, 1972

Sunday, October 01, 2006

ROADBLOCKS AND DETOURS

roadblock: (1940) 1 A a barricade often with traps or mines for holding up an enemy at a point on a road covered by fire. B. a road barricade set up especially by law inforcement officers.
2. an obstruction in a road.
3. something (as a fact, condition, or countermeasure) that blocks progress or prevents accomplishment of an objective.

I went for a bike ride today along a favourite route that I haven't travelled on for a long time. You used to be able to ride right along by the docks but since 9/11 the waterfront has been blocked off for anything but business traffic. So I rode down the sidewalk on the nearest through street, and managed finally to connect with the sea-wall path through a little park, right to Canada Place downtown. The last time I cycled there, you could go right past there and keep on the sea-wall all the way to Stanley Park. But when I got there today there was a lot of construction work so the route I was familiar with was blocked off and I had to make a lot of detours. Eventually I turned back. Then I couldn't find the waterfront road where I'd come, so I had to walk my bike through Gastown and all the crowds of tourists out sightseeing on this lovely sunny Autumn day. Finally I reached the street that I'd ridden on downtown and managed to get back home. But it wasn't nearly as insteresting a ride as the one going. The detours were frustrating and confusing. And it turned into mostly a 'bike walk' instead of a 'bike ride'.

detour (F): a deviation from a direct course or the usual procedure; specif: a roundabout way temporarily replacing part of the route.

The same thing happened to me when I went back to my writing after several weeks away moving and travelling. I had been on a roll before, a pretty straight route, and had my notes planning out the next moves, but in all the confusion and detours, I've somehow lost my way and come to a roadblock. For one thing, the event I'd been about to write (Phokion's execution), I have learned doesn't really happen at that time. Can I tinker with the historical facts and have it occur earlier? Being such a stickler for the correct timelines in my novel, I really don't think so. So it means skirting around it and coming back to it later. A detour.

A couple of other small glitches: I'm not totally comfortable with my work space. It's a bit too crowded and uncomfortable. And for some reason I can't get my printer to work which is certainly preventing me from accomplishing what I need to do. This morning I worked for awhile on the novel, writing most of the scene I'd originally planned, but I need to edit from hard copy. That works best for me. I guess I'll just have to persevere and hope that I can figure out how to get the printer to co-operate. Meanwhile it's back to the drawing board in order to plan a new scene. I'm hoping the Muse will co-operate. It's easy for me to get distracted, go off on wild-goose chases instead of focusing on my writing. I'm hoping for a smooth journey all the way, but there's bound to be a few glitches, little bumps in the road, before I reach my final destination. Meanwhile, I just hope I can relax and enjoy the ride!

"Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius." William Blake (1757 - 1827) "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1792-1793) Note to the Voice of the Devil." l. 66